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  1. Opinion

The Rays launch a Montreal missile. Don't let it divide Tampa Bay.

DIRK SHADD   |   Times (2018) A view of Tropicana Field, the current home of the Tampa Bay Rays, with the city of St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay in the background.
DIRK SHADD | Times (2018) A view of Tropicana Field, the current home of the Tampa Bay Rays, with the city of St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay in the background.
Published Jun. 20, 2019

The announcement that Major League Baseball has given the Tampa Bay Rays permission to explore splitting home games with Montreal increases the urgency for this region to decide how badly it wants to remain in the big leagues and whether and where to build a new stadium. There are many unanswered questions about the Rays' proposal to have two homes. What is not in question is that it will require a united front and a cooperative regional spirit to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay under any scenario.

At the moment, there is understandable frustration on all sides. The Rays have a competitive team but continue to rank near the bottom in attendance at outdated Tropicana Field. In Hillsborough County, a promising proposal for a $1 billion stadium in Ybor City collapsed late last year in part because the Rays would not commit to a reasonable investment in the project. In St. Petersburg, Mayor Rick Kriseman has been patiently waiting this summer to hear about the Rays' interest in a new stadium on the Trop site and understandably did not react favorably to Thursday's Montreal missile.

But the collective frustration cannot become counterproductive to Tampa Bay's efforts to remain in the big leagues. This region spent decades building support for a franchise, fighting over competing stadium plans and courting existing teams before the Rays started play in 1998. It's no longer 1986, when the St. Petersburg City Council voted to build the dome. Fighting among ourselves now would send the wrong message to Major League Baseball, to Montreal and to other cities that now see an opening to snatch the franchise outright.

Yet the sniping already had started this week before the Montreal news. Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan attacked Kriseman and criticized St. Petersburg's refusal to allow further negotiations between Hillsborough and the Rays, and he took some more shots on talk radio Thursday. Kriseman's office initially responded in kind. None of that his helpful to Tampa Bay's cause or sends a positive message to other team owners.

Kriseman immediately rejected the Montreal proposal, which he said already had been privately pitched to him by the Rays. And the team cannot play anywhere else besides the Trop without St. Petersburg's approval before 2028. But there are issues to publicly explore about the concept of splitting Rays' home games between Tampa Bay and Montreal. Principal owner Stuart Sternberg told the Times he remains "committed to keeping baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come...I believe this concept is worthy of serous exploration.'' It will take time for the many complicated questions to be answered.

Yet the clock is ticking. Thanks to Kriseman's political courage and regional vision, Hillsborough County had three years to work out a stadium plan and could not get it done before that window closed at the end of the year. It's reasonable for St. Petersburg to take another shot and hold serious stadium discussions with Sternberg before deciding how to proceed. But the Rays' agreement to play at the Trop expires in 2027, and it's clear from the Montreal announcement that the stadium debate needs to be resolved soon.

The Rays deserve a public analysis of their Montreal proposal and a prompt regional response. St. Petersburg deserves a clear answer from the Rays about whether the team is interested in partnering on a new permanent home in the city. If that answer is no, Hillsborough County deserves another shot.

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Ultimately, the Rays have to decide whether they want to remain in Tampa Bay significantly and invest in a new stadium. And Tampa Bay has to remain united in making its best pitch to remain in the big leagues for generations.

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