ST. PETERSBURG — When it comes to keeping the Tampa Bay Rays, are St. Petersburg and Tampa partners or at odds?
It may depend on whether the goal is to keep the team in the Sunshine City or in the Tampa Bay area.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman made clear to City Council members during recent meetings what his priority is, and that he views Tampa as a potential bidding foe, not a partner.
His main focus, Kriseman told council members, is keeping the team in St. Petersburg.
The mayor also told one council member that talking publicly about how important the team is for St. Petersburg undercuts his ability to negotiate.
Those details come from private meetings Kriseman promised to hold with council members during last week’s public meeting about the Rays. Kriseman said he would not disclose any details about his dealings with the team in a public forum, but would fill in council members individually during private meetings that are not subject to Florida’s government-in-the-sunshine rules.
At least four of eight City Council members have spoken with Kriseman about the Rays since that public meeting. They divulged details of their conversations to the Tampa Bay Times.
Council members wouldn’t share everything. But what they did say offers a glimpse into the mayor’s mind as he negotiates with the Rays over their split-season idea.
Team principal owner Stu Sternberg announced last summer he wanted to explore playing home games in the spring in the Tampa Bay area, and then relocate to Montreal for the second half of the season. He said at the time he hoped to have that arrangement in place as soon as 2024.
But for that to happen, the team would need Kriseman’s blessing. The contract between the team and the city over the use of Tropicana Field requires the team to play all its home games at the dome through the 2027 season. It also prohibits the team from negotiating to play home games elsewhere during the contract term — unless the city suspends its exclusivity rights with the team.
Team officials and Kriseman met at least three times last summer to discuss whether the team would be allowed to explore the Montreal plan for 2024. In a December memo to the Rays and City Council, Kriseman announced he would require the team to abide by the contract at the Trop, effectively killing any possibility of a split season before 2028 — at least for now.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has said the team belongs in the bay area’s largest city. Shortly after Kriseman released his December memo, she announced she was warming to the split-season idea. Castor and Rays officials held informal discussions after Kriseman’s memo.
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Back in St. Petersburg, there’s been little discernible progress toward a resolution. Sternberg has maintained that St. Petersburg cannot support full-time big league baseball. Kriseman has said that the Sunshine City is the best place for the Rays, and that St. Petersburg isn’t a part-time city.
Council members described their recent meetings as getting on the same page with the mayor and opening a channel of communication about an important city issue from which they felt shut out. Both new members, Deborah Figgs-Sanders and Robert Blackmon, said they appreciated being clued in.
Blackmon said Kriseman communicated that he’s “holding steady,” but didn’t reveal to Blackmon any details of the negotiation.
“He was pretty cagey in a lot of ways," Blackmon said. He clarified that he meant Kriseman is "trying to hold his cards close to the chest because he’s a shrewd negotiator.”
Council member Gina Driscoll said she and Kriseman are advocating for St. Petersburg first and foremost, and that letting the team look in Tampa would be “a second option.” She also said she was encouraged Kriseman has continued talking with team officials.
“Because his no (in the December memo) and his attitude about it had been giving me the impression that he was ready to walk away,” Driscoll said. "And now I know differently.”
She said she wasn’t sure what Kriseman didn’t want to say in public.
Council member Darden Rice said Kriseman told her he didn’t want to get into “a bidding war” with Tampa. She said he conveyed that St. Petersburg, with the potential redevelopment of the Trop property, is in an “excellent position.”
Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby said thinking regionally has “been the hallmark” of Kriseman’s time in office. Kirby reiterated that St. Petersburg gave the team three years to browse stadium sites in Tampa. He said Kriseman’s memo offered the team the chance to talk with the Cigar City about opportunities before the end of the Trop lease — albeit only for a full-time stadium. The team declined that offer.
Kirby said Kriseman is not afraid his tactics could push the team out of the region once the Trop lease expires.
“The mayor has no fears related to baseball,” Kirby said.
Kriseman also told Rice that speaking favorably about the team from the dais hurts his position during negotiations. She said he made this analogy: “'If you and your partner are going to buy a car on the car lot, and your partner goes on a test drive and starts talking about how much they love the car and no matter what, they want the car, the partner has just undercut the other person’s ability to negotiate to get a better price on the car.'”
In other words, Rice said, what the mayor conveyed was, “Relax, we know what we’re doing.”