What are likely scenarios as Rays tease Tampa-Montreal split season?

Tropicana Field, home to the Tampa Bay Rays. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

They tease us, these Tampa Bay Rays. Say they’re going to use the post-season to help sell the split-cities regular season concept by putting up a sign at Tropicana Field just in time for national media attention? Then, two days later, they reverse course. No sign; no mention of Montreal.

It’s like they dropped the fig leaf for a second, gave everybody a peak and then quickly covered up again. Teasing, teasing, teasing …

But let’s be clear: It is apparent there are three options regarding the Rays’ future and a lot of really smart people think keeping the team full-time in the Tampa Bay area is the third of those. It’s not hard to find people who think there’s a better chance of the team being solely Montreal-based than solely Tampa-based or even split between two cities.

And so what if we all woke up one morning and discovered the Toronto Blue Jays were the second-best Major League team in Canada? It’s happened before, you know. (Sorry: I just had to.) Could happen again.

You thought tensions between the Rays and Blue Jays were already strained because of Kevin Kiermaier’s “well, look what I found!” moment? Or that — let’s just suppose for a second — the Rays decide this weekend that they’d rather have the New York Yankees as a possible first-round opponent than the Blue Jays and run out lineups that are less than their strongest against the Bronx Bombers, in the process helping stick a fork in the 2021 Blue Jays’ playoff aspirations? How many innings can Brett Phillips pitch in a weekend?

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Oh hell yes. I know. I’m letting my imagination run a little wild here. But let’s be clear: The Rays have been open about their intentions to split the regular season since it emerged that the plan received the blessing of commissioner Rob Manfred. If nothing else, club president Matt Silverman’s suggestion that the team might advertise the plan suggests a massive comfort level on the part of Rays majority owner Stuart Sternberg.

Ground will need to be broken in both cities on new, open-air ballparks for the concept to become a reality, and the Rays still have six years left on their lease at Tropicana Field. So, it’s going to take juggling of multiple timetables in terms of construction and government approval and the Rays have failed to get a park built in Tampa despite years of trying.

Still, there seems to be a tremendous amount of cooperation between Sternberg and his Montreal partners. Sternberg and Stephen Bronfman are leading this effort, and Bronfman and his group have so far played it perfectly behind the scenes, avoiding grand pronouncements and, this week, going to ground to allow Rays ownership to balance getting the world used to the split-cities concept while focussing on winning a potential World Series.

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So here are some thoughts, suppositions and suspicions about where we are and how we got here … and where I’m told this all might go …

• Splitting the Rays between two cities is something that will require approval from the Major League Baseball Players Association. Ownership cannot unilaterally impose the move. So, one theory you will hear is that this could be a bargaining chip to be utilized in the upcoming round of CBA negotiations, something that can be taken off the table in return for something else from the players. “Give us this and the split-city concept dies.” Or, perhaps the players will flip it around on owners and say: “Give us this and we’ll accept the split-city idea.” Nothing happens in a vacuum when CBA talks are on the horizon …

• It’s all a ploy to get a new ballpark in Tampa, since everybody agrees the Rays can’t survive in St. Petersburg. At first glance, this makes little sense, since a new ballpark in Tampa will cost the same whether it’s used for 40 or 81 games and it would seem fewer games would mean fewer tax revenues, which begs the question: What benefit will that have for Tampa, beyond the fact that money might be saved on a roof since the team would be playing in Montreal during the summer storm season?

Whatever the reason, Tampa mayor Jane Castor is supportive of the split, especially if it results in a park being built in the east end of the city — a smaller facility than Raymond James Stadium, with an eye toward configuring it as a home for pro soccer (the Tampa Bay Rowdies or a possible MLS team) and using it as a focal point for local regeneration. On the other hand …

• What doesn’t need to be said is the idea that having Montreal break ground first might prevent foot-dragging from Tampa officials, or that it makes it easier for the Rays to say “to hell with it” and try to extricate themselves from their lease knowing they have a landing spot. But knowing something about the folks involved in the Montreal project and their robust political support, Montreal won’t break ground unless they know the Rays are going to be tenants.

These are much savvier locals than the ones who willingly let Jeffrey Loria and David Samson spirit the Expos out of town, preferring to make the pair scapegoats instead of ponying up money to keep the team in Montreal. The current group is a mix of high-tech and gaming money as well as good, old money. There aren’t any dilettantes. “Serious guys who’d be in play whatever city they were from,” was how an MLB source described them to me.

My one concern: If Montreal is going to be the full-time home for the team, a retractable roof is a must. Let’s not get all romantic here: Getting people to come out to a ballpark in the cold isn’t easy if the team has a non-competitive run. That’s not a Montreal thing. It’s a Cleveland thing. It’s a Pittsburgh thing. A Detroit thing … a baseball thing. And while people like to wax poetic about Jarry Park and Exhibition Stadium and sun-kissed summer days and gentle summer breezes and a full moon and full beer, let’s be clear: This isn’t the ’70s or ’80s. In this digital age, people don’t like to freeze their ass off for a full 10-game homestand in April.

So, keep an eye on the cost of Montreal’s stadium and how roof-friendly it is. You can’t have 81 home games in Montreal without a roof …

• Why would the players association agree to this idea, which would seem to create all manner of family dislocation, especially since there’s no guarantee it would result in a higher payroll? I don’t know. Honestly. My guess is there’s a financial case for the notion to make it this far, and I’m led to believe the players haven’t completely bought into it.

I can’t see other owners standing in the way of this, since it could theoretically bring in more revenue and increase the franchise value of the Rays, which in turn drives up their own franchise value. It’s better than pure relocation since other teams do not share in relocation. They do share in expansion fees, and this move would allow prime U.S. expansion markets to remain open. Viva Las Vegas, baby!

• Would the Blue Jays sign off on this? Would they need to? I’m told they’ve been generally supportive in ownership meetings, which may simply be an indication that there’s bigger fish to fry — like getting their own new ballpark built. The Blue Jays own the country right now and have robust broadcast numbers. They’ve re-established a brand that was brutalized by the neglect of the Interbrew years. A new team might cannibalize the broadcast market.

But know this: Blue Jays president and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro knows where the bodies are buried and is a deft politician, which makes him the right man at the right time. Truth is, defining the value of Canada’s broadcast market is something baseball doesn’t quite have a handle on — witness the constant questioning of how Blue Jays ownership accounts for TV revenue. That’s one reason the New York Yankees politely asked around this off-season about how a team that hadn’t sold a ticket in Toronto was able to sign George Springer to a six-year, $150-million deal …

• Manfred isn’t Bud Selig. The commissioner knows there aren’t many U.S. markets of significance unserved — Vegas, maybe, Portland, Nashville — and he has often mused about Major League teams in Mexico and, yes, Vancouver. Getting baseball back into Washington, D.C., was a legacy issue for Selig. Manfred’s focal point seems to be pace of play, lack of in-game action and mining new sources of revenue in a changing world of legalized wagering and new media. Solving long-standing issues in Oakland and Tampa is one way to increase revenue and franchise value …

So, there you have it. My gut reaction? The Rays will be a Montreal-based team — full-time, not shared — by 2027 after extricating themselves from their lease at the Trop. They won’t play in the American League East, though: rather, the Rays will be a National League team as a peace offering to the Blue Jays.

In the meantime, … keep an eye open for that fig leaf to fall once again this winter.

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