Rob Manfred says Rays-Montreal plan still possible, not pleased with latest delay

MLB commissioner said it’s better for all to find a way to improve team revenues.
Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the Major League Baseball winter meetings Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, in San Diego.
Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the Major League Baseball winter meetings Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, in San Diego. [ GREGORY BULL | AP ]
Published Dec. 11, 2019|Updated Dec. 12, 2019

SAN DIEGO — MLB commissioner Rob Manfred had a few things to say Wednesday about the latest developments in the Rays stadium search and their focus on a season-sharing plan with Montreal.

He would much rather the team’s long-term future be resolved sooner than the current 2022-23 timeline. Doesn’t expect the Rays to try to break the use agreement at the Trop that runs through the 2027 season. Acknowledged the Montreal plan contains some “complicated issues” that require negotiations with the players union. And insisted something has to change.

“Over the long haul, it’s in everybody’s interest to get behind a solution that improves the economics of that franchise,’’ he told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday.

And there was one thing Manfred wouldn’t say.

Asked about Sternberg’s characterization on Tuesday of the chances to find a full-time home in the Tampa Bay market as less than “highly unlikely,’’ Manfred declined to address it.

“I’m a ‘no comment’ on that topic,’’ he said. “I just don’t want to comment.’’

That could be because Manfred typically defers to owners in their assessment of local markets. Or it could be that Manfred didn’t want to contradict previous comments he made about the viability of the Tampa Bay market.

But while Sternberg, based on what he told the Times on Tuesday and had said previously, seems willing to abandon the St. Petersburg and Tampa markets, maybe MLB is not be ready to do the same.

As Manfred said during a media conference later Wednesday when asked about Oakland’s also-unresolved stadium situation, “I think one of the things that baseball has done well over decades is maintain its commitment to its current cities.’’

(Plus, knowing that under any scenario the Rays have to play eight more seasons at the Trop, it would not necessarily be sound business sense to disrespect the market.)

With St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman announcing last week that he would not allow the Rays to get out of the lease agreement to implement the Montreal sharing plan in 2024 or 2025 as they hoped if all details could be worked out, MLB also has to accept that the uncertainty over the franchise might hover over the team, which could delay progress on other issues such as realignment and expansion, for years.

“I hate to say it, but I think the answer to that is yes,’’ Manfred said. “Obviously it would be our desire to have it resolved sooner than later, but we’ve always, and always have been, respectful of lease commitments. And I can’t change that reality. It either has to change by an agreement with the city, or that’s the timeline.’’

Though disappointed with the mayor’s decision, Sternberg told the Times he had no plans to force an early exit by breaking or trying to buy out the lease.

Manfred said that was his understanding as well, and he noted that it made sense given Sternberg’s focus on implementing the Montreal plan, which includes getting a new open-air stadium built to host half a season’s games in either Tampa or St. Petersburg (for which Kriseman said no public money will be used.)

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“My understanding from Stu is that he does not intend to try to break the lease,’’ Manfred said. “I think that really just complicates matters, particularly when his plan is to do something staying in (the Tampa Bay area). Those two things are not exactly congruent.’’

When the Rays asked and MLB owners in June gave them permission to explore the radical season-sharing plan, a number of potentially significant issues were raised. Most glaring was the impact on players, who would have to deal with the logistical, financial and familial impact of a midseason move to Canada, which would require maintaining a second residence.

Sternberg said the Rays realize they would likely need to provide the players stipends and are open to other creative solutions, such as building (or buying) an apartment building for player and staff use.

While acknowledging the hurdles, Manfred said the plan could still be viable. “I think that we would not have given him permission if we did not think that it was a possibility,’’ he said. “I think there are complicated issues. We’d have to obviously bargain with the union about some of those issues.’’

Rays officials remain aggressive in pushing the plan. Team president Matt Silverman was on MLB Network and SiriusXM radio Wednesday touting the benefits, saying it was their focus and, “We think the way to prop this franchise up, make it sustainable and get it from the bottom of the revenues to somewhere closer to the middle.’’

The Rays maintain the sharing plan is the best and perhaps only way to keep baseball in Tampa Bay, albeit on a part-time basis, and feel the more they explain it, others around the game will see what Sternberg said is the “brilliance” of it.

Maybe not everyone.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.