Rays owner: Splitting games with Montreal only way to keep MLB in Tampa

Tampa Bay Rays Principal Owner Stuart Sternberg, center, speaks at a press conference at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., Tuesday, June 25, 2019. Sternberg spoke about exploring the prospect of playing some future home games in Montreal. At left is Rays President of Baseball Operations Matthew Silverman, and at right is team President Brain Auld. (Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

Stu Sternberg described a plan to split Rays games with Montreal as soon as 2024 as the only way to keep Major League Baseball in the Tampa Bay region, adding that hosting a full home schedule in the area won’t “be an option going forward.”

Speaking for nearly 20 minutes before taking questions for another 20 minutes at a remarkable news conference Tuesday, the club’s principal owner impassionately stressed that the concept wasn’t a precursor to a permanent flight north. “This is not us even taking one glance toward a relocation to Montreal – I rejected that idea years ago and continue to reject it today,” he said.

And he also insisted that, “This is not a page out of a playbook to gain leverage.”

Still, Sternberg argued that the Tampa Bay area simply can’t support a Major League Baseball team for 81 home dates, leaving the Rays at or near the bottom in every economic category among the 30 teams. That’s why he made clear that it’s the sister-city structure or bust, promising nothing about the team’s future beyond the expiration of the Tropicana Field lease that runs through 2027.

“I have no intention of selling this baseball team,” said Sternberg. “I love being involved with baseball and all I’m able to do with it. What happens next (if the Montreal plan fails) I do not know. Even though it seems like a longshot idea to everybody and a cockamamie idea and whatever else it’s been called, we really do feel great about it and think it can get done.”

More ominously, though, he later added: “We’re here through 2027 regardless. I don’t have an answer for 2028.”

Sternberg’s vision is for two new open-air stadiums, one in the Bay area and the other in Montreal, to house the Rays, who could potentially be renamed. There’d be an opening day in Tampa Bay along with a sendoff game ahead of the season-opener in Montreal, which would host the second half of the schedule during its peak-weather summer months. Determining where post-season games would be played is “a high-class problem” he’d love to have.

There would be one ownership – he’d critically remain the control person with Major League Baseball, essentially granting him final word on the club – although he said it was important to have a local component on that front.

Sternberg confirmed he’s had multiple meetings with Stephen Bronfman, who is leading efforts to bring baseball back to Montreal, and “if Stephen and others – if we’re able to get this done – want to be (involved) and come along for this journey, we’d be open to it.”

At the same time, Sternberg pointed out that he’s already rejected more substantive overtures from Bronfman and his group, bringing to light some of the background work the executive chairman of Claridge Inc., has done in recent years.

“I met Stephen Bronfman a couple years back,” said Sternberg. “He was introduced to me as he was looking for an expansion franchise in Major League Baseball. Stephen had asked us about relocation. I immediately shot that down. Talked about if the team potentially would be for sale. Didn’t go any further than about 12 seconds past that, as well. We maintained a dialogue going forward because he had been speaking with other owners, team presidents and officials in Major League Baseball about expansion. It became an expansion type of thing they were looking for in Montreal. Through that at some point this idea of sharing this team came up.”

While the team-sharing proposal has already been shot down by the mayor of St. Petersburg, Sternberg said “we’re asking for open minds.” With its scattered population and array of small to mid-size businesses but lack of Fortune 500 companies, the Tampa Bay region is “simply not well suited for a Major League Baseball team that needs to draw tens of thousands of people (to) each of its 81 games (at) its ballpark,” he said.

The Rays already have had two stadium proposals fall through – one in St. Petersburg years back and another in Tampa’s Ybor City just last December – which is why he essentially closed the door on the potential of another effort to keep the team’s full schedule intact.

“We never say never, but after all we’ve been through and what we’ve learned over the last few years, it’s highly unlikely,” Sternberg said in one reply to one question, and later replying to another by saying, “I don’t see (a new domed stadium) happening in St. Petersburg and I’d be hard-pressed to see it in Tampa, as well, given what I know.”

In sharing the team, the burden of supporting the team would be split between two markets, and the cost of building a stadium would be greatly reduced since neither park would need a roof with usage focused during peak weather months in both communities.

“We are focused on this plan,” said Sternberg. “We are focused on how the Rays can thrive here in Tampa Bay. This is about Tampa Bay keeping its hometown team – and Montreal having one as well. A permanent arrangement, a generational commitment to both communities, both communities secure that Major League Baseball will be played and thrive there for our and future generations. …

“We think this can and will be extraordinary for the region. Eighty-one home games is a lot of games. Does a community need to host 81 home games for that affinity, for that connection?”

It’s an intriguing question, one Sternberg and Rays sound committed to answering.

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