In June, 2019 I was working for the Bowling Green Hot Rods, a Tampa Bay Rays affiliate, when the news came out of nowhere that the Tampa Bay Rays were exploring replacing outdated Tropicana Field with a new ballpark in Tampa…and a new one in Montreal.
Not one or the other. Both.
Needless to say, considering me and the rest of my fellow coworkers all worked in selling, promoting, and showcasing future Tampa Bay Rays, there was certainly an air of confusion, not to mention a host of takes that I honestly can’t remember specifically. I can remember, though, that it basically boiled down to this: WHY?!
To me, and to a lot of my coworkers, the plan didn’t seem to make any sort of sense, and the reaction from the baseball was similarly negative. Some viewed it as a bizarre ploy to get a ballpark in one city or the other. Rays players were not happy about it. Fangraphs said it would be a legal challenge. One former mayor of St. Petersburg, who clearly had been fed up with the Rays by that point, had a little, uh, spicier take:
I think simply put, it was insulting more than anything. Insulting to fans who the team expects to be perfectly fine with this arrangement (more on this later). Insulting to taxpayers being asked to fund stadiums in two cities when neither one is going to be used even the 81 days a year that your normal MLB stadium us. Insulting to the players who are expected to be fine with uprooting their home base in the middle of a season.
Nonetheless, fast forward two years, three months, and one pandemic later, somehow, someway, this idea is still alive. Even more, improbably, it appears to be gaining some momentum. Back in 2019, Major League Baseball had given the franchise a green light to explore the plan, and well, apparently they have been.
I’d like to imagine that exchange went like this:
Rays: “Hey, we want to play home games in Tampa…but also in Montreal too
MLB: “Like, share two home cities?”
Rays: “Yeah, that!”
MLB: “Lol, good luck”
Well, we’re now at the point where the league, as well as fans, players, executives, politicians, and others, have to be saying, “wait, you were actually serious about this?”
At its heart, from the moment I comprehended what exactly the Rays wanted to do, this entire idea seemed idiotic. To get you up to speed in case you somehow missed it or forgot exactly what the split-season arrangement would look like, this is what is said to be the idea:
- Both Tampa Bay and Montreal would build new ballparks
- Spring training is in Florida (not shocking; that wouldn’t change in any circumstance)
- The franchise would start the season playing home games in Florida for the first two months or so, with the franchise moving operations to Montreal in early-to-mid June and the season would be finished out in Canada
- Playoff games would be rotated between the two cities, reportedly by year
Take your pick. I guess if we simply move down the list, you can look at it this way:
The Stadiums: If you look at the bottom of any Ballpark Digest article about anything to do with the Trop, the list of articles at the bottom somewhat associated with the topic is quite a long one (about two dozen currently). The Rays first announced a new ballpark plan in 2007, meaning that as one plan after another has disintegrated, the Rays have now spent more than half of their existence trying and failing to replace the Trop.
Over time, there has been considerable analysis and debate on the merits of taxpayer-funded stadiums. As the last decade-plus in Tampa Bay has shown, getting even one stadium built is challenging enough. But now all of a sudden the team expects to get both done when neither is going to be a full-time home? That has to be impossible to sell to taxpayers, right?
Splitting the Schedule: This would certainly be messy between all interested parties. Tampa Bay is certainly going to be jaded from losing more than half the home schedule. Montreal would likely be upset at being only a some-of-the-time home to the team, rather than a legit full-time home.
Gameday employees at both sites would be upset at missing out on dozens of games worth of potential income. Likewise, two entirely different business operations would be necessary. Asking one front office to sell and market two separate markets 1,500 miles (or 2,400 kilometers) apart across an international border would be extremely difficult to do.
Again, I’m sure we know what the players think about changing their living arrangements mid-season when it doesn’t even involve changing teams. This is especially a pain for players whose families move for the season anyway.
Playoffs Rotation: This is where you certainly would see frustration among fans. Imagine Montreal fans being able to see playoff baseball in Quebec for the first time since 1981…but it’s Tampa’s year to host playoff games. On the flip side, after so many shortcomings in the playoffs, what if Tampa fans finally get to see the franchise hoist a World Series trophy…but the game was in Montreal?
If the team wins the World Series, who gets the parade? Do both cities get parades? Would fans care to go to a parade in Tampa that takes place five months after the team played their last game there for the season?
Everything about the playoff situation would be awkward at best for at least one city, if not excruciating and frustrating for at least some of the fans involved. Of course, the playoffs wouldn’t be the only time the fans would be upset…
The Fans Are Being Insulted
As I said earlier on, there are a lot of people that certainly feel insulted by this proposal, and more so as it actually seems to be crawling closer to becoming reality. However, it should go without saying that the most insulted group in this whole exercise are the fans. That’s notable because, of course, it’s whether the fans spend their money on your team that ultimately decides if a team is successful from a business standpoint.
It’s not just whatever fans left in Tampa Bay being insulted, but a future fan base in Montreal. What fans in Tampa would show up for a team that you’ve lost 2/3 of the year? And likewise, would Montreal fans ever fully embrace a team that’s not truly Nos Amours (especially if the franchise isn’t called the Expos)?
Furthermore, this season, Tampa Bay drew just 761,072 fans, ahead of only Miami and their well-documented attendance issues, an Oakland team that is also actively alienating their fanbase with a potential move to Las Vegas, and a Toronto squad that has been forced to utilize three different home parks this season because they couldn’t play in Canada for the first four months of the season.
Thanks to Toronto’s misfortune, Tampa Bay will finish outside the bottom two in American League attendance for the first time since 2010, when they finished ninth (one of only two times they finished outside the bottom third in AL attendance).
So let’s be clear that there are simply not a lot of Rays out there, or at least not a lot that actually care enough to go out to watch a team that won 96 games in 2019, won the AL Pennant in 2020, and posted the best record in the AL this season. That also means that there aren’t a lot more fans to alienate enough to drive them away.
At the same time, though, that doesn’t mean that the Rays had any reason to announce plans to put a banner up at the Trop touting the split-city arrangement during the playoffs. The first few paragraphs of the Tampa Bay Times story on the dumber idea to promote a dumb idea are damning enough:
Rays officials say they want to be “very considerate” in keeping the focus on what the team is doing on the field.
But they are adding a sign to the back wall at Tropicana Field for the postseason to showcase their somewhat controversial plan to split future seasons between Tampa Bay and Montreal.
Team president Matt Silverman revealed the plans in an interview on the This Week in Rays Baseball radio show that aired Saturday afternoon. He said later that they want to wait to unveil the sign at the first playoff game.
“We’re going to add a sign in the rightfield foul territory with a very simple Tampa Bay Montreal graphic,” Silverman said. “Especially with the eyes of baseball on us this October, we want that visible symbol of our plan and our excitement for it. It will mark the effort subtly and keep the focus on winning.”
No, that’s not “very considerate” and in fact, that is a great way to distract from the winning Mr. Silverman, not “keep the focus.” Just the thought of fans showing up for the first playoff game at Tropicana Field since 2019 only to see a ceremony to unveil a sign promoting the exit of the team your watching is schadenfreude on the part of the Rays organization, except the ones suffering are their own fans.
To give him credit, Rays owner Stu Sternberg seemed to be the one person who realized that such an unveiling would not go over well at all, and on Tuesday he announced that the idea would be nixed:
“I made a big mistake, a real mistake, in trying to promote our sister-city plan with a sign right now in our home ballpark. I absolutely should have known better. And really, I’m sorry for that. I’m here to tell … the fans that the sign is not going to go up.”
-Tampa Bay Rays owner Stu Sternberg
It’s a good first step that Sternberg made the realization that promoting a split-city plan while trying to sell playoff tickets in his current city is a horrible idea. If he has any sense, he’ll realize next that the split-city idea is a bad idea as well.
The Rays need to pick Tampa Bay or Montreal, not both. The fans have been insulted enough.