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MLB rejected the Rays' plan to split team with Montreal. Where do they go next?

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Two-and-half years after Major League Baseball gave the Tampa Bay Rays its blessing to explore splitting the team’s home games between a forthcoming open-air stadium in the Tampa area and a forthcoming open-air stadium in Montreal, the league has reversed course and shut down the controversial sister-city experiment.

In spite of what seemed like insurmountable logistical issues, Rays majority owner Stuart Sternberg told reporters after the news broke that he was “all in on this last plan.”

“I'm not necessarily an all-in guy, we always keep one eye on the present and one on the future. This was something where we really just completely pushed our chips in for the sister city,” Sternberg said in a Zoom call Thursday afternoon.

Indeed, less than 10 days ago, the Tampa Bay Times published a letter signed by 39 local business leaders backing the plan. (Which does not, of course, reflect support of the fan base. “The good majority of people I talk to are not excited by the idea,” Tampa City Council member Luis Viera told the newspaper.)

Sternberg called the news “flat-out defeating,” “painful,” and, asked if he felt betrayed by his fellow team owners on the league’s executive council that rejected the plan, he said “that’s a word. That’s a word.”

Winning hasn't led to fans for Rays

The Rays have played at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, since the team debuted in 1998. The dated stadium, which is separated from downtown Tampa by narrow causeways, has long been cited as a source of the team’s disappointing attendance numbers. Even as the Rays’ on-field innovations have turned them into perennial league leaders, their attendance has ranked near the bottom in baseball. Last season, their home average of around 9,500 fans put them 28th overall. The Rays finished with the best record in the American League, for the second straight year.

The lease on the Trop expires after 2027, and where the team will play next has been an ongoing source of consternation in baseball. The Rays have repeatedly tried and failed to get new stadiums built in the area and after the last attempt in Ybor City fell apart over financing, the Rays have spent the past two years insisting that the market can’t sustain a full-time baseball team.

Now, with his sister-city future dashed, Sternberg struggled to reconcile that stance with a need to appeal to his current market.

“It's a great area,” he said. “Whether it can handle 81 games of baseball and all that encompasses: fans every night and sponsorships, it just hasn't been, you know, that hasn't happened to the point.”

Time is ticking. The Tampa Bay Times estimates that the Rays need to have a plan for a stadium in place by 2023 to be ready for 2028.

“So we are going to be looking for a new venue,” Sternberg said. Naturally, the question is: Where?

ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 08: Fans celebrate after Jordan Luplow #25 of the Tampa Bay Rays hit a grand slam in the first inning against the Boston Red Sox during Game 2 of the American League Division Series at Tropicana Field on October 08, 2021 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
A plan to split the Tampa Bay Rays' seasons between Florida and Montreal has been rejected by MLB. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Do Rays have a future in Tampa?

Commissioner Rob Manfred has repeatedly said that the league can’t expand until the Rays — and the Oakland A’s — sort out their stadium woes. If not a tacit endorsement of the process, this at least has left open the ability of team owners to leverage the threat of relocation for greater financial support from the current cities when it comes to building a new stadium. The Montreal plan, in all its absurdity, initially looked like a Raysian riff on that tactic.

And yet Sternberg says now, “I've never threatened to move the team out of the region.”

“That seems to be 101 in the playbook of getting stadiums and arenas built,” he said. “It just hasn't been my way to this point. And people have advised me to do that.”

Of course, telling someone you haven’t threatened them yet — and, indeed, have magnanimously resisted the obvious and apparently advisable temptation to do so — can read a little like a threat when delivered alongside the news that your preferred plan has fallen through. In fact, if the split-city plan wasn’t extortion, Sternberg himself seems to admit that it functioned as such.

He said that their previous attempts to get a stadium built in Tampa or St. Pete were met with little (ostensibly financial) support.

“A lot of the people who spoke up this time in favor of this, maybe they spoke up only because they really genuinely thought they were going to lose the team,” Sternberg said, like a guy benefiting from the implicit threat a rival city posed.

“So maybe, if nothing else comes out of this than the idea that people are a little more attuned to what's going on, or move the ball along, that could be helpful whether it's in Tampa or St. Pete.”

The news that the Rays would not become de facto dual citizens was met largely with a collective “of course?” on Twitter. But Sternberg seemed to think that sort of naysaying is indicative of a lack of vision, a hesitancy to pave a new path of team-dom not reliant on a single municipal allegiance.

“Personally,” he maintained, “I happen to think that partial seasons are going to be the wave of the future in professional sports.”