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Tampa has a new mayor and a new opportunity to woo the Rays

John Romano | The Rays may be allowed to talk to Tampa again before the end of the Tropicana Field lease. It’s up to Mayor Jane Castor to convince them a full-time stadium can work in Hillsborough.
She has the jersey, she may soon have St. Pete's permission, now all Mayor Jane Castor needs is a plan to woo the Rays to play in a full-time stadium in downtown Tampa. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
She has the jersey, she may soon have St. Pete's permission, now all Mayor Jane Castor needs is a plan to woo the Rays to play in a full-time stadium in downtown Tampa. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Dec. 13, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays owner is unhappy. The baseball commissioner is disappointed. The St. Petersburg mayor is unmoved.

Strangely enough, this is what opportunity may look like.

The chilling headlines of the past week do not necessarily have to be bad news for Tampa Bay’s stadium pursuit. In fact, the increasing chill between St. Pete and the Rays could turn out to be fortuitous.

Overlooked in the oh-so-polite sniping of recent days was the revelation that the Rays are, once again, free to pursue a stadium in Hillsborough County before the end of their Tropicana Field use agreement in 2027.

If they are talking about a full-time stadium, that is.

Related: Rays’ Stuart Sternberg: Aim is Montreal split plan for 2028

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is willing to give the Rays permission to immediately begin talks with Tampa again, as long as the team drops the idea of the shared season with Montreal.

To put it another way: It’s your turn, Jane Castor.

The Tampa mayor should find a map, a calculator and a quiet, corner booth to have lunch with Rays owner Stu Sternberg. If not today, then maybe Monday. I can call Cooper’s Hawk to set up the reservation, if it helps.

Obviously, it’s not going to happen that quickly. For one thing, the St. Petersburg City Council would still have to approve of Kriseman’s offer to extend the original memorandum of understanding that led to the Ybor City stadium proposal.

For another, the Rays say they are not interested.

Ever since Kriseman rebuffed the team’s request for permission to talk about the sister city plan with Montreal for 2024, the Rays have been adamant that they are not backing off the proposal. If it isn’t plausible in 2024, Sternberg and Rays officials said they would start plotting a course for 2028 after the Tropicana agreement ends.

But that feels more like a posture than a promise.

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

If Tampa can convince Sternberg that the city has a serious plan to woo the team across the bridge, it’s hard to imagine the Rays owner would turn down the opportunity to listen. The key is convincing Sternberg that the city and county can come up with a plan that works.

And that’s where Castor comes in. Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan led the effort for years but was never able to build much momentum among either the corporate or political establishment. Castor has that ability. And the clout.

She can start by calling outgoing Hillsborough County administrator Mike Merrill. Then businessman Chuck Sykes, who has been working behind the scenes for years. Then, perhaps, it might be a good idea to lure Lightning owner Jeff Vinik into the spotlight.

The point is Castor must give the appearance that Tampa’s biggest dealmakers are behind the project.

While the financing plan for the Ybor City stadium proposal looked a little flimsy, the real killer was the lack of corporate interest. The Rays had been told for years that Tampa would support the franchise in ways that St. Pete never has. But when it came time to committing money for sponsorships and naming rights, the response was underwhelming.

Now maybe Tampa simply doesn’t have that kind of money. And maybe Sternberg could have done a better job of personally soliciting businesses. Or maybe the level of desperation to save baseball in Tampa Bay hasn’t come close to peak level yet.

Whatever the reasons, this is a chance for a reboot.

Related: Rays manager Kevin Cash’s winter meetings Q&A

The Rays can say they are still focused on the Montreal plan, but it doesn’t look like it can happen before the 2028 season. And no matter how much Sternberg loves the idea, it’s still got considerable, and maybe insurmountable, hurdles even for 2028.

So why wouldn’t the Rays listen to plans for a full-time stadium in Tampa in the meantime?

Considering the level of support in St. Pete has been near the bottom of MLB franchises for most of the past two decades, it’s understandable if Sternberg is skeptical about another full-time stadium on the Pinellas side of the bay.

But refusing to talk about a stadium in Hillsborough doesn’t make sense. Not with eight years still remaining on the Tropicana lease. And not with Kriseman (and presumably the City Council) extending that courtesy.

For the moment, talks in St. Petersburg appear dead.

It’s now Mayor Castor’s chance.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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