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  • The latest installment in the Rays' quest to make baseball work in St. Petersburg is the wackiest and dumbest yet. It seems more like a desperate bluff to get the city to build them a new stadium.
By Jon Tayler
June 20, 2019

The solution of what to do about baseball in Tampa—a team that draws little to no fan interest in terms of paid attendance and plays its games in a haunted unfinished basement—has plagued MLB almost since the franchise’s inception. Relocation, contraction, a new stadium—you name it, the league and the team have explored it, only to find each and every avenue cut off. The Rays’ complicated existence is baseball’s Gordian knot.

The latest attempt to cut through that rope, though, might be the wackiest and dumbest yet. Per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, Major League Baseball has granted the Rays permission to seek operating in two cities at once by partially relocating to Montreal, the former home of the Expos. Under the plan, the Rays would play the first half of the season in St. Petersburg and the second in Canada, existing more or less as the game’s child of divorced parents, shuttled between houses on the weekends and at holidays.

Suffice to say that the logistics of this move would be complicated. For starters, it would necessitate two entirely new stadiums, as the Rays have no interest in staying in the Trop, and Montreal’s Olympic Stadium—the Expos’ home from 1977 through the team’s final season in 2004—is old and unfit for regular use. Additionally, it’s hard to imagine that players and team employees would be up for relocating from Florida to Canada every summer, or having to maintain two homes in two separate countries (not to mention acquiring work visas and paying two sets of taxes) while moving their families in the middle of the year. Divvying up the schedule would be massively complicated, and it’s unlikely that opposing teams would be particularly excited about navigating this arrangement. And what happens to the seasonal employees in St. Petersburg and Montreal who are out of a job half the year?

Quite simply, none of this makes sense for any of the parties involved. Montreal in particular has already tried this kind of arrangement: In 2003 and ‘04, the Expos played 22 of their home games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which unsurprisingly did little to help the team’s attendance problems. Nor is it likely that Montreal would pony up the resources to build an entirely new stadium to host all of 40 home games. Local businessman Stephen Bronfman, whose father Charles was the Expos’ original owner and who is a prominent supporter of bringing baseball back to Quebec, purchased a piece of land in the city that would be the ground for a new stadium. But it would almost certainly require public money to build. Mayor Valerie Plante supports holding a referendum on that funding, but the recent initiatives for such measures in other cities routinely have been met with defeat.

Both local governments and citizens have wizened up to the fact that using tax money for teams and stadiums is a losing game. That’s been the case in St. Petersburg/Tampa, which have roundly rejected the Rays’ attempts to have the city and county pay for a stadium to replace the Trop. That included the team’s ambitious plans, announced last July, to build a billion-dollar, state-of-the-art ballpark in Tampa’s Ybor City that would’ve required hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding. That dream collapsed over the winter, as the financial details never came together, followed by the team telling St. Petersburg that it was done looking at other potential sites in the area.

That seemingly locked the Rays into sticking with Tropicana Field through 2027, when the contract binding them to the stadium expires. This Montreal business, then, seems designed into scaring St. Petersburg into ponying up for a new stadium before then (and presumably acts as a gauge of how serious Montreal is about paying for a team). That threat, though, is as absurd as it is empty. St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman has said that he won’t grant the team permission to split its time between Florida and Montreal. “I don’t see that happening and I’ve expressed that to them previously,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. To The Athletic’s Josh Tolentino, meanwhile, he said, “I believe this is getting a bit silly,” adding, “I am tired of the games that are being played related to getting a new stadium built.”

Ultimately, that’s what this is: a game of chicken, with the Rays daring St. Petersburg to blink first. But Kriseman has already called their bluff, exposing this as a desperate maneuver with no leverage. Relocation may be the team’s ultimate fate, but dangling such a nonsensical solution as a season split with another city some 2,000 miles away is laughable on its face. No government or city was going to fall for that, particularly when said city can simply say no because of a preexisting contract.

All this proposed plan does, then, is act as a slap in the face to Rays fans who want their team to stay. The team recognized that much quickly, putting out a statement from principal owner Stu Sternberg on Twitter on his commitment to “keeping baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come.” It’s hard to see, though, how cutting the number of home games in half and sharing custody with another city counts as commitment. How exactly are attendance problems or lack of interest in Tampa going to be fixed when the team itself won’t be there for a full season?

The truth is that the Rays deserve better than what they have: a bad stadium in a poorly located area. But the fix for that isn’t some overly complicated half-measure. It’s for the team’s ownership to spend the money necessary to build a functional stadium in either St. Petersburg or Tampa. If Sternberg and the rest of his group aren’t up to that, then they should sell the team to someone who’s willing to make it happen without asking the public to do the heavy lifting financially.

Maybe at the end of the day, baseball in Tampa is an experiment that simply won’t work for a variety of reasons. But the fans there—as well as the fans in Montreal, so cruelly stripped of their Expos—shouldn’t have to settle for half a team through some harebrained cross-country scheme that features one foot constantly out the door. The solution to making the Rays work where they are doesn’t need to be—and isn’t—that hard.

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