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Joe Henderson: Rays can extend Hillsborough stadium talks into extra innings

So, you thought there was no chance the Rays will move to Tampa? Never say never

Remember the reaction around the Tampa Bay area when the plan to build a baseball stadium in Ybor City collapsed? That was the old ballgame, many people said. There went the last chance to keep the Tampa Bay Rays from moving far, far away.

Or as they say in Montreal, adieu. Few people paid much attention to a statement from Rays President Brian Auld, though. Maybe more should have.

“Working for (owner) Stu Sternberg for the last decade you learn you never say never,” Auld said.

And sure enough, that which once was dead may now live again. The Tampa Bay Times reported that St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said it’s OK for the Rays to speak with Hillsborough County officials again about a stadium deal.

In my opinion, it is the only chance to keep the Rays in the area. And it’s tantamount to a concession by St. Petersburg that the team will not stay in that city after its lease expires in 2027.

Sure, fans will turn out in large numbers for special events such as Monday’s playoff with Houston at Tropicana Field. The Rays opened upper-deck seating to accommodate fans who wanted to come out at 1 p.m. on a workday.

We all know that’s not the norm, though, and everyone should know why. It’s simple geography. The Trop is located at the extreme western end of this sprawling market and traffic to get there can be beastly. Most fans pick and choose a few games to attend and watch the rest on television.

Put a new stadium in a central location — somewhere near downtown Tampa — and I think it’s a different story. There were would increased corporate support, especially as Tampa continues to grow. A team in this market can be financially successful.

That’s the good news.

Here’s the other side, though.

Coming up with a financing package to meet Sternberg’s requirement remains a mountain-sized hurdle. If it comes together at all, it will be complex and in multiple pieces — not the least of which must be a significant buy-in from the Rays. Any proposal will face scrutiny and opposition.

On the “He Said, She Said podcast last week, former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told co-hosts Peter Schorsch and Michelle Todd Schorsch he is skeptical a deal can be struck.

“I just don’t see it happening here,” Buckhorn said. “I think Tampa is sort of out of the equation for now.”

To be fair, that was before the news broke about this latest twist in the plot. But if Tampa is out of the equation after this development, then the Rays are out of the market — period. A stadium in Hillsborough is the only way to keep them here.

Sternberg has the leverage, too. It’s not the cockamamie split-season plan with Montreal he floated a few months ago. It’s the idea of the Rays moving to Montreal for good — assuming he can get a stadium there.

So, here we go again.

Keep this in mind as the stadium saga drags on, though.

Baseball is a timeless game, and so are stadium negotiations — maybe even more so.

These things are always drawn out, complicated, and emotional. They often look lost. But cities — or in this case, regions — almost always figure out a way to keep their team. Only one baseball franchise has moved since 1972.

It was Montreal when the Expos became the Washington Nationals.

Earlier this year, Sternberg appeared to dash any hope of Tampa Bay keeping the Rays solely to itself in the future.

Now, maybe not.

It’s like Auld said: Never say never.

Written By

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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Publisher: Peter Schorsch

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