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

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.