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Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg says payroll boost was response to others' commitment to franchise

Stuart Sternberg, left, greets shortstop Reid Brignac during his first visit to camp this spring.
Published Feb. 29, 2012

PORT CHARLOTTE — Stuart Sternberg was a little worried this winter.

His top baseball man, Andrew Friedman, was being targeted by the Angels and Astros. His manager, Joe Maddon, was linked to several high-profile openings, a preview of what would happen if he reached the end of his contract after this season. And with only a moderate increase in payroll budgeted, it wasn't likely his team could make the significant additions needed.

"There were some challenges there," Sternberg said.

But then Friedman told the others he wasn't interested, and Maddon agreed to stick around, and Matt Moore became the latest player to sign a team-friendly long-term deal. Sternberg looked around at what they'd all done and decided that, as principal owner, he had to do his part.

"I'm a competitive guy and I'm a fan," Sternberg said. "These players, what they did last year was extraordinary. The commitments that were made in the offseason by a number of people … and other players, while it's an unreasonable thing to do as a business person, it's a reasonable thing to do for what they've provided this organization, and the commitments and sacrifices they're making potentially. …

"They've all made it clear they want to be here because of what we've all done together. With what's gone on in other places in baseball, it's become more and more unique as the days go on. I think they cherish it, and I have to do everything I can, and then some, to give them a chance to succeed."

Which is how he got here Tuesday morning, standing under a bright blue sky on a rich green field, watching a team fortified by a 50-plus percent increase in payroll — to about $65 million — and now considered a favorite to get back to the playoffs for a fourth time in five years.

"Our expectations are that we have a very, very good team this year," Sternberg said during his first visit of the spring. "Ideally, you'd like to say the best team we've put out, but you never really know 'til we go out there."

When Sternberg and Co. took over six-plus years ago, their computer programs and processes projected a run of success from 2010-15 and — though it started sooner than planned, in 2008 — expect to ride it for a while.

"We're still peaking," he said. "And I think we can get even better."

Winning has become his salve, as well as his strategy, in the ongoing battle to push attendance from the bottom of the MLB ranks and to break the impasse on movement toward a new stadium in the Tampa Bay area.

"If I didn't think it would work, we wouldn't be spending what we're spending here to win," he said. "I think the winning and the continued winning and the continued success gives us the best chance to ultimately put us in a position to have this sustainable."

But, claiming they are losing money by doing so, Sternberg said they won't be able to continue this way indefinitely, beating out teams such as the Red Sox and Yankees who outspend them by three and four times. He has resigned himself to a stadium resolution taking years, but, locked into a lease at Tropicana Field through 2027, warns "this can't go on" for decades.

"The reason why you want more revenue is to give yourself a better opportunity to compete," Sternberg said. "We are competing without the revenue. That is not an endless cycle.

"I don't mind the difficulty of doing it. I like the challenge — that's all fine and dandy. You want to have a ray of hope that we can sustain this, and we have to this point. It's been very fortuitous. We've been very fortunate. That's really what it's all about.

"There are teams with a lot more revenue that don't win like we do. I would much rather have less revenue and winning. And if you could say to me, 'Gee, Stu, don't worry — your attendance will stay where it is, and your revenue will stay where it is, but you can keep winning, or be certain you'll have a good opportunity to win the next 10-15 years,' I'm fine. But it's unrealistic."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com.

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