Get ready in Portland and Nashville; the Rays are free agents in 2028

John Romano | Mayor Rick Kriseman’s decision to dismiss the shared city plan with Montreal means the Rays probably won’t get a stadium deal until their lease runs out in St. Pete in 2028.
It would help if regular season crowds were as large and enthusiastic as the American League Division Series against Houston last month. As it is, the Rays have been at the bottom of the American League in attendance for much of the past decade despite one of the highest win totals in baseball.
It would help if regular season crowds were as large and enthusiastic as the American League Division Series against Houston last month. As it is, the Rays have been at the bottom of the American League in attendance for much of the past decade despite one of the highest win totals in baseball. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Dec. 5, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — This is gunslinger stuff. A mayor challenging a baseball owner to a high noon showdown in 2028.

The only problem is this mayor won’t be around in 2028. And there is now a real chance neither the owner nor his baseball team will be here either.

The news that St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is now done talking to the Rays about an unusual — and highly unlikely — shared-team plan with Montreal was not entirely unexpected. But that doesn’t mean it was the most sensible path forward, either.

If you cut through all the details and nuances, two important points were clarified on Wednesday:

The mayor ensured the Rays will not be leaving for Montreal before 2028.

But he also increased the odds they might leave altogether when 2028 arrives.

“There certainly is that risk,’’ Kriseman said. “I’m not in control of the team. So unless I was in control, that would be the only way I could prevent them (from leaving).’’

For their part, the Rays say they will continue pursuing the sister city plan with Montreal. But instead of trying to make it work by 2024 or 2025, they will now turn their focus to 2028 when their use agreement at Tropicana Field runs out.

In that sense, the Rays took the news magnanimously.

They did not complain that the mayor’s message was delivered via voice mail. They did not even voice previously veiled threats about other cities lurking in the shadows.

Instead, they politely clarified a couple of issues in the mayor’s statement.

And left unsaid was the mayor’s clear challenge that the Rays should shop themselves around to Portland, Nashville, Charlotte, Las Vegas and elsewhere if they think they can get a better deal than in St. Petersburg in 2028.

The strategy is risky. It might also be reckless.

Kriseman seems to be banking on the idea that St. Pete is continuing to grow, the Tampa Bay television market is larger and more lucrative than other available sites, and the redevelopment possibilities around Tropicana Field could be lucrative for the team and the city, too.

All are valid points.

And so is the idea that Major League Baseball owners, despite what they say, might not be eager for the Rays to move to Portland or Nashville because they stand to split as much as $3 billion in fees if they put expansion teams in those cities.

“We have folks tell us they think the Tropicana Field site, from a development standpoint, is one of the biggest opportunities of anywhere in the entire country. And the Rays have an opportunity to be a part of that,’’ Kriseman said. “So how do you leave the 11th largest television market with a viewership that is one of the strongest of any Major League Baseball team, and the opportunities of what’s happening in the city and what will happen going forward? To me, that would be hard to leave.’’

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The counterbalance to that argument is the Rays have had historically low attendance. Even factoring in the region’s smaller size and the relative newness of the franchise, no big league team has ever lagged so far behind the competition in the bleachers while winning so much on the field.

So the question now is what are their options?

1. They could try to break the use agreement at Tropicana Field and leave early, but presidents Matt Silverman and Brian Auld told the Times on Tuesday that was not on the table. Kriseman also said he did not think that would happen, but suggested the Rays may ask for a negotiated termination of the use agreement.

2. The Rays could pursue the shared team plan with Montreal for 2028. While Kriseman is emphatic St. Pete will not spend hundreds of millions for a stadium for a part-time team, a new mayor might be more amenable and the Rays could also discuss the plan with Hillsborough County for 2028.

3. The Rays sell themselves to the city offering the best deal for a fulltime stadium in 2028, including Tampa and St. Pete. Considering how long it takes to get a stadium financed and built, the Rays could seriously begin this process in 2022 or 2023 with the idea of being ready to play on Opening Day 2028.

From the time they announced it, I never thought the Montreal plan was feasible. But I’m not sure drawing a line in the sand in 2019 is the best way to move forward.

The Rays have repeatedly said they are “highly unlikely’’ to remain in Tampa Bay when their agreement at Tropicana Field runs out after the 2027 season.

So Kriseman, in essence, is calling their bluff.

And it’s true, the Rays have been playing hardball for quite some time. Team officials embarrassed Tampa and Hillsborough County by killing the Ybor City proposal a month before the deadline last December, and they did it during baseball’s annual winter meetings in Las Vegas in front of a national media contingent.

They also blew off Kriseman when he balked at the Montreal plan when it was first presented to him in private, and they later portrayed it as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition in the Dali Museum press conference.

In that way, Kriseman got his revenge on Wednesday. He also signaled that his administration can play hardball too.

The concern is that, come 2028, the team gets the final at-bat.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.