ST. PETERSBURG — Before Monday’s season opener against Toronto, Stuart Sternberg broached the idea of yielding control of the Tampa Bay Rays.
The club’s principal owner was asked if his emotions ever change on Opening Day.
“When they do, I shouldn’t have this team anymore,’’ Sternberg said while encircled by a group of reporters outside Tampa Bay’s dugout. “I pinch myself and butterflies and just smile ear to ear.’’
That smile got a little wider following a 9-2 triumph against the Toronto Blue Jays in front of a sellout crowd at Tropicana Field, where a 2013 wild card playoff banner was raised to accompany four previous symbols of Tampa Bay’s rise to power in the rugged American League East.
In his ninth year as principal owner, Sternberg was relatively upbeat about the future of the Rays, predicting an uptick in attendance and another successful season on the field.
“I cannot imagine a year we’d be in better shape on Opening Day than we are right now,’’ said Sternberg, who responded to several national baseball previews that have the Rays either in the World Series or winning it all.
“They (expectations) scared the heck out of me, I’m not happy about it,’’ Sternberg said with a grin. “We’re basically bringing back the same team we finished the season with – and it’s not like we won anything going away last year.
“I could see if people thought we were going to do well, but the unanimity of it is quite surprising. The types of expectations that are being talked about now are probably a little outlandish, but if the collective wisdom wants to go that way, who am I to fight it?’’
New St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Sternberg haven’t met since an initial dialogue in February. The club’s lease at the Trop expires in 2027, but Sternberg has suggested other major-league owners are growing increasingly frustrated with Tampa Bay’s dismal home attendance.
“Progress isn’t going to happen with one meeting or another,’’ Sternberg said. “It’s going to happen with like minds coming together and figuring out what’s best for the citizens of St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay and Florida in general. I do think things will happen. We’ve been at this seven years, with a few different mayors. I feel most confident in what the mayor has done so far and I think the city is poised for some incredible things.
“The clock is ticking and it’s loudly ticking, but it has been ticking loudly for a few years. Every day that goes by is another day closer to when a decision will have to be made.’’
Sternberg rejected any notion that a new stadium would be paid entirely with private funds.
After drawing more than 1.8 million fans in each season from 2008-10, the Rays have averaged approximately 1.5 million in the past three years. The club’s average attendance of 18,646 per game last season was markedly below baseball’s overall average (30,514), but Sternberg is buoyed by local TV ratings that rank in the upper third of the 30 teams.
“I focus on the people who are here, not the ones who are not here, and we focus on the people who are engaged on television, on the radio, on the Internet, reading the papers, reading the blogs,’’ said Sternberg. “The TV side of it, the ratings are nothing to scoff at and it’s something that has continued to give us the belief that major-league baseball can thrive in the region.’’
Since the Rays expunged the “Devil’’ from their name in 2008, only the Yankees boast a better record.
“Any team can sell its soul for a season or maybe two by giving away your future, both with players and money,’’ Sternberg said. “But the fact we’ve been able to do it this consistently, it’s an incredible job that’s been done all around and we’ve done it without mortgaging the future. To be able to raise another banner today and have it stick there for a long time is something to be proud of.’’