It’s Hard to Take the Rays’ Tale of Two Cities Seriously

At first glance, any plan for the Rays to split their home games between the Tampa Bay area and Montreal — the exploration of which was reported last week by ESPN’s Jeff Passan — seems like a cockamamie idea. At second and third glances, too, not only because of the numerous legal and logistical hurdles involved, and the specifics of how those will be overcome so lacking, but because the underlying premise is so flawed.

That aspect was underscored on Tuesday, when Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg and team presidents Brian Auld and Matt Silverman held a press conference in St. Petersburg to discuss the plan. Let’s cut to the chase:

Anyone who has followed the past quarter-century or so of Major League Baseball ought to be able to see the problem instantly. A franchise that has otherwise proven itself to be highly resourceful and competitive over the past 12 seasons has nonetheless been unable to convince area taxpayers and public officials to fund a new ballpark to replace Tropicana Field, where their lease expires following the 2027 season. Said franchise now hopes not only to build a new ballpark in that region, but also one in Montreal, a city the Expos and MLB abandoned in 2004 after a similar failure. You don’t need an Excel spreadsheet to do the math: convincing two cities to build ballparks for roughly half a season of usage per year is in no way going to be easier than convincing one city to build a ballpark for a full season of use, particularly given that in both cases the public will be expected to bear the lion’s share of the cost while the team profits.

Likewise, convincing two fan bases who have historically shown themselves to be particularly resistant to attending games to make a similar investment while confronting the reality of what amounts to a half-season road trip seems farfetched, to say the least. Let us consider the attendance histories of both cities:

A Tale of Two Cities’ Attendance Woes
Team Seasons Top Half Bottom 3 Last
Montreal Expos (1969-2004) 36 7 16 8
Tampa Bay Rays (1998-2019) 22 1 18 14
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
During the Expos’ existence, the NL had 12 teams from 1969-92, 14 from 1993-97, and 16 from 1998-2004. During the Rays’ existence, the AL had 14 teams from 1998-2012, and has had 15 since.

The Expos spent their first eight seasons (1969-76) in Jarry Park before moving to Stade Olympique (1977-2004). Aside from 1970, their second season of existence, all of the seasons when they ranked among the NL’s upper half in attendance occurred during the 1977-83 span, when Stade Olympique was new. It helped that their lineup featured three future Hall of Famers (Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, and Tim Raines) for most of that period, but even so, they never ranked higher than third in the league in attendance, and made the postseason only in 1981.* From 1986 onward, only once did they rank higher than 10th (ninth out of 12 teams in 1987), and in their final seven seasons, they were dead last out of 16 teams, cracking one million fans just once.

*One aspect I neglected to note when I first published this was the fact that the team was robbed of a potential postseason berth — and with it, the long-term impact upon attendance and revenue — in 1994, when they had the majors’ best record (74-40) before the strike it. The powerhouse squad was dismantled before play resumed in 1995; attendance dropped by 26% that year, and for the remainder of the Expos’ tenure, only once did they even average half as many fans per game as in 1994.

In their final two seasons, they played a total of 43 games at Estadio Hiram Bithorn in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Despite the park seating just 18,000, they averaged more fans there (14,222 in 2003, 10,334 in ’04), than at Stade Olympique, which in its post-1992 configuration could seat 45,757 (12,081 in 2003, 8,876 in ’04). As Jonah Keri — a Montreal native who coincidentally wrote a book about the Rays — recently wrote of the two-city arrangement, which would seem to be relevant here: “[I]t was still a split-the-baby approach that ultimately left no one happy, and did nothing to help the health of the team in its original city.”

While much of the blame for the latter-day Expos’ attendance woes falls upon owner Jeffrey Loria (who bought the team in 1999) and MLB (which assumed control of the franchise in 2002 while allowing Loria to purchase the Marlins), the underlying reality is that the team could not secure public funding for a new ballpark. Ultimately, the franchise moved to Washington, D.C. following the 2004 season and became the Nationals.

The Rays are now in their 22nd season at Tropicana Field, where only twice have they ranked higher than 10th in the AL in attendance. They ranked seventh out of 14 teams in 1998, their inaugural season, and ninth out of 14 in 2010. They have ranked last or second-to-last in every season since, and, despite winning 90 games last year and being on pace to improve upon that record this year, are currently on their way to their fifth straight season of ranking last among the AL’s 15 teams. The ballpark’s location in downtown St. Petersburg is a major problem, as it’s far from the area’s corporate base and wealthiest suburbs, with significant traffic congestion problems and a lack of sufficient mass transit service. As Keri noted, “Fewer people live within a 30-minute drive of Tropicana Field than any other stadium.”

The Rays have spent more than a decade trying to get another ballpark built in the Tampa-St. Petersburg vicinity, but have been unable to get a plan off the ground. They can’t escape their lease, which has commonly been described as iron-clad. Earlier this week, colleague Sheryl Ring delved into their use agreement’s “exclusive dealings” clause, which forbids the team from even negotiating to play elsewhere. She also noted a similarly restrictive memorandum of understanding that allowed the team only to seek new stadium sites in the two Florida counties that encompass the Tampa-St. Pete area, Pinellas and Hillsborough.

You may recall that at the 2018 Winter Meetings, Sternberg made a show of announcing that a plan to build a glitzy, $900 million new ballpark in the Tampa neighborhood of Ybor City had fallen through, with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred blasting Hillsborogh County’s lack of specifics (read “public funding”). That came near the end of the three-year window granted by the aforementioned MOU, which expired on December 31, 2018.

If the Rays’ attempt to sell a dual-city plan weren’t already underwater enough, St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman handed ownership an anvil last week when he said, “I have no intention of bringing this idea to our city council to consider.” Without that, the Rays can’t get another MOU that would allow them to discuss any proposal with Montreal. In fact, there’s already an inquiry into whether Sternberg violated the lease agreement by discussing his plan with Montreal mogul Stephen Bronfman, son of former Expos owner Charles Bronfman and a prime mover in a group spearheading effort to return baseball to Montreal.

If the Rays were hoping to find high-level civic support elsewhere, Pinellas County Commissioner and 2021 St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Ken Welch said, “I am not open to funding a part-time stadium where our home team is shared with another city.” Meanwhile, former St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster likened the two-city plan to the team wanting a wife and a mistress. Good times.

“I’m confident it’s an amazing idea,” said Sternberg on Tuesday while denying that this plan was part of “a staged exit,” or “a page out of a playbook to gain leverage.” His main selling point appears to be the fact that both new ballparks would be intimate, open-air venues with 30,000 or fewer seats, which would be less costly than building parks with retractable roofs, as in Arizona, Houston, Miami, Milwaukee, Seattle, and Toronto (the Trop is currently the only dome). According to Neil deMause, who has spent the past two decades chronicling MLB’s stadium shell game in his co-authored book Field of Schemes and a long-running blog of the same name, the “ballpark figure” for such a roof is an additional $200 million to $300 million, though “it depends what kind of roof, and how it affects the overall design.”

Secondarily, Sternberg claimed that such an arrangement will drive plenty of Canadian fans to the region, the kind of vaporous “economic impact” claim so common in stadium proposals. As’s Noah Pransky wrote:

In short, he suggested losing 41 home games a year — while also paying for a new Rays stadium — would pay for itself, as new Canadian tourists would come down to see their “home” team early in the season.

Back-of-the-napkin math on this suggests St. Pete would need tens — or even hundreds — of thousands of new Canadian tourists to make this work, which seems somewhat ridiculous, given that no Montreal fan is going to want to watch their team in Florida’s June humidity when they could wait three weeks and watch them up north in July.

You could also simply count all the empty seats at Blue Jays’ spring training games in Dunedin to know hundreds of thousands of fans aren’t coming down to watch their home team play baseball in Florida.

DeMause has his own debunking of Tuesday’s presser at Field of Schemes. His conclusion:

Whatever exactly Sternberg has in mind, this is clearly a long, long con, or if nothing else a way to kill time and build momentum for something while waiting out the remaining eight years of his lease. It’s transparently a classic non-threat threat — even Twitter noticed — but the question now becomes what the Rays owner plans to do with any leverage that he’s savvily created, especially considering he faces an opponent in St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman who isn’t afraid to sue to enforce the lease’s gag rule on stadium talks.

Of course, it’s always possible this non-threat threat is all Sternberg plans to do, in hopes that it will shake loose more stadium talks in Tampa Bay, given that he’s tried that move (albeit without the Montreal gambit) roughly a billion times before:

DeMause then linked to a tweet promoting this Pronsky article enumerating five separate occasions over the past decade in which Sternberg suggested the Rays’ future in the region was in doubt.

The one unplayed card Sternberg appears to have is that once the Trop is replaced, the team will receive 50% of the revenues that come from redeveloping the current site’s 86-acre footprint — but only if they remain in St. Petersburg. Any escape route from their current lease probably runs through that arrangement, with the Rays either forgoing some percentage of that revenue or paying the city a lump sum. Even if that happens, the obstacles to building two part-time ballparks remain, and it is difficult to imagine the Major League Baseball Players Association signing off on putting its constituents through the extra hassle. Even though players are well compensated relative to most Americans (and Canadians) — admittedly, less well compensated in the case of anyone in a Rays’ uniform — they and their families already lead lives that are bifurcated by the realities of the baseball season. Adding another temporary residence to that arrangement, particularly one in a foreign country, will be a tough sell.

Given all of the above, it hardly seems worth scratching the surface as far as the Montreal aspect of this plan, which surely has its own obstacles. While it would be wonderful to imagine major league baseball returning to the city, which would appear to be at or near the top of any short list of desirable expansion sites, it’s nearly impossible to believe that this is how it will happen. While Bronfman’s group has made progress towards a downtown ballpark, as Keri wrote, “It’s even harder to imagine the city, provincial, or federal governments kicking in a big chunk of the construction cost (which could easily approach or even exceed $1 billion Canadian) for partial seasons.”

Thus, the Rays’ plan makes for an interesting thought experiment, but that’s about it. Don’t hold your breath for this tale of two cities to end happily.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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The Guru
4 years ago

FIRE MANFRED. He’s destroying the game. Now please all of his minions that work for him and are members of this site downvote me for telling the truth. That man is a disgrace.

Psychic... Powerless...
4 years ago
Reply to  The Guru

The self-proclaimed “guru” who is downvoted for every single comment (It must be literally thousands of down-votes in the past couple years) blames it on folks not being able to handle the truth. LOL