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Full Circle: The uncertain future of the Tampa Bay Rays

Decisions made decades ago haunt the franchise
Posted at 1:44 PM, Sep 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-25 23:36:04-04

TAMPA BAY AREA, Fla. — As the Rays fight to make the playoffs, the story of this season is one where the past, present, and future are all swirling around the team. But there was a time in Tampa Bay when baseball was the best game in town.

During six seasons between 2008 and 2013, the Rays went to playoffs four times and made it all the way to the World Series. In both 2009 and 2010, during the Great Recession, their average attendance was above 23,000, which was middle of the pack for Major League Teams, not bad by "Baseball in the Bay" standards.

The Rays would kill for those numbers today. Actually, they would be willing to share the team with another city, in another country for those numbers — which is exactly what they are trying to do now.

The point is, the Rays were once a source of pride for Tampa Bay, a feeling of accomplishment. A feeling that after years of being used as stadium bait by other cities and teams (Chicago White Sox, San Francisco Giants), we finally
“got ours.” Our own Hometown Team. But that was then. This is now.

Here’s a sampling of quotes of the current Baseball climate in the Bay:

“We are simply not well suited for a baseball team that needs to draw tens of thousands of people to its ballpark.” – Rays Owner Stu Sternberg
“We are too large of an area to lose a major sporting franchise.” – Tampa Mayor Jane Castor
“This is about Tampa keeping its team and Montreal having one as well.” – Rays Owner Stu Sternberg
“We need to be one region, when it comes to this team, and quite frankly that’s been lacking.” – St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman
“The team needs to be right over here in Ybor city, I completely agree that we have lost momentum.” — Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan

There’s been plenty of criticism and questions about Rays owner Stu Sternberg’s plan to share the team with Montreal but few answers.

The team declined our repeated request for an interview.

But all the other major players who shape the Rays Future did go on record and had a lot to say, including St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman who sat down with us just days before he would meet with the Rays owner for the third time since the team announced in June that it wants to split its season between here and Canada.

Q & A with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman:

Paul LaGrone: Have the discussions you’ve had with Rays owner Stu Sternberg been productive?

Mayor Rick Kriseman: Yeah, I think the most important thing for the public to understand is as long as Stu and I, and his team and my team, continue to talk that’s a good thing.

Paul LaGrone: Do you feel like you’re any closer to coming to an agreement?

Mayor Rick Kriseman: Um, I think I’m um, again any time we meet is a positive meeting. We are trying to build on the previous one.

Paul LaGrone: Do you think the Rays have a genuine interest in staying in St Petersburg?

Mayor Rick Kriseman: Well, I think that's what they’ve certainly said publicly. And I’ll be honest everything that’s said behind closed doors we’ve kind of agreed that’s where it’s going to stay. We are not going to negotiate through the media or through the public.

But it’s the public who would finance what the Rays want: a new open air ball park. And it’s the same public who would have to support a part-time team, something they’ve been unwilling to do during a full season at Tropicana Field, which has been home to the league’s lowest attendance for six out of the last eight years, despite the Rays consistently being in the playoff race

Q & A continues with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman:

Paul LaGrone: If it meant saving would you be willing to go along with this idea of sharing the team, if that were the only way?

Rick Kriseman: If we were to get to a point where we allowed the Rays to explore the split season, I believe and I may be wrong on this, but I believe it would end up showing that the challenges are too great.

Paul LaGrone: If the Rays came back to you with the notion of letting Tampa having another crack of the bat so to speak.. would you be willing to entertain that?

Rick Kriseman: I did what no one else has done that’s sat in my seat, which was to even allow the team to explore the opportunities across the bay. And I gave them three years to do that, which is a considerable amount of time. Um and for whatever reason it didn’t work. I think at this point in time we need to look here. And see what we can do in St Pete.

Paul LaGrone: Are you willing to stand your ground if it means being known as the mayor who lost baseball?

Rick Kriseman: I had two choices. I could try to kick the can to whoever followed me or I could make a decision and move the ball under my administration knowing that there was risk involved in doing that. I will not make everyone happy no matter what I do. And the only time you don’t make anyone unhappy is if you don’t make any decisions at all.

Paul LaGrone: Do you think Major League Baseball will stay in the Tampa Bay area, or do you think this is the beginning of the long goodbye.

Rick Kriseman: I think that if for some reason this team relocated I think instantaneously the Tampa-St. Pete Region becomes the number one sight for expansion. I say that because if you look at our market you look at our population growth, all the things we talked about, and you stack them against all the cities we’ve discussed and we come out on top.

Across the Bay, the challenges are just as big, but Tampa Mayor Jane Castor wants to keep the Rays local, if she can.

Q & A with Tampa Mayor Jane Castor:

Paul LaGrone: You’ve gone on record saying they belong in Tampa. How do you as mayor get that done or ultimately keep them here?

Mayor Jane Castor: If St. Petersburg doesn’t work out then we would love to have them here in Tampa, and I will do everything in my power as mayor to bring them to Tampa.

Paul LaGrone: Do you think it’s worth keeping the Rays here, if it comes at a cost for tax payers?

Mayor Jane Castor: The question is bigger than that. You have individuals who say building a stadium is a losing proposition for any municipality and then on the other hand you can show city after city where it’s a benefit not only to the citizens but to the economy.

Paul LaGrone: Have you had any discussions with owner Stu Sternberg about bringing the Rays to this side of the bay?

Mayor Jane Castor: No, I haven’t had those discussions. The only discussions that he and I have had is that they want to stay in this area.

Paul LaGrone: And do you believe him when he says that?

Mayor Jane Castor: Sure.

Paul LaGrone: You don’t feel like he’s using this as an opportunity leverage to move to another city?

Mayor Jane Castor: No, he doesn’t strike me as that individual.

But Sports Journalist Neil deMause says a sports team’s impact on the local economy is overstated.

“While a new stadium may have its benefits, the amount of public money being put into them never comes back to the public.” — Neil deMause

Finding the money is something Tampa and Hillsborough struck out on when they pitched the new stadium in Ybor City last year.

County Commissioner Ken Hagan was the front man on that effort and now he finds himself on the bench waiting for permission from St. Petersburg to even talk to the Rays.

“We wanted to sit down and have a regional discussion on what is the best way to ensure the team remains here, unfortunately Mayor Kriseman was unable to do that.” — Ken Hagan

Hagan is now pushing for a smaller version of the Ybor City ball park, one that would be suitable for a part-time team and would provide Ybor with a year-round venue for entertainment.

Q & A with County Commissioner Ken Hagan:

Paul LaGrone: You still have confidence that this vision can happen?

Ken Hagan: I do have confidence, at this point. I’m unsure if it will be the original framework or if it will be the dual home field split ball park scenario that the Rays want to explore.

With all the political noise, it’s easy for the fans to be silenced. But that’s never been a problem for Rob Szasz, known as Tampa Bay’s Happy Heckler.

Rob was the Rays' secret weapon, getting into opposing batters’ heads. And it often worked.

“When they take their gloves out of their back pocket I'd go 'better fix that back pocket buddy, major league babseball has dress codes here, you're going to get fined.' You’d see the guy start pushing his pocket back in. You know they hear you!” — Rob Szasz

Rob used to have season tickets, but after the recession, like many fans, he had to give them up. He still goes to the games but it’s just not the same.

Q & A with Tampa Bay’s Happy Heckler Rob Szasz:

Paul LaGrone: Do you think we’re bad fans?

Rob Szasz: I don’t think we are bad fans. We’d be bad fans if we didn’t support the team whatsoever.

Paul LaGrone: Do you think the fans deserve this, what’s happening?

Rob Szasz: No, definitely not they don’t deserve this.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Rays Owner Stu Sternberg have met three times — that the public knows of.

At the heart of those ongoing discussions is the team asking Kriseman for permission to formally explore the split season with Montreal.

Their lease contract with St. Petersburg runs through the 2027 season.