MLB commissioner Rob Manfred moves closer to wanting a decision on Rays stadium

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred talks with reporters at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred talks with reporters at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017.
Published Aug. 24, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred called Wednesday for urgency from Tampa Bay area government leaders to prioritize and move quicker on plans for a new Rays stadium.

And though stopping short of an ultimatum, Manfred got closer to one, stating that pressure from owners tired of subsidizing the Rays through revenue sharing could soon force MLB to consider options such as moving the team.

"As I've said before, there comes a point in time, particularly given the amount of money from both Major League Baseball and other clubs that flows into this market, that have you have to look at your alternatives if nothing gets done," Manfred said at Tropicana Field before Wednesday's game against the Blue Jays.

"I don't have a firm timetable for that. I will tell you it is a topic of discussion in the industry, the lack of progress in terms of moving forward with a first-class facility."

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Whether that is just part of the rhetoric or a legitimate threat to take the extreme action of relocation — especially of a team with a solid lease agreement through 2027 — remains to be seen.

But in saying it's clear the Rays not only need a new stadium but one "in an A-plus location," Manfred, after spending the day in the Tampa Bay area talking primarily about the stadium with various parties, put the onus on government leaders to make something happen.

"I think there is an ongoing process whereas the Rays are looking at various sites in Tampa Bay and trying to identify a really outstanding site, which I think we all agree is necessary for the future success of this franchise," he said. "And I'm hopeful once that process is complete, there will be government support for continuing to have the Rays here in Tampa Bay."

That search process seems likely to lead the Rays to Hills­borough County, with a site near Ybor City seeming to be most likely, and would rule out St. Petersburg's plan to rebuild at the Trop location, where the Rays have regularly been at or near the bottom of the majors in attendance. Manfred saw that for himself. Wednesday's game was telling evidence, an announced crowd of 8,264 that was the Rays' smallest at the Trop in more than 10 years, since 8,256 on Sept. 5, 2006.

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Principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Wednesday that the Rays were "down to a very few" sites after starting with a list "in the teens" with at least one Pinellas County option still in play in a project they started in 2007.

"The most important part is this is something to be generational," Sternberg said. "And in that respect, the sooner we get it done, the better for us. Look, nobody wants to get it done sooner than us, but nobody wants it to be in the wrong place and not get down correctly."

(In other words, they don't want to make the mistake the Marlins did in terms of location.)

"If that means waiting a bit longer, we've waited this long, that's fine. But as the commissioner says, the drumbeat is getting louder."

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Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, leading the project, said a significant step is close, with a location locked down within the next month.

TOPKIN'S TAKEAWAYS: Beat write Marc Topkin's takeaways from Wednesday's Rays-Blue Jays game.

"The next step is to gain site control, and we're working extremely hard to accomplish that," he said at the Trop, where St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and other Pinellas and Hills­borough politicians also were invited. "I anticipate being able to make an announcement on our preferred location in the very near future."

As important, given some recent complaints, Hagan said, "I anticipate a renewed sense of urgency from the team."

But even with a site selected, there will be other issues, starting with the even heavier lifting of working out financing on a public-private partnership, with Sternberg cautioning, "There's only so much we can potentially do," noting MLB's limits on debt a team can take on.

And there is also the question of whether a new stadium elsewhere in the Tampa Bay area will make enough of a difference, specifically in corporate and business support necessary to drive ticket sales for an 81-game home schedule.

Sternberg and Manfred mentioned getting the Rays to the league average in attendance, which would require nearly doubling what both deemed the team's currently "disappointing" average of 15,699.

Acknowledging the skepticism of other owners across MLB, Sternberg, who bought the team in 2005, said he remains confident — "with my heart and also with my head" — that with the right stadium plan in the proper location and increased support, the team still can be successful in the Tampa Bay market.

"Yes, or I would have bailed on this; I've had the opportunity to bail on it many times over the years," he said. "I won't say it's a slam dunk. It's certainly not. But all the more reason that we get it correct."

And, Manfred said, the sooner the better.

"I think it's fair to say we'd like the process to take on a little better pace moving forward," he said.