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Before going any farther, Tampa Bay has to decide whether it is a Major League market

The Rays are neither wrong, nor unreasonable, about the attendance problems. The question is whether this community is willing to invest more searching for a fix.
SCOTT KEELER   |   Times

Tampa Bay Rays Principal Owner Stuart Sternberg talks to visitors about the Rays splitting their home games with the City of Montreal, Canada during a press conference at the Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Tuesday, June 25, 2019.
SCOTT KEELER | Times Tampa Bay Rays Principal Owner Stuart Sternberg talks to visitors about the Rays splitting their home games with the City of Montreal, Canada during a press conference at the Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Tuesday, June 25, 2019.
Published Jun. 26, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — For 20 years, the attendance numbers have suggested Tampa Bay is a weak baseball market. And now the owner of the Rays has said it too, albeit as politely as he could.

By now, it’s not really a shock. And it shouldn’t even be an insult. It’s just the reality of a region challenged by geography, demographics and economy.

Denying it is not a solution and shouting about it is not a strategy. Instead, it’s time for Tampa Bay to have a grown-up discussion about what it will take to remain a Major League Baseball market.

Related: MORE MONTREAL: Stu-realism on display at the Rays museum exhibition

In other words, what are we willing to do? At this point, we seem to have three basic choices:

1. Embrace owner Stu Sternberg’s plan to build an open-air, boutique-style stadium that would be the Rays’ home for 35-40 games a year before the team leaves for Montreal every summer.

2. Continue working on a plan to build a more elaborate, and expensive, stadium and gamble that Sternberg is not serious when he says it’s “highly unlikely’’ he would keep the team here for a full-time schedule beyond 2027.

3. Accept our fate and acknowledge Tampa Bay has neither the money nor the population to remain a player in the big leagues.

If you prefer Nos. 2 or 3, I will not argue with you. There is merit in both choices. But I will say both of those options will still be viable several years from now.

That leaves the Montreal plan.

Related: MORE MONTREAL: Rays explain details of Montreal plan

As distasteful as it might sound to fans who have given their hearts to this franchise, it doesn’t hurt to approach it with an open mind. At least until hearing the costs involved for taxpayers.

Personally, I don’t think it has a chance. Mostly, because it involves too many hurdles. Not the least of which is getting past a suddenly testy relationship with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

The Rays cannot even begin to discuss this plan in earnest with Montreal without getting permission from Kriseman and the St. Pete City Council. It was Kriseman who lobbied for the council to give the Rays permission in 2015 to talk to Hillsborough County officials about the Ybor City proposal.

But when Kriseman balked at the Montreal plan, the Rays moved ahead with this announcement.

“If it comes to it, and I have to do this with the next mayor, I’ll do it with the next mayor,’’ Sternberg said. “I’m not looking to put a gun to anybody’s head.’’

Kriseman said the Rays have told him it’s not likely they would build a full-time stadium in St. Pete, but they have always left a little wiggle room in the conversation. He said he is willing to hear more about the Montreal plan, but hasn’t been given much detail at this point.

“Stu and I have always been able to work together,’’ Kriseman said. "That has disappointed me about this process. The way they’ve gone about this hasn’t been beneficial to achieving the end result. We’ve always been transparent and honest with each other. So, yes, I’m surprised and disappointed to hear he would say something like that today.’’

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In a philosophical sense, this is one of the problems with the plan.

If it works, it will be a huge victory for the Rays. That’s why they’re so excited.

Yet for Tampa Bay, it will be a consolation prize. And that’s why the mayor is hesitant.

Think of it this way:

The Rays will double their fan base, get two TV contracts, two brand new stadiums, optimum weather in both cities and potentially a new spring training site.

St. Pete, on the other hand, gets a part-time team with a new stadium bill.

And, honestly, that may be the best this community can hope for. Tampa Bay residents have put themselves in this position by not showing up at games, and Tampa Bay businesses provided the final straw by not showing much enthusiasm about the Ybor City proposal.

Related: MORE MONTREAL: Kriseman to Rays - We need a good working relationship

“We’ve had 20 years of operating history and we haven’t been able to crack the code,’’ team president Matt Silverman said. “And after going through three years of exploration in Ybor and getting to understand the public financing climate and understanding the level of business support to expect, it became more of a long shot that that stadium could be a success.

“The last thing we want to do is build a $900 million stadium, or a billon dollar stadium, that doesn’t work for us, doesn’t work for Major League Baseball or doesn’t work for the community.’’

Sternberg said during his press conference that this is not one man’s decision. He’s right about that.

Twenty years after the Rays arrived, it’s time for Tampa Bay to have another conversation about baseball. It’s time to decide whether we still want, or can afford, to be a Major League market.

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