The Tampa Bay Rays are still alive in the American League playoffs, but their biggest battle is still ongoing.
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Tampa Mayor Jane Castor joined the crowd of 32,178 at Tropicana Field for her hometown Rays’ ALDS Game 4 victory over the Houston Astros on Tuesday, where she reiterated that the team needs a new stadium.
“It’s very, very important to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay,” said Castor, who was seen talking to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman before Tuesday’s game (Tropicana Field is in St. Petersburg). “We’ve shown that we can support all of our sports teams, and we just need to work with the Rays to decide what the best location is for the stadium."
The Rays won 96 games this season, and have been one of baseball’s best teams for over a decade, but have always struggled to draw people to their games. Their average attendance this season was 14,734 as they drew 1,178,735 overall. The only team worse in attendance was their Florida counterparts, the Miami Marlins, who drew well under a million people as they won just 57 games.
Castor is hoping the city sees the value of the team despite the paltry attendance figures, and will be attempting to revive talks of a new stadium in Tampa Bay.
“I really feel like we should probably maybe just start over again,” Castor said as she settled in behind home plate on Tuesday night. “Everybody just come back to the table and start over again. Finding out what the Rays want and need, and then which community can best fulfill those needs.”
Castor was referring to the 2018 discussions between the Rays and Hillsborough County. Enough progress was made building a new ballpark in Ybor City that renderings of the park with a translucent roof were revealed, and that it would come with a price tag of $892 million. Talks on the Ybor project fell apart in December 2018 as there was a lack of details on the project, and as a result, progress stalled. This also marked the end of St. Petersburg’s lease exemption allowing the Rays to talk to Hillsborough, and Rays owners did not ask Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred to step in and ask for an extension.
“It’s very, very important to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay. We’ve shown that we can support all of our sports teams, and we just need to work with the Rays to decide what the best location is for the stadium."
At the time, Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg said a future home in Ybor represented the "best opportunity" for the team’s long-term success. At a news conference when the renderings were introduced, the Rays would not say how much the team intends to contribute. A number of elected officials responded that taxpayers won't be footing the bill for the proposed stadium.
That was a point Tampa Bay’s Mayor reiterated Tuesday.
“If a decision was made to build a stadium in Tampa, I have said from the beginning that taxpayer dollars would not be used to build a new stadium, and I stand by that,” Castor said. “There are many ways to get a stadium built.”
Tropicana Field has been the Rays’ home since the team’s inception in 1998, outdated in today’s baseball environment - the stadium is the only domed facility without a retractable roof.
While the capacity of the Trop is 40,000 fans, the team has repeatedly tarped off sections of seats to hide how empty it is. This season’s “capacity” was a mere 25,025, and they opened up more seats for their two home playoff games against Houston, which both drew north of 32,000.
Castor confirmed that, as of now, there are no active discussions to bring a stadium and the Rays to Tampa or Hillsborough County. She said the Rays’ playoff run reminds the community of the need to work together to keep the team in Tampa Bay.
“We need to support that as a region and show the Rays we want them here," Castor said. "I just want to sit down and have those discussions with the Rays. If it’s in conjunction with St. Pete, with Pinellas, with Hillsborough, with Tampa, just bring everybody together and figure out what’s best for the region.”
Castor’s vow to not use public funds on the stadium will be tested since several of Major League Baseball’s newest stadiums - including Atlanta’s SunTrust Park (2017), Miami’s Marlins Park (2012) and Minneapolis’ Target Field (2010) - have all been supported with local funding.
This past June, the Rays’ ownership group made the bombshell announcement of a plan to eventually split home games between Tampa Bay and Montreal.
This plan, which was roundly criticized, would have started in 2024, with the Rays playing in an open-air, 27,000-seat stadium on the St. Petersburg waterfront or amid booming downtown Tampa before then playing the section of their schedule in Montreal.
That was inspired by the Montreal Expos’ playing half of their schedule in Puerto Rico their final few years in that city before moving to Washington in 2005 and becoming the Nationals.
The Rays, Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg have plenty of time to come up with a solution. The Rays’ deal with Tropicana Field ends in 2027.