Union prefers Rays stay put but could approve Montreal plan

Tony Clark says “strong preference” is a full-time Tampa Bay stadium, but he adds it’s not impossible the players union could agree to the sharing plan.
Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark, shown here in a 2017 file photo, said getting the players to go along with the Rays' Tampa Bay-Montreal split season plan would “be difficult.’’
Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark, shown here in a 2017 file photo, said getting the players to go along with the Rays' Tampa Bay-Montreal split season plan would “be difficult.’’ [ VRAGOVIC, WILL | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Feb. 23, 2020|Updated Feb. 23, 2020

PORT CHARLOTTE — Baseball’s players union would prefer the Rays find a full time, long-term home in the Tampa Bay area, but under the right terms, it could approve the plan to split future seasons with Montreal, executive director Tony Clark said.

Since the Rays first proposed the radical season-sharing plan in June, and as they have escalated that pitch in recent months, there has been a significant question about the position of the union, which would have to okay such an arrangement.

Addressing the subject for the first time, Clark told the Tampa Bay Times on Saturday night that getting the players to go along — given the logistical, financial and familial issues — would “be difficult.’’

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But, significantly, adding that it’s not out of the question.

“I’m not going to say it’s impossible that we couldn’t come to an agreement that’s acceptable for them to split between Tampa Bay and Montreal,’’ Clark said in a telephone interview.

“But it definitely wouldn’t represent the ideal situation for players or, we think, fans in those cities either.’’

The union would much rather the team and bay area officials find a way for the Rays to stay where they are full time.

“We think it’s unfortunate that the situation in Tampa/St. Pete has come to this, and that ownership and local and state authorities haven’t been able to come to an agreement on a plan to build a ballpark that makes sense from an economic and a geographic standpoint,’’ Clark said.

“It would be our strong preference that the club and the players remain in Tampa Bay, and that they’re identified with playing in one market.’’

Rays officials, though, have said repeatedly that they exhausted that possibility when pursuing a stadium in Ybor City and no longer believe the area can support a team full time. They are pitching the Montreal plan as the only way to keep a major-league team in the area, albeit on a part-time basis.

The Rays and Montreal officials are working aggressively this year to line up many details of the plan, which requires building new open-air stadiums in both markets to facilitate a midseason move and to get approval from major-league owners and the union, with a start date of 2028.

Clark said the union was told informally about the plan when it was first announced, but it has not been given any specifics since.

In time, the union will have questions about “a number” of concerns.

“The logistics would be complicated in not just one but two homes,’’ Clark said.

“Whether it’s the in-season training and the facilities, whether it’s uprooting their families, which are already challenging as a result of what our schedule often looks like. The younger families having to address schooling and being in two places. All of those things, they don’t sound like much, but they’re often a whole lot easier to navigate when you’re in one particular place.’’

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Commissioner Rob Manfred told the Times earlier this month that he didn’t consider the union’s issues “insurmountable,’’ and Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said last week that he thought any concerns could be assuaged as the Rays know they would have to compensate players financially for the hardships.

But they also believe the players would come around to embrace the plan for several reasons, including that the additional revenues would allow the team to increase payroll.

Related: The Rays’ latest move: Bidets in the clubhouse

Clark said the logistical issues would still remain. He noted that the players agreed to a plan for Montreal’s former team, the Expos, to play part of the 2003 and 2004 seasons in Puerto Rico, but that working out a deal “would be far more complicated” now.

With negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement coming up, and the potential for Major League Baseball to consider expansion once the Rays and Oakland A’s stadium situations are resolved, Clark said the union will be waiting to hear more.

“It will be interesting to see what all will be a part of the discussion when it is we are formally approached,’’ he said. “I don’t know that there any guidelines outside of past precedent on some level that we would be working from. I would have to assume that anything and everything would be on the table.’’

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.