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The mayor, the commissioner and the Rays between them

Published Mar. 23, 2012

By now we all know the torrid story, the tale of two cities and the Tampa Bay Rays, installment by excruciatingly slow installment.

That baseball team we love but can't seem to pay enough attention to attendance-wise wants out of an outdated stadium. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster says they should honor the deal that ties them to Tropicana Field until 2027, and no you can't go looking over in Tampa.

And so, an impasse.

In Tampa, Mayor Bob Buckhorn has been politely saying he won't be the boyfriend in the divorce, though it's clear as a blue sky on a fine spring training day that he'll be Johnny-On-The-Spot if and when a divorce happens. He's even expressed a preference for a downtown Tampa site, if and when. There's that "when" again. Somebody, for the love of baseball, do something.

And so now here comes Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan front and center on the Rays' doorstep with a fistful of daisies and big box of chocolates, saying he was more than willing to be the boyfriend who causes the divorce. (Buckhorn said affably later: "I've been reduced from the boyfriend to the pool guy.")

Okay, so Hagan isn't actually on the doorstep yet, since there are legal questions to be answered about whether direct conversations between the Rays and Hillsborough County can even take place, given the current use-agreement with Tropicana Field.

So what's so great about Hagan putting his hand up? A couple of things, actually.

Notably, Hagan is chairman of a county commission that is critical to making a stadium happen on his side of the bay. His let's-get-this-party-started comments — and his plan to have lawyers look at the legality of direct talks — echo the frustrations of a lot of people on an apparent lack of movement about the future of our baseball team.

Yes, our team. I can say that even as one of those problematic Tampa fans who attends games at the Trop as often as I can, and not often enough because it's not close and often a school night.

Foster understandably has to protect his city, has to come out of this as financially whole as possible. But with each year that passes without something happening, leverage is lost.

So a public official saying "we need to talk" specifically about keeping the Rays close feels at least like an attempt to shake up an impasse.

If you have lived here more than a minute, you know our two-town rivalry. St. Pete just recently had to fight to keep its own postmark. But, for the record, a business-backed coalition took a look and said playing in or near Tampa would offer more fan and corporate support. And many of us would prefer at least a shot at keeping the team within driving distance in Tampa Bay rather than making them a memory in a city far away.

Even Foster. "If I had to choose between Vegas, Charlotte or Tampa, I'm going to choose Tampa," he said. But in the current situation, "My responsibilities are to the people who are still paying for the mortgage." When I asked how he thinks this will end, he sidestepped neatly with, "Hopefully with a World Series ring." Well, me too, but where?

In two weeks, the Rays take on the Yankees for the home opener at that much talked about and sometimes maligned stadium. Of course St. Pete's mayor will be there, as will the rivalrous commissioner from across the bay. "Oh good," said Foster. "Maybe we'll see each other and embrace." That at least would be a regional approach.