The Rays are going to explore splitting home games with Montreal in future seasons as part of a plan they say would keep baseball in the Tampa Bay area long term.
The Rays were given permission Thursday by Major League Baseball to explore the possibility of doing so, though the plan would face several significant hurdles before being implemented, likely not until 2023 or so.
That would include negotiating permission from the city of St. Petersburg, given the use agreement requiring all home games be played at Tropicana Field through 2027 (and which Mayor Rick Kriseman said Thursday they won’t get); getting approval from the players union, as players would have two in-season homes; arranging for a new or vastly renovated facility in Montreal; working out logistics on how the schedule would be split; and getting formal approval from MLB based on working out a number of other issues, such as TV rights, sponsorships, currency exchange rates and more.
Having been frustrated with low attendance and efforts to get a new stadium built in the Tampa Bay area, the Rays see this plan as a potential solution by reducing the number of games played in the Tampa Bay market.
"My priority remains the same, I am committed to keeping baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come,'' principal owner Stuart Sternberg told the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday. "I believe this concept is worthy of serious exploration.''
Rays officials said they would have no further comment until a media session planned for Tuesday interestingly at the Dali Museum rather than the Trop.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said Thursday he would not grant that permission: "I don’t see that happening and I’ve expressed that to them previously.''
Obviously there are myriad other questions about the plan that some in the Tampa Bay area will dismiss, some will view as a threat and others will consider the team’s first step toward leaving when the use agreement at the Trop expires.
* How much harder would it be to get a new stadium financed and built in the Tampa Bay area for only 40 or so home games than 81? Related, would the Rays then be more open to staying at the Trop, or a new stadium at that site? Also, if the Rays were to play the early and perhaps later part of their schedule in Tampa Bay, could they now be interested in an open-air stadium, which would be less costly to build?
Commissioner Rob Manfred said the Rays "still are interested in having a new facility in Tampa. The limits of the current facility in terms of the atmosphere and the location are pretty well known.''
* Would the leaders of the Montreal effort, who have been working for years to get a team back, be willing to go ahead with plans to build a new stadium for a similarly limited number of home games?
Montreal group leader Stephen Bronfman said in a statement Thursday: “We have been hard at work for several years examining how we can bring baseball back to Montreal in a sustainable manner. This concept is definitely one that is of interest to my partners and me and we are looking forward to studying this further.” They declined further comment until after the Rays media session on Tuesday.
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* How could a split schedule work? Would the Rays play the first half of the season in Tampa Bay and the second half in Montreal, or would they alternate homestands? And what about postseason games? Manfred said the concept that was described to him was to play early season games in Tampa Bay — and in a new stadium — and later season games in Montreal.
* How much opposition would there be from the players union, given how it would impact players the most, and also the potential to lure free agents.
Players union officials declined comment Thursday given the preliminary status of the plan, but among some current and former players reacting on Twitter, Brad Ziegler, who served as a player rep, posted: "Splitting time between the 2 cities would be an absolute nightmare as a player… Potentially moving your family/pets back-and-forth, finding pediatricians, doctors, vets, paying rent on multiple houses, even when you’re not there. No thanks.''
FAN REACTION: Fans react with anger, sorrow over possibility
Manfred said in New York "the purpose of the split season would be to preserve baseball in Tampa (Bay), but improve the economics of the club overall by playing some of their games in Montreal. There is no commitment on the part of the owners to ultimately approve a plan. The permission that was granted was simply a permission to explore this alternative in an effort to strengthen a franchise that’s performed great on the field but continues to be pretty limited from an economic perspective.''
Manfred said the split season plan was “a longer term project" for the Rays and noted they are "committed to be in Tampa Bay through 2027.'' But he also said that once talks with all the involved parties get underway “any outcome is possible” and that negotiating to play elsewhere, at least part of their schedule, is subject to negotiation.
Asked if the split season plan was a precursor to eventual relocation, Manfred said, "There was no commitment, discussion, grant (of permission) on the issue of a permanent relocation, it was simply the split season possibility.''
Reports of a potential schedule sharing plan have surfaced several times in recent years from Montreal media, and the Rays have dismissed them repeatedly.
MLB tried a similar plan in the final two seasons before moving the Expos from Montreal to Washington, D.C. in 2005, as the team played 22 home games in Puerto Rico in 2003 and 2004. Manfred noted that in saying the Rays plan was "not an unprecedented step for baseball.''
Tampa Bay area officials took the news in different ways.
Ron Christaldi, an attorney and former Greater Tampa Chamber chairman who heads up the Rays 2020 initiative to find the team a home in Tampa, said he remains confident in the team finding a Tampa Bay solution.
“I have a lot of respect for Stu and I applaud his continual efforts to keep the Rays here,'' Christaldi said. “But as a community, I think we need to come together. Anything less than the Rays being here full time is a loss for the community. I believe in this place and I believe we can support the Rays full time.”
Hillsborough County commissioner Ken Hagan, who has led the effort for a new stadium in Tampa, said the announced plan underscores the need for action given how close the team could be to leaving.
"When I initially heard this I felt it was a half-baked scheme, but the more that I considered the logic behind it – certainly I imagine we would be considering a much smaller arena, which would significantly cut the cost,'' Hagan said.
"And the reality is, even the most avid sports fan or baseball fan does not attend 81 games a season. This would make it consistent with the number of games in the NHL, so if you were talking about the same cost structure as we were initially it would make it much more difficult, but if we’re talking about the scaled down smaller ballpark — without a roof — and the team is willing to invest in half of the cost, then I do not know if it would significantly alter the challenges associated with a new ballpark.''
Tampa City Council chairman Luis Viera said the news is “something that gives you a lot of pause” and put the chances of the team building a new stadium in Ybor City on a “downward trajectory.”
But Tampa City Council member Bill Carlson said he doesn’t consider the Rays’ future to be his city’s concern:
"My initial reaction is that’s up for the mayor and council of St. Pete to decide. It’s not a Tampa issue,” Carlson said. “St. Pete is the one that has the agreement with the Rays. Tampa isn’t part of it. ... Tampa doesn’t have any money so it would be a Hillsborough County issue. We’re trying to get money to fix our sewer pipes.”
Kriseman said he is waiting to hear back from the Rays.
"The ball is sitting on the mound and we’re waiting for them to pick it up and throw it our way, to use a bad baseball analogy,'' he said. "If they want to sit and talk about the future of the team in Tampa Bay, I’m willing to have that discussion. If nothing else, give us a clear indication one way or another. I think the fans and the community deserve to have some clarification. This has been going on for 12 years now.''
The Rays are signed to play at Tropicana Field through 2027, but have been looking for a new stadium in the Tampa Bay area for more than 10 years.
The most recent plan, to build an $892 million stadium in Ybor City, collapsed in December due to what the team said was a lack of specifics on potential financing, and coincided with the end of a three-year agreement with St. Petersburg that allowed them to consider sites in Tampa.
The Rays now can only consider sites in St. Petersburg and said they will let Mayor Rick Kriseman know sometime this summer if they want to pursue a new stadium on the Tropicana Field site as part of a planned redevelopment.
Even with a surge on the last homestand due at least in part to discounted tickets, the Rays rank 29th in attendance, averaging 14,545 per game. That included the two lowest crowds in franchise history, an announced 5,786 on May 28 that also was lowest in the majors this season, and 6,166 the next night.
Times staff writers Anastasia Dawson, Charlie Frago, Ernest Hooper, John Romano and Josh Solomon contributed to this report. Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.
TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: A TWO-CITY SOLUTION?
FAN REACTION: Fans react with anger, sorrow over possibility
FAN REACTION: Fans react with anger and sorrow.