Tampa Bay Rays Future?

They’re not Les Rayons yet.

Despite talk that began surfacing last fall about the Tampa Bay Rays moving, possibly to Montreal, the Rays will open the 2015 season at Tropicana Field on April 6, and St. Petersburg city leaders appear to be closing in on a plan to keep the team in the area for years to come.

Mayor Rick Kriseman recently offered the St. Petersburg City Council a revised proposal for a memorandum of understanding between the city and the Rays that would allow the Rays to look at new options in the Tampa Bay area, including a move into Tampa itself. Kriseman hopes the new proposal will address the concerns that led the council to reject an MOU in December.

One key change would require the team to submit its site selection criteria within two months of executing the MOU (a move that city leaders hope will keep a Pinellas County site in the running). A second adjustment makes clear that, should the Rays move elsewhere, the team would lose its rights to revenue from redevelopment of the current Tropicana Field site.

Kriseman has expressed concern that failure to reach a deal to allow the Rays to explore other sites in the area could lead to the team leaving the region for good. Tampa Bay baseball fans can be forgiven for feeling like they’ve been on a roller coaster ride wilder than anything Florida’s many theme parks have to offer.

After nearly two decades of being used by teams as leverage for better stadium deals from their existing homes, and then being jilted in favor of Miami when the National League expanded into Florida in 1993, St. Petersburg finally was awarded a franchise that began play in 1998. A decade of mediocrity (or worse) and a slight name change followed, but Rays broke through in 2008, posting the franchise’s first-ever winning record and earning a World Series berth. Three more postseason trips followed.

Unfortunately, for reasons that continue to be debated within the region, the Rays have struggled to draw fans, finishing 29th (among 30 teams) last year and last in 2014. The same week as Kriseman took his proposal to the city council, Forbes’ annual ranking of baseball franchise values also had the Rays last (just behind Miami). All of which has led to a general consensus that the Rays need a new home, and city and regional leaders have been working to make sure it’s a “local move.”

Montreal has been a subject of speculation within baseball circles because the city has been without a team since the end of the 2004 season, when “Les Expos” moved to Washington and became the Nationals. It remains unclear how credible that threat is, because the Rays still have 13 years to go on their lease at Tropicana Field. Any move not supported by St. Petersburg officials is likely to be tied up in a messy lawsuit.

Additionally, baseball prides itself on franchise stability. For the most part, baseball teams that have moved have been second teams in a market that no longer could support more than one franchise. Examples include the Philadelphia (now Oakland) Athletics, Boston (now Atlanta) Braves and the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles).

In instances where a move left a city without a franchise, baseball’s expansion era allowed teams to be replaced relatively quickly. When the first Washington Senators moved to Minnesota, the team was immediately replaced with the expansion Senators. Kansas City missed only a single season before the A’s were replaced by the Royals. Milwaukee went four seasons without baseball after the Braves before the Seattle Pilots relocated and became the Brewers. Seattle went a slightly longer seven seasons before being granted an expansion franchise (the Mariners).

The stakes are higher now. Baseball is unlikely to expand anytime soon, and that means longer waits. After the second Senators left Washington to become the Texas Rangers, the nation’s capital went 33 years before the Expos moved there. Montreal is facing its 11th Opening Day without a team.

If there is a cautionary note here, it  is that the last two moves (Washington to Texas and Montreal to Washington) involved difficult stadium situations. The good news for Tampa Bay baseball fans is that local leaders in those other cities did not step into the fray in a timely manner, whereas St. Petersburg leaders and others in the region are working proactively to find a solution.

Les Rayons? Ne compte pas sur elle (don’t count on it).