The Rays two-city plan is in the news again

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I’m just going to outright say that I don’t know where this whole “Tampa Bay wants to be in Montreal, too” thing is going. Is Rays’ ownership simply trying to leverage one city against the other until their deal with Tropicana finally ends in a few years, in the hopes one will decide that they want this particular MLB team in their city full time by then? Is the idea to try to prove that St. Petersburg isn’t a fit for the Rays because they aren’t even really trying to stop them from spending half of their season in another country? Is Stuart Sternberg working for the United States government to invade Quebec with agents disguised as Floridian baseball fans, forcing Canada to secede the territory and breaking the longstanding agreement with America’s neighbor that defined the northern border of Maine centuries ago? Hey, that’s no less ridiculous than whatever else the plan might actually be, we shouldn’t discount the possibility that this is all an op.

I haven’t written about the two-city plan for a couple of years now, in part because there haven’t been any real updates, and also because what else was there to say?

The latest stadium “plan” out of the Rays’ ownership group boils down to this: asking Tampa (or St. Petersburg) to finance a smaller, $600 million stadium without a dome, for baseball use in the earlier part of the season. The rest of the season would be played in Montreal, which, by the way, would also have to build a new stadium for the Rays. The idea here is apparently that the Rays could play baseball in Tampa Bay when it’s relatively cooler, earlier in the year, and then the mixed-use stadium would be free for other events when it’s too hot for baseball and also unprotected from central Florida’s torrential downpours.

While Major League Baseball has approved the Rays’ exploration of this idea, the truth is that no one involved expects it to actually come to this. This is posturing in the hopes of making the Tampa Bay region blink, but it doesn’t sound like it’s going to work.

There is nothing about this plan that makes sense at face value. The Rays would need permission from St. Petersburg’s city council to even begin to discuss this plan with Montreal, and if they didn’t know they weren’t getting said permission before they announced it, they know now. And even if St. Pete approved the venture, the Major League Baseball Players Association would also need to approve it, since playing in two cities means housing in two cities, and that would be an odd hardship even on veteran players with millions in the bank, since it would remove them from their family for even more of the season. Never mind the younger ones who are shuttled back and forth between Triple-A and the minors, and now need to figure out a way to have places to live in three different cities at a given time.

It’s been two-plus years since that was written, and none of it makes any more sense than it did. We now have the additional wrinkle of the Rays suggesting Floridians would pack up and head to Montreal to keep watching the Rays in person, even though you can’t get these people to drive over a bridge to go see the team right now. Which, I’m not criticizing the people for their decision to not attend games inside a stadium that looks like a combination restaurant/indoor soccer field I used to play softball inside of when you need to cross a bridge that spans the bay at rush hour to do it. It’s just that, as R.J. Anderson recently pointed out on Twitter, if the bridge is too much of an impediment, then there is just no chance a meaningful number of Rays fans are going to head to another country to watch some baseball played by a team actively trying to limit how much baseball will be played near them.

Initially, there was going to be a sign displayed in Tropicana during the postseason to promote the two-city partnership with Montreal, but after taking a lot of flak for that decision, the plan was abandoned. Of course, the Rays already got what they wanted here, which was for people to start talking about the whole two-city deal again.

Evan Drellich recently mentioned that the actual financial talks for making this plan work are happening “out of public view,” and spoke with the current mayor of St. Petersburg, Rick Kriseman, on the matter as well, with Kriseman saying that this was an intentional tactic “until we’re at a point where we’re comfortable disclosing more.” Obviously things aren’t far enough along if they aren’t sharing specific financial details, but this particular quote was eyebrow-raising:

“As I’ve told the team, if they’re able to make it work somehow, the only thing I would not be open to is the city using general revenue taxpayers to build a stadium for the team for that split (with Montreal). Obviously, if they were playing a full season, it’s a different discussion. … If they’re able to figure out how to do a stadium for a split, without city taxpayer dollars, we’d be OK with them being here. We’ve got the land that they could use to build that stadium.”

What is there to glean from that? St. Petersburg doesn’t want to use taxpayer dollars to finance a new Rays’ stadium if they are going to be splitting time in Montreal, but would be more open to a publicly-financed ballpark if the Rays are going to stick with St. Pete full-time — and he even said they have the land for it. So, if the Rays’ plan is actually just to use Montreal (or St. Pete) as leverage against each other, it appears like it could be working. How much it’s working remains to be seen, especially when we don’t have specific financial details to go on — remember how long the Oakland vs. A’s situation has been going on, even though the A’s don’t appear to want to leave and Oakland doesn’t seem like they actually want them to go, either — but, as Drellich notes, the St. Pete side of things appears more open to this two-city plan than they used to.

Given it’s the end of the 2021 season and the deal with Tropicana doesn’t even expire until 2027, this is going to be an ongoing saga that maybe won’t see an update here for another couple of years, depending on how well (or poorly) the private talks between the Rays and these cities go. I remain skeptical that the plan is to actually play in two cities, however, considering that there would need to be some kinds of protections or concessions built into the collective bargaining agreement for the players who suddenly have to play and live in two different countries just to play their home games — especially players on a team that are essentially not allowed to earn major money before they’re jettisoned elsewhere. And I can’t imagine the 29 other owners want to start giving up concessions to the players that a single owner is forcing into existence, since everything in those talks is a matter of give and take, and the team in question is already anonymously criticized by other teams for going too far with their exploiting of the revenue-sharing system, as the Drellich piece notes.

Like I opened with, I’m still not sure where this is going. And that I can’t quite pin it down just makes me all the more suspicious. We’ve got plenty of time to figure out the master plan here, though, so for now, I’ll stick with suspicion.

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