TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Rays showed they were ready to play hardball in December when they walked away from a proposal to build a stadium in Ybor City. But at its first meeting of 2019, the Hillsborough County Commission showed it's still looking for ways to stay in the game.
A motion to officially disband the working group set up in 2014 to help bring the team to Tampa lost at Wednesday's meeting after commissioners said that would end any remaining chance of the team moving to a proposed nearly $900 million domed ballpark.
"If we ever want to preserve, or if we ever intend on having an opportunity to negotiate with the team again, it's extremely important and sensitive to send a strong signal to not only the Rays but to Major League Baseball that we have board solidarity with respect to this issue,'' said Hillsborough commissioner Ken Hagan, who headed the working group. "It's a very delicate and sensitive situation that I don't think is going to be resolved any time soon."
The team sent a two-sentence letter to Mayor Rick Kriseman on Dec. 17 formally notifying him that it will not seek to extend the agreement that allowed it to explore a stadium site in Hillsborough County. Weeks later, on Dec. 31, the three-year memorandum of understanding that allowed the team to negotiate for a new ballpark outside of Pinellas officially ended with no deal in place.
Now, the only contract the Rays are bound to honor is the one that states the team must play in Tropicana Field until 2027. After that, where the Rays choose to play is as uncertain as ever.
Complicating that delicate dance is another detail that emerged in Wednesday's discussion — the sports law attorney that spearheaded negotiations for the county, and is now working for the Tampa Sports Authority, has continued "communicating" with the Rays and the baseball commissioner about the rejected proposal even though the window to do so closed on Dec. 31.
"We're not negotiating, just sending them details and additional information about the proposal we had in place, the proposal that's still on the table ... to make sure they understood that when we said we had secured 50 percent of the cost of the stadium from a private investment group we did in fact have that 50 percent worth of investor money," County Administrator Mike Merrill told the Tampa Bay Times. "That deal is still on the table and the attorney, Irwin Raij, indeed has a written proposal and he offered to provide that to the baseball commissioner."
Merrill said the team never explained its decision to end stadium negotiations with the county on Dec. 17. All he knows about why the deal fell apart, Merrill said, are the reasons outlined in a "rather unpleasant letter" the county received from Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred that said the deal lacked specifics on the county's plans for financing and timetables for starting construction.
The county hasn't seen anything to indicate the Rays will change their minds, Merrill said. But they haven't been discouraged, either.
"They acknowledge it. They appreciate that (Raij) provided them more information,'' he said. "Is there a thought they might change their mind? I don't know. I hope they do."
The Rays declined to comment for this story.
Hagan said Hillsborough officials will continue to add details to the the Ybor project as requested last week by the MLB commissioner. But Merrill said it's now up to the Rays.
"We spent a lot of time and money working with them on the site and we spent a lot of time and money putting together the framework of a deal that we proposed to them that I brought to the board," Merrill said. "We would not have done that if we weren't serious."
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