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Sternberg: Rays' Split Season With Montreal Will Help Baseball 'Thrive' In Tampa Bay

Saying the Tampa Bay area is "simply not well-suited" to host a full 162-game baseball schedule, Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg spoke about his plan to split its home games with Montreal.

During a news conference Tuesday afternoon at The Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Sternberg said his hope is that the Rays will play in new open-air ballparks located in both St. Petersburg and Montreal.

Where that stadium would be located would be "part of the exploration," Sternberg said.

The news conference was held near Al Lang Stadium, a longtime spring training facility and now home of the Tampa Bay Rowdiessoccer team, which the Rays purchased last year from Bill Edwards. He was reluctant to state how much he sold the team for, only giving a hint of it being in the “millions.”

Under that deal, the Rays agreed to keep the Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium for five years. Edwards said at the time that the contract with the city that the Rays will inherit is for Lang to remain a soccer field only. 

Sternberg said moving the Rays’ second half of the season to Montreal is not a negotiating ploy, and not a pitch to move the team.

"We are focused on how the Rays can thrive here in Tampa Bay," Sternberg said.

Sternberg explained how he envisioned this split game plan with the first half in Tampa Bay area and the second in Montreal.

"That community will come here in droves to watch our baseball team, to set up businesses, visit our shops, eat in our restaurants, share in our community and perhaps retire here," Sternberg stated. "It will score an economic connection that is - like its team - will last for generations."

Sternberg acknowledges that there will be more work to come in order to complete this agreement. He envisions open-air stadiums in both cities but noted there are no plans to pay for them. He said an ideal target date would have everything in place for the 2024 season.

"I don't see it happening in St. Petersburg and would be hard-pressed to see it working in Tampa from what I know," Sternberg said. "This is not a staged exit. This is about Tampa Bay keeping its hometown team and Montreal having one, too. I believe strongly in the sister-city concept. We're asking for open minds."

The Rays rank last in the American League in attendance, averaging 14,546 fans a game, and only the Miami Marlins (9,378 a game) draw fewer. They had their lowest crowd in team history last month, playing in front of 45,786 against Toronto.

"We are at or near the bottom in every economic category in Major League Baseball," Sternberg said.

Some fans are already saying this is the best way to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay. Steve Westphal, who owns several restaurants in St. Petersburg, was enthusiastic about the proposal.

“I think this is a fantastic opportunity to keep the Rays here in town,” Westphal said. “I know they can't support themselves with the fan base they have so far. Like my grandmother said, half a pie is better than no pie at all. And if we lose these people in our community, our community suffers a great loss.”

Montreal has been without a big-league team since the Expos left after the 2004 season for Washington and became the Nationals.

Private equity mogul Stephen Bronfman, whose father Charles was the original owner of the Expos, is part of a group spearheading effort to return baseball to Montreal.

Sternberg said it's possible the Bronfman group could join the current Rays' ownership if the sister-city plans succeeds, but he will keep controlling interest.

The Rowdies purchase hasn’t stopped speculation that the Rays may want to build an open-air stadium on that site. They had announced similar plans for that site in 2007. The team cancelled that plan a year later due to objections from St. Petersburg and Pinellas County leaders.

In 2015, the Rays received permission from the city of St. Petersburg to negotiate a new stadium site elsewhere in the Tampa Bay area.

Last July, the Rays unveiled sketches of a new domed stadium in Tampa’s Ybor City, but by December, that plan was dead. Site control and whether the stadium would be open by 2023 were major questions, but the biggest concern was the cost -- estimated to be around $900 million.  

In November, the team announced it had received $16 million in corporate support. Sternberg said the team would contribute more than $150 million, but would not disclose the specific number publicly. Hillsborough County and Tampa officials, including Mayor Bob Buckhorn, wanted the team to cover closer to half of the cost.

The Rays have a lease that keeps them tied to Tropicana Field until 2027. 

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he would hold the Rays to that deal and he did not foresee allowing them to look at a split home schedule. 

"The City of St. Petersburg will not participate in the funding of a new stadium for a part-time team," Kriseman said. "We remain receptive to partnering with the Tampa Bay Rays to redevelop the Tropicana Field site and build a new stadium for a full-time team."

In addition to Al Lang Stadium, shifting the spring training season from Port Charlotte, Florida, to Tampa Bay to provide two more months of baseball in the area is also under consideration.

WUSF-89.7 FM reporter Steve Newborn and information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Ti’Anna Davis is a WUSF/USF Zimmerman School digital news intern for summer 2019.