Split season with Montreal seen as way to preserve baseball in Tampa

The Tampa Bay Rays have received permission from Major League Baseball's executive council to explore a plan that could see the team split its home games between the Tampa Bay area and Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Giving the Rays permission to explore playing part of their home schedule in Montreal is seen by baseball owners as “a way to preserve baseball in Tampa,” according to baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred.

Major League Baseball’s executive council last month told Rays owner Stuart Sternberg he could explore the two-city possibility but did not specify a timeframe. The Rays have been unsuccessful in gaining approval and financing in place for the new stadium they want in the Tampa Bay area.

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“I think that it’s just too early to make a judgment as to how likely it is to be successful,” Manfred told the Baseball Writers’ Association of America on Tuesday.

“I think that the approval from the June owners meeting was reflective of the fact that Stu has worked really hard over a long period of time on the Tampa side and the St. Pete side to try to get something done from a stadium perspective. And then it was sold to the owners, or to the executive council, as a way to preserve baseball in Tampa.”

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Tampa Bay has played at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg since the franchise took the field in 1998 and has a lease through 2027. The Rays are averaging about 15,500 fans per home game, 29th in the major leagues and ahead of only the Miami Marlins.

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“To address what has been an ongoing issue, I think the owners are prepared to live with the idea that they would operate in two markets,” Manfred said. “We have an issue in Tampa. It needs to get resolved somehow. If it means we give up a potential expansion site to solidify where we are, so be it.”

Manfred said there had not been any discussion of a full move by the Rays. He also said MLB will remain at 30 teams for the foreseeable future.

“No way that we’re biting into expansion until I get Tampa and Oakland resolved one way or the other,” he said.

Unhappy with the Coliseum, the Athletics announced plans last November to build a ballpark at Howard Terminal. Managing partner John Fisher and team president Dave Kaval are engaged in the complicated approval process.

“Difficult environment. No public financing available. Sites that have been challenging,” Manfred said. “The plan that they have now is a huge step forward. They’ve cleared some important hurdles. They’ve got a lot of work to do, but I’m 100 per cent behind them. I think they have a really sound plan, something that can work and will keep Oakland with a major league team for a very long time.”

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Sternberg had been working to build a ballpark in Tampa’s Ybor City area but abandoned that plan in December. Manfred admitted a two-city solution would have many complications.

WATCH BELOW: Stephen Bronfman on board for Tampa Bay Rays to share season with Montreal

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Stephen Bronfman on board for Tampa Bay Rays to share season with Montreal – Jun 26, 2019

“One of those hurdles that we identified early on and have been really clear with the owners about is that we would have an obligation to bargain with the players about the effects of a two-market solution,” he said. “And there would have to be provisions made to make that solution tenable from a player perspective, absolutely no question about that.”

Union head Tony Clark said it was too early to determine whether the plan would be viable.

“It’s going to require a lot of time and a lot of dialogue to figure out if it’s even a possibility,” he said. “I do know that it is in everyone’s best interest to put that organization in the best position possible.”

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“To the extent that that’s in Tampa, to the extent that that’s somewhere else in Florida, to the extent that that’s split between Montreal, there’s a lot of work that’s going to have to be done even on our side to appreciate what that looks like and most importantly how players are going to be affected when and if.”

READ MORE: Tampa Bay Rays can’t play in Montreal without player approval, baseball union says

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