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Commissioner Rob Manfred likes Ybor City stadium site, but must see more support to keep baseball in Tampa Bay

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred delivers remarks during a news conference at the annual MLB baseball owners meetings, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred delivers remarks during a news conference at the annual MLB baseball owners meetings, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Published Nov. 16, 2017

LAKE BUENA VISTA — MLB commissioner Rob Manfred didn't want to talk Thursday about what might happen if the current effort to build the Rays a new stadium at the Ybor City site falls through.

"I'm more focused on working with the community to figure out how we can make this work," he said, "than on what's going to happen if we fail."

But, he made clear, that the Rays and MLB need to see more — a lot more — than the plot of land.

"We need to figure out how the community can support an effort to keep baseball in Tampa (Bay)," Manfred said.

That's "community" in the broadest sense: government leaders, businesses, fans, any other entity that wants to join in the effort. (Operators are standing by.)

"This is a daunting task," Manfred told the Tampa Bay Times after the conclusion of the quarterly owners meetings. "There needs to be support from the community in order to be successful in completing it."

Most daunting will be paying the projected tab of more than $800 million if the stadium has a retractable roof. Especially so after principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Wednesday that based on initial projections for increased revenues, the team's ballpark number for its contribution to the new ballpark might only be $150 million.

As challenged as Tampa leaders will be in coming up with creative ways to cover the remaining $650 million, that's only part of the chore.

Manfred and Sternberg also need to see real evidence the team is going to be better supported on the Tampa side of the bridges.

That support could be a drive to generate a list of fans committed to buy season tickets, businesses pledging to increase sponsorships, a little chatter about naming rights. Some expressions of interest and excitement. The kinds of things, Sternberg noted, that happens in other communities in these situations.

Plus it's not just Sternberg, who consistently says he remains committed to the area and optimistic a new stadium can be built, and Manfred, who says he shares Sternberg's view, who have to be convinced.

But also other team owners who supposedly are getting tired of waiting for the Tampa Bay market to figure this out, especially those writing checks to share their revenues to support the Rays.

The most important next step, Manfred said, is there are more steps and the effort keeps progressing after selection of the site, which he saw during an August visit and said he likes.

"I think it's important for clubs with facility issues to show consistent forward movement toward a solution that's acceptable for baseball," he said. "I think the clubs have been very patient. They will continue to show patience. If things go into neutral on the project, the community shows a lack of interest in terms of providing support, that's a problem. … We need to see consistent forward movement on the project."

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The owner most familiar with the Rays' market is Tampa-based Yankees boss Hal Steinbrenner, who seemed to like what he has heard so far about the potential move to the Ybor site, noting the proximity to the "pretty exciting" work Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is doing in the Channelside area.

"Tampa is a thriving city, and I think there is plenty of business for everyone," Steinbrenner said. "If they can get a good site and make it happen, I think I'll be excited for my hometown."

Dodgers president Stan Kasten, a member of expansion committee that awarded the Tampa Bay franchise in 1995, also sounded encouraged about the possibilities.

"I knew that's the solution that everyone in baseball would like to see — a new stadium for the Rays in that market," he said. "That would be a win-win for everybody."

Sternberg said he keeps Manfred informed every step of the way: "He is very focused on our situation, and I look forward to delivering positive updates."

If not, the talk eventually will turn negative.