ST. PETERSBURG — I have seen the future of baseball in Tampa Bay, and it involves extortion.
That’s the cynical view, of course. Others might call it a veiled threat, or fair warning, or simply the truth. However you want to categorize it, Major League Baseball gave us a sneak preview of a tried-and-true strategy in Oakland on Tuesday.
With the Athletics involved in a years-long pursuit of a new stadium (sound familiar?), and local politicians avoiding public discussion of a financing plan (sound familiar?), MLB has given the team permission to explore relocation to another city (sound familiar?).
Since Oakland’s stadium lease ends three years before the Tropicana Field use agreement, the Athletics are a little ahead of the Rays in this endeavor, but you can be sure we will eventually hear the same sort of admonition down the road.
While it’s easy, and maybe even satisfying, to treat relocation as a hollow threat, it can also be risky.
It’s true that municipalities are not recklessly spending money whenever an owner expresses interest in fancier luxury boxes like the 1990s and early 2000s, but it only takes one desperate mayor or city council to hijack a team.
In the last 20 years, there have been eight franchises in the major sports that have packed their bags and moved on down the road. That’s no epidemic, but I wouldn’t call it rare either. MLB’s finances and territorial rights make it harder to move than, say, an NFL team, but it’s not out of the question.
So what does commissioner Rob Manfred’s announcement on Tuesday really mean?
In Oakland, I would say it’s a strategically timed bluff. The A’s have a waterfront stadium proposal on the table with private financing paying for the $1 billion price tag, although the team is asking for a whopping $855 million in taxpayer-funded infrastructure costs.
The A’s want the city council to vote on the project before Aug. 31, so the MLB relocation gambit has some sense of urgency. While the infrastructure costs are outrageous, they’re easier to sell to voters than direct payments to build a stadium since they would also benefit a major redevelopment project planned at that location.
Miami finally got its stadium approved around 15 years ago after flirtations with San Antonio and a similar this-is-your-last-chance pitch from MLB on the eve of a county commission vote.
So, then, what does the announcement mean in Tampa Bay?
Nothing definitive today, but it’s definitely a shot across the bow. The Rays do not have as much history in the market as the A’s do in Oakland, and Tampa Bay’s lackluster history of revenues would probably make it a more palatable candidate to eventually move.
The Rays already have floated the idea of a sister-city concept with Montreal, but the end of the use agreement at Tropicana isn’t so far off in the distance anymore. The closer we get to 2028, the more valuable the Rays would become as a potential free-agent franchise.
In that sense, the Oakland situation could almost become a hindrance to the Rays. If the stadium deal blows up out there and the A’s really do consider leaving town, it could take a wannabe market off the boards. And there are only so many cities that have the population, the demographics and the money to build a stadium, as well as not infringing on some team’s territorial rights.
While it’s likely MLB would want Oakland’s owners to stay in the West (which could mean Las Vegas, Portland or Vancouver) it could still eliminate a potentially lucrative expansion site for the other 30 MLB owners. And that could complicate things for the Rays.
Ultimately, the lesson here is that time is shorter than you might think.
When you consider the amount of time it takes to build a stadium, and the number of years remaining on Oakland’s lease, it’s not inconceivable that MLB could deliver a similar threat in Tampa Bay by 2024.
That doesn’t mean either Tampa/Hillsborough or St. Pete/Pinellas needs to Venmo $1 billion to the Rays in the next couple of years, but it probably would be helpful to start having serious conversations about the appetite (or lack thereof) of investing in a new baseball stadium before it becomes a do-or-die discussion.
The community has more leverage today than it will in 2024 or 2027.
Tampa Bay is not on the same hot seat as Oakland, but this week is a good reminder that an ultimatum is in our future, too.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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