ST. PETERSBURG — Looking back, principal owner Stuart Sternberg is immensely proud of how his Rays navigated the 2020 hurdles to reach the World Series, and still stung by their loss to the Dodgers.
Looking ahead, Sternberg has plenty of pressing challenges to deal with.
Short term, planning for myriad uncertainties of a 2021 season, including if and when fans will be allowed at Tropicana Field, and dealing with the extensive financial impact of the pandemic.
Longer term, working diligently on the Rays’ controversial plan to split seasons between Tampa Bay and Montreal starting in 2028 that Sternberg considers “the only option” they have, with no thoughts of selling the team.
With no winter meetings to attend, Sternberg shared his thoughts on those topics and others Tuesday with the Tampa Bay Times:
The ‘stunning’ 2020 success
For the Rays to get to the World Series, especially winning a five-game series over the Yankees and a seven-game set against the Astros given the higher-payrolled talent they have “was an almost insurmountable task,’” Sternberg said. “Really, nothing short of stunning.”
Taking the star-studded Dodgers to a sixth game was another impressive accomplishment, he said, noting the “pretty stark” differences in lineups. “It’s hard to find too many of (the Rays) who would be starters on any of those teams,” he said. “It’s not like we’ve got this group of Hall-of-Famers and All-Stars.”
Comparing the Rays’ run to the Series to a Grucci fireworks show, Sternberg said it felt like it ended “with a whimper’' in the 3-1 Game 6 loss. Similar, in some ways, to their previous World Series appearance in 2008, a five-game defeat by the Phillies. “You just sort of wandered out,” he said.
Sternberg said he understood Kevin Cash’s controversial decision to take starter Blake Snell out of the game with a 1-0 lead, one on and one out on the sixth, even though the Dodgers scored two runs after reliever Nick Anderson took over.
“I got it,” Sternberg said. “I have no issue with it. It’s hard to try to manage or plan to win a game 1-0. If we had a 3-0 lead or we had confidence we were going to get three runs, we would have approached it differently that inning. But we didn’t. And we weren’t.”
Fans and other 2021 plans
Like many others, Sternberg expected more clarity by now about next season, such as whether teams will play a full 162-game schedule and if spring training camps will open as planned in mid-February and the season on April 1. But those details and others remain fluid due to coronavirus concerns and distribution of the vaccine over the next few months, a period he calls “the storm before the calm,” with the chance “get some normalcy back into everyday life.”
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Sternberg is not sure if or how many fans will be allowed for the Rays’ scheduled April 9 home opener vs. the Yankees but feels “pretty confident that come the summer we’re going to be able to have in as many fans as would like to be at our ballpark.”
He noted — ”tongue in cheek, but it’s the truth” — the Rays likely could do so with social-distancing restrictions in place, though they would be happy to adjust if demand increases: “Most of our games are attended by less than 10,000 people, so we could probably for the most part run a normal stadium operation.”
With no fans buying tickets and concessions, no revenue-sharing check from Major League Baseball and additional expenses through the postseason, Sternberg said the Rays took a massive financial hit, though he declined to specify how much.
“A number I wouldn’t have imagined to lose in a baseball season,” he said — more than if there had been a work stoppage and they didn’t play at all.
Worse, the impact will be felt not just in 2021 (with the team payroll expected to go down), but over several seasons.
“I think it’s going to be three to five years to where we’re able to sort of get a clear understanding of the new normal,” he said, citing local and league-wide revenues, ticket sales to fans and businesses, sponsorships and other data points.
Internally, Sternberg said the Rays operate as “a family business” and “employee-first organization,” and through a combination of early furloughs (when government assistance was available) and “significant” pay cuts among higher-salaried employees, were able to avoid the hefty staff cuts other teams made.
“I think we’ve been very judicious, and we’ve been very soft and easygoing as far as any layoffs were concerned,” he said, with plans to bring back game-related staff when Tropicana Field is again open to fans.
Oh, Canada …
Sternberg said the plan to split future seasons in new open-air stadiums in Montreal and either St. Petersburg or Tampa remains the Rays’ primary focus — “the only option in my mind” — once their lease at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season. Also, contrary to some recent chatter in business circles, Sternberg said the team has not been approached by any local group about building a stadium and/or buying the team.
Sternberg said the Rays have made “tremendous progress” the past few months on the Montreal side in terms of stadium plans and business dealings with the group led by Stephen Bronfman. “I’ve been not just encouraged, but really beyond pleased on how things are progressing up there,” he said.
Not so much, he acknowledged, with either Tampa or St. Petersburg leaders. Sternberg said they’d had good talks with Tampa Mayor Jane Castor before the pandemic diverted her and the city’s focus, and he hopes to get St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman (or his successor) interested, noting how much good the team does for the community.
“I still hold out optimism that the local business leaders and local politicians will come around a bit and see the value proposition here in having baseball and doing it in a way that makes a bit more financial sense and doing it in a way that makes it a more robust project here because of the complement of being in Montreal as well,” Sternberg said.
Having owned the team for 15 seasons, Sternberg said he has no plans to sell. But he did, at the least, caution that the stadium issue needs to be resolved.
“We are getting towards 2028 and you can’t snap your fingers and just have the stadium show up,” he said. “It’s getting trickier and trickier by the year to get something done. This year certainly set things back, but fortunately we’ve got a strong group of people who work for us and we’ve got a very motivated group of people in Montreal who want us. And I think we have a plan that makes incredible sense. At least it does to me. And we’re going to try to see it through.”
If the Montreal plan doesn’t work?
“I’ll figure out what the next step is at that point,” he said. “But there’s no plan B right now.”