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The Rays’ Montreal Plan: A peek behind the curtain

Plot or ploy? A look inside the Rays’ thought process as they consider splitting their home schedule between Tampa Bay and Montreal.

ST. PETERSBURG — Would watching the Rays play along the St. Petersburg waterfront or amid booming downtown Tampa in an open-air, 27,000-seat stadium that also hosted spring training and soccer games offset the frustration and, to use a French word, ennui, of seeing them leave each June to play the rest of their home games in Montreal?

There is still much we can’t determine about the latest plan for the Rays to go not just outside the box but historical norms and the actual country in splitting their schedule between new stadiums in two distinctly different homes, 1,500 miles apart, starting potentially in 2024.

MORE RAYS: MLB grants Rays permission to explore Tampa Bay-Montreal split

Headline questions are the Nos. 1 and 2 starters:

• Are they pure in their motives of pitching the plan as a way to save baseball in Tampa Bay rather than using this as a negotiating ploy or a plot to leave totally?

• Is there any chance of actually pulling this off, given that people around baseball — and even some of their own — acknowledge it will be a significant challenge, given a series of legal, financial, administrative and logistical hurdles that likely will grow?

The Rays likely will provide some clarity at a sure-to-be entertaining media session Tuesday that’s being held for some deep-thinking reasons at the surrealistic Dali Museum along that downtown St. Petersburg waterfront.

It will take months, however, before they know if the payoff of such a radical move will make it worth proceeding as they report back next spring to Major League Baseball, which gave them permission to explore the idea.

But there are things we have learned about the plan, illustrative of how they will be creative in their thinking, understanding of the opposition and willing to negotiate (read: pay heavily, in some form) to address the largest issues.

Those include wrangling permission from St. Petersburg to play games elsewhere before the 2027 end of their use agreement at Tropicana Field (which Mayor Rick Kriseman already has said isn’t coming); procuring public and private financing and support to build new stadiums in both markets; and assuaging major concerns from the players union and agents about the two-city concept.

Here, from what we can tell, is how it could work, some of the biggest issues, and what conclusions can be drawn:

Could moving the Rays' spring training operation to St. Petersburg from Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte be part of a grand plan of splitting their home schedule between Tampa Bay and Montreal? [Times files (2019)]

A spring fling?

One of the biggest concerns from the union will be the players being forced to have two “homes” during the season, though the Rays might try to offset that by moving their spring training base back to the Tampa Bay area.

Though no details of the overall plan are set, the basic framework is for the Rays to spend the first 2½ months or so of the season, playing about 35 of their 81 home games, in Tampa Bay, then move north by early June to finish the schedule in Montreal.

The Rays can pay the players for the inconvenience, similar to the stipends they get for taking international trips, and as part of a compensation package that also could offset other issues such as taxes, currency exchange (though they’re paid in U.S. dollars) and family travel costs. The language barrier might also be a concern, given the prevalence of French speakers.

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Overall, free agents would seem a tough sell.

“I don’t think any player would view moving midseason as workable,’’ leading player agent Scott Boras said. “I don’t think anyone is going to want to take on something that is going to affect their family and the performance of their team to that level. … It puts a greater burden on every aspect of what a player goes through in a season. I just don’t see anyone approving that.’’

The Rays can make it less burden­some by moving their spring base from Port Charlotte back to the bay area and play their exhibition games in the new stadium. That way, players could come down for spring training and stay in their homes until it was time to go to Montreal, making the same one move that players on other teams typically do when camp breaks in late March. Plus some players will choose to live in the bay area during the offseason anyway, taking advantage of Florida’s tax benefits, thus staying in one place for nine months.

The spring shuffle would be costly. The Rays would have to buy out their lease in Port Charlotte that runs through 2027 in an arrangement that hasn’t worked out all that well anyway, and likely chip in to get a Tampa Bay training site developed and/or — depending on location (their old Naimoli Complex in St. Petersburg?) — modernized.

They will pitch that shift as another economic benefit of the overall plan, adding 15 events to a new stadium and drawing fans from Montreal who presumably would flock down to see their team in the spring and maybe stick around, making Tampa Bay their new warm-weather destination. Conversely, they will sell Montreal on reciprocity from summer-vacationing Floridians.

The Rays brand could undergo a massive makeover if the franchise pursues a plan to split its home schedule between Tampa Bay and Montreal. [Times files (2019)]

The Ex-Rays? Rayos? Snowbirds? BetRAYals?

What the team will be called — as opposed to what to call team officials, which seems a healthy activity on social media — is a popular topic but far down on the actual to-do list, grouped in with other finishing touch, good-problem-to-have decisions such as where postseason games would be played. (Potentially, if you were wondering, alternating each year the Rays make it).

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The initial thought is keep the Rays name, branding and uniforms but use different hats and/or patches to acknowledge which market they were repping. When the Expos played 22 games in Puerto Rico in 2003-04, they wore hat and uniform patches. Of the publicly made suggestions for a new name, ExRays, fired off first by tbt* editor Pete Couture among many, seems the clear leader.

A waterfront ballpark Al Lang Field in downtown St Petersburg could be in play again as part of the Rays plan to consider splitting their home schedule between Tampa Bay and Montreal. [Times files (2007)]

A stadium doubleheader

The Rays, as you might have heard, have had problems getting a new stadium, with plans for the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront and, more recently an $892 million fixed-roof project in Tampa’s Ybor City, falling through. Now they are trying to get two built, one in each market. By splitting the schedule, they will lower their requirements for a new ballpark and thus the costs, which they think will increase their chances to get it done in St. Petersburg or possibly — also requiring permission from Kriseman — in Tampa.

They now would consider an open-air stadium, rather than a fixed or retractable roof since they won’t be playing there during the steamy summer rainy season. Could live with about 27,000 seats. Could add the spring exhibitions to the game inventory. Could design the field to accommodate soccer matches, which is convenient since the Rays own a team.

With no roof and thus less land required, there’s already some chatter of a $550 million to $600 million price tag, in theory reducing the contributions from all interests — team, public and corporate. Also, they will be willing to commit for 25-30 years (in both places) as a sign of how serious they are in making this unprecedented plan work.

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If that’s the what, how about the where? As much as was said last year about the benefits of moving to Tampa and how the Trop location is a key issue in their attendance problems, the Rays now are open to considering a downtown St. Petersburg site. The waterfront plot of Al Lang Stadium, which they control with the purchase of the Rowdies, seems an obvious candidate.

Previous expansion for a higher-level soccer team had been discussed. Getting clearance to build there would be complicated, but doing so could be a good trade-off with Kriseman in negotiations for approval of the overall plan, as could be giving up the targeted-for-redevelopment Trop land and the Rays’ share of those revenues, along with a potentially massive payout.

Other sites that could now be in play include the Derby Lane greyhound track in northeast St. Petersburg; downtown Tampa (maybe including the ConAgra mill site the Rays once eyed but now owned by Lightning owner Jeff Vinik as part of his redevelopment area); the Florida State Fairgrounds site east of downtown, perhaps with an entertainment complex tied in with the nearby massive Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

Maybe they could do the spring complex on one side of the bridge and the stadium on the other. Open-mindedness will be an ongoing theme.

Getting the new Montreal stadium built, a necessity given the antiquated state of Olympic Stadium, likely would be left to the group leading the baseball effort there, given all the work already done, including an agreement with a developer on a site. A 30,000-seat open-air stadium would work. An ownership stake in the Rays could be a good point of discussion in those negotiations.

In this file photo, Jim Anderson, St. Petersburg Times pressroom superintendent, holds up a copy of an Aug. 8, 1992 edition of the St. Petersburg Times that commemorates a deal that would have moved the San Francisco Giants to the Tampa Bay area. [Associated Press]

Haven’t we seen this before?

Hmmm. A team is trying to get a new stadium built, needs leverage to spur action in its home city, gets permission from MLB to talk to other locations and works on a deal to move — then gets a last-minute commitment to get that new ballpark. Sound familiar?

It should. Tampa Bay has been on the courting side of that relationship repeatedly, flirted with by several teams and striking seemingly done deals to become the new home of the White Sox (1988) and Giants (1992), only to be stood up.

Tampa Bay eventually got its team, with the Rays starting play in 1998, and Washington, D.C., got one back when the Expos were moved there from Montreal in 2005. Now it’s the Tampa Bay team looking longingly elsewhere, and Montreal ironically playing the role of the potential new mate.

In this file photo, Jose Vidro of the Montreal Expos signs autographs for fans prior to the Expos' June 2, 2003, game against the Angels at Hiram Bithorn Stadium. The Expos split parts of two seasons between Montreal and San Juan before moving to Washington. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

And this, too?

Having a team split its home schedule between two markets on a committed long-term basis as the Rays propose is a novel idea. But the basic concept has been tried before, coincidentally, with the Expos. Dealing with attendance and ownership issues that would lead to their departure from Montreal, the Expos played 22 games in 2003 and 2004 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

There were differences: It wasn’t a long-term plan; San Juan wasn’t considered as a future home; and rather than splitting the schedule, the Expos made three trips down throughout the season, playing 6-10 games each visit. It proved to be an interesting experience for the team, which included River Ridge High product T.J. Tucker.

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“The first year was kind of fun; it was something new to us,’’ said then-Expos coach Manny Acta, now with Seattle. “The people in Montreal were not showing up to the games. They had a feeling the Expos were leaving. So it was fresh to us.’’

But those extra hotel nights began to add up, and not for Marriott points.

“It just felt like it was another road trip,’’ Acta said. “Sometimes it got a little tiresome staying in the same hotel for like 12 days. The second year it was less fun. The novelty kind of wore off.’’

Other sports have tried the two-city concept for various reasons. Most notably, the NBA’s Kings split games for three seasons in the early 1970s between Kansas City, Mo., and Omaha, Neb., though they are only three hours apart by car.

This file photo shows the view from behind the center field fence as more than 57,000 fans jammed into Olympic Stadium for the Montreal Expos home opener against Philadelphia Phillies in Montreal, April 16, 1977. (AP Photo/DMB)

Would it work in Montreal?

After years of work to try to get back in the game since losing the Expos to Washington in 2005, the Montreal baseball group, led by Stephen Bronfman, son of original Expos owner Charles, has become increasingly confident. That coincides, curiously, with a series of recent reports from Montreal media — all denied by the Rays — of the possibility of somehow sharing the Rays. Some consider Montreal the top candidate to get a team, either via relocation or expansion, which MLB says won’t happen until the Rays and the Oakland A’s stadium situations are resolved.

So why would they commit, and long term, to getting a team only part time? They’re not saying for now, planning to wait until after Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg has his say to the media on Tuesday before commenting. But if you’re speculating, it might come down to which truth you believe.

If you think the Rays are only pursuing this plan to get a foot out the door to eventually relocate, it makes sense for the Montreal group, figuring it will get the Rays full time after 2027, or even if they opt to go elsewhere, prove worthy of a soon-to-follow expansion team.

Or, if you think MLB is concerned about going back to Montreal (and infringing on the Blue Jays’ vast territory) and would prefer to expand to increasingly attractive Nashville and, say, Portland, Ore. (or Charlotte, N.C.; Las Vegas; San Antonio, Texas, or somewhere TBA in the Northeast), it makes sense for Bronfman’s group to take what it can get now rather than risk being shut out. Plus, Montreal gets back in the game at a much-reduced cost, being responsible only for the stadium and maybe a stake in the Rays, avoiding what could be a $2 billion expansion fee.

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and other members of the front office have scheduled a press conference Tuesday at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg to discuss his plan to consider splitting the Rays' home schedule between Tampa Bay and Montreal. [Times files (2019)]

So what’s the end game here?

If you take the Rays at the words they’re expected to say Tuesday, this is a sincere, and potentially last, effort to keep baseball in Tampa Bay, albeit on a part-time basis, for, as Sternberg likes to say, “generations to come.’’

In essence, finding a workable solution from two imperfect markets. They will say the reason this was done now, even at the risk of casting a pall over a successful season and alienating what bay area fans they do have, was their urgency to find a solution before being forced to start looking elsewhere for a 2028 home and abandon any hope of staying.

Do they really mean that? Would they truly not be interested in making another run at a new full-time stadium somewhere in Tampa Bay? (Though to talk to Tampa, they would need to negotiate another window with Kriseman, which would be tricky and costly as well.)

As are many locals and observers around the game, Boras is skeptical of the Rays’ commitment to the two-city plan.

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“It’s a very interesting concept to force one city or the other to build a stadium rapidly, which I think is the real idea behind it all,’’ he said.

The permission to explore the possibility doesn’t guarantee that MLB would approve the deal, especially since it gives the Rays control of two markets, with the potential, which they are banking on, for massive revenue streams in Montreal.

Plus, they envision full-season TV and radio deals to carry all the games in both markets (and perhaps also two languages). Also, some residual benefits of developing a significant tourism and business connection between the regions. (Which would need to start with adding direct flights, of which there are none.)

But having heavily subsidized the Rays for years, with revenue-sharing checks reportedly reaching $45 million annually, the other major-league owners might be willing to make that trade-off to cut the Rays off.

For the Rays, the benefits will be explained as multiple, leading with a massive increase in revenue. While there will be ongoing hassles with the split schedule and additional expenses, such as moving some staff annually and duplicating others in both places, the Rays expect that to be offset by significant corporate and fan support in baseball-starved Montreal and also more in Tampa Bay based on projected increased demand for the reduced inventory.

The result would be moving from the bottom of the payroll lists toward the middle, pushing regularly above $100 million.

As this unfolds, there will be ongoing questions and conspiracy theories, beyond the obvious if the Rays are truly serious about the plan. They will insist they are and wouldn’t go through the effort of exploring the Montreal option if they weren’t, when they could instead just say they plan to leave in 2028 and start looking.

Could the potential to build a smaller ballpark in downtown Tampa get Vinik somehow involved in the project?

Is the Montreal plan just a distraction to buy time for Nashville to get positioned as a more legitimate option?

Are Tampa Bay and Montreal fans really going to enjoy sharing the team or will the arrangement lead to antagonistic rhetoric?

Could Sternberg be working a long play to get the Rays situation resolved and be rewarded by MLB with a chance to buy the Mets?

Is Kriseman willing to stand his ground if it means being known as the mayor who lost the team if the Rays aren’t bluffing and are willing to wait, fielding bad teams and an unattractive product, to leave after 2027?

The Dali Museum is an homage to the creativity, open thinking and unusual views of the famed artist. In a way, it will be the proper setting to talk about this plan.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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