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Monday, Sep 18, 2017
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Joe Henderson: Rays should show St. Pete what victory looks like

I wouldn't get too worked up over the assertion by Rays owner Stu Sternberg to the Hillsborough County Commission that "Major League Baseball doesn't believe anymore in the Tampa Bay area." This isn't the first time baseball's belief system has been tested. During many years of covering the pursuit of a baseball franchise here, I heard the same thing about the Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins, Seattle Mariners and even the San Francisco Giants. The common thread was that each team needed a new owner or stadium, so those cities were told if things didn't get better right away, their team could move to St. Pete.
How did that work out? Sternberg's dire pronouncement was followed by Commissioner Bud Selig's statement that, "The status quo is simply not sustainable." That is straight from Page 1 of the power playbook — pressure, sprinkled liberally with reality. Other owners are tired of seeing a really good team finish last in attendance, which the Rays did last season despite winning 90 games. They subsidize the Rays through revenue-sharing, reportedly as much as $35 million a year. Most of that comes from teams such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. They didn't mind so much when that money bought them an extra 15 wins a year because our local lads were really bad. They want the Rays standing on their own now. And by turning MLB into the bogeyman, Sternberg doesn't have to play the bad guy. "Hey, point your finger at them, not me." Raising the threat level has consequences, though. I asked Sternberg: If MLB no longer believes in the market, doesn't that make any stadium talk academic? Well, let's not get carried away. "I said to them, 'Look, let's see if we can get the market to work. I believe in the market,' " Sternberg said. We're at this point because of all the woes associated with just getting to Tropicana Field. We are at what politely can be called an impasse because St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster insists the Rays stay there until their lease expires in 2027. Here's a way to break that: In 2007, as part of the ill-fated "Sailboat Stadium" plan for downtown St. Pete, Sternberg suggested turning the current Tropicana Field site into high-end retail outlets. It would have transformed that property into something that might actually add to the city's tax rolls instead of being a civic embarrassment. It was a good idea then; it's a better one now. Foster has shown no willingness to talk about any compromise, so the Rays should force his hand. They could take the initiative to line up new users for the property and then present their findings to City Council or the county commission in Pinellas. It's not right to expect Foster to simply give up the Rays in the name of regional unity. The man needs to win for his city, too. They just have to help him see what victory looks like. Power plays and threats are all part of the dance, and we probably haven't heard the last of them. Taking care of St. Pete is the first step in making that stop. Then we can talk.


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