TAMPA — It’s been the same two-part question since 2019, when a Tampa Bay ballpark saga morphed into a tale of two possibly partially-satisfied cities: How much is this thing going to cost? And how much are the Rays willing to fork over?
On Friday, team president Brian Auld told an Ybor City audience at the Cuban Club the possible answer to that question was about $700 million, with the Tampa Bay Rays paying half.
That’s reportedly more than the percentage of cost the team was willing to pay for the $892 million concept unveiled at the Italian Club in Ybor more than three years ago. The $700 million price tag was previously reported when Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman divulged the figure after a closed-door meeting with team officials earlier this year.
Auld’s pitch, made publicly before a Tampa audience for the second time in two months, has evolved. There was no mention of how attractive Montreal might be as a ballpark vacation destination for well-heeled fans. And he sparred effectively with a far more openly skeptical crowd than at a South Tampa event last month.
The core of the team’s message, though, remained the same: Splitting the season with Montreal is the only way to keep the team in Tampa Bay.
Auld responded to City Council member Joseph Citro’s question of how corporations would view Tampa if it only had a part-time professional baseball team by raising the alternative — kissing goodbye to the team that has called St. Petersburg home since 1998.
Stop thinking of spring training and about 40 regular season games as half a loaf. And try not to think of the far greater cost of losing the region’s Major League Baseball team.
Instead, think of it “not as a lousy alternative but as a truly innovative way to try and keep our team here,” Auld said.
“One billion is not a cost that this community can reasonably spend,” he said.
As for Montreal, new mayor Valerie Plante is keeping an open mind about a new ballpark. Auld said it’s an easier task to persuade a city that has lost its own MLB team — as Montreal did in 2005 — to accept a part-time residency.
He touted the possible economic impact of having spring training in the area to build deeper ties and attract winter-weary Canadians to the bay area.
That argument was met with skepticism from Victor DiMaio, a Tampa political consultant. The idea, DiMaio said, was crazy. Who wants to root for a half-season team? he asked Auld.
“I can’t see the Bucs saying that. I can’t see the Lightning say that,” DiMaio said. “People are not going to be interested in watching a Canadian team play,” DiMaio said.
Auld said the idea “dramatically lowers the risk” for the bay area to keep the Rays.
There were other questions, like what would the two-city team be called?
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Auld said that was a question for another day, but one that would indicate that the tougher issues had been solved. He did float some more goodies: 200 events a year in a 27,000-seat outdoor park with no roof; the full-time residency of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, owned by the Rays; and, in a line that drew applause, maybe a professional women’s soccer team. And possibly two different uniform schemes.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor told the Tampa Bay Times this week that the next major hurdle for the split-season plan is Major League Baseball’s official seal of approval, a step also referenced by Auld. The league’s executive committee has already given the team the okay to explore the plan.
Neither Auld nor Castor provided any timetable as for when that might happen, but Auld did make it clear they would need long-term agreements with both cities and league approval in place for the concept to work.
As for a new name, Auld said the team would work with top-notch branding firms to solve that riddle. But he said he’d done a little research of his own. In a reference to DiMaio’s complaint that dragonflies would be among the pests at spring outdoor games in Tampa, Auld replied that the insects are one of the few species that migrate from Canada to Florida. The migration occurs in late summer.
Tampa-Montreal Dragonflies, anyone?