Mayor Kriseman confirms: Rays have ‘formally’ asked to explore the Montreal deal.

Team officials agree the negotiations to explore playing home games elsewhere have become more serious.
The Tampa Bay Rays are contractually bound to play all their home games at Tropicana Field through the 2027 season, unless St. Petersburg grants the team permission to play elsewhere.
The Tampa Bay Rays are contractually bound to play all their home games at Tropicana Field through the 2027 season, unless St. Petersburg grants the team permission to play elsewhere. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Oct. 30, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — After the Tampa Bay Rays announced this summer their desire to explore splitting their season by playing home games in the Tampa Bay area and Montreal, and after team and St. Petersburg leaders met weeks later for the first time since the announcement, both sides used precise language.

“We didn’t ask for formal permission," Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg said following the July 23 summit with Mayor Rick Kriseman. The team would need the city’s blessing to play elsewhere before its lease of Tropicana Field expires at the end of the 2027 season.

RELATED STORY: Rays explain details of Montreal plan: ‘This is not a staged exit.’

Kriseman mirrored Sternberg’s “formal" wording: “If they’re truly interested in pursuing what they’re talking about, then there still needs to be that formal request,” the mayor said a week later. In fact, he later clarified in comments through a spokesperson, the team had “asked to explore the Montreal concept” during the meeting. Just not formally.

The mayor confirmed on Wednesday that the Rays have since “formally” asked for permission to explore vacating the Trop for half the home games each season before the end of the lease. Sternberg previously said he’d like to see that arrangement as soon as 2024.

Sternberg held a news conference in June unveiling his intention to try for the split-season, which would have the team playing open-air baseball in two new stadiums, dodging bad weather by playing the spring schedule in Tampa Bay when it’s mild, and transitioning to Montreal for summer games.

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But the Rays are bound by contract to play all home games at the Trop through the lease term. The stadium’s contract even has a powerful exclusivity clause that prohibits the team from negotiating to play anywhere else during the term. That means if the team wants to explore playing in Montreal prior to the beginning of the 2028 season, the team needs the city’s blessing.

At the time, city officials said the Rays had not violated the Trop’s contract because team leaders promised that any negotiations they had about playing in Montreal were about 2028 and beyond.

RELATED STORY: The Montreal perspective on the Rays’ split-season proposal

Since then, Sternberg and team co-presidents Matt Silverman and Brian Auld have met at least three times with Kriseman and other city leaders, according to Kriseman’s calendar. Kriseman and Sternberg made their comments about the “formal” nature of their conversations after the first meeting, which took place in Kriseman’s office inside the city’s former police headquarters, St. Petersburg’s temporary City Hall while that building undergoes renovations. The mayor’s office wouldn’t say then what would constitute a “formal” request for permission.

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After the group’s third meeting, on Aug. 28 at Edge District restaurant Dr. BBQ, neither side would say if any so-called “formal” request had been made.

But on Wednesday, city policy chief Kevin King said the team has made a formal request to play home games in Montreal before 2027.

“Yes, long ago,” he said by phone, before deferring to the mayor.

Kriseman, shortly thereafter, initially would not confirm the team made a formal request, saying only that the Rays have “clearly expressed their desire to explore a split season with Montreal.”

Later in the conversation, the mayor confirmed the request met the “formal” threshold.

“I guess you could consider it to be...” the mayor said before trailing off. “It was much more specific so I guess you could consider it to be a formal request.”

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Kriseman said the request was oral and that nothing has been put in writing. He said he couldn’t remember at what point the request went from “informal” to “formal.” Nor would he say what exactly the team asked for, or any concessions the team offered.

“In the first meeting, the idea was simply just discussed,” Kriseman said. “It’s taking it beyond that.”

Through a spokesperson, team officials said they agree with Kriseman’s characterization of the conversation turning more serious. They would not comment further on the negotiations.

For now, Kriseman said, negotiations continue. City Council would have to approve any agreement that allows the team to begin negotiations to play in Montreal or elsewhere.