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Tampa Bay Rays seek to open minds on Montreal while clock ticks

Team President Brian Auld says splitting the season with Canada is only way to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay Rays president Brian Auld speaks at the Oxford Exchange on Friday morning.
Tampa Bay Rays president Brian Auld speaks at the Oxford Exchange on Friday morning. [ Charlie Frago ]
Published Oct. 1
Updated Oct. 1

TAMPA — Perhaps it was fitting Friday morning that Tampa Bay Rays President Brian Auld spoke underneath an assortment of clocks at the Oxford Exchange.

Auld’s message was an urgent one.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” he told a large crowd gathered for the weekly Café con Tampa speaker series. The Rays’ obligation to play at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg expires after the 2027 season. After that? “Right now, we don’t have a place to play.”

Plans to build new stadiums on St. Petersburg’s waterfront in 2008 and Ybor City in Tampa in 2018 fell through. Attendance has lagged, even during a season in which the Rays have won the fearsome American League East. Major League Baseball has grown weary of making baseball work full-time in Florida, Auld said.

“This is the one way to keep the team here for 30 years,” Auld said. “There is one way through.”

And that path leads north to Montreal.

Threading the needle won’t be easy. Building two open-air stadiums in markets that haven’t traditionally been baseball mainstays (The Expos left Montreal for Washington, D.C. after the 2004 season) is a challenge. But Auld sold the concept as a boon for both cities with more revenue possibilities and the chance to forge lasting economic links between them.

A split season, he said, gives “significantly more economic impact at a significantly lower cost to the public.”

Instead of a $1 billion domed stadium in the bay area, an open-air ballpark of about 25,000 seats would costs hundreds of millions less and be able to host the Rays-owned Tampa Bay Rowdies and cultural events in the off season, he said.

Despite the Rays’ spectacular play on the field this year, the messaging about the team’s possible future has been poorly received. Owner Stu Sternberg apologized publicly this week for the organization’s plan to hang a sign at Tropicana Field during the playoffs touting the split season concept.

When asked how the team planned to win over skeptical fan bases in Tampa Bay and Montreal, Auld quipped: “Well, not with a sign.”

Auld’s comments got pushback from some in the audience, who raised questions about the team’s future name (undecided) and if the player’s union would go along (Auld is confident increased revenue projections will sway the union in the team’s favor). And several speakers made the case that the Tampa Bay market is big enough to support a full-time team.

But Auld also heard praise, or at least strong curiousity, about the idea. Tampa restaurateur Richard Gonzmart said the idea was a good one and voiced hope for a direct flight from Tampa International Airport to Montreal. Attorney Ron Weaver was intrigued by the cultural and economic possibilities of a sister city relationship with Canada’s second largest city (pop. 1.6 million).

Auld was ready with tantalizing hints of what such a partnership might bring.

Montreal leaders had expressed interest in locating U.S. headquarters for their businesses in the bay area, he said.

Not surprisingly, Auld didn’t announce any news on the ballpark negotiations with Tampa and Hillsborough County leaders, saying the team was open to discussions “on both sides of the bay.” Nor would he comment on how much exactly the team would be willing to chip in for a new ballpark.

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His appearance seemed designed to impress on a Tampa audience that Montreal wasn’t just leverage in those negotiations, but a serious proposal to which the team was committed.

“Open minds, please!” Auld said at one point during the hour-long talk and question and answer session.