By JACOB HOAG
The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of ideas, backlash and, for the Tampa Bay Rays, hope of making baseball work in its current home.
The Rays want to keep the team in the Bay area. Or at least they’re acting like they do. But they aren’t confident that it can work in Tampa alone.
Enter Montreal, the potential future half-brother of Rays baseball.
By splitting the season in half, the opening 40 or so games in either St. Petersburg or Tampa and the other 40 — and potentially playoffs — in Canada. Essentially, the organization wants to become reverse snow birds.
Sure fire way to boost attendance figures, right?
The idea, presented officially by the Rays’ brass last week, has butt heads with backlash from, well, just about everyone in the Bay area and beyond.
But principle owner Stuart Sternberg insists it’s the best play.
“I don’t see it happening in St. Petersburg, and would be hard-pressed to see it working in Tampa from what I know,” he said at a news conference last week. “This is not a staged exit. This is about Tampa Bay keeping its hometown team and Montreal having one, too. I believe strongly in the sister-city concept. We’re asking for open minds.”
Questions have begun to arise, ranging from logistics for players to which team should host any potential playoff series. Also, will this move make people in the area like baseball any more, or will it just kill off the small remaining fanbase?
I’ve lived in Tampa for 23 of my 25 years. I get to maybe one game a season but haven’t been since before they traded Longoria. Why? I’m not sure and no one has been able to really figure out the cause of Tampa Bay’s lackluster attendance.
To many it’s been one big joke of a situation. To others, mostly within the organization or people north of the border, it’s an innovative approach to keeping the team from bailing on Florida all together.
But the question that hits home for us here in Charlotte County is the potential for spring training and the Stone Crabs, the Rays High-A affiliate, being yanked from our grasp.
It’s something that Sternberg has said is “certainly on the table.”
Whether the Rays move or split time with Montreal doesn’t affect our residents much outside of the fans who make the hour or so drive to St. Petersburg for games.
But if the Rays decide to move spring training, the Stone Crabs or both, it would be a massive loss for the county and its residents, though the county is going on with business as usual, taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“We haven’t had any indication from the Rays that they plan to take spring training out of Charlotte County either before the contract ends on 2024, or after,” Charlotte County spokesperson Brian Gleason told the Sun last month. “We’re operating as if they’re going to continue to be here ... We have a strong relationship with the Rays.”
So why would they make such a move?
Well, spring training attendance numbers aren’t exactly sky high and have decreased each of the past two years. But it would also eliminate one more move for the players.
If spring training was relocated to the Bay area, players would only have to make the one move to Montreal midseason and wouldn’t have to add a trip to Port Charlotte each spring.
There has also been talk of bringing spring training back to Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, which hosted the Rays prior to the move south.
It makes some sense, but it’s not going to make the residents of Charlotte County, who have enjoyed hosting the Rays the past 10 years, feel any better come February.
Putting the fan aspect aside, it would also be a significant financial loss.
Fans travel from all over the state and country to check out the upcoming major and minor leaguers, sleep in our hotels, visit our restaurants, shop at our stores and take in everything this beautiful area has to offer.
Spring training generated over $13 million this year for Charlotte County, a chunk of change that would be sorely missed.
But this whole ordeal wouldn’t exactly be cheap for the Rays, either. Aside from buying out the lease with St. Petersburg, which runs through 2027 and would crack the piggy bank to break, the Rays would also have to buy out its lease with the county and Charlotte Sports Park.
When could this happen? If the Stone Crabs follow, what will the county do with the empty ballpark? Should Charlotte County be worried?
Like most of the other questions circling this circus, we won’t get an answer anytime soon.
For now, we have to wait and see like the rest of them.