ST. PETERSBURG — Where the Rays eventually are going seems as uncertain as ever.
What appeared the best hope for a new permanent home in Tampa Bay blew up last December when the Rays announced that they were abandoning plans to build a stadium in Ybor City.
A year later, their push for a radical way of keeping baseball local by playing half the home games in Montreal, starting as soon as 2024, was shut down when St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he wouldn’t allow them to leave before the 2027 end of their lease agreement at the Trop.
So now we wait.
Principal owner Stuart Sternberg said the Rays are still interested in the season-sharing plan, so they could keep pursuing it for 2028 and, who knows, maybe come back to Kriseman to re-open talks or wait him out. Montreal, and the other half-dozen communities seeking a team, could aggressively try to lure the Rays for a 2028 move. And, just maybe, Tampa Bay area business, political and community leaders, could engage the Rays in talks for a new full-time home — even though the Rays have deemed it “highly unlikely” they would stay.
Team presidents Brian Auld and Matt Silverman had an hour-plus talk with the Tampa Bay Times the day before Kriseman’s announcement, the timing of which was unexpected. They provided a sense of the thinking that will direct the Rays’ future and what has shaped their past. Here are excerpts, edited slightly for brevity and clarity:
On pitching the Montreal plan
Knowing Kriseman was not a fan of the Montreal plan, Rays officials had been working other angles to build support, meeting with “dozens" of Pinellas and Hillsborough political, business and tourism officials, with more talks planned.
Times: The rollout here wasn’t particularly well-received by the general public. How do you try to change that narrative? Stu’s comments were that this was a way to save baseball; I think it’s a fair generalization that a lot of people here thought, ‘No, it’s not. It’s a way to lose baseball.’
Auld: “When we’ve had the time to get in front of someone and spend the 15 to 30 minutes that it takes to fully consider all this concept involves, there’s been near universal support for fully exploring it and seeing what it would mean for the community and for the team. …
“Not everybody is jumping in with both feet. But just about everyone sees that there’s a lot of merit to it, that there are a lot of positives to the idea and appreciate that we are coming from a place of trying to preserve baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come."
Times: If you could, talk to the husband and wife who watch 150 games a year on TV and try to make it to a half-dozen games at the Trop. How do you make them like this idea of sharing the team?
Auld: “Thank you for your support. We sincerely appreciate it. And you’re one of the primary reasons that we’re going through the trouble of trying to explore the sister city concept and rebuffing the idea that we should just move to another city altogether. I certainly hope that given some time to adjust to this idea, you’re able to recognize that you will continue to be able to watch 150 games on TV, you’ll get to continue to have a Major League Baseball team headquartered in your home market. On top of all that, like the vast majority of our fans who come to fewer than three games — one or two is the majority of people — you’ll be able to come to the same amount of games you have gone to before, only you’ll be at a beautiful outdoor park during the nicest time of the year. On top of all that, we expect to be able to put a more competitive team on the field through a higher payroll, and so you should have an even more enjoyable product to watch. ..."
"We've heard over the years that the biggest criticism is baseball doesn't belong in a dome. There's too many games. In the summer here, there's a lot of folks who leave town. There's other things going on and it's just not something people want to do.
“Well, we’re focusing the games the time of the year that is most suitable for baseball. We’re taking the roof off the place. The fact that there’s cost savings associated with the construction is just an added bonus. The fact that we believe there could be a significant tourism impact, and arts and cultural and business connections between these two great markets is all gravy."
Times: In any of these conversations, has anyone said, ‘We can still work this out, you can stay here and we can get a full-time stadium, don’t do the Montreal thing’?
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Auld: “I think there are a lot of fans and local officials who would very much like to see the team stay here for a full season. When you are able to sit down with us and go through our team’s history, the fact that we won the fifth most games in MLB (since 2008) and remained last in the American League in attendance just about every year. And the fact that this past season as we were making a playoff run in September, we had some record lows in attendance. The fact that we went out with full earnestness with a three-year plan in Ybor City and failed to make significant progress. By the end of that conversation, we get some nodding heads that think, ‘Wow, not only could this maybe be the only way, but this might be a really great way to have a flourishing franchise in the area.’"
On the Trop site, and other options
The Tropicana Field site is a key, and somewhat divisive, factor. Kriseman touts it as their best option for a new full-season stadium, but the Rays say they aren’t interested due to the history of attendance problems many have tied to location. The Rays did say they would consider it for an outdoor stadium in the season-sharing plan, but Kriseman says that’s a no-go for any public money.
Times: The Trop site could stay in play as the open-air stadium in your grand vision?
Auld: “When we were looking for a full season (stadium), the perfect pinpoint site was crucial. And we thought that Ybor City was correct. It’s about half as important now. And because of that we’re going to be drawing fans to what we think is going to be an incredible outdoor ballpark during the nicest time of the year, and for fewer games, we believe that the geographic hurdles become a little less significant. So you can consider any number of sites. Our goal has always been to participate in that discussion with whatever municipality most feels that they can unlock the value of baseball, and to consider whatever location is going to work best for all of us. Whether that’s at Al Lang or the Trop site, or Ybor City, or somewhere in West Shore, or out at the (state) Fairgrounds. All, I think, would be important to think about and to re-think about vs. the last time we went at this."
Times: In a perfect world, would Al Lang Stadium (on the downtown waterfront) or Albert Whitted (an adjacent small airport) change the equation for a full-time stadium in St. Pete?
Silverman: “In a perfect world, we draw 2½ half million people here at Tropicana Field next year and we raise the World Series banner. Beyond that there is no perfect world."
Times: You’d drop the Montreal plan if you drew 2½ million next year?
Silverman: “We have been last in the league in attendance for a decade. If our attendance jumped to 2 ½ million fans (from 1,178,735 in 2019), it would change the way that we view Tampa Bay and, more specifically, St. Petersburg. And we’d love for that to happen."
Times: Has your opinion of this market evolved over the last 10 years where you were super excited about (building a stadium at) Al Lang in 2007 and now don’t believe this is a viable 162-game market?
Auld: “We love living in Tampa Bay — I can speak for Matt and myself — more than we ever thought we would. We’re so happy raising our families here and we love seeing it develop into a truly special region and marketplace. I think we underestimated the challenges of the bridges. I think we underestimated, with respect to baseball, how St. Pete, Tampa, Sarasota, Lakeland and Clearwater behave differently than as if we were just one city like Atlanta. I think those things make it particularly difficult to draw tens of thousands of people to one location within the region night after night after night, which is what baseball has to do. So, yes, when we were putting together our plans for the ballpark at Al Lang and then we went on a World Series run, we absolutely thought that attendance was going to jump a lot more than it did."
On development, and re-development
With new apartments and condos going up all over downtown, and restaurants, stores, bars and, most importantly, people following, Kriseman isn’t the only one who would suggest the current and future area are a lot different. But that won’t necessarily make a difference for the Rays, as they say they need support from the entire region, and the challenges of geography and the lack of mass transit are still significant issues.
Times: So all the new development in downtown St. Pete doesn’t really change the calculus for you guys in terms of thinking that it could work full time?
Auld: “We love downtown St. Pete and think the development's been fantastic. We need 10,000 plus more people to come every night. So everybody who moves into downtown comes to every single game. We're still a bit short. ...
“I say that just to talk about the enormity of baseball. You know, baseball is not in cities like Jacksonville and Green Bay; baseball’s in the biggest cities with the most dense and highly-populated communities. I don’t even believe that St. Petersburg aspires to be that. Nor do I think it should. And so while the development’s fantastic, and I think it’s great for our community, it’s not changing the fundamental economics around the ball club."
Times: Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has become sort of this major player in downtown Tampa by getting involved in the redevelopment around the arena. Stu has said in the past he is not a developer and has not been interested. Why isn’t that part of the conversation here?
Silverman: “The baseball park, wherever it goes, can be a catalyst for development and economic activity. And we’d be interested in finding ways to utilize that to finance the ballpark."
Times: But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re part of the development. Do you want to partner with other people in terms of building around the stadium?
Auld: “Baseball, in our opinion, even with a sister city concept, particularly if you layer on what could be a Rowdies season, as well as spring training, and again, full programming, has the ability to draw people to a site and serve as an economic catalyst in a way that I think is unique to baseball.
“That can unlock a lot of value. Whether we are the owners of that value, and we take some of that value unlocked and put it into the team ourselves, or developers, who are part of it, or the municipalities that are a part of it, recognize that value and use it to help fund the building of a ballpark is sort of just a way to shift finances around. We want to focus on running the baseball team. If there’s strategic value to us being involved in development, we’ve always been open to considering that idea."
So, now what?
Team officials said they won’t break the agreement and leave the Trop ahead of the 2027 end of the term, though it’s not impossible they could seek to re-open negotiations with Kriseman to do so. Or there could be more dramatic action?
Times: Would Stu get frustrated and just sell the team instead of going through with all this?
Silverman: “We don’t want to think about the possibilities if we can’t figure out a way to get this sister city thing done.”
Times: So I assume that would be the same answer as to whether Stu would move the franchise in 2028?
Auld: “We are laser focused on making this happen. And we really haven’t asked Stu what the alternatives are. We don’t talk about leaving town. We don’t talk about selling. We all love our jobs. We love this team. We love baseball. We want to figure out a way to keep doing it."