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Rays stadium saga in a nutshell? Next mayor up!

John Romano | The St. Pete City Council wants to restart negotiations with the baseball team, but that’s not likely to happen until a new mayor is in office in early 2022.
St. Petersburg City Council Chair Ed Montanari, delivers remarks in support of continuing to work with the Rays to keep major league baseball in the city during a news conference Tuesday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg City Council Chair Ed Montanari, delivers remarks in support of continuing to work with the Rays to keep major league baseball in the city during a news conference Tuesday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jun. 1, 2021|Updated Jun. 1, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — Of course, the stadium negotiations need to be reset.

Of course, the relationship between the Rays and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has grown ugly and counterproductive. Of course, there are other cities salivating over what appears to be a dysfunctional mess in Tampa Bay. Of course, it’s a good idea for the St. Pete City Council, the Pinellas County Commission and business leaders to step up and make their voices heard.

Of course, of course, of course.

But what happens if we can’t even agree on how to start over?

That’s a real question in the wake of a press conference held outside of Tropicana Field Tuesday morning by Council Chair Ed Montanari, along with other council members, Pinellas Commission Chair Dave Eggers and Chamber of Commerce boss Chris Steinocher.

The press conference was, essentially, a plea for renewed goodwill after a group of Rays minority partners filed a suit against principal owner Stu Sternberg, and Kriseman quickly issued a statement calling for Sternberg to step down.

Kriseman’s statement amounted to little more than political theater and served no purpose other than portraying the mayor as the one public official willing to stand up to the MLB owner. Maybe the lawsuit has merit, maybe it doesn’t. But Sternberg isn’t stepping down, and having the team’s hometown mayor taking public swipes accomplishes little beyond providing him future campaign fodder.

But you want to know the real problem with Kriseman turning this into a personal battle to be used for political gain?

It obscures the possibility that he might be right.

Kriseman shut down negotiations a few months ago because he said the Rays were asking for a greater portion of revenues and more control of the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field land than the current use agreement allows. At the time, Sternberg told the Tampa Bay Times that it was simply an opening proposal.

The problem is that it sounded pretty outlandish as far as opening proposals go. The Rays want a better deal than they currently have in order to build a stadium that would house the world’s first part-time MLB team in their sister city plan with Montreal.

To be fair, Sternberg has that prerogative. The team is his, and he’s free to play anywhere he wants in 2028. Maybe he’s doing Tampa Bay a favor by offering to keep baseball here on a part-time basis considering how little support the Rays have gotten at the box office compared to their on-field success during the Sternberg era.

But building a stadium is an expensive proposition for a community, and political leaders are going to have to decide how much they’re willing to invest in public funds in order to get half the product we have grown accustomed to having.

And that’s why any reset in negotiations is going to be tricky.

Eggers was clear that he was not speaking for the entire county commission, but he suggested revisiting the idea of the Rays staying here fulltime as the starting point for negotiations. Sternberg has made it clear that is no longer on the table.

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So how do we begin negotiations when the concept itself creates an impasse?

It’s a foregone conclusion that Kriseman is not going to make a deal for a part-time stadium on his way out of office, so that means the next mayor of St. Petersburg is going to be on the clock in another six months.

But is that person willing to concede that Tampa Bay is not a viable market for a fulltime MLB team? Is that future mayor willing to commit hundreds of millions of dollars for what many residents will undoubtedly see as a disappointing conclusion? Is that a winning platform for election?

It’s worth pointing out that four mayors have already failed to strike a deal with the Rays. The team has, at various times, talked about building a stadium with St. Pete mayors Rick Baker, Bill Foster and Kriseman, as well as former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

Maybe that’s just the nature of the beast, or maybe the Rays are asking for too much. I honestly don’t know.

What I do know is that no community has ever been put in this position before. Usually, an owner threatens to leave and local leaders either come through with a new stadium or arena, or the team packs its bags. In this case, the team has already promised that it’s moving out and it’s up to us to decide whether we’re willing to ante up for a part-time relationship.

So is Montanari right? Should the city, the county, the business community reopen conversations with the Rays?

Yes, yes, one thousand times, yes.

In the language of a backyard baseball game, this is a chance at a do-over. Let’s forget past slights and move on. Otherwise, we could keep arguing until 2028 about who is right, who is wrong, and who has tickets in Montreal.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes

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