ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (FOX 13) - Sending the Tampa Bay Rays to play half of their home games in Canada is the best way to keep baseball in Tampa Bay "for generations to come," the team's owner claimed Tuesday.
At times wistful and at other times defensive, Stu Sternberg made his first public comments since Commissioner Rob Manfred surprised the baseball world last week by announcing that he'd granted the Rays permission to explore splitting home games between Tampa Bay and Montreal, Quebec.
"This is about Tampa Bay keeping its hometown team and Montreal having one as well," Sternberg explained. "Both communities secure that Major League Baseball will be played and thrive there for ours and for future generations. And because of it, a deep and powerful connection between two regions can form with baseball as its core."
Sternberg opened the press conference by asking team president Brian Auld to highlight the team's contributions to the Tampa Bay community, then Sternberg himself offered praise for St. Petersburg. But he said the area's regionalism was a problem for the franchise – one that is too much to overcome.
"We are simply not well-suited for a Major League Baseball team that needs to draw tens of thousands of people each of its 81 games to its ballpark," he continued. "Not many communities are, quite frankly. And to force that to happen here when the conditions are not right could be more than damaging – more than damaging to a team, to Major League Baseball, and to a community."
The attendance-challenged Rays have been trying for years to build a new stadium to replace Tropicana Field, ideally closer to the area's population center across the bay in Hillsborough County. Though the team is tied via a lease to Tropicana Field through 2027, the city of St. Pete had given them permission to explore Tampa locations.
The most recent attempt involving a glass-domed stadium in the Ybor City area fell apart late last year when deadlines passed without commitments to finance the $800-million plan. An earlier plan to build a large sail-roofed stadium in downtown St. Pete also failed for similar reasons.
Tuesday, Sternberg called for new open-air stadiums in Montreal and St. Petersburg, and spoke about spring baseball in Florida and summer nights in Montreal as soon as 2024. He admittedly had no answers yet for how the stadiums would be financed, where post-season play would happen, or even what the team would be called.
Instead, he asked for fans to keep an open mind, forcefully rejecting suggestions by some – including St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman – that the Montreal plan is merely a negotiating tactic with the city and its lease.
"To be clear, this is not a staged exit. That thought has never entered my mind," Sternberg insisted. "This is not us taking even one glance towards a relocation to Montreal. I rejected that idea years ago and I continue to reject it today. This is not a page out of a playbook to gain leverage. We are focused on this plan. We are focused on this plan, on how the Rays can thrive here."
But, he admitted, when asked about the possibility that this plan fails, that the team's future is far from certain.
"We're here through 2027 regardless," Sternberg told FOX 13's Josh Cascio. "I don't have an answer for 2028. If I did, there's very little reason for us to talk about this."
Kriseman, in response, again shot down the plan and called for "the reestablishment of a good working relationship," by the Rays.
"The city of St. Petersburg will not participate in the funding of a new stadium for a part-time team," he wrote, in part. "We remain receptive to partnering with the Tampa Bay Rays to redevelop the Tropicana Field site and build a new stadium for a full-time team."