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On Rays, so what’s the plan now? | Editorial

Playing hardball is one thing. Planning a Tampa Bay future for the team is another.

Major league baseball has been woven into the fabric of Tampa Bay for more than a century, when the Chicago Cubs beat the St. Louis Browns in St. Petersburg’s first-ever spring training game in 1914. Tampa Bay has had its own team for a generation now — the Rays — born of years of struggle and effort by farsighted leaders to support a domed stadium and land a home team. They built it — and eventually baseball did come. But the Rays’ future here has never been more in doubt.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman threw a tight, high fastball at Rays’ owners this week, telling them that right now they can only negotiate to play home games in Montreal — or anywhere else — starting after the Tropicana Field lease ends in 2027. The Rays claim a split scheme with Montreal, which they wanted in place by 2024, is the best way to make Tampa Bay a viable home, if only part time. If the Rays leave Tampa Bay in 2028, mark down Dec. 4 as the beginning of the end, and Kriseman as the mayor who made the call.

So what’s the plan? Letting a lame-duck team fester and stew in an obsolete stadium for eight seasons is not an option. And it’s hard to redevelop the Tropicana Field site without knowing whether a stadium is in the mix or not. Simply saying no and leaving the mess to the next mayor with a clock ticking down isn’t an answer either.

The Rays have played hardball themselves, abruptly killing the Ybor City stadium proposal last December and later portraying the Montreal plan as a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum, but credit them for putting a winning team on the field and pitching ideas over the years about where that field might be. As unlikely as the Montreal plan’s success might have been, it seems premature for Kriseman to pull the plug without a more public airing of the possible options. It was also wrong-headed for the Rays to reject the mayor’s offer to look again throughout the Tampa Bay region for a new permanent home. So now, what next?

With its art-centric downtown and still-growing buzz, St. Petersburg is a very different place than the city that scrapped so long to bring baseball here in the first place, let alone the small town of 7,500 that hosted the first spring training game in 1914. But it’s a stretch to say that Tampa Bay has outgrown baseball, that it no longer needs it. A region with a major league team is just that — major league — and that brings with it civic pride and a sense of identity. It’s foolish to abandon that dream and to foreclose options that could keep it alive.

As has become clear in recent years, the path for professional baseball to succeed in Tampa Bay is narrow. But it exists. Other areas have mass transit, more corporate headquarters and higher-income residents. But Tampa Bay has a generations-long love affair with the game, and leaders should be careful about too quickly squandering an asset that was so hard to obtain — and equally hard to replace. Keeping the Rays will carry a price. Losing them would have a price, too. It’s time for an honest discussion about what price is worth paying. So, what’s the plan?

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news