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Tuesday, Sep 19, 2017
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Joe Henderson Columns

Rays strong stadium stance a blunder, but it’s fixable

I’d like to take this opportunity to inform some members of the St. Petersburg City Council of a basic truth: The Tampa Bay Rays are not going to keep playing baseball in your city indefinitely. They are going to leave town.

Whether they wind up in Tampa or someplace a little farther north — mesdames et messieurs, bienvenu les Montreal Rays — is uncertain. I believe it will be Tampa because I can’t believe the council as a whole will continue to hold on to that Trop lease like it was written on stone tablets.

Someone there has to catch a ride on the reality train. Baseball will never work in St. Petersburg.

Who says the Rays have to break the lease, anyway? It will be 2015 in a few days. A new stadium in Tampa is five years away, minimum, probably longer. By that time, the end of the Trop lease would be in sight. A smart businessman like Rays owner Stu Sternberg might just hold on to the team until that lease expires, and then sell to the highest bidder.

St. Pete would get nothing. Bay area baseball fans would be left with nothing. And the blame game would be the only game left to watch.

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I mention this because of the debacle Thursday night at the St. Pete City Council meeting. An agreement that would have let the Rays scout stadium sites in Tampa went off the rails at the last minute over a lease clause giving the team 50 percent of redevelopment rights if the Trop is ever razed.

Councilman Karl Nurse reasonably asked why the Rays would keep those rights if they broke their contract to stay in the Trop until 2027.

Team President Brian Auld responded that a deal is a deal, and the city would have to abide by the terms.

I think Auld, a bright man, would like to hit the reset button.

Some council members grumped about Auld’s arrogance for arguing the city has to abide by the lease his organization wants to break, and they have a point.

The story would likely be much different this morning if Auld had said, “Hey, you know, that development rights thing is something we can absolutely talk about going forward. We want to do right by the city that has been our home.”

This was after Sternberg recently turned what should have been a good day into a threat to have the Rays leave the area. When St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman announced he had reached a tentative deal to let the Rays look in Hillsborough County, Sternberg’s response was that the team is “doomed to leave” without a new stadium.

So, I can’t really blame the city council for getting its ego bruised, or for voting 5-3 to reject the deal Kriseman and the Rays put on the table.

But now everyone needs to take a deep breath.

Everything is negotiable.

Get back to the table.

Get this done.

I appreciate the frustration Rays feel over the lousy attendance for basically the entire time they’ve been in St. Petersburg. On Sternberg’s watch, they have built an organization that regularly contends for the playoffs, but the fans stay away for reasons that have been thoroughly aired.

But I also understand city council members have a responsibility to the taxpayers to cut the best deal possible. I thought the deal as proposed was fair, but I guess they didn’t. So make a counter-offer.

Let’s be honest about something else, too.

Although I believe baseball will be successful in Tampa for a variety of reasons, the people who run Major League Baseball aren’t so sure. We’ve heard the same thing in the past about other markets such as Seattle, Minnesota and even San Francisco, but it’s naive to think at least some owners wouldn’t like to see the Rays leave here.

And they are going to leave St. Petersburg.

It’s inevitable.

It’s up to everyone involved now to put their egos aside and make sure their journey to a new home is a short one.

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