Rays-to-Montréal rumors heat up after some guy says Sternberg said something about it once

Here we go again: After longtime Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon abruptly quit on Friday, New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden dropped this into the tail end of an item about Maddon’s future and his former team’s:

After last year’s disappointing 77-85 fourth-place finish, they both realized they’d done all they could do in Tampa, and despite consistent 90-win seasons with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, the Rays played to a half-empty (or worse) stadium night after night. That, more than anything, wore on Maddon and his players, the manager told confidants. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has been frustrated in his efforts to get out of Tropicana Field in St. Pete and move to a new stadium in Tampa, but there is growing belief that the economically depressed Tampa Bay area won’t support the Rays no matter where they play. And according to sources, Sternberg has had discussions with wealthy Wall Street associates about moving the Rays to Montreal, which has been without a major-league franchise since the Expos were transferred to Washington in 2005. As one major-league official put it to me Friday: “Say what you will about Montreal, but the Expos drew well over two million fans four times there in their heyday, while the Rays did that only once, their first year.

We’ve heard this rumor before, though this is the first time I’ve seen claims that Sternberg has actually had discussions about Montréal as an option. And Montréal is by far the biggest North American market without a team, ever since the Expos left in 2005. Still, it has a big problem in that its only major-league-ready stadium is even less loved than the Rays’ Tropicana Field, and there are no immediate plans for a new one. And you have to consider the source — Bill Madden loves to predict things, many of which turn out not to be true — and that the phrasing could mean just about anything: “discussions with wealthy Wall Street associates” could just mean that while shooting pheasants over sherry at the club, Sternberg sighed forlornly, “Some days I think I’d be better off in Montréal. I hear they have really good bagels there.”

Anyway, everybody and their sister has now been reporting on this unsourced rumor, and Sternberg is sure to try to use it as leverage for a new stadium in the Tampa Bay area, even though it’s pretty weak leverage when your lease says you can’t move for another 13 years. And Bud Selig, in his final week as MLB commissioner, is eager to help, saying he’s never heard from Sternberg about a Montréal move threat, but adding:

“The team has to have a ballpark that makes them competitive,” Selig said before Game 4 of the World Series. “It doesn’t produce the kind of revenue they need.”

Does Selig consider Tampa Bay a viable major league market?

He paused — a long pause — then declined to answer. He said he prefers to leave that judgment to the owner in each market.

We’re going to miss you, Bud. Nobody does passive-aggressive threatmongering like you.

Inside Arte Moreno’s Angels-to-Tustin threat and why it may be backfiring

I have an article up this morning at Vice Sports on Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno’s threat to move his team to an abandoned air base in Tustin, and how it’s not going entirely according to plan. The upshot: Moreno is trying the tried-and-true gambit of getting different municipalities to bid against each other for his team’s presence, except that so far nobody is interested in playing, with Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait’s insistence that Moreno share profits from any development on city-owned land being followed by Tustin officials chiming in that, hey yeah, that sounds like a good plan for us, too.

In researching the story, I got to talk to Tait yesterday, and he stressed that he’s not too concerned about the Angels leaving Anaheim, since stadium-sized available plots of land are hard to come by in Southern California at the price Moreno wants ($1), and leaving the area entirely would be insane for a franchise that just landed a $3 billion cable deal. On the subject of why so few mayors take a stand like he did, meanwhile, he had this to say:

“They gave us a study that it creates $200 million of economic activity and $5 million of taxes a year, which is flat-out wrong. [But some people] might believe that study…

“It’s like a coordinated PR campaign that I want them to leave. I get kids asking me at schools why I want the Angels to leave. So it’s a lot of pressure.”

Moreno still has options, of course, among which is simply waiting for a more amenable dance partner to show up: As I note in my Vice piece, Tait is facing an opponent in the upcoming mayoral election who publicly accused him of risking a repeat of the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn in order to “make a quick buck on more generic development.” But it’s at least a positive sign that a couple of municipal officials are looking at what their city would get in return for stadium subsidies, not just what it takes to make sports owners happy. Maybe if we’re lucky it’ll catch on, and — what’s that, SaintPetersblog, in your report on the latest in the Tampa Bay Rays stadium mess?

[Hillsborough County Commissioner] Hagan also said St. Petersburg’s Mayor Rick Kriseman “has to protect his city and do what’s best for his constituents,” but also “he sees the big picture and the opportunity St. Pete has to really do something special (by redeveloping Tropicana Field).”

That, of course, raises the question, if Tropicana Field is more valuable as something other than a baseball stadium…wouldn’t the same go for land in Tampa?

Maybe, just maybe, we have the beginnings of a mini-trend here. If those goldurn schoolkids don’t ruin everything.

Hillsborough commissioner talks about task force to talk about Rays move talks, again

The Tampa Bay Rays‘ season ended yesterday, so it’s probably about time for more rumors about them moving across the bay:

County Commissioner Ken Hagan said he will ask his fellow board members Wednesday to designate the Tampa Sports Authority as the agency that will deal with the Rays should St. Petersburg let the team look at stadium sites outside Pinellas County.

That’s pretty deep into the subjunctive, there, but Hagan insists that he has reasons to believe that “an agreement is near which would allow the Rays to legally speak and meet … about a new stadium,” mostly that St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has indicated he may be open to the idea. Though Kriseman immediately called Hagan’s proposal “premature” and “problematic,” so this is probably just Hagan being Hagan.

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has assembled land around his team’s arena and is trying to build one of those mixed-use urban districts that are all the rage — fortunately, without asking for city money, at least. Still, people are now wondering whether this will be a good thing or a bad things for any plans to move the Rays. And then there’s Hagan, who just warns that it’s a sign that eventually “we’re going to reach a point where we’re past the point of no return” on a Rays stadium. When the hurry-up offense works for you, might as well go with what you’re comfortable with.

Rays and Red Sox both trade their best pitchers; guess which one blames it on their stadium?

Former Cy Young Award winning pitcher David Price was traded yesterday by the Tampa Bay Rays — pretty much everybody was traded yesterday by everybody — and Rays manager Joe Maddon decided to make it all about the Rays’ stadium issues, because somebody had to:

“You lose (James) Shields. You lose (Carl) Crawford. You lose B.J. (Upton). A lot of good guys. That’s what happens around here.” Maddon said. “Until we build a new ballpark, it’s going to continue to happen.”

Now, Maddon is a smart guy — he was the first to figure out that baseball’s new replay system sometimes requires recording four outs, for example — so he probably already knows this, but: You know who else has traded away a lot of good guys in recent years, including their two top pitchers yesterday, plus none other than Carl Crawford? The Boston Red Sox, who have sold out pretty much every game in recent years, and who are the third most valuable team in baseball, according to Forbes.

The constant trading of veterans for young players — or for players who are signed for more years, anyway — is less a small-market thing these days than a function of the weird baseball arbitrage that’s taken over the sport: If you have a player heading for free agency and don’t expect to keep him, you can either deal him for somebody without those issues (Shields was traded for young outfielder Wil Myers, who was only named A.L. Rookie of the Year last year), or let him leave and use the money you would have spent on him on somebody else (Crawford and Upton were both allowed to walk, and were replaced by cheaper, better alternatives — Desmond Jennings in the case of Crawford, Myers in the case of Upton). If the Rays had a new stadium, they would likely have more money to throw around (assuming somebody else was footing the stadium bills, anyway), but there’s no reason to believe that they’d stop trading away players headed for free agency — the only teams that don’t ever do that, pretty much, are the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, and no new stadium is going to turn Tampa Bay into New York or Los Angeles.

Also, not to mince words, but Crawford and Upton have both pretty much sucked since leaving the Rays. Maddon should be counting his blessings that the lack of a new stadium has given ownership the excuse not to throw money at keeping around familiar faces who are aging poorly, and instead allowed him to field a contending team year after year. Though that probably wouldn’t have made his bosses too happy if he’d said it out loud.

Author of study showing spring training is huge boon to Florida says spring training not actually huge boon to Florida

So Charlotte County, Florida released one of those studies a couple of weeks ago that claimed to show that Tampa Bay Rays spring training games “generated an estimated economic impact of $20,978,500″ in spending by out-of-towners, which I ignored because if I wrote about every one of these things, I’d never get anything else done. But now Noah Pransky of Shadow of the Stadium has called up the author of the study and not only confirmed that the study didn’t try to account for visitors who would have been in the county anyway (since some people have been known to vacation in Florida in March), but got the study author to acknowledge that he doesn’t think spring training is that much of an economic boon at all:

[Walter] Klages’ response: His study sure didn’t take those things into account; it was never designed to do that.

He added that the majority of overnight visitors who went to Rays games while in Charlotte County likely came to the area for the beaches and weather.  And while he suspected baseball was a factor, he saw it “more like dessert on the platter, rather than the (main course).”

University of South Florida economist Philip Porter, meanwhile, told Pransky that since the county’s economy has grown at the exact same rate as the state’s, he suspects that having Rays spring training in Port Charlotte has had zero economic impact — or even a negative one, since it’s gotten Charlotte County visitors to spend more of their money on a business that takes its revenues and ships them out of the county (known in economics as “leakage”). It all sounded so much better in the press release, but then, that’s the point of press releases.

generated an estimated economic impact of $20,978,500 for Charlotte County – See more at: http://www.charlotteharbortravel.com/press/Charlotte_Harbor_Visitor_&_Convention_Bureau_Releases_Research_Findings#sthash.mBLZooiQ.dpuf
generated an estimated economic impact of $20,978,500 for Charlotte County – See more at: http://www.charlotteharbortravel.com/press/Charlotte_Harbor_Visitor_&_Convention_Bureau_Releases_Research_Findings#sthash.mBLZooiQ.dpuf
generated an estimated economic impact of $20,978,500 for Charlotte County – See more at: http://www.charlotteharbortravel.com/press/Charlotte_Harbor_Visitor_&_Convention_Bureau_Releases_Research_Findings#sthash.mBLZooiQ.dpuf

Rays unveil city-funded stadium tweaks at home opener

Yesterday’s baseball opening day also featured the debut of the new improvements to the Tampa Bay Rays‘ Tropicana Field, which include a new concourse ringing the stadium and a new wooden “porch” in the batter’s eye in center field. The Tampa Bay Times headlined that these changes were drawing “raves” from fans, though the tone of the actual comments was more along the lines of this one: “You can see all the people. It makes it seem more like ballparks in other cities.”

The Times also reported that “the Rays spent about $750,000 on the renovations,” which is only true in the sense they spent somebody else’s money on it: The renovation cash came from a city-funded capital project fund that Rays owner Stuart Sternberg can dip into with city permission. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — this was a capital project, and it’s a capital projects fund — but it might be worth reporting that accurately in the paper, even in a story in the “human interest” section.

Meanwhile, Sternberg says he still plans to do unspecified things to push for a new stadium in the nearish future:

The team’s principal owner, Stuart Sternberg, told reporters before the game that he has not met since February with newly elected St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, but expected they would continue talking and “things will happen” this year — though he didn’t know what.

And the Rays won! And sold out, albeit at a newly reduced capacity of 31,042. Only 80 more home games to go!

It’s Opening Day, when everyone’s stadium dreams start with a 0-0 record

It’s Opening Day for baseball! I’m headed out to see the New York Mets open their season in a couple of hours (the one chance each year for a Mets fan to see their team without a losing record), but what else is going on around the baseball nation?

Florida house speaker: No new sales tax “checks” for stadiums this year

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, who said earlier this week that he’d be introducing a bill to require sports teams to show they actually have a reason to ask for sales-tax kickbacks, upped the ante slightly yesterday by declaring that he doesn’t intend on approving any sports subsidies this year at all:

“Our focus right now is on a process that treats everyone equitably and not writing any checks,” Weatherford said during an interview with The News Service of Florida in his Capitol office.

Currently, the state of Florida pays $2 million a year to the Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Heat, and Orlando Magic in exchange for the teams doing the state the favor of existing. (The Miami Marlins got left off this list after getting the $2 million a year break for their previous stadium, but did get everything else they wanted, so no complaining.) Right now the Orlando City Soccer Club, David Beckham’s as-yet-unnamed Miami MLS expansion team, and the Daytona International Speedway are all lining up to ask for sales-tax rebates as well, but it sounds like they’re going to have to wait — until next year, anyway, when Weatherford will, at the ripe old age of 35, be term-limited out of office. If Weatherford has his way, by then there will be new laws requiring team owners to “go through the process with the Department of Economic Opportunity just like everybody else does that wants to create jobs in Florida” to prove that their projects will provide a return on the state’s investment, though it remains to be seen whether he has a chance in hell of getting it through the state senate, which has historically been much more lenient about this kind of thing.

Tampa Bay media report on Tampa Bay media’s reporting of Rays-to-Montréal rumors

What do you get when you combine a slow news day, a semi-famous guy in one city looking to promote his campaign to own an MLB team, and a sportswriter in another city looking for something to write about his city’s team’s stadium campaign in which nothing much is happening? That would be this:

Former Montreal Expos icon Warren Cromartie — so popular in Montreal he once had his own candy bar, the CroBar — is mounting a campaign to lure a team back to the francophone city on the St. Lawrence River. Cromartie told The Tampa Tribune on  Tuesday that he isn’t targeting any team specifically, including the Rays.

However, he acknowledges certain teams are struggling with attendance or their finances and he’s more than willing to let baseball writers and sports agents make the Rays-to-Montreal suggestion.

“You know, baseball writers. Those guys. Not like me, Tampa Tribune baseball writer Michael Sasso, who just wrote an article headlined, ‘Could Montreal make a play for Rays?'”

Look, I’ve long said that Montréal is almost certainly the best baseball market in North America without an MLB team, but that doesn’t make Cromartie’s campaign news just yet — as the Tampa Tribune’s Joe Henderson points out, what the Rays are unhappy about in Tampa Bay is that they don’t have anyone offering to build them a new stadium, and all Montréal has is “a sketchy, unfunded plan to build a ballpark.” Still, Henderson did end up writing a whole article about the Rays moving to Montréal, or at least about them threatening to move to Montréal in order to extort a new stadium in Tampa Bay. Stuart Sternberg has got to be really happy for slow news days.

Rays stadium upgrades not really all that after all

We now know how much Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg is spending on renovations to Tropicana Field: just $1.3 milion, and it’s not exactly coming out of Sternberg’s pocket:

The bulk of the money for the overhaul is coming from a special stadium capital projects escrow account the city controls.

The account, which currently has a balance of $2.1 million, is funded with naming rights revenues and ticket fees as part of the city’s contract with the Rays. The team can’t spend money from the account without city approval.

The City Council will be asked to approve the $1.3 million project at its Nov. 25 meeting.

Naming rights revenues and ticket fees aren’t actually a bad way to pay for a stadium maintenance fund — it’s certainly better than having to raid the city’s general fund. But this is less Sternberg deciding to pony up to upgrade his current home while still angling to get out of it than Sternberg looking at a pot of money and figuring, hey, sure, 360-degree concourses, it’s either that or put it on a gift certificate. And hopefully this doesn’t mean there won’t be enough money left in the maintenance fund to do actual maintenance, a problem that Florida cities should be familiar with by now.