02/06/12 1:20 PM EST
Rays managing ballpark situation well
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
They've said almost nothing publicly, taking the high road and letting the politicians do the talking. Instead, they're working behind the scenes, quietly and tirelessly, lobbying officials, explaining, offering solutions.
Their problem seems beyond dispute. Still, they've made no threats, engaged in no overblown rhetoric.
The Rays' bottom line is that they can't remain competitive at Tropicana Field. Reasonable people may disagree on how to change things, but the problem itself is right there in black and white.
Despite having one of baseball's best teams, Tampa Bay remains near the bottom of baseball in home attendance and revenues. When asked about the matter by a reporter recently, owner Stuart Sternberg declined to bite.
"We're just going to keep winning baseball games," Sternberg said.
The Rays acknowledge two things. One is that St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster recently invited team executives to a meeting. Afterward, both sides agreed not to discuss what was said.
The club held fast to that agreement, even though it was surprised to see Foster on television later that day doing just what they believed they'd agreed not to do.
The Rays have also disclosed that Major League Baseball had begun to question them about their long-term plans for the franchise. In other words, how are they going to get into a ballpark that will give them the revenues to be a healthy, competitive franchise?
Once upon a time, it was thought that all the Rays needed to do was win games, and Tropicana Field would be packed. However, in the past four years, they've averaged 92 victories a year and gone to the postseason three times with a payroll ranked near the bottom. Only the Phillies have more playoff appearances in this span, and they've spent far more money.
Tampa Bay has done it the right way, with a homegrown team that's great fun to watch, led by stars like third baseman Evan Longoria and pitcher David Price. The club has a general manager, Andrew Friedman, and a manager, Joe Maddon, who are among the very best in the business.
Beginning with Sternberg and team president Matt Silverman and extending right down the masthead, the Rays are smart, decisive and successful.
Unfortunately, success on the field hasn't translated into success off it. They've ranked 29th, 22nd, 23rd and 26th in attendance the past four years despite finishing first twice, second once and third once.
The Rays have also attempted to be good citizens of the community by being involved in an assortment of charities and other good works.
It would be a mistake to assume they've gone completely unnoticed. Team officials were thrilled recently when a poll of area fans showed that the Rays were now the No. 1 team in the area.
Still, they've made zero progress in getting a new stadium. One plan to build a waterfront park in St. Petersburg fizzled for lack of public support, even though the Rays offered to pay $150 million of the construction costs and cost overruns.
It's not that the plan died so quickly that bothered the organization. If it had been about the details of the deal, they were willing to negotiate all of them. What bothered the Rays most of all was that St. Petersburg officials wouldn't even acknowledge a problem.
They've said that the Rays have a lease through 2027, and nothing else matters. If the Rays end up being a shell of a franchise, so be it.
That's exactly what the Rays fear may happen. They're competitive now because their core talent is still young and making relatively little money, and Friedman has found enough bargain-basement additions to fill in around the edges.
But the clock is ticking on all those young players. As their salaries grow, the Rays will be less likely to keep them.
After the 2010 season, Tampa Bay parted company with its six highest-paid players but still won 91 games and made the playoffs. Time eventually will run out on this constant fitting and refitting of the roster.
To maintain success, the team must be able to keep some of its best players and allow success to build upon success. Doing this requires bigger crowds and a stadium that produces more revenues.
The Rays would like the freedom to look around the entire area for a stadium location convenient to more fans. Since that might be in Tampa, St. Petersburg officials won't go along.
At the moment, the Rays have just about run out of ideas. They'll continue to attempt to drum up support for their situation and to explore sites St. Petersburg officials might agree to. As Sternberg said, the club will also continue to win. At least for now.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.