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Let’s hope the Rays have a better rapport with their Montreal fans

John Romano | For all their genius on the field, the Rays are the most socially awkward team when it comes to connecting with Tampa Bay residents.
Fans wait for Rays players to return to the field from the clubhouse after Tampa Bay won the division Saturday at Tropicana Field.
Fans wait for Rays players to return to the field from the clubhouse after Tampa Bay won the division Saturday at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sep. 27
Updated Sep. 27

ST. PETERSBURG — I have devoted tens of thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of words to explain the genius of Tampa Bay Rays ownership over the years. Their cutting-edge ideas have revolutionized the game. Openers, platoons, defensive shifts, churning the roster. These ideas were once loudly mocked, yet are now being used by some of the game’s wealthiest teams.

Their innovations have made baseball vibrant in Tampa Bay while similarly cash-strapped markets such as Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Miami endure season after season of losing.

These are incredibly bright people doing incredibly smart things.

So why did they do something so stupid Saturday?

Why would they choose this moment, as the Rays were preparing to clinch the American League East division title, to remind us that future pennant races in September could be decided while the team is playing in Montreal in the second half of seasons?

On the surface, the timing is inexplicable. If you were being charitable, the best-case scenario is they were tone deaf.

Unfortunately, it also gives rise to the conspiracy theory that Rays ownership is purposefully sabotaging support in Tampa Bay in order to pave the way for permanent relocation once the Tropicana Field use agreement ends after the 2027 season. Because the timing of the announcement was so outlandish, this premise no longer requires you to wear a tin foil hat to discuss the possibility publicly.

And this isn’t about the merits of the sister city plan with Montreal. I remain skeptical that it can be pulled off, but I have grown to understand the motivation and the logic behind the idea.

The Rays clinched the division title this past weekend, but the powers that be were ready to remind local fans that future titles may be clinched in Montreal.
The Rays clinched the division title this past weekend, but the powers that be were ready to remind local fans that future titles may be clinched in Montreal. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

No, this is about the continuing disconnect between Rays ownership and Tampa Bay residents. Despite all of their success on the field, the Rays have never been fully embraced by fans and this episode will only exacerbate that divide.

Now, before going any farther, I should point out that Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has some claim to the higher road. It’s an owner’s responsibility to put a competitive team on the field, and Sternberg has far exceeded expectations in that sense. It is a market’s responsibility to support a team at the box office, and Tampa Bay has been sadly delinquent in that capacity.

But, like most things in life, the issue isn’t quite so black-and-white. This market has inherent drawbacks, which is one of the reasons why Sternberg was able to purchase a controlling interest in the team at a bargain-rate price more than 15 years ago.

And it’s a little peculiar that for all of their out-of-the-box thinking on the field, the Rays have never come close to figuring out a formula to get people in the bleachers. It’s as if they decided their job was to win 95 games, and it’s not their problem if fans fail to show up.

Which brings us back to the calculated decision to choose late September to announce that a “subtle” sign of the team’s proposed partnership with Montreal will be unveiled somewhere in foul territory for the first postseason game next week.

Given the choice of 52 weeks to make that announcement, this might have been the worst times of all with playoffs tickets about to go on sale.

Rays catcher Francisco Mejia (28) and first baseman Yandy Diaz (2) interact with fans while the Rays celebrate clinching the division title at Tropicana Field on Saturday.
Rays catcher Francisco Mejia (28) and first baseman Yandy Diaz (2) interact with fans while the Rays celebrate clinching the division title at Tropicana Field on Saturday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

It’s like a politician announcing a few days before an election that he’s planning on defecting to North Korea but, hey, I hope I can count on your support at the ballot box Tuesday.

Why would the Rays do this?

Aside from the nefarious plot lines, it definitely had something to do with perceptions in Montreal. Business and government leaders are eager to start working on a major redevelopment plan, and they need to know whether a baseball stadium will be involved. The announcement and the sign in the outfield are a nod to their potential partners in Quebec that the team remains serious about the sister city plan.

The Rays also are trying to alert the movers and shakers in Tampa Bay that this issue will get serious this winter. Because of the time it takes to find financing for a stadium, as well as the actual construction timeline, the Rays want Hillsborough County and Tampa officials to recognize that these are decisions that need to be made in the coming months, as opposed to the coming years.

There have been no overt threats about relocating permanently to some other market, but as we get nearer to 2028 when the franchise would essentially become a free agent, it would make sense if Sternberg begins exploring a full-time move to a market such as Nashville. Which is what we’re seeing right now with the Athletics and Las Vegas. So, yes, there is some urgency, even if the Rays have to point it out in this ham-fisted way.

Also, it’s important to keep in mind that the Rays are not necessarily afraid of slings and arrows. This is a franchise that has traded away David Price, Evan Longoria and Blake Snell because they knew it was the right path to stay competitive down the road. They were willing to make unpopular moves in the offseason because they had confidence in their plans moving ahead.

Is that what we saw Saturday? That’s possible. It might even be probable.

But that doesn’t mean it was the best way to go about it. The timing was awful, no matter how the team might want to frame it. If the Rays are trying to save baseball in Tampa Bay — and they say they are bending over backwards to do that — this was not the right strategy.

It reminds me of something Holly Hunter once said in the movie Broadcast News:

“I have passed some line, some place. I am beginning to repel people I’m trying to seduce.”

That’s what the Rays have done. And they’re smarter than that.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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