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Plenty of Obstacles To Tampa Bay/Montreal MLB Plan

Tampa Bay RaysA day after the news broke that MLB had granted permission to Rays owner Stuart Sternberg to explore a split season between Tampa Bay and Montreal, it’s clear there are plenty of obstacles to be addressed before such an arrangement could happen.

It’s certainly an audacious plan; build two new ballparks in Montreal and somewhere in Tampa Bay and let the team play in Florida in the spring and early summer and in Montreal in the remainder of the summer and early fall. There are plenty of logistical issues to be addressed before the first pitch of the joint squad ensues: the Rays would need to solve not one, but two ballpark issues, and then set up a plan for parallel sales and marketing staffs working across international lines.

And there are some other big issues to address, such as an unwillingness of St. Petersburg officials–and Tampa officials, apparently–to play along with the plan. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who had originally backed the deal for the Rays to explore a new ballpark in Tampa and Hillsborough County, expressed a lot of frustration with the team for floating the plan, saying that he expects the team to live up to the terms of its Tropicana Field lease, which runs through 2027:

“Sharing this team with Montreal is not an option on the table,” he said at at Thursday afternoon news conference.

The mayor dismissed the proposal as another chess move in the negotiations with the city and Pinellas County to build a new ballpark — one paid for with taxpayer dollars.

“After 12 years of indecision (about the future of the team) … I am tired of the games that are being played related to getting a new stadium built,” he said. “We all deserve better and should not take this too seriously. This is just the latest chapter in the book of negotiations.”

“I believe this is getting a bit silly.”

The proposal also seems to have impacted the team’s relationship with Tampa and Hillsborough officials. On the one hand, it was inevitable Sternberg and the Rays would raise the possibility of relocation as talks dragged on about a new ballpark in Tampa–“I’m shocked that there is gambling in this establishment!”–so there was the expected reactions to the proposed Tampa/Montreal arrangement:

[Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy] Murman doused any hopes that Tampa-Hillsborough might re-enter the stadium conversation.

“The public subsidy issue is a big issue, and it’s going to keep on being a big issue as we go forward,” she said. “But the truth is there is no appetite in Hillsborough County to use public tax dollars to build a stadium. I think the team realizes that …

“The taxpayers in Hillsborough County just don’t want it. The citizens resoundingly have said that. And I guess if somebody is willing to risk their political future and go against a very strong sentiment among the citizens of this county, it’s possible we could cobble four votes together and change out position on that. But it would be a stretch.”

Cobbling together four votes and then getting buy-in from Tampa and St. Petersburg is certainly a challenge, given Florida’s political environment. But give Sternberg some credit: after moving forward cautiously on new-ballpark plans–behaving like an financial investor and not as a sports-business visionary–he’s certainly gotten the attention of elected officials who will now need to take some solid stands pro and con on keeping or losing the Rays. In this instance, he’s in a win-win situation: he’ll get a new Tampa Bay ballpark, he’ll be free to move the Rays to greener pastures in Montreal, or he’ll land a dual-market franchise–which, arguably, is the worst-case scenario.

In Montreal, the announcement comes with great celebrating: for many, it proves that MLB considers Montreal to be a viable market, and now there’s a chance to bring pro ball back. There’s a suspicion by many that yesterday’s announcement is a back-door attempt to bring the Rays to Montreal, that when push comes to shove neither Tampa nor St. Petersburg city and county officials will summon the political will to move forward with some level of public financing or funding, and in the end Montreal will land the team on a full-time basis. And if the Rays stay in Florida? Montreal is then perfectly positioned when MLB inevitably expands to 32 teams. At the end of the day, the Tampa/Montreal proposal is a win-win for Montreal fans–and potentially a way for Tampa Bay to lose Major League baseball.

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