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Opinion: Rays' Montreal play has huge ripples - and likely means end of MLB in Tampa Bay

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 6/20/2019 Gabe Lacques
a stadium full of people with Tropicana Field in the background © Provided by USA Today Sports Media Group LLC

It was a momentous Thursday for baseball aficionados in Montreal. It was a significant day for baseball lovers in Portland and maybe Nashville and possibly Charlotte.

Major League Baseball granting the Rays – full name, TBD – permission to explore splitting future seasons between Central Florida and Canada could even be considered a win for future major leaguers, what with the game likely regaining entrance to another market and a boost in revenues for a franchise annually at the bottom of the sport’s financial pyramid.

Yet it was a very, very bad day for ball enthusiasts in Tampa and St. Petersburg, as their fears of regular-season, big-league baseball vanishing from their market moved from the abstract toward reality.

Make no mistake: There are many logistical hurdles to clear before the Rays would ever spend springs in St. Pete/Tampa and summers in Quebec.

The Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field runs through 2027. The city of St. Petersburg would have to sign off on this split schedule, and the baseball logistics, though navigable, are significant.

All that, however, is secondary to the greater point: The Rays and owner Stu Sternberg, after years of diplomatically and methodically and faithfully trying to find a modern home for their club, finally went nuclear.

Oh, Sternberg and the franchise will certainly frame this in a positive fashion, that larger revenues fueled by the pockets of baseball-starved French-Canadians will keep the underdog Rays competitive while the search for their white whale – a stadium on Tampa’s side of the bay – lurches on.

"My priority remains the same,” Sternberg told the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday. “I am committed to keeping baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come.”

Nice words, but actions mean more. And whether or not this arrangement is approved, MLB and the Rays just ran the oldest play in the franchise-relocation playbook: Alienate the locals, deemphasize the product and create conditions that compel governing bodies to, rather than fight, say, “OK, be gone, nobody wants you, anyway.”

Which is unfortunate on several levels.

From a baseball standpoint, the Rays are a marvel: Innovative brainiacs who despite their revenue shortfalls have put an entertaining product on the field for more than a decade while quite literally changing the way the game is played.

Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon have given way to Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom and Kevin Cash and Kyle Snyder, but the on-field results remain startling. For that, Sternberg should be commended.

And there’s little evidence Sternberg, a New Yorker who recently purchased a home in St. Petersburg, operated in bad faith regarding the stadium search. His club requested and received permission from St. Pete to explore stadium options in Tampa, a three-year window that produced a gorgeous architectural rendering of an Ybor City ballpark.

The cost for the actual stadium - $892 million – was a bit pricier.

With Hillsborough County insisting that the ballclub fund half the cost of the stadium up to a maximum of $475 million, the Rays’ future was imperiled when corporate support for the stadium was lacking. In December, the team announced its window to shop in Hillsborough would close without any action.

(At this point, you might wonder why a $10 billion entity like Major League Baseball or a franchise valued at $1 billion can’t creatively get a ballpark built with their own money. We’ll pause for laughter momentarily).

The ultimate losers here are of course Rays fans, a hardy group often mocked for their poor turnout at the ballpark. The numbers don’t lie: Tampa Bay’s average attendance of 14,546 ranks last in the AL and above only the Marlins across baseball. Twelve of the Rays’ 38 home dates drew crowds of less than 10,000, bottoming out with a franchise-worst draw of 5,786 on May 28 against Toronto.

But we didn’t come here to fan-shame. Tropicana Field, though it has its charms, was outdated the minute it opened for baseball in 1998. We've never tried driving there from Tampa during rush hour, but if the locals say it’s a colossal pain in the ass, we're inclined to believe them.

Now, regardless of whether the St. Pete/Montreal split is approved, lousy attendance will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why show up when the product may be torn from you, anyway?

That will only worsen if the Rays become a two-town team. What fool would spend his or her money on a game in April for a team that might celebrate a division title in another ballpark, in another country?

It all lays the groundwork for Sternberg, in 2028 or sooner, to say, “Á plus tard!” to Florida.

And then it will be game on for several markets.

Montreal was widely assumed MLB’s favorite for an expansion franchise, a process that could not proceed until stadium efforts in Tampa and Oakland failed. The Athletics are getting there, though MLB’s desire to remain in the East Bay is far greater than in Tampa/St. Pete, so the A’s can probably afford another mulligan if their Howard Terminal project fails.

Now, however, Montreal may benefit from MLB’s first franchise relocation since the Expos became the Washington Nationals in 2005. According to ESPN, Montreal has both the political and financial will to produce a new stadium. (Funny how losing a team  makes that happen, sometimes).

If the Expos land the Rays, and the A’s stay in Oakland, that would greatly enhance the hopes of Portland, whose Portland Diamond Project is methodically working toward providing MLB a shovel-ready option.

And then MLB would have a nice bidding war for the second market to join Portland, be it Nashville, Charlotte, Las Vegas or any other Sun Belt market whose population - human and corporate - is booming.

That’s all talk for another day – another decade or two, really.

For now, Thursday will be remembered for something else: An undeniable feeling that the Rays are shifting from “We’re trying” to, “We tried.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: Rays' Montreal play has huge ripples - and likely means end of MLB in Tampa Bay

Related slideshow: The 2019 MLB season (Provided by imagn) 

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