Tampa Bay has received some disappointing but helpful clarity about the future of Major League Baseball in a community that spent decades pursuing a franchise. Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Tuesday he does not see a new permanent home in St. Petersburg as an option and cast serious doubt about one in Tampa. He asked for minds to be open about the Rays' proposal to split home games with Montreal. That is a reasonable request — as long as the Rays remain open-minded about other options if this unconventional approach fails to gain traction.
From a financial standpoint, there is some appeal to a St. Petersburg-Montreal marriage. The Rays would benefit from being in two major markets with two fan bases. The cost of an open-air stadium in St. Petersburg, regardless of how the cost is divided between the Rays and the public, would be perhaps $300 million less than building one with a roof that would be necessary for a full season. Sooner or later, it all comes down to money.
For Tampa Bay, the potential benefits also are coming into better focus. Envision an attractive, compact stadium in downtown St. Petersburg, perhaps at the Al Lang stadium site along the waterfront. The Rays return spring training to the city from Port Charlotte. They open the regular season and play a few dozen games in St. Petersburg and head to Montreal before the weather turns hot. The Tampa Bay Rowdies, which the Rays also own, play throughout the summer in the new stadium and maybe move up to Major League Soccer. Conceptually, it could work.
Practically, it's a long shot. The Rays cannot seriously pursue twin homes without approval from St. Petersburg. Mayor Rick Kriseman first flatly rejected the idea and then said Tuesday he is willing to listen — but opposes spending any city money on a stadium for a part-time team. It also would require a voter referendum to build a new stadium at the Al Lang site. Sternberg acknowledges there are countless issues to consider, which is why he calls this "an exploration.''
As enthusiastic as the Rays are about a St. Petersburg-Montreal match, the initial backlash is understandable. It took decades of private and public efforts to secure a Major League Baseball franchise. Rays officials did an excellent job Tuesday of offering examples of how the team has become part of the fabric of Tampa Bay. No community is eager to lose a big league franchise, or even half of one. What if the choice really is half of one or no team at all?
The cold reality is that the Rays remain at the bottom of the major leagues in attendance. The team's efforts to pursue a new stadium along St. Petersburg's waterfront a decade ago and more recently in Ybor City failed. The cost of new stadiums has mushroomed, putting together public financing is difficult, and the Rays never have been specific about how much they would commit to spend on a new home. Meanwhile the clock is ticking, with the team's agreement with St. Petersburg to play in outdated Tropicana Field expiring after the 2027 season.
On the bright side, Tuesday brought some needed clarity. Sternberg repeated he is not interested in selling the Rays and will not seek to break the team's agreement with St. Petersburg and move. With a permanent home in St. Petersburg off the table, the city should move toward redeveloping the 85 acres at the Trop site without a stadium. With the door in Tampa still open a crack, elected officials and civic leaders in Hillsborough should decide whether they want to get back in the game if the St. Petersburg-Montreal proposal dies.
The Rays deserve an open-minded exploration of their twin-homes proposal so the public can get a clearer picture of the cost and the benefits. But if it doesn't work out, Tampa Bay deserves one last pitch at keeping Major League Baseball.