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Forget Montreal. Forget negotiations. Time to get real on Rays stadium search

The Rays may not have big crowds, but they’ve had a sweetheart stadium deal for years. If they want another one, they need to speak up now.

ST. PETERSBURG — As they say in the dugout, you have to run out every grounder.

So Tampa Bay leaders should listen to what the Rays have to say on Tuesday. They should pay close attention to the details, and not act surprised if they hear that this shared custody plan with Montreal is the last, best hope of keeping Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay.

And then they should get to work on a real plan.

Because this Montreal idea is already on life support. Politically, civically, realistically it doesn’t seem feasible. But the Rays already knew that. Which probably means one of two things:

1. This was orchestrated to gain an advantage in stadium talks.

2. It was a roundabout way of saying the Rays will eventually leave.

Related: MORE RAYS: A peek behind the curtain of the Rays' Montreal plan

Either way, this process has gone from collaborative to combative just that quickly. Because the Montreal announcement was not the way partners do business. Nor, for that matter, was the press conference in Las Vegas during baseball’s December winter meetings when the Rays pulled Tampa’s pants down on live television by dismissing the Ybor City stadium financing plan as a joke.

You know how most negotiations start with one side seeking an unreasonably high amount and the other side seeking an unreasonably low amount? Well, that’s what the Montreal plan feels like.

Instead of offering a lowball number for a new stadium, the Rays are offering a cataclysmic possibility. Basically, it’s a way of saying, “What are you prepared to do for us now?’’

All of which means we’ve entered the hardball phase of this process. And now, in a lot of ways, it becomes a game of leverage.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the Rays wield the ultimate hammer. The team belongs to Stu Sternberg and he can move it wherever he likes come 2028.

But Tampa Bay isn’t without leverage too. The use agreement at Tropicana Field is a nasty little document that could keep the Rays handcuffed to an empty bleacher seat for another eight-plus years. And for Sternberg that would feel like sitting on death row waiting for an eventual pardon.

The Rays say they are looking at the possibility of playing half of their home games in Montreal. [Zuma Press; CHRIS ZUPPA | Special to the Times]

So where do we go from here?

That depends on Sternberg’s true intentions. Does he still want to talk about a stadium in Tampa Bay, or has he already decided baseball cannot survive in this market and he’s initiating divorce proceedings?

Either way, the Montreal gambit carries an unmistakable message. Sort of like, “Ken Hagan sleeps with the fishes.’’ For the first time in his 14 years as owner, it tells local leaders that Sternberg is willing to go to war and he is not above moving the team out of Tampa Bay.

In a lot of ways, I don’t blame Sternberg. Tampa Bay has been a disappointment as a baseball market, and he’s tired of trying to field competitive teams with subpar revenues. He’s also hugely unhappy that the community hasn’t stepped up in any meaningful way to try to save the Rays.

But Sternberg is not without blame either. He wants business leaders to commit to sponsorships and he wants politicians to deliver public funds, but he never divulges what he’s prepared to offer. The Rays are secretive about their TV money, and most of their other business dealings. In a large sense, they have struggled to connect with or understand fans and business owners even after being here for more than two decades.

So let’s forget the niceties.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has been reluctant to offer the Rays a stadium deal until knowing whether Sternberg would entertain another long-term commitment to the city.

To heck with that. Sternberg has forced the city’s hand with this vague threat of part-time residency so Kriseman should make a take-it-or-leave-it offer on a new stadium. If Sternberg turns it down, the whole world will know exactly what was offered.

If a deal can’t be reached in St. Pete, the next step would be offering the Rays a second chance to talk to Hillsborough. Kriseman and the City Council will be tempted to demand a fee this time, but they should resist. The goal is to keep the team in the market, and St. Pete will ultimately benefit if that happens.

Related: MORE RAYS: If this is a long goodbye, it's a joke without laughs

And if a deal doesn’t work in Hillsborough? Well, then let the Rays inquire about buying out the Tropicana use agreement. And warn them that there will be sticker shock.

The team will undoubtedly say it’s in St. Pete’s best interests to end the agreement quickly and cheaply so redevelopment of the Trop land can begin sooner rather than later.

That may be true, but the Rays don’t get to make that argument.

After all, this wouldn’t be their home anymore.

Contact John Romano at Follow romano_tbtimes.