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For heaven’s sake, can the grownups get involved in the Rays stadium search?

Pointing fingers across the bay is so 1980. Maybe there’s not enough money to be had, but it’s time for a more sophisticated effort.
The proposed Ybor City stadium site went down in flames when the Rays said Hillsborough County's financing plan was too flimsy. If there is any chance of resurrecting that deal, or any other in Tampa Bay, it's time for business and government leaders to take a more mature and realistic approach. Populous Architects
Published May 24

ST. PETERSBURG – There is bravado, and there is bull. Combine them, and you get a politician.

Now, on a campaign trail, that might produce a ruthless kind of conquest. But when it comes to getting a baseball stadium built, you might be better off putting the grown-ups in charge.

Which brings us to Ken Hagan.

MORE RAYS: Sternberg says low attendance has 'ramifications'

The other day, the Hillsborough County commissioner told a Fox 13 News reporter that the Rays were in danger of leaving the marketplace because St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman was being stubborn.

“I think it’s incumbent on St. Pete and Mayor Kriseman to stop being shortsighted, to see the big picture and allow the team to sit down and discuss (a stadium) with us,’’ Hagen said. “The worst thing for St Pete, for the Tampa Bay Rays and for Tampa and Hillsborough County is the status quo. We recognize that, the Rays recognize that and now I think Mayor Kriseman of St. Pete needs to recognize that.’’

By itself, there is a glimmer of truth in this evaluation.

But in the context of recent events, it was self-serving, delusional and unproductive.

Also, it was wrong.

The reality is Kriseman fought his own City Council back in 2015, at considerable political peril, to give the Rays permission to talk to officials and businesses in Hillsborough County about a new stadium.

MORE RAYS: Kevin Kiermaier strikes back

Folks in Tampa had been crowing for a decade about how much better the Rays would fare with a stadium in the marketplace’s more business-friendly downtown. They had three years to come up with a deal, and they swung-and-missed so badly that the Rays shut down talks ahead of the deadline.

And now Hagan wants to blame St. Pete?

This is like a boxer lobbying for years to get a shot at the heavyweight champion. Then, after getting his butt handed to him in the ring, immediately starts whining that the promoter won’t give him a rematch.

It’s true, the Rays are again tethered to the Tropicana Field lease until 2027. It’s also true Kriseman is not going to entertain another opt-out agreement unless/until Rays owner Stu Sternberg tells the mayor he has no interest in another stadium in St. Pete.

It’s worth noting Sternberg did not ask for an extension of the last agreement and has promised Kriseman he would get back to him sometime this summer with an update on the team’s plans.

Until then, Kriseman owes it to St. Pete to - borrowing a baseball phrase - run out every grounder.

Meanwhile, the Hillsborough/Tampa contingent is better off reviewing their own shortcomings and figuring out where their plan went wrong. That could include looking for other funding sources for the proposed Ybor City site, or maybe even reconsidering other sites and concepts. For instance, a stadium as the centerpiece of an entertainment district in the fairgrounds area, similar to what the Braves have done, although the Rays presumably would have to be sold on the idea.

It’s also important to point out that the Rays are not blameless here. They have been too coy and too passive for too many years. They can’t leave it up to politicians and business leaders to do all the dirty work when it comes to identifying revenue sources.

One of the biggest problems with the Ybor site – aside from the Rays refusing to commit to their own level of spending – was the lack of corporate commitments for sponsorships, suites and season tickets. Hillsborough leaders barely cracked the $100 million mark from local businesses, which was not going to entice the Rays into contributing a bundle of their own money toward stadium construction costs.

Would it help if Sternberg rolled up his sleeves and got more involved in the wooing of potential sponsors? Perhaps not. But Tampa Bay is not Wall Street, and a personal touch might have a greater impact here than in other markets. Isn’t it worth finding out for a billion-dollar deal?

It’s also entirely possible this community may decide there is not enough money available to make the investment in a stadium worthwhile. If so, 2027 could be a breakup instead of an upgrade.

In the meantime, Hillsborough County needs to recognize its first effort was a dismal failure. Even if you assign a chunk of blame on the Rays, there is little doubt that the business community’s response was underwhelming and Hagan failed to rally any political support.

Perhaps it’s time for someone else – new Mayor Jane Castor? – to become the voice that unites all of the necessary interests in Tampa and Hillsborough.

What Tampa Bay needs is leadership.

Not the needless pointing of fingers.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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