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Rays’ stadium dream reveal a reminder that team’s politics are still minor-league

Do the Tampa Bay Rays know what league they’re playing in?

I’m not talking about on-the-field, where they play in the MLB against the Yankees and the Red Sox. I’m talking about off-the-field, where the team is hoping to convince a cash-strapped community to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build it a new ballpark.

Because if the Rays are a major league team on the field, they are in the minor leagues when it comes to politics.

That was made clear again on Tuesday when the team unveiled an elaborate plan for a new domed stadium that would take them across Tampa Bay to the Ybor City section of Tampa at a cost of nearly $900 million.

The 30,842-seat stadium would be the smallest in Major League Baseball and would be covered by a fully enclosed and translucent roof, not a retractable dome.

While it was hard not to be dazzled by the architectural renderings, it was easy to see that the Rays have the same political problems they had a decade ago when the team wanted to build a new ballpark on St. Petersburg’s beloved waterfront.

The Rays did the same thing then as they did Tuesday: roll-out beautiful conceptual art of what the future may look like, without really explaining the financing of making the dream a reality.

That’s why a rag-tag grassroots organization (of which I was the one-time campaign manager) with a budget of just $40,000 was able to block the Rays multi-million dollar PR push for that new stadium. Part of the Rays’ problem then was that they had little or no buy-in from the political stakeholders in the community. Instead, they offered a gross distortion on the ‘Field of Dreams’ line: ‘You pay to build it. And we’ll come.’

Fast-forward ten years and the Rays are at it again. Wall Street guy Stu Sternberg believes that civic pride runs so strong in Tampa Bay that there’s no way the elected officials would really let the team abandon the community. The reality is the other way around: The Tampa Bay TV market is so much more lucrative than anywhere Sternberg can move his team that he’ll never quit Tampa-St. Pete, nor will his fellow MLB owners let him.

That’s why what was unveiled yesterday was not a ballpark, it was a community center (how many times did the Rays mention the meeting rooms?) with a baseball field in the middle of it. This is so a pliable County Commission and/or a Tampa City Council can justify diverting public money allocated for other uses to go to construction.

Another way to look at the Rays’ proposed home, with its smallest capacity in the majors, is that its a near-$1 billion TV studio. Filling a stadium is important, but the Rays make their profits via their local TV deal and by sharing in the revenue much-bigger-market teams get from their own TV deals. The Yankees have to go on the road and play somebody, right? In an alternate universe, the Rays don’t even have a stadium, just a field wrapped in a green screen so as to simulate one.

This is part of the reason why Stu Sternberg, whose every public appearance should make folks in Tampa Bay appreciate Jeff Vinik even more, could not avoid his “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (Let them eat cake!) moment.

Minutes after essentially asking the community to be ready to pony up $600 or $700 million for HIS PRIVATE BUSINESS, Sternberg said HE’S NOT gonna get his fingernails dirty working on the project.

“Will you see more of me? Potentially, but I can’t say it’s going to be something where I’m shaking hands on every corner to get a ballpark built,” Sternberg said. “This has to work because it’s the right thing for Tampa Bay, but everybody in Tampa Bay should know I care about the area, and if I didn’t care and believe in it so much — the pressure’s been enormous to just fold up tent and go elsewhere and I’m not going to do that.”

That one sentence basically sums up the Rays’ attitude for the last ten years.

That’s why there were hardly any elected officials at yesterday’s press conference (Matt Silverman couldn’t even bother to properly pronounce Tampa Councilman Guido Maniscalco‘s name.)

That’s why the Rays remain the ONLY major league sports team in Florida without contract lobbyists.

That’s why the Rays have so few political boosters backing their drive for a new home. I mean, once you get past Ken Hagan and, maybe St. Pete’s Charlie Gerdes, who is there? Going by his measured comments after yesterday’s presser, it’s not even a lock that Mayor Bob Buckhorn is on board with this plan.

Recently, former U.S. Rep. David Jolly was hired by Shumaker Advisors, which is also home to Ron Christaldi, co-chair of the Tampa Bay Rays 2020 effort. Shumaker Advisors told the Tampa Bay Business Journal that Jolly’s hiring builds on the firm’s commitment to the Tampa Bay community, its businesses, people and causes. That includes the firm’s direct involvement with the Rays 2020 effort to secure the business community’s commitment to a new Ybor City stadium.

Rays booster Christaldi would seem to recognize what Rays ownership does not: that it’s $900 million dream project is not just a real estate project, it’s a political conundrum.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this post.

Written By

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including Florida Politics and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. Schorsch is also the publisher of INFLUENCE Magazine. For several years, Peter's blog was ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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