Tired of the lack of progress on development of a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark, an influential Hillsborough County commissioner says he's ready to get the county directly involved in discussions.
The Rays have been talking for years with St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, local business leaders and regional politicians about a replacement for Tropicana Dome, all to little effect: Foster's position has always been that the team is tied to the Trop until 2027 and threatened legal action against anyone who interferes in that lease. That's quieted much discussion of a new ballpark.
Enough is enough, says commission chair Ken Hagan, who has instructed county staff to research whether any threatened lawsuit has a chance of success. If he gets the answer he wants, look for him to jumpstart discussions with the Rays:
"I'm just beyond frustrated at the lack of progress regarding the Rays' long-term future in the Tampa Bay region," Hagan told the Tampa Bay Times. "For me, just sitting by idly and hoping issues will work themselves out is counterproductive."
"Tropicana Field is arguably the worst ballpark in the major leagues; only O.co Coliseum comes close, and the home of the Oakland Athletics has the advantage of being an outdoor facility. The Rays probably have done as much with the Trop as possible in terms of upgrades and fan amenities, but at the end of the day it may be impossible for the team to attract the high-priced customers and sponsors needed to compete in MLB. Truth is, the Rays have gotten a little lucky on the baseball front with the additions of the likes of Joe Maddon and Evan Longoria in recent years; a low-payroll team cannot consistently compete."
The team cannot make money under its present lease at Tropicana Field: despite a winning record and commitment to the community, the Rays would lose money if it weren't for revenue sharing -- some $35 million in 2008. The very nature of Tropicana Field and its location are two prime reasons for the financial losses.
The solution: a new ballpark. That's still not sitting well with St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster, who argues the team has only two choices: play out the contract (the lease runs through 2027) or negotiate with St. Pete for a new ballpark. Trouble is, St. Pete has shown very little willingness to actually negotiate for a new ballpark. Foster may have done something incredibly stupid: tell a bunch of lawyers they only have one real option, and those same lawyers are going to do their best to come up with other options.
One option for the Rays could be filing for bankruptcy. Besides negotiating, that can be the only possibility to escape the lease of Tropicana Field.