Now it begins: The Tampa Bay Rays get the ball rolling on ultimately moving out of Tropicana Field

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In addition to location, there is that thorny thing about paying for what would and should be a retractable park.  Rays vice president Michael Kalt says such a park would cost between $500-$600 million, and tells the Times that the Rays would be willing to pay possibly as much as half of that.

"I know it's going to cost us money. I know it's not going to be $50 million and it's not going to be $300 million. It will be somewhere in between.''

Perhaps the biggest question that sits out there is something that nobody in the Bay area who enjoys baseball and wants to keep the Rays in the area wants to contemplate: What if moving the team to a stadium in Tampa doesn't bring more fans to the park?

The assumptions, as listed in the ABC report and reiterated by Michael Kalt, is that the Rays could draw on average anywhere between 4,000-8,000 fans more per game, because there will be more population density in the sites described in their report.

But regular season Major League Baseball in Florida is an experiment that has been going on for less than two decades, and the results are not encouraging.  The Florida (Miami) Marlins are one of the handful of teams who have drawn worse in attendance than the Rays in recent years, and they've won two championships.  Yes, their ownership has quickly dismantled those clubs, and the fact that they've played in an open air football stadium has always been a detriment (or excuse) for their poor attendance, but at some point, MLB has to question the capacity for regular season baseball in this state.

In the fall of 2001, MLB owners voted to contract (or eliminate) two professional franchises.  Though those two teams were never announced, there was speculation that they were referring to the then Montreal Expos and the Minnesota Twins .  However then  Attorney General Bob Butterworth was so paranoid that it might be the Rays and the Marlins that he subpoenaed MLB for documents to determine who they were thinking about.  MLB later dropped the subject, and the Expos ended up moving to Washington D.C.

The Tampa Bay area is the 14th (or 15th) biggest television market in the country.  MLB wants to have a team here.  But the area so far has not shown the support adequate for it to be competitive.  That's a fact.

By the same token, the taxpayers don't owe Sternberg anything.  Then again, they didn't owe Bucs owner Malcolm Glazier anything back in 1996, but apparently they thought they did, and voted for the Community Investment Tax that allowed for the construction of Raymond James Stadium.

Public money is what pays for a huge amount of stadiums and arenas in this country.  If communities would all stop doing so, owners would have to find the money themselves.  But cities and counties and states usually find a way to fund substantial parts of such facilities.  The Rays are using the script that virtually every other team has done before them.

St. Pete Times Editor  Neil Brown's has "flooded the zone" (to use the phrase employed by former NY Times Editor Howell Raines in covering the 9/11 attacks ) in unleashing his reporters and columnists to weigh in on Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg's announcement on Monday that he wants to leave downtown St. Petersburg and explore playing baseball in other parts of the Tampa Bay area.

The Tampa Tribune has several features in their package, including their lead story written by Richard Mullins that gets to what this reporter believes is a crucial aspect that Bay area Rays fans should be concerned about: the possibility of the team leveraging the area to get a good deal, perhaps somewhere outside of the Bay area:

Despite all the expectations, one factor may trump everyone's hopes: The dismal economy.

In one sense, "they're testing the waters to see how receptive the various government bodies will be to financing or facilitating a new facility," said Michael McCann, Vermont Law School professor and contributor to Sports Illustrated.

"But the Rays may not have the same leverage in making overtures to other cities," McCann said.

Las Vegas is regularly trotted out as a tempter of MLB teams, especially by owners looking to leverage more money from cities trying to keep those teams. Same with Charlotte, N.C.

But Nevada now has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, and Charlotte has been stung badly by struggles in the banking industry.

Times columnist Gary Shelton follows this line of thinking, writing  that for those who live and work in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, it may be disappointing to hear Sternberg write off downtown St. Pete and welcome the possibility of Tampa and Hillsborough County being the possible new home of the Rays.  But he writes that - isn't it preferable to Charlotte, Las Vegas or San Antonio?

Those possibilities are a ways down the line.  But Sternberg did what he needed to do yesterday, which is actually formally respond to the ABC report that came out half a year ago, and said that two of the three best possible sites for a new stadium actually reside in Tampa.

If you'll recall, St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster and members of the City Council immediately dismissed the report and refused to have members of that group brief them.  They didn't want to entertain the possibility of the Rays, who do have a contract with the city to play in Tropicana Field until 2027, looking outside of St. Pete as a possible home.

And Mayor Foster said all the right things yesterday when he commented, "Like it or not, we are married and joined at the hip until 2027."  The city does have some leverage right now. The Times reports that City Attorney John Wolfe wants to meet with the Rays owner, John Higgins about possible options to Mayor Foster and the Council about amending the terms of that contract.

St. Pete has several cards in its favor over Tampa/Hillsborough still - once the bonds to Tropicana Field have been paid off in 2016, there will be public money available for a new park, should city leadership opt to go in that direction.  Also, the land at Tropicana Field could be sold off for potential development if the Rays decide to go somewhere else in the city.

In their editorial on the issue today, the Times says Foster and the Council should get off their high horse.

First, Foster and the City Council have to drop threats of lawsuits and let the Rays participate in regional talks that explore sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough. Sternberg said he is not interested in looking at other St. Petersburg sites without evaluating them alongside others outside the city. The city ought to be able to negotiate a reasonable time frame for those talks to take place and limit the search to Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The longer St. Petersburg waits to engage, the more it loses in negotiating leverage as the Trop's debt drops and the years left on the lease decline.

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