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Romano: Foster smart to allow Rays to look elsewhere

Published Aug. 6, 2013

Soon, the bullpen phone will ring.

The reliever will get up and the tension will grow.

What do you say, Bob Buckhorn?

Can you save this one?

Because it appears Bill Foster is finally prepared to hand you the ball.

The mayor of St. Petersburg acknowledged Monday that attendance woes at Tropicana Field may be beyond repair, and allowing the Rays to look at Tampa may be the only way to ensure the team remains in this market long term.

And, just like that, the responsibility for baseball's future could shift from one mayor to another. The onus will be on Buckhorn, and Foster will look like the magnanimous one.

Whether he planned it this way or not, Foster might have played this perfectly.

He stood up to the Rays when it suited his purposes, and then turned conciliatory before the game got out of hand.

And now he's looking at a win-win scenario.

The land around Tropicana Field could soon be more valuable than ever, with talk of Jabil Circuit moving downtown and the potential growth of medical facilities.

That means if the Rays build a stadium in Hillsborough, Foster gets credit for keeping them in the area while simultaneously adding high-tech jobs in his town.

And if the Rays strike out in Tampa, Foster is no longer the obstructionist who stood in their way.

For Foster, the timing is key. By reaching out to the Rays now, he maximizes his bargaining position while more than a decade remains on the Tropicana Field use agreement. It also doesn't hurt that he's facing a tough re-election campaign.

Meanwhile, the pressure is about to rise in Tampa.

It was easy for Buckhorn and Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan to act like knights in shining armor when Foster was putting up roadblocks, but now they actually have to come up with a plan that appeals to the Rays without angering taxpayers.

As Foster pointed out on Monday, the idea that a stadium could be built with $100 million of public funds is remarkably naïve. That doesn't mean Hillsborough should be writing blank checks, but it speaks to the bind that Foster has been in for years.

There are still plenty of details to be worked out. For instance, an amendment to allow the Rays to look at stadium sites outside of St. Petersburg must be written. And a settlement to the Tropicana use agreement will also have to be negotiated if the Rays get funding for another stadium elsewhere.

But the bottom line is this day was necessary. Whether you are in favor of public funds for stadiums or not, it made no sense to ignore this problem indefinitely.

The Rays are not going to remain in Tropicana Field forever, and it's better for everyone involved to understand what options are available.

The worst thing that could happen is building a stadium under the gun like they did in Miami. The public ended up with a huge bill, and the Marlins got a beautiful ballpark in the wrong location.

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Maybe the money doesn't exist in Tampa. Maybe the Rays realize there are no better markets anywhere in the country. The list of possibilities remains long.

For today, at least, Foster has figured out it's not such a bad idea to pass the buck. Or several hundred million bucks.