Romano: A meeting between a rock and a hard place

Published Feb. 14, 2013

Didn't get invited to the Trop tete-a-tete?

Don't sweat it.

Give or take an adjective or two, Friday morning's conversation between Mayor Bill Foster and Tampa Bay Rays owner Stu Sternberg should sound something like this:

Foster: Got the money?

Sternberg: No.

(Awkward pause.)

Sternberg: Can I call Tampa?

Foster: No.

Everything else will be pabulum and pleasantries.

The only good that will come out of this meeting is the acknowledgement that further discussions are unnecessary. Foster ain't budging, and neither is Sternberg.

That isn't good news, but it isn't a disaster either. This story still has plenty of chapters left to be written, as well as numerous plot twists not yet conceived.

What the past few weeks have taught us is that Foster is absolutely convinced the Rays plan on leaving St. Petersburg, and so he is preparing to sue for gobs of money.

This is a fine strategy if the Rays actually try to leave Tropicana Field before their agreement to play there expires. On the other hand, what if they don't?

Once that document ends, the Rays would be free to go anywhere in the nation. And St. Pete would not get a dime in compensation.

The argument then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the meantime, Foster is not going to let the Rays look at stadium sites in Tampa because that will weaken his potential lawsuit. Instead, he wants the Rays to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to make a clean break from their Trop contract.

Is that a reasonable demand?

In recent history, no baseball team has broken a lease with so many years remaining, so it's difficult to put a number on it.

The NFL's Oilers paid roughly $5 million to get out of the final year of their lease in Houston before moving to Tennessee. The NBA's Supersonics paid $45 million (which covered $30 million in outstanding arena bonds) to break the final two seasons of their lease in Seattle.

So the good news is that there might be money to be made on the Trop's use agreement. The bad news is that a team pays only as it's loading the moving trucks.

This was Sternberg's rationale for proposing an early negotiated settlement. He may not have leverage today, but some Rays owner will in the future.

By suggesting an early compromise, he is undoubtedly furthering his own business interests, but he's also guaranteeing Tampa Bay will retain Major League Baseball for future generations.

The question is: What should St. Pete expect in return?

The mayor obviously doesn't want to sell the city short, but if he overplays his hand, then he risks getting nothing and losing baseball for the entire market.

And Sternberg has to acknowledge that a check is eventually going to have to be written or we're all going to be in for a long, depressing slog.

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That's where we're at today, that's where we will be after Friday's meeting and, I expect, that's also where we will be at this time next year.

Eventually talks will resume, new voices will be heard and progress will be made.

Meanwhile, pitchers and catchers have reported, so it's time for politicians and owners to exit.