CLEVELAND — MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said the Rays’ plan to play parts of future seasons in Montreal is as “an attempt to preserve” baseball in the Tampa Bay area.
But he stopped short, for now, at least, of saying it was the last and only chance for the team to stay, which top Rays officials have suggested.
“Right now I’m focused on the idea that this split-season idea that the Rays came up with is an opportunity to preserve baseball in Tampa Bay,’’ Manfred said before Tuesday’s All-Star Game. “And I’m not prepared to say one way or the other what’s going to happen if and when that effort turns out to be unsuccessful.’’
That doesn’t mean if it fails that the Rays would turn back to seeking a full-time stadium in the Tampa Bay area. (Or, as skeptics, suggest, that the plan was merely a ploy to spur those talks all along.) But it was a notably softer stand than the Rays took in their June 24 public pitch.
Principal owner Stuart Sternberg said then it was “highly unlikely” they would try again to get a new permanent home in the area, and team president Brian Auld called the Tampa Bay market “uniquely ill-suited” to support a team full time.
The plan, premised on new open air stadiums being built in both markets and aimed for a 2024 start, faces significant hurdles for approval on multiple fronts.
That starts with the city of St. Petersburg, given a lease agreement that requires the team to play all home games at Tropicana Field through 2027. Also, whatever governmental entities are funding and backing the new stadiums in both markets.
Plus the players union, which has some significant concerns about the impact on its members and their families, as well as the game’s economics.
And the other owners, who would have to agree to allow the Rays to control two markets, and also to give up Montreal as a site for future expansion, though that process won’t start until the Rays and A’s stadium situations are resolved.
Manfred indicated Tuesday they were okay with both issues, which may not play well to those in Montreal preferring they wait for a full-time team.
Union chief Tony Clark, who, like Manfred, met Tuesday with members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, said it would take “a lot of time and a lot of dialogue to figure out if it’s even a possibility” for the plan to work.
Also, as expected, they plan to have a major say in those talks.
“You have players and their families that are going to be uprooted in-season, that are going to find themselves in a different town, with exchange rates, with different costs … ’’ Clark told the Tampa Bay Times. “And yet still asking them to perform the way they have been, which is extraordinary.
“There are just a lot of moving pieces. Not to mention some that it would probably be beneficial to talk to the league about, which is what does that do to the revenue-sharing system. What does that do to industry economics?’’
Ultimately, he said the union goal is for the franchise to be in the best position to be successful, “whether that’s in Tampa or that’s in St. Pete or whether that’s in Montreal.’’
Manfred said it was too early in the exploration process “to make a judgment how likely it is to be successful.’’
But he provided a sense of why if the Rays can make all the details work, and show how it will make them a stronger franchise (and, thus, decrease their need for the $45 million plus they get annually in revenue sharing), that the owners would allow it.
“To address what has been an ongoing issue, I think the owners are prepared to live with the idea that they would operate in two markets,’’ Manfred said. “It’s kind of in the free lunch category. There is no such thing as a free lunch. We have an issue in Tampa, it needs to get resolved somehow. If it means we give up a potential expansion site to solidify where we are, so be it.’’
The Rays came to MLB with the plan last month, and got the go-ahead to explore the viability, though they need permission from St. Petersburg to delve into details and some of the logistics.
“The approval from the June owners meeting was reflective that Stu has worked really hard over a long period of time on the Tampa side and the St. Pete side to try to get something done from a stadium perspective,’’ Manfred said. “It was sold to the owners, to the executive council as a way to preserve baseball in Tampa (Bay). That’s how people saw it.’’
Manfred said there has been no discussion of moving the Rays out of the Tampa Bay market, which is the 11th largest TV market in the U.S. He noted baseball’s “long-standing policy of franchise stability.’’
Manfred has repeatedly said in the past the market can support a team with a new stadium in a different location. Asked about Auld’s “ill-suited” comment, Manfred said, “That’s a temporal judgment, right? At a point in time, is it ill-suited?’’ Asked how serious he thought Sternberg was about the plan, Manfred told the Times, “I think he’s trying to make it work.’’
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.