TAMPA BAY - At worst, the Tampa Bay Rays will be the victim of contraction by Major League Baseball and be erased as a franchise in the region. At best, the team will continue playing in Tampa Bay, but in a location other than Tropicana Field.
That was the message from the Rays' principal owner, Stuart Sternberg, who appeared before the Hillsborough County Commission to discuss the team's future.
"MLB at this point doesn't believe anymore in the Tampa Bay area," Sternberg said.
Despite having the third best record in the majors during the last five seasons, attendance has been steadily dropping since the Rays appeared in the World Series in 2008.
In 2012, attendance was at the bottom, even though the team was a contender all summer. Sternberg said it's gotten to the point where other Major League owners have brought up the situation in conversation.
"They've said "How much more evidence do we need that it's not going to work there, Stu?'" Sternberg recalled. When asked if baseball could take the team away, he said "I'm a franchise. They could close the team up tomorrow if they needed to."
Despite the dire outlook, Sternberg told commissioners he was confident the team could find a solution for the slumping ticket sales and aging stadium.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe said he appreciated the Rays appearing before the board despite the tricky legal situation that forbids the team from having discussions about leaving Tropicana Field.
"We know that you've put money and time and great risks into providing this product. And we're not going to fail you," Sharpe said.
Major League Baseball confirmed Sternberg's comments that the commissioner is concerned about the Rays performance. In a statement, the league said "the status quo is simply unacceptable," despite the Rays' impressive on-field performance.
During the back and forth on the issue in the last several months, St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster has been steadfastly opposed to considering proposals that involve moving the Rays out of the city.
Business owners like Mark Ferguson support the mayor's position. Ferguson owns Ferg's Sports Bar, located just a couple of blocks from the Trop. He argues that it's not a location problem, but an economic one.
"There's been a lot of people out of work. Less people spending on sporting events," Ferguson said. "Look at the Bucs. Do you think the Bucs would love to have a sell-out eight times a year, and they can't do that? So it's all over Tampa Bay," he said.
The Rays ownership is expected to discuss the matter with leaders in Pinellas County next week. Sternberg declined to speculate where he would like to see the Rays play.
"We're open to all options," Sternberg said.