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  1. St. Petersburg

Three mayors. One owner. No deal. St. Pete's futile history with the Rays.

Rays owner Stu Sternberg (top left) has found himself at odds with three St. Petersburg mayors: current Mayor Rick Kriseman (top right); Bill Foster (bottom right); and Rick Baker (bottom left.) [Times files]
Published Jul. 4

ST. PETERSBURG — Rick Kriseman was supposed to be the flexible, conciliatory leader who could pull off what two mayors before him could not: Build the Rays a new stadium and keep Major League Baseball in St. Petersburg for decades to come.

The mayor allowed principal owner Stu Sternberg to look for a new home in Tampa, confident St. Petersburg could best any deal the Rays got there. Kriseman said he had a relationship with the team that former mayors Rick Baker and Bill Foster never had.

"The Rays appreciate the fact that I have been straight up with them in all my dealings with them," Kriseman told the Tampa Bay Times during his 2017 re-election campaign. "They feel my word is good."

Then came last week, when the Rays announced a plan to split home games between St. Petersburg and Montreal.

Not even Kriseman is that flexible. He blasted the idea as "silly" and said the city will never fund a new ballpark for a part-time team. Sternberg says a split-season is the only way baseball will survive in Tampa Bay. If he must, he'll wait until 2021 to see what the next mayor thinks.

How did St. Petersburg and the Rays reach this point once again? Now a third mayor is at odds with the mercurial franchise, its future after 2027 as unsettled as ever.

The Rays declined to comment for this story. But Foster, the mayor who took the most hard-line stance against the team, had a lot to say. He has long feared the team's ultimate goal was to leave the bay area.

"I would say the most unpleasant part about my job when I was mayor was dealing with the Tampa Bay Rays," he said.

• • •

Tampa Bay's relationship with Major League Baseball has always been complicated.

First came aborted attempts to attract teams like the Mariners and White Sox and failed attempts to relocate the Twins and Giants.

St. Petersburg was so confident that it would one day have a team that the city opened the Florida Suncoast Dome in 1990. The next year, MLB awarded two expansion franchises — to Denver and Miami.

Finally, in 1995, the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays were born. The dome was renamed Tropicana Field, but the decade of futility that followed is best forgotten.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: 'I say let them go.' St. Petersburg's black community is indifferent to Rays' fate.

It was Sternberg who changed everything when he took over as principal owner in 2005.

The clamor for a new stadium began almost immediately. Then-MLB Commissioner Bud Selig visited the Trop for the first time. He said St. Petersburg was "absolutely a major-league city" but said a new facility was needed.

In 2007, Sternberg unveiled his first plan for a new ballpark: A $450 million sailship-like waterfront stadium where Al Lang Stadium sits. Baker, near the end of his second term as mayor, grew increasingly unenthusiastic about the idea as public sentiment shifted.

On the field, the rebranded, revamped Rays made it to the 2008 World Series. Off the field, the stadium plan died the next year. Baker's relationship with Sternberg was in tatters.

"It got very cold after that," said Foster, who succeeded Baker as mayor in 2010. "As far as (the team's) relationship with City Hall, and their expectations, it just never got any better."

In a text to the Times, Baker defended his handling of the Rays.

"The mayor's job is to protect the city's interests," he said. "That is what I did, even when the Rays' ownership disagreed."

He added: "Their focus is on what is best for their business — I understand that — but that is not always what is best for St. Petersburg."

• • •

As mayor, Foster said negotiating with the team was futile. His mission was to "keep baseball in the 'Burg."

A lawyer and former City Council member, Foster leaned heavily on the Trop's use agreement, which mandates the team must play in St. Petersburg through 2027. The team cannot even talk to anybody about playing games elsewhere before the contract expires — but it can talk about where it will play in 2028 and beyond.

By this point, Sternberg wanted permission to explore stadium sites in Hillsborough County, saying a ballpark closer to the heart of the region's population would cure the team's poor attendance.

Foster, though, said he feared Sternberg's ultimate goal was to move the team out of Tampa Bay. He took a "strict constructionist" view of the Trop contract and wouldn't allow the team to look across the bay.

"I wanted to enforce the same contract that they would have enforced if one of their players wanted to renegotiate in the middle," Foster said. "Why was I vilified for taking a position that they do in their business?"

The result was a "tenuous" relationship between mayor and owner, Foster said.

"Between Sternberg and myself, we were just never able to warm up to each other," the former mayor said. "I have fond memories of being in Tropicana Field watching (former Tampa mayors) Pam Iorio or Bob Buckhorn throw out a first pitch. And I was never asked to darken the door of Tropicana Field."

Still, Foster's strict stance then did nothing to resolve the impasse that still exists today.

• • •

In 2013, Kriseman challenged Foster's bid for re-election.

A former state legislator who had also served on the City Council alongside Foster, Kriseman attacked the incumbent as obstructionist and staked out a more conciliatory position.

The future mayor delivered this message to the Rays: "I don't lie," he said. "You can trust me."

He added: "We will have honest dialogue. That is something the Rays haven't had. They don't feel they can get that with the mayor."

Kriseman said he would let the team pay to explore stadium sites outside the city, partner with local businesses to lure more fans to games and establish direct bus service to the Trop.

His rationale was that it was more palatable to lose the Rays to Tampa than to lose the team altogether. St. Petersburg would also have the chance to make a counteroffer: build a new stadium in the redeveloped Trop site, where the Rays would share in the lucrative redevelopment rights.

In January 2016, the Rays and St. Petersburg struck a deal that gave the team three years to look for a new stadium site in Hillsborough County.

When Kriseman ran for re-election in 2017 against Baker, the Rays made it clear which mayor they supported. The team donated more than $80,000 to Kriseman.

It wasn't until the end of that three-year window that the Tampa search reached fruition. In July 2018, the Rays unveiled plans to build an $892 million stadium in Ybor City.

Hillsborough officials wanted the team to pay half, but said the Rays never responded to their offer.

By December, the Rays said the deal was dead. The window to look in Tampa expired at midnight Dec. 31.

Kriseman pressured the team to refocus on building a St. Petersburg ballpark. The 86-acre Trop site is poised for redevelopment, but officials need to know whether to include a new stadium in their plans.

The most important real estate project in St. Petersburg hinges on what the Rays decide.

• • •

In March, Kriseman and Sternberg had their annual preseason meeting at the new police headquarters — more inconspicuous than City Hall or the Trop. Plus, the mayor saw the $79 million building as an example of what the city could accomplish.

"We wanted to show it off," Kriseman said.

Then Sternberg told the mayor about the Rays' latest plan: share the season with Montreal.

Kriseman said he was "surprised" by the news. He had heard the Montreal rumors last year, but didn't give them much weight.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Did the Rays' talks with Montreal violate the Tropicana Field lease?

In fact, Sternberg said his conversation with the Montreal group, led by businessman Stephen Bronfman, started about two years ago. The Rays owner said Bronfman got his number through MLB — "Nobody just gets my number" — and asked if Sternberg was interested in relocating the team to Montreal, permanently.

Sternberg said he told him no.

Would he sell the team? Again, the Rays owner said he told Bronfman no.

Eventually that conversation turned into the Rays' latest plan.

Foster said he's long heard the Montreal rumors.

"I've known they were going to Montreal for seven years," he said.

In May, Kriseman told the team he rejected the plan.

The Rays went ahead anyway. MLB announced June 20 that it had given the team permission to explore the idea. The team later said it hopes to start splitting seasons as soon as 2024.

Relations with the city quickly soured.

The mayor held his own news conference to denounce it as a ploy to squeeze the city and Pinellas County for more public money for a new stadium. Kriseman emphatically declared he would not build the team a part-time stadium, nor would he allow the Rays to even explore playing in Montreal before 2027.

On Tuesday, Sternberg pitched the idea at a news conference held at the Salvador Dalí Museum. Hours later, the mayor issued a curt statement that both softened his stance and signaled his poor relationship with the Rays' owner.

"If Mr. Sternberg wishes to formally explore this concept with me and his desire to privately and fully fund a new stadium in the City of St. Petersburg, I am willing to listen," the mayor said. "If Mr. Sternberg is serious about this idea or any other, it will require the reestablishment of a good working relationship with my office."

That same afternoon, Sternberg suggested to the Times the next mayor might be more receptive.

"Look, if it comes to it and I have to do this with the next mayor," he said, "I'll do it with the next mayor."

On Thursday, Kriseman downplayed the tension, saying the two could still negotiate with each other.

Why, then, did he say their working relationship needed to be re-established?

"I said that because this was handled like it was being negotiated through the press," the mayor said. "I think there has to be recognition that the approach that got us to where we are right now isn't necessarily the best approach."

• • •

Observers say the relationship between the Rays and Kriseman had been on the wane for months.

"Six months ago, Mayor Kriseman started taking a very hard line toward the Rays, which is contrary to his previous approach," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who has been at the forefront of Tampa's stadium effort.

The day before the Rays' June 20 announcement, Hagan blasted Kriseman for adopting Foster's policies. Hagan also believes St. Petersburg should let Tampa keep working on its own stadium deal to keep the team here. Kriseman shot back that Hagan should be benched for incompetence. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has not weighed in and did not respond to requests for comment.

Kriseman was left with no choice but to reject the idea, said Fordham University law professor Mark Conrad, who directs the school's sports business program.

No mayor could share its hard-won pro sports team with another city, he said. Nor can Kriseman afford to politically align himself with a team that might be heading for the exit.

"If the mayor said, 'I support it,' I'd be shocked," Conrad said.

Foster said no mayor can put the needs of a baseball team over the needs of citizens.

"I think that's where Kriseman is at now," he said.

Kriseman is term-limited. If the team can't work it out with him, the Rays will once again become a campaign issue, this time in the 2021 mayoral race.

Would a fourth mayor be more accommodating?

City Council member Darden Rice, a potential candidate, said she's open to working with the team to "keep the Rays committed here beyond 2028."

Commissioner Ken Welch, who has declared his intent to run, was icier toward Sternberg.

"This is about business in our community and what we've invested already in blood, sweat, tears and money for the Rays," he said. "So if I'm the next mayor, he needs to come correct."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Monique Welch contributed to this report. Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @Charlie Frago.

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