Rays see ray of hope in desire for ballpark
Door appears to be ajar for a move that would reward team's management success
For the past six seasons, the Rays arguably have been the best-run franchise in all of baseball. If your measuring stick is efficiency and performance and putting an entertaining product on the field, it's not even close.
Between 2008-12, Tampa Bay averaged 92 victories a season and made the playoffs three times. The Rays accomplished this despite having one of baseball's lowest payrolls every single season.
Tampa Bay had no choice, because for all of the club's success on the field, the Rays have never been able to transform it into success at the gate. In the past five years at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, they have consistently been among the poorest drawing teams in baseball.
This season, despite having one of the best teams in baseball, a team that has been almost unbeatable for six weeks, the 66-47 Rays are last in the American League in attendance, averaging 18,476.
To do it this way -- to win without generating huge revenues, to win while spending less than most teams -- requires smarts, patience and a little bit of luck. From the moment Carl Crawford became a star for the Rays, they knew there was a day coming when they'd have to say goodbye to him.
It was the same thing with B.J. Upton, who signed with the Braves last winter, and with James Shields, who was traded to the Royals as he approached free agency after the 2014 season.
Tampa Bay has locked up Evan Longoria long term, but the clock is ticking on David Price and Ben Zobrist. The Rays don't complain about any of this. In fact, they take pride in remaining competitive despite the lack of resources.
From owner Stuart Sternberg to executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, the Rays pride themselves on being creative, resourceful and figuring out a way to get things done regardless of payroll, attendance and ballpark.
For the past few years, though, Sternberg and team president Matt Silverman have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to convince St. Petersburg's political leaders to allow them to explore ballpark options across the bay in Tampa.
Until recently, they'd gotten nowhere. In fact, St. Pete's political leaders made it absolutely clear several times that the Rays would be held to a Tropicana Field lease that runs through 2027.
This week, for the first time, there's hope that things are about to change. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, St. Pete mayor Bill Foster acknowledged that the Rays might be better served exploring options in Tampa.
"If your goal is keeping the Tampa Bay Rays in Tampa Bay until 2050, you have to let them look in Tampa," Foster told the newspaper.
Foster said there was a time when he wondered if the Rays were making a good-faith effort to be successful in St. Petersburg. But after watching their promotional efforts on several fronts, he has changed his mind.
"You've got the hottest team in baseball, you're in a fight in the AL East, and you're not breaking 20,000," Foster said. "That sends a message to a lot of people. It's a flag to the entire community. Are we a Major League community? Are we a Major League region? I think people need to decide what we are. We're either going to be Major League and support this team, or we risk losing them."
Meanwhile, the land on which Tropicana Field sits could be more valuable to Foster's community in ways besides being the site of a ballpark.
This shift in thinking doesn't mean the Rays are off to Tampa next weekend or even next season. Is there a site there that's better than the one the Rays now have? Is there financing available? Is there a deal between St. Pete and the Rays that could be reached to allow the franchise to move?
Those issues could take months -- or years -- to work through. But for the first time, the Rays can begin to see a different kind of future for themselves, one that might include a retractable-roof ballpark in a vibrant area of Tampa.
With that future could come the financial ability to keep players like Price for years to come, to build something that feels permanent. The organization has worked hard to build credibility in the region, not just in doing things right on the field, but in doing them right off the field, too.
The Rays been good citizens of the community, good partners. All they've really needed is a chance to build their own version of Target Field or AT&T Park, a place that serves as an anchor and a destination. That's really all they need. They have everything else.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.