On paper, the Rays are tied to a lease at Tropicana Field until 2027. In reality, there’s much more uncertainty involving the location of a franchise that had the lowest per-game attendance in the majors last year.
St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster has been adamant about not allowing the team to negotiate possible stadium sites outside the city, most notably in neighboring Tampa and Hillsborough County. Yet principal owner Stuart Sternberg told reporters during in spring training that he’s optimistic that progress can be made on the issue. The mayor said on Opening Day that since meeting with Sternberg in February, their respective staffs have been working together on the matter, as Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times notes. Whether that means the Rays could soon be looking at sites in St. Pete, Tampa or elsewhere is unclear. What is clear is that the question of where the Rays will play in the coming years continues to hang over the team like the pesky catwalks on the ceiling of the Trop.
Of course, as with any front office issue, that doesn’t mean anyone in the clubhouse is paying much attention to it.
“I honestly believe we’re beyond that being a distraction for us,” manager Joe Maddon told reporters in spring training when MLBTR asked about the ongoing stadium issue. “I mean, it’s been going on for a while now. We’ve been ridiculed nationally. We’ve been ridiculed locally. We’ve had conversations about it.”
Third baseman Evan Longoria certainly doesn’t seem worried about the team's future in Tampa Bay, if his decision last winter to sign a contract extension through 2023 is any indication. Utility man Sean Rodriguez, one of six players to speak to MLBTR about the stadium issue, believes it's possible teammates or potential free agents may take Longoria's extension as a sign that there's no cause for concern.
“You could definitely think that,” Rodriguez said. “If he’s willing to stay here, it’s obviously because he believes in what’s going on.”
Sternberg said on Opening Day that even if the team started working toward a new stadium immediately, the earliest the club could move in would be five or six years from now. If Longoria’s deal stands to ease the mind of any player considering a long-term deal with the club, the lack of immediacy makes it a non-issue for players operating on shorter timeframes.
“We know we’re going to be playing in Tropicana Field in 2013, and that’s kind of all we’re worried about,” outfielder Sam Fuld said. “Other than a select few, we’ve all bounced around enough to know not to look past the next month, let alone the next year.”
Fuld, like all but five of his teammates, is on a deal that expires at the end of the season. Ben Zobrist is one of the five who figures to be with the Rays at least a little while longer, as his contract includes team options in 2014 and 2015. Zobrist said he’s on board with whatever the organization decides to do about a place to play.
“I’m not worried about that,” he said. “They (Rays officials) make that decision. As players, especially around here, you have to be flexible. If you’re not flexible, then you’re not going to last very long in baseball, because you have to be, to be able to be successful in this profession. Things are changing all the time, and you’re always traveling, and there’s always a new situation. So it’s certainly something that you have to have some thick skin (about), and just learn to enjoy it all.”
Starting pitcher Alex Cobb said he takes a neutral stance about the stadium talks, but concedes that there are ties that would make staying at the Trop appealing to him.
“Obviously, it would be nice to have sold-out crowd every night, which is asking a lot, but I grew up coming to this stadium,” he said. “Living in Vero Beach, I drove over all the time, came to games, and chased autographs around the stadium, so there’s a big nostalgic feeling about this stadium. I live close-by to the stadium now, so it’s a nice, easy drive.”
The same roof under which Cobb watched his baseball heroes now makes his professional life a little easier.
“I love the stadium,” he said. “I know every time I’m getting the ball that it’s going be 72 (degrees) and no wind. I know the conditions I’m going to get.”
Rays fans might not show up in droves at the ballpark, but many of them show their support in other ways, as Maddon observes amid the specter of a stadium issue that feeds the perception of the team’s lack of appeal.
“While that’s all going on, the thing that I think gets overlooked, from our perspective, is how much we respect our fans,” Maddon said. “Our fans have been great to us. You walk up and down in the Tampa Bay area, you’re going to see a lot of Rays gear. I live up in Tampa. I see it all over the place, right on Bayshore (Boulevard). People are talking about us. We’re well-watched on television. We’re well-listened-to on radio. So, the thing about the ballpark — of course we want a better ballpark. Of course we do. In the right spot. But it’s not a distraction.”
Rays local television broadcasts drew a 4.89 rating in 2012, up about 28% over 2011 and almost squarely in the middle of local ratings that ranged from a high of 9.13 for the Tigers to a low of 1.02 for the Astros last season. The Rays cite data from the Scarborough Research firm that showed the number of fans who attended one of their games, watched one on TV, or listened on radio was greater than any other team in the Tampa Bay area in 2011, including the NFL’s Buccaneers.
The numbers suggest that the local market isn’t the problem, and that the team’s attendance woes could be solved with a stadium in a better location within the area. Such a move might make Cobb’s commute a little longer, but it would mean less upheaval than if the Rays left Tampa Bay entirely, and perhaps a more certain future for a club looking to build on the success of the past five years.