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Tell me, have the Rays changed your mind about this Montreal deal?

John Romano | Rays executives have been methodically, and effectively, making the case that the shared city plan is Tampa Bay’s only hope for baseball in the future.
Finishing at, or near, the bottom of MLB in attendance isn't even the biggest problem for the Rays. It's the huge gap between where the Rays are in attendance compared to the average team. Tampa Bay is roughly 92 percent below just an average MLB crowd. [Times files (2017)]

ST. PETERSBURG — A funny thing happened to Rays president Brian Auld at a Suncoast Tiger Bay Club luncheon on Thursday. He drew applause. Loud, sincere, enthusiastic applause.

Not that he doesn’t deserve it. Good guy, Stanford-educated, community-minded, and all of that. But the Rays are selling what once seemed like a wildly unpopular idea around here when it came to the sister city plan with Montreal.

So it was notable that the notoriously cynical Tiger Bay crowd seemed receptive to Auld’s campaign pitch. And make no mistake, this is a campaign.

From a Fan Fest appearance to owner Stu Sternberg’s state-of-the-team address in Port Charlotte to various civic meetings, the Rays are methodically pushing the idea that the split season plan is likely an all-or-nothing proposition.

That’s not exactly a new stance. Sternberg pretty much presented it that way when the concept was first broached last summer. But it feels like the rhetoric gets turned up just a little bit each time you hear it. Almost as if the Rays are slowly cementing the idea that if the Montreal plan doesn’t work, there may not be Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay in 2028.

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“When you look at the demographics of the region, the distances that separate our many wonderful cities, when you ask the hard questions, we have concluded that it is extremely unlikely that full season baseball can succeed in Tampa Bay,’’ Auld said. “We’re not missing by a few thousand people every night. We are at less than half of where we need to be, despite extraordinary on-field success.’’

Give the Rays credit. They may have bungled the initial rollout in June, but they have recovered nicely. They have refined their pitch. They sound like my doctor suggesting exciting, new lifestyle changes after I got off the scale in her office. It is criticism cloaked in flattery.

Auld ticked off a list of medium-sized cities that the Tampa and St. Petersburg chambers of commerce consider similarly situated, and he noted that none of them have MLB teams.

“Major League Baseball requires the very biggest cities with the densest … most populous communities, which is fine.’’ Auld said. “But it’s not who we are. It’s not even who we want to be. Tampa Bay is an entrepreneurial community, we’re not dominated by Fortune 500 companies. We’re a variety of beautiful, vibrant, colorful communities.’’

In other words, we’ve had 22 years to prove we are big league and we’ve failed. And there is enough truth in that criticism that it needs to be taken seriously.

From the very beginning I’ve thought the Montreal plan had too many obstacles to succeed but the Rays have methodically worked their way through some of those barriers.

They have Major League Baseball’s backing, they have the mayor of Tampa interested and they may eventually be able to woo the Players Association with the idea that solving Tampa Bay’s attendance problem is necessary before the next round of expansion and, thus, 52 new jobs for big league players.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman remains cool to the idea so, for now, the Rays are only talking about 2028 when their use agreement at Tropicana Field is finished. But it was interesting that Auld said the Montreal plan needs to be cemented by January of 2022, or else they’ll have to start considering other options (i.e. other locations) for 2028. Perhaps not coincidentally, the term-limited Kriseman will leave office that month.

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And then there is the future of the Tropicana Field land to consider. The Rays are entitled to 50 percent of the revenues of any redevelopment on that property through the end of the use agreement.

So imagine if the Rays actually get Montreal and Tampa to agree to new boutique stadiums and a shared city plan for 2028. Do you suppose they might then approach St. Pete about leaving the Trop site early, say 2025, so they can start over in their new stadiums and the city can get a head-start on redevelopment?

A lot has to happen before then. And that includes finding enough public money in Tampa and Hillsborough County to build a less expensive, open-air stadium. And those odds are probably still not in their favor.

But the Rays are working at it. They’re making their arguments.

And they seem to be changing some minds.

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

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