Commissioner: Rays' market viable, stadium not

Rob Manfred says that Tampa Bay is a viable market.
Rob Manfred says that Tampa Bay is a viable market.
Published Jul. 15, 2015

CINCINNATI — Tampa or St. Petersburg for the Rays?

Even Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred can get confused.

Despite mixing up which city's mayor he spoke with, Manfred was optimistic Tuesday about the Rays' future in Tampa Bay, saying he was encouraged after hearing there is political support for a new stadium and that MLB will not consider moving the Rays out of the area until all efforts are exhausted.

Manfred also said it is clear to MLB that the Tampa Bay market "absolutely" is viable and that the Rays' attendance issues — a major-league-low average of 14,730 — are "facility-related," specifically the location of Tropicana Field.

"I find encouraging the fact that it seems that politicians in the area — broadly defined — are interested in getting something done and keeping the Rays in St. Petersburg-Tampa or Tampa-St. Petersburg, whichever way you want to say it," Manfred said during a Q-and-A session with members of the Baseball Writers Association of America before Tuesday's All-Star Game.

Manfred also cooled what has been mostly media and fan chatter about the Rays potentially moving to Montreal, or elsewhere — though he did acknowledge MLB is keeping tabs on sites for a possible future expansion. Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg has said repeatedly he is committed to finding a new home in the Tampa Bay area and has no interest in moving the team.

"We will not get to the point of exploring relocation unless and until Mr. Sternberg and I, in consultation or together, reach the conclusion that it is not possible to get something done in the market where he exists now," Manfred said. "We are not at that stage."

Sternberg reiterated his commitment via email Tuesday evening: "The commissioner and I have consistent contact in regards to our franchise and my desire to see things through in the Tampa Bay region."

Manfred said at the media session that the source of his optimism was a private conversation with "the mayor of Tampa" during the recent U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting. But Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn's office told the Tampa Bay Times that Buckhorn had not spoken with or even met Manfred. After that was relayed to MLB, Manfred's spokesman said his conversation had been with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

Though talks between the team and St. Petersburg remain stalemated on a deal just to allow exploration of possible sites in Tampa, Kriseman also said it was a productive conversation.

"I think he appreciates the fact that I'm trying to get this thing done and give this team this opportunity," Kriseman said. "What I got out of it, I liked the fact … what he said to me was, 'Stu wants to stay. Stu likes the Tampa Bay area and he wants to stay. He doesn't want to leave. He wants to keep working with you guys.' So that was encouraging to me."

Manfred did not offer any specific timetable or agenda for how the stadium issue will be addressed. Sternberg has said he would prefer not to negotiate during the season, and it may benefit the Rays to wait until after the upcoming City Council elections to see if they have a better chance to get a deal approved.

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"With this election, we have a chance of getting it through," Kriseman said, although he still believes a new stadium would work best on the Trop site.

Manfred apparently wouldn't. "We have an issue in Tampa," he said. "They put a great product on the field, but the attendance is not what we would like to see and we believe it is facility-related. It's that simple."

Asked later to be more specific, Manfred said: "We really think the attendance problem is a result of the fact that we don't have a good facility and we may not have a good location, let me say it that way, within the market. Absolutely feel the market is viable."

Manfred did acknowledge that MLB has a list of potential new markets for a possible expansion he is "open to the idea" of, but he acknowledged that same information is also "very important … because of the nagging threat of a need to relocate."

While Manfred noted the enthusiasm of Montreal's mayor to regain a team, the history of baseball there and the large crowds attracted for exhibitions the past two springs at aged Olympic Stadium, he also said: "It's a long way from two exhibition games to 81 home games in a facility that is consistent with major-league standards."

Times staff writers John Romano and Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.