We end 2019 with a countdown of the 10 biggest stories of the year on Ballpark Digest, as chosen by editors and partially based on page views. Today, #3: The Tampa Bay Rays pursue a joint-market solution with Montreal.
The Rays spent much of 2018 in pursuit of a new ballpark in Tampa’s Ybor City, but announced late last year that they were ending negotiations, leaving questions about their long-term facility plans. The Rays may be ending 2019 where they started the year—stuck in a Tropicana Field lease—but the team’s long-term future in the Tampa area may be firmed with the emergence of a plan to play half the season in Tampa and half in Montreal. With a local ownership group identifying a location for a new Montreal ballpark, Rays ownership asked for—and received—permission to explore a split season and new ballparks in each country.
By playing at outdoor ballparks in both markets, the Tampa/Montreal team would take advantage of good spring and early summer weather in Tampa and great summer/fall weather in Montreal, negating the need for more-expensive domed or retractable-roof facilities in both markets. On one level, it certainly is an elegant solution for facilities issues in both cities, as the Rays failed in their last effort to land an Ybor City ballpark. Cutting the cost of a new Ybor City or Channelside facility would certainly make any new Rays Florida ballpark a more palatable proposition for city and county officials.
The Rays were informed by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman that he had no interest in having them play only half a season at Tropicana Field until the lease expires at the end of 2027, although that may not be a huge factor at the moment: instead of planning for a new Tampa Bay ballpark in 2023 or 2024, the Rays are now looking at 2025 at the earliest—but given how slow governmental bodies can move, maybe 2028 isn’t out of the question.
The issue will be putting together a ballpark deal with plenty of moving parts. A new ballpark in Tampa, even a $500-million open-air ballpark sans a retractable roof, will require buy-in from Hillsborough County and some imaginative financing. It will also need buy-in from St. Petersburg and probably Pinellas County, especially if an overhaul of Al Lang Stadium (for a potential return of spring training) is part of any plan. And, of course, preliminary plans for a new Montreal ballpark need to move forward. So, we’re talking multiple city, state, provincial, county and perhaps even national bodies all in agreement on a multi-ballpark plan. But with Tampa Mayor Jane Castor saying she sees merit in a split season, especially with a new ballpark built in her city, the political climate may be right to move forward with a plan.
Proposing a split season is a bold move, one without a very good track record. And the cynics in the sports world will argue that this is just a preamble toward a permanent move of the team. But we live in changing times, and in this case, fortune just might favor the bold.