- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
On one side of the country, the mayor of St. Petersburg, Fla., met with Tampa Bay Rays president Matt Silverman to discuss the team’s lingering unhappiness with the current ballpark situation, as detailed by Christopher O'Donnell. On the other side of the country, the Oakland Athletics postponed a game, despite the fact there was no rain falling and no rain in the forecast: The field had been left uncovered the night before and was deemed unplayable, as John Hickey writes.
The Athletics’ situation could have happened in just about every other park in the sport. In the time I covered the New York Yankees, I remember a similar situation developing at Legends Field before a spring training game, with the groundskeepers scrambling to prepare the dampened field early in the morning before George Steinbrenner arrived. They had left the tarp off the field overnight, and a passing shower had thoroughly drenched it.
But between this and the ongoing sewage issues, and the field conditions that develop when the NFL's Raiders start playing games, Oakland’s park situation continues to be an embarrassment for all of Major League Baseball, not just the Athletics. As Bill Shaikin noted on Twitter on Friday, it’s now been five years since commissioner Bud Selig formed a committee to study Oakland’s ballpark options, and nobody -- not the other owners, not the commissioner -- have deemed it important enough to make it a priority item for the industry.
Which is their prerogative. If baseball’s owners and Selig don’t feel the need to strong-arm the Giants into making the best possible territory deal they can make and carve out a home for the Athletics in San Jose, Calif., that’s their choice. Until Major League Baseball -- the teams and the central office -- places the Athletics’ status at the top of its to-do list and prepares all the necessary horse-trading, nothing will change.
But when stuff like this happens -- when sewage is running under the feet of players, coaches and umpires -- the fault lies with the whole of MLB, not just plumbers or groundskeepers. This is a glaring case of benign neglect.
The Rays’ situation with St. Petersburg is like a marriage that is all but over besides the legal union. After their Opening Day spread of 31,042 fans, the Rays have drawn crowds of 11,113, 10,808, 9,571 and 14,304 in keeping with the recent tradition of support. Some small-market and mid-market teams have seen their attendance rise and fall according to how much the fans believe in ownership's investment in the team -- the Padres are a perfect example of this -- but the Rays have been a model of consistency in their incredible and improbable success, and yet the attendance continues to drift downward.
The franchise vies with the St. Louis Cardinals for the title of best-run baseball operations department, having won at least 90 games in all but one of the past six seasons, despite working on a shoestring budget while maintaining residence in the hyper-competitive American League East. The team has tried to reboot the fan experience at Tropicana Field, repeatedly. The Rays have tried to make the marriage with St. Petersburg work, but it’s not working.
From O’Donnell’s story:
The Rays are under contract to play at the Trop through 2027 but say they need to explore sites for a new stadium because of low attendances at the city-owned facility. The city has so far refused, saying it has to protect the investment of taxpayers who paid millions of dollars to bring Major League Baseball to St. Petersburg.
“I think we made good progress today,” Kriseman said. “We’re having very open and honest dialogue with each other.”
The hourlong unannounced meeting, the second Kriseman has had with the team since taking office in January, was at the Trop ahead of the Rays’ game against the Texas Rangers.
Kriseman said both sides have agreed to keep talks confidential. Talks in 2013 between the Rays and former Mayor Bill Foster stalled after city leaders claimed that Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig had instructed the Rays not to offer the city any compensation if it broke its contract.
“Both sides have agreed we are going to keep our conversations in confidence and private so we can continue to have a solid element of trust in each other, so we can make progress,” Kriseman said.
Despite a winning team in recent years, the Rays’ average attendance of just more than 18,000 was the lowest in the league in 2013.
Principal owner Stuart Sternberg has suggested several times in recent years that baseball’s other 29 owners were growing restless with the Rays’ lingering stadium problem. Richer teams such as the New York Yankees have to subsidize less profitable teams, including the Rays, through revenue-sharing payments.
Maybe there’s a more tenable site in the Tampa area. Maybe Montreal could be an option. Maybe Portland, or Nashville.