Last week it was reported the Tampa Bay Rays planned to explore becoming two-city team, playing early-season home games in the Tampa Bay area and finishing the season in Montreal. The plan would require not one but two new open-air stadiums. As I wrote then, the plan seemed to be a fantastical one, aimed at creating leverage in either Tampa or in Montreal to build a permanent, full-time stadium than in actually resulting in a workable plan.
Today Rays owner Stuart Sternberg held a press event in which he argued for the two-city plan. You can get most of what he had to say via the tweets of Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times and Eric Fisher of Sports Business Group, each of whom attended and live-tweeted the presser.
The biggest problem: he didn’t really make an argument for such a plan. Indeed, he just made what seem to be baseless assertions about how cool and good the idea is while doing very little to dispel the notion that all of this is aimed at either (a) getting people in the Tampa Bay area to build him a full-time ballpark; or (b) providing a basis for saying “hey, we tried” if, later, he gets Montreal to build him one and he moves the team.
Sternberg, after touting what the Rays have done given their limited resources, noted that his team is near or at the bottom of most economic measures in the game. He said that, as a result, he was “hard-pressed” to see a long-term future in which the Rays played in the Tampa Bay area full time, saying, “I don’t see it happening in St. Petersburg and would be hard-pressed to see it working in Tampa from what I know.” At the same time he said the Rays were “champions of Tampa Bay” and that “this is about Tampa Bay keeping its hometown team and Montreal having one too.”
So how does that work? How does he plan to get two cities to build him new open-air stadiums for several hundred million dollars a piece when he couldn’t get one city to build him one stadium? No word on that. Which makes this assertion seem about as empty as Tropicana Field on a Monday afternoon makeup of a September interleague rainout:
#Rays Sternberg again: It is not a plan to leave or negotiate, that having less than 81 games works better and "it's a new reality.'' Also, "we're asking people to keep an open mind" in seeing how it could work.
— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) June 25, 2019
When the Braves and Rangers and any number of other teams got new stadiums, they just went out and got new stadiums. Or they got the deals in place most of the way. That’s how a stadium solution occurs when a team is not trying to leverage anyone (at least publicly). When you have no plan — and Sternberg has no plan right now — and you come out with a press push like this, you are most certainly trying to create some sort of new reality and to leverage public sentiment somehow.
The question, then, is what is Sternberg trying to leverage?
The most typical and straightforward manner in which baseball owners have talked up two cities as possible destinations for their teams is to pit one against the other. This has happened over and over again in baseball history and it’s a very successful game plan when the conditions are just right.
What Sternberg says he’s truly proposing — a two-city thing — is not typical and does not logically flow with more or less everything we know about how baseball, the business of baseball and baseball fandom works. That does not mean it is an impossible thing to pull off or that Sternberg will not, in fact, try to pull it off. But it does mean that the burden is on him to prove that this isn’t all just bluster in service of the more typical play of baseball owners when two cities are involved.
Sternberg did nothing today to show that his plan has any bones to it or that it’s at all plausible. He has given no reason to believe that he can convince public and/or private interests in two cities to build him ballparks. He has not said how he plans to get around the Rays’ iron-clad lease for Tropicana Field with St. Petersburg. He only glibly addressed the very basic and logical questions people have about how a two-city team would even function, simply alluding to how cool and good it would be when it happens.
Until there is any kind of meat on those bones, I’m not willing to go with the idea that his two-city plan is what he and the Rays actually hope will happen on the other side of all of this. Rather, I’m going to choose to believe that this is all a gambit to get one city or the other to build him a full-time ballpark.