Rays’ Stuart Sternberg: Maybe this season can be even more special

The team's principal owner says wins and smiles may help offset coronavirus losses. And yes, he's still all in on a split season with Montreal.
Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg looks on from the back of the batting cage during the Rays' first spring training, Feb. 18 at Charlotte Sports Park.
Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg looks on from the back of the batting cage during the Rays' first spring training, Feb. 18 at Charlotte Sports Park. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jul. 9, 2020|Updated Jul. 9, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Principal owner Stuart Sternberg can see some consolation despite the overall impact of the coronavirus pandemic: His Rays still competing for a championship as they were built to do this year, fans in limited numbers cheering them on in September at Tropicana Field, and the nightly drama of the abbreviated season bringing solace, joy and excitement to people whose lives have been significantly disrupted.

But there is obviously plenty of bad, the “dramatic” financial impact on the franchise — on the field and off — extending at least through next season and maybe more, the lost opportunity for baseball to be more of a salve due to the extended acrimonious negotiations with the players, and the potential for the spread of the virus to shut down the season, possibly before it starts, adding to the nation’s disappointment.

And there is also this: A slight delay hasn’t changed their plans to aggressively pursue splitting future seasons in Montreal, nor changed their mind about reconsidering finding a full-time home in the Tampa Bay area.

“At this point I’m not entertaining that at all,” he said.

Related: The Rays as a TV-only production? Hmm, haven’t we heard that plan before?

In a 40-minute conversation with the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday, from his New York home, Sternberg touched on a series of pandemic-related topics:

• The Rays had sketched out plans to have a limited number of fans, probably no more than 2,000, at games as soon as the first week in August, but the spike in cases throughout Florida has pushed that back at least several weeks. “It’s probably prudent to think sometime toward the end of August would be the earliest we could have fans, but I don’t really know,” he said. “It’s a week-to-week sort of judgement.”

• Given a stadium capacity of around 30,000 by opening the upper deck, the Rays could fit in more fans under social distancing guidelines, but Sternberg said they are more likely to start with the smaller number in the lower deck. That’s because there is a financial calculus based on the increased expense to prepare and maintain additional spaces in the stadium. An increase could be made for a September pennant race or playoff games.

• Though the spike in cases has made the Tampa Bay area something of a hot spot amid Florida’s overall virus issues, Sternberg said there has been no planning or even discussion about the Rays having to relocate their games.

“We have not considered an alternate site and I would not anticipate doing so,” he said, though acknowledged “if things completely disintegrated” locally Major League Baseball could force them into action.

Related: Baseball hasn’t even started, and it’s already looking shaky

• Fully respectful of the toll the virus has taken on others, Sternberg said when asked it was “unfortunate” to have impacted this season of grand expectation, as the Rays constructed their team to build on last year’s success in reaching the playoffs and re-engaging fans.

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“We had circled this year among others to be a special time, just like people had college graduations and weddings and other special times planned,” he said. “This is just another one that’s chalked up. This didn’t come out of the blue for us — we had been lining up last year, this year, next year, the year after to be a time for us to really bang the drum here and make a difference and have some significant success. But that’s sort of the M.O. in what’s going on in the whole country right now, so many families have seen celebrations muted and things they were looking forward to have happen, and were forced to do in other ways.

“As we’ve seen with a couple of our celebrations and things, they become a little bit more special in some respects. Financially it’s going to be quite difficult, we’re not going to get any lift from anything. But I’d like to think if we play this season and if we have success like we thought we would, maybe it finds its way to be even more special.”

• The financial toll can’t yet be measured, but will carry into at least the 2021 season and though their usual “lean” practices will soften it a bit there will be impact on payroll, staffing and how they do business, with planning for next season starting tentatively with Thursday’s release of next year’s schedule.

“It’s difficult,” he said. “It’s really difficult. It would be easier to swallow if I felt it was going to be a one-off, a one-year situation. But we’re preparing that there is a likelihood, even if there is a vaccine that there is going to be some fall-off in the ensuing years for a lot of reasons.

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“People’s pocketbooks have been hurt, businesses’ pocketbooks have been hurt dramatically, people’s abilities and desires to go into large crowds and buy food at large events, even if there is a therapeutic, human nature is going to change for a while. Even the best case, next year will be impacted pretty significantly.”

• The pandemic slowed but didn’t halt their work on pursuing the Montreal plan, which calls for new open-air stadiums to be built in both markets and the team to split seasons starting in 2028, if not sooner.

Sternberg said his staff and the group in Canada have remained in contact and are making progress, and with the other related entities. Sternberg acknowledged they had started talks with Tampa officials about a new part-time stadium, but understand there are many more pressing issues before they will be resumed.

Sternberg said the pandemic did nothing to dull his interest in the season-splitting plan. “Just the opposite, as it’s become more important not to be reliant on one place and one market,” he said. Also, that the abbreviated season will provide a bit of test case in assessing fan interest in a limited number of games and by TV watching/radio listening the only options. “I still think people will gravitate to and support the team, especially if we’re doing well on the field,” he said.

Related: 2020 schedule presents Rays with some serious challenges

• Sternberg said there were aspects of the negotiations with the players that were “disappointing,” such as union officials questioning the owners’ desire to stage a season. Also, that there was “a clear understanding” from what he was told that the players would discuss a further reduction in pay if games were played with no fans.

He acknowledged the tenor the talks may have alienated fans, but hopes they see the good in having the game back on the field. “The real shame is we could have made a positive out of it,” he said. “It’s more the lost opportunity than the damage.”

While it’s possible a surge in virus cases and player concerns and opt-outs could cancel the season at any point — even before it starts — Sternberg said he is convinced even with the massive undertaking required that it is worth trying to plan, and that even the first few days of training have provided a boost with baseball again being talked about.

“The overall unanimous thought, and I agree with it, is that it has the opportunity to be something that’s really soothing and provides a lot for the country and the communities,” he said. “It could be that it’s even better than that, it could be that it could fall short of that.

“I think the expectation is that if the season does get played, and if we’re playing baseball on Labor Day, people are going to be really excited about it, and it’s going to bring a smile to people’s faces. I think that’s what the game is supposed to do.”