The Rays’ flirtation with Montreal could become a true romance this week

John Romano | The team seems prepared to seek permission to take the next step in the sister city plan.
The occasional spring exhibition game at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, like this one in 2017, has been the closest Quebec fans have gotten to Major League Baseball since the Expos left Montreal to become the Washington Nationals in 2005.
The occasional spring exhibition game at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, like this one in 2017, has been the closest Quebec fans have gotten to Major League Baseball since the Expos left Montreal to become the Washington Nationals in 2005. [ BEN PELOSSE / JDEM | Ben Pelosse / JdeM ]
Published Nov. 16, 2021

TAMPA — For the better part of two years, Rays executives have spread their message across Tampa Bay. Civic groups, church groups, political groups. Skeptical crowds, angry crowds, apathetic crowds. If you were willing to listen, they were willing to talk.

The Rays wanted you to know their proposed sister city plan with Montreal was neither a ploy to sneak out of town, nor a way to create leverage for a better stadium deal.

It was, they insisted, the only way to save baseball in Tampa Bay.

Now that message is about to take on greater urgency.

And the next audience on the agenda could have the authority to help make it happen. The Rays are likely to seek the blessing of baseball’s executive council this week to transition from the current exploratory plan to a more definitive pursuit of the shared city idea.

Going this route would accomplish several things at once for the Rays. It would reconfirm the franchise’s commitment to Montreal politicians and developers who are getting antsy about their up-in-the-air stadium plans near the city’s waterfront. It would also be a shot across the bow for Tampa Bay politicos who remain leery of the team’s sincerity about the split-season plan.

And, if the executive council agrees, it would be a tangible sign that Major League Baseball’s owners are seemingly losing faith — if it hasn’t already evaporated — in Tampa Bay’s ability to be a permanent, full-time home for the Rays.

Now maybe, as some people continue to believe, this is all part of a bluff. A three-card monte deal to distract everyone’s attention from the team’s true, unspecified intentions.

But, if so, it’s getting terribly elaborate and runs the risk of alienating more potential allies. Particularly when the Rays could simply bide their time for another six years while simultaneously cutting a deal in some other city to leave Tampa Bay as soon as the use agreement at Tropicana Field expires in 2027.

So how would the Rays go about getting permission from MLB’s executive council at this week’s owners meetings in Chicago? The same way they’ve been converting fans over lunches of dried-out chicken and broccolini at Tampa Bay speaking engagements the past two years.

The pitch is simple and has been honed to near-perfection as team president Brian Auld demonstrated at the Tampa Tiger Bay Club last week in Ybor City:

1. Tampa Bay and Montreal are both flawed markets but combined could generate enough revenue to allow the Rays to be a mid-tier team in terms of revenue/payroll.

2. Building smaller, boutique-style stadiums without roofs in each market would be less expensive and, thus, minimize the risk for municipalities that would be asked to contribute roughly half the cost.

3. The alternative is no Major League Baseball.

This last point is never framed as a threat, but simply a point of fact. Which, considering the historically poor level of attendance in Tampa Bay, the possibility is not that difficult to envision.

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And while there are legitimate market-driven reasons for Tampa Bay’s poor attendance, it does not change the reality.

The Rays won 100 games in 2021 and finished second-to-last in the American League in attendance. That has never happened in more than a century of Major League Baseball. Not in Oakland, not in Cleveland, not in Seattle, not in Minnesota. What’s worse is the Rays were coming off a World Series appearance in 2020, so enthusiasm should have been as high as any market in the AL.

And, no, the pandemic is not to blame. COVID existed in every city and the Rays still drew fewer fans than virtually every MLB market.

Tampa Bay’s geography, population and demographics will always make attendance a challenge, but drawing as poorly as the Rays have while making seven postseason appearances in the last 14 years is not simply a red flag. It’s more like a white flag.

So does this mean politicians should be rushing to City Hall looking for loose tax dollars for a Rays stadium? Heck no. The economic and societal return on building a stadium still needs to be weighed against other community investments in either Hillsborough or Pinellas counties.

But the direction this is heading does suggest the shared city plan is not some street-corner hustle. As skeptical as I was about the plan two years ago, I’ve come to believe in ownership’s sincerity.

The Rays have done enough on the field and in the community in recent seasons to deserve the benefit of the doubt when they say their focus is on the sister city plan.

You may not like it and you may not think it is feasible.

But it’s time to at least take it seriously.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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