Stu Sternberg, principal owner of the Tampa Bay Rays of the American League East, held a press conference Tuesday afternoon, ostensibly to clarify and sell his idea of splitting his team’s home games between a new ballpark somewhere in the Tampa Bay area and a new ball park in Montreal. (New ballparks mostly paid for, if they ever happen, by you-know-whom.)
This monstrosity of an idea was sprung on an unsuspecting Tampa Bay area last Thursday when it was announced that Major League Baseball had given the Rays thumbs up to “explore” this form of athletic polygamy. The idea makes little sense and local officials in St. Petersburg (where the Rays now play their home games) and Tampa (where the Rays tried and failed to hold up local taxpayers for a new baseball palace) wasted no time in saying the idea is daft and a non-starter. Sternberg did not strengthen his case or even make his idea more understandable in Tuesday’s séance. It was entirely appropriate that the non-explanation explanation took place in the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. A surreal idea promoted in a museum dedicated to the work of a surrealist. Stu’s pitch makes no more sense than Salvador’s paintings.
The basics of the plan are that the Rays would play the first of the baseball season in St. Petersburg, and then finish the season playing in Montreal after the heat of subtropical Central Florida sets in. Attendance in both cities would be higher — Sternberg asserts on the basis of no evidence — than it would be in one city. And to make the team financially feasible for the Rays’ ownership group, as well as for the owners of other MLB teams tired of paying all that revenue sharing money with the Rays, Sternberg says the Rays must draw “tens of thousands to every home game.”
Dream on, Stu. In the team’s 21-year history, it has been alternately successful and woeful on the field. But it has never done well in the stands, being at or near the bottom of average MLB attendance every summer. This year’s average of 14K and change is roughly half of the MLB average attendance. Only the Miami Marlins, a team with major problems, attracts fewer paying customers.
During his presentation and in his answers to reporters’ questions Tuesday, at one time or other Sternberg said he wasn’t planning to sell or move the team full-time to another city. “This is not a staged exit,” he said. But he also said it was clear that 81 home games a year at Tropicana Field would not work permanently, and he is not considering this. Put these statements in a syllogism and the “therefore” you get is Sternberg is putting all his eggs in the two-city basket, an idea which has even fewer fans than show up at the Trop of a Tuesday night to watch the Rays play the Spokane Spiders.
The less-baseball-is-more plan Sternberg is relying on calls for both St. Petersburg or Tampa and Montreal to build him a new outdoor ball-yard. Three towns that have shown no political appetite for obliging their citizens to extend this kind of largess, even for a full-time team. The Florida yard could be less expensive than the sport palace the Rays have tried to wangle locally because, as the team would head north in June, would not have to have a roof. Sternberg made reference to our “beautiful Tampa Bay area spring weather.” This only serves to remind the locals that Sternberg is a resident of Rye, New York. If he had to sit outside for three hours — which most MLB games take these days — in Tampa or St. Petersburg in late May, when temperatures of 90 degrees or more are common, he wouldn’t say things like this. Beautiful May weather or not, even a roofless ball yard would set taxpayers back hundreds of millions, and is unlikely to be approved. It certainly wouldn’t if it relied on my vote.
A poll taken in Montreal shows interest in baseball returning to that city. But a solid majority, 59 percent, say they oppose using public money to build a ballyard. This lack of enthusiasm, here and there, for springing for pricey ball yards on the public dime makes Sternberg’s baseball time-share delusion a longer shot than Apollo 11.
“Keep an open mind,” Sternberg pleaded during his Tuesday remarks. There are plenty of open-minded people hereabouts. But there’s a line between open-mindedness and empty-headedness. Sure sounds like Stu is asking us to cross that line. What will his next idea be? Baseball speed-dating?