Major League Baseball has given the Tampa Bay Rays permission to explore a creative, long-range strategy in which the team would split its home games between the Tampa region and Montreal, Commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday.
While the possibility of a two-city solution is little more than hypothetical at this point, and would face significant logistical hurdles, it underscored the long, sad, puzzling plight of the Rays, who are averaging an American League-worst 14,546 fans per home game this season, despite having the sixth-best record in baseball.
The Rays’ ownership has sought a new stadium deal in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area for more than a decade, with little to no progress. The most recent plan, an $892 million proposed stadium in Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood, collapsed in December. The team’s lease at Tropicana Field, an unsightly, domed stadium on the St. Petersburg side of the bay, expires in 2027.
“My priority remains the same,” Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said in a statement Thursday. “I am committed to keeping baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come. I believe this concept is worthy of serious exploration.”
Montreal, which lost the Expos to Washington in 2005, has been positioned for the past several years as among the likeliest options should MLB expand or move a struggling franchise such as the Rays or the Oakland A’s. But that status rests on the city’s ability to fund a new stadium, which has yet to materialize despite strong civic backing for baseball.
Baseball tried a similar strategy with the Expos in 2003 and 2004, playing 22 home games each season in San Juan, P.R., with mixed results.
Realistically, the two-city strategy has enough impediments to be considered almost impossible to pull off. Chief among them would be the approval of baseball’s players union, which would almost certainly balk at a situation in which its members had to arrange for living quarters in two cities.
A more realistic reading of Thursday’s news, which Manfred announced following an owners meeting, is that it is a ploy by the Rays and MLB to gain leverage over municipalities in the Tampa region for a new stadium, with the threat of a move to Montreal dangled as the other option.
Neither city is likely to build a new stadium for the Rays — or whatever new nickname they would hypothetically adopt — for half a season’s worth of games each season.