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If we accept reality, there might be a win-win in Tampa Bay Rays stadium saga

Published Oct. 14, 2012

Know this:

The stadium position revealed by the Tampa Bay Rays last week is no different from their position a year ago. The only change is that it is now in writing.

Know this, too:

The Rays are sticking to this plan because they can assume, as time goes on and attendance lags, they will eventually have the upper hand.

That isn't a wish, and it isn't a taunt. It isn't anything more than a nod to the history of these situations, and the limitations of a lease that will one day expire. And that day is growing closer now that the lease has passed its midpoint.

This is why St. Petersburg should consider owner Stuart Sternberg's letter last week to be a fortuitous invitation to the opening of negotiations for the team's future home.

And, honestly, that should be a happy thought for diehard fans, as well as those ready to say good riddance to Major League Baseball.

Because this story can no longer be driven by either devotion or outrage. The time has come to look at the situation clear-eyed and logically. And the reality is this:

The Rays are not staying at Tropicana Field.

Once you accept that as a simple fact and not a community rejection, it becomes easier to decide which path makes the most sense.

St. Petersburg can either:

1. Hold the Rays to the terms of the stadium use agreement, and wait for them to try to break the contract, or leave when it expires. The downside to this argument is the next decade will be a slow death march with declining payrolls and a neglected stadium, and Tampa Bay will lose baseball forever.

2. Negotiate a winding down of the use agreement that allows the Rays to relocate to their desired destination of downtown Tampa, and compensates St. Petersburg for giving up baseball early.

If you think the Rays are a regional asset and want them to remain in Tampa Bay? Option No. 2 is clearly better.

And if you think Rays owners are a bunch of carpetbaggers out to fleece taxpayers? It makes far more sense to see how much money might be available in Option No. 2 before consigning St. Petersburg to the eventual doom and lawsuits of Option No. 1.

We can argue forever the question of whether this is fair to St. Petersburg. And considering that the Rays are the first team in the history of Major League Baseball to finish last in attendance while winning 90 games, the argument for the city's nonsupport does seem fairly strong.

But the reality is that argument does no one any good. The better debate is figuring out which solution offers the greatest benefits to fans, taxpayers and the ballclub.

So, yes, the city needs to sit down and tell Sternberg it understands why he wants to look in Tampa and it will be happy to accept his offer.

With this caveat:

A solution for winding down the lease must be negotiated ahead of time.

That doesn't mean the Rays are committed to giving the city money today. It does mean if the team finds a stadium deal in Hillsborough, there is some mechanism already in place to determine an equitable buyout.

And if the Rays balk, just remind them they're the ones looking to get out.

That puts the ball back in the team's hands. And it keeps the Rays from using Hillsborough as leverage in the Tropicana lease negotiations.

As the man said, it's not personal; it's strictly business.

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