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Tampa political leaders confident Rays headed their way

Mayor Jane Castor and City Council members, however, show a unified front on not spending significant city dollars on a ballpark.
Mayor Jane Castor on the field at the Bullard Foundation Back to School Bash at Raymond James Stadium Saturday, August 7, 2021 in Tampa. WWE star Titus O’Neil hosted the annual event with physicals, eye exams, haircuts food and performances.
Mayor Jane Castor on the field at the Bullard Foundation Back to School Bash at Raymond James Stadium Saturday, August 7, 2021 in Tampa. WWE star Titus O’Neil hosted the annual event with physicals, eye exams, haircuts food and performances. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Aug. 17

TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Rays are hot in mid-August, and a return to the World Series appears possible.

Meanwhile, in Tampa, the summer has been warming confidence levels that the city will be the final destination of the St. Petersburg major-league baseball team. Or at least its spring host.

Mayor Jane Castor has long been a proponent of a regional solution to the Rays 14-year-long stadium search, but as Mayor Rick Kriseman’s term draws down in the Sunshine City, Castor was succinct when asked about the team’s best option in the bay area: Tampa.

“I believe that the most viable location for the Tampa Bay Rays is in the city of Tampa,” Castor said in an interview last week.

Castor added she would also be happy if the team decided to stay elsewhere in the region.

Would a World Series win by the Rays grease the wheels for a ballpark deal?

“Everybody gets behind a winner. You just can’t deny that the Tampa Bay Rays are on fire right now. And as a community, we want them to stay here in Tampa,” Castor said.

Kriseman leaves office in January, but spokesperson Ben Kirby said the mayor and the city and Pinellas County’s consultant continue to talk with the Rays. Kriseman’s confidence that St. Petersburg is the best spot for the team hasn’t wavered, Kirby said.

As for Castor’s contention that Tampa is the best location for a major-league team?

“Being mayor means being enthusiastic about your city, so we don’t consider her remarks to be news. The City of St. Petersburg, our consultants, and the Tampa Bay Rays continue to have a great dialogue,” Kirby said in an email.

Council members have also been meeting with team president Brian Auld and vice president for public affairs and communications Rafaela Amador over the spring and summer.

Joseph Citro said he made clear at his early July meeting that the Rays need to pay for the majority of a ballpark’s cost. But he considered the conversation to be more of a reconnaissance mission to see how “amenable” he was to Tampa being at least a part-time home for the team.

“They said, ‘We just need some assurance that Tampa is looking at the Rays,’” Citro said. “I feel that this town, now that it is known as ‘Champa,’ is seriously looking at the Rays.”

Did Citro mean to say “Champa Bay,” the regional rallying cry of the recent Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tampa Bay Lightning championships?

“No, Champa,” Citro emphasized when asked.

Council member John Dingfelder said his takeways from a recent meeting with team officials is that they were taking his temperature on the split-season concept with Montreal, which he has no problems with.

“It’s novel, it’s unusual. If we can build a less expensive stadium that’s not covered and then ship the team up to Montreal for the rainy season, why not?” he said.

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But Dingfelder said Rays executives also seemed intent on another message: that Tampa is the only viable location for the team in the bay area.

“The point they were making was that Tampa was clearly their preferred location. After all these years, they just felt like Tampa is the viable location for the team,” Dingfelder said. “They just felt being on the Tampa side made the most sense geographically and demographically.”

Dingfelder and Citro said team officials didn’t mention specific cities to which the team may relocate. In late May, council member Charlie Miranda said Nashville had been mentioned, an assertion denied by Auld.

Castor said the key is to remain flexible. Split-season? Let’s see the details, she said. It’s up to the team to persuade city and county officials that it’s a viable option, she said.

“But I think the more open or receptive you are to ideas, the more likely they’ll come to fruition. So it’s good to be flexible,” Castor said.

But the mayor said while many funding sources are possible, Tampa taxpayers have spoken their mind.

“We’re looking at every possible avenue of funding for a stadium with the knowledge that taxpayers don’t want their money used to build an athletic stadium,” Castor said.

Would a new ballpark in Tampa reverse St. Petersburg’s decades-long attendance woes? Across the bay, many still believe that Tampa residents reluctance to cross the bridges lay at the heart of those problems.

Castor said sports fans in Tampa Bay are regional and St. Petersburg fans will support the move to Tampa — eventually.

“If you’re a fan, you don’t know geographic boundaries. If you’re a fan, you’re a fan. And so people from the entire Tampa Bay area come to Lightning games, they come to Bucs games. And if you’re a Tampa Bay Rays fan, you’re going to come see your team play regardless of where it’s at.

“So, people will get over it. They’ll come to the new ballpark. They might kick up a little sand first.”