Rays reach agreement to seek new ballpark site

Rays reach agreement to seek new ballpark site

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays cleared a major hurdle Tuesday in their long-running quest to find a new ballpark, reaching an agreement with the city of St. Petersburg that will allow the club to seek potential stadium sites in the Tampa Bay area.

If the "memorandum of understanding" negotiated by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and the Rays is approved by the City Council next week, the Rays can look anywhere in Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties for a suitable location. St. Petersburg is located in Pinellas County, while Tampa is in Hillsborough County.

"Today marks a significant step forward, but this is just the beginning of a long process," Rays president Brian Auld said during a news conference at Tropicana Field. "Together as a region and as a community, we can now begin seeking a solution for the future of this great organization."

The City Council had been scheduled to vote on Thursday but decided Wednesday to postpone it a week. Bill Dudley, the council chair, said the delay doesn't indicate whether the memorandum will be approved or denied; the council simply want more time to consider the issue rather than rush into a vote two days after the announcement.

The memorandum applies to non-binding discussions only, meaning the Rays cannot yet come to an agreement to build a stadium at any location. It is valid for three years, and its terms would not be valid or admissible in court if the Rays attempted to move the team away from the Tampa Bay area.

"What is crucial for us is that we find the best place in this region for the Rays. Wherever that is should be best for both counties when all is said and done," Auld said. "We're taking a fresh look at all possibilities on both sides of the bay, in both counties. We do not have any preconceived notions at this point."

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg praised the mayor for his "boldness" in coming to terms on this agreement.

If the agreement is approved, Sternberg said, the Rays will still have to spend four or five more years at Tropicana Field as they find a location, sort out how to finance the construction of a new stadium and get the move approved by the city of St. Petersburg.

Sternberg, speaking at the Winter Meetings in San Diego, was less certain about what comes next if it doesn't pass.

"There's nothing for me to do at that point," Sternberg told reporters. "I can't even speculate. Are they going to walk in and negotiate again? ... I don't know. It depends on what comes out of it. If it [is rejected], I would like to think that people have a reason for not voting for it. And if they do, I don't know what we can do at that point to satisfy that. Certainly we're full at this point. This is it. I don't see us changing things. Even much more than a minor way, if at all."

Rays officials have cited Tropicana Field's location as the fundamental issue preventing the club from having greater attendance.

Under the terms of the agreement, the Rays are not required to pay the city in order to search for new stadium sites. But after they leave Tropicana Field, the Rays must pay the city $4 million per year through 2018, $3 million per year from 2019-22 and $2 million per year from 2023-26. The Rays' use agreement at the Trop expires in '27.

The agreement also includes in-kind compensation up to $1 million for the city, providing for things like season tickets and signage in a new ballpark. Kriseman called Tuesday's announcement an "unprecedented, good and fair agreement for the city of St. Petersburg."

Sternberg said the team has no sites in mind right now. Kriseman repeatedly expressed his belief that the Rays' search will lead them right back to St. Petersburg, though there has been a great deal of speculation surrounding potential stadium sites in Tampa.

"The window of opportunity for the Rays to remain in this region was closing with each passing year," Kriseman said. "I've long recognized that had this continued unresolved for several more years, the Rays would be wise enough to simply wait out the contract and move away, leaving us with nothing but a vacant building.

"While I am mayor of St. Petersburg, I am also an elected leader in this region, and I am committed to ensuring that there is always a 'TB' on the players' hats. It's far better than the alternative."

Sternberg said he had no interest in moving the team out of the region.

"Look, I'm not leaving. I'm not moving this team. I'm not taking this team out of the area. But that's me," Sternberg said. "And the chances of me owning this team in 2023 if we don't have a new stadium are probably nil. Somebody else will take it and move it. It's not a threat, it's, 'I won't be sitting here 10 years from now waiting to move the team.'

"I think baseball can still flourish down here, and I'm looking for the opportunity to make that happen. We need to get the building and the location pinpoint perfect for that to happen. So I don't know. I don't want to speculate about it, but it's never been my intention or desire or concept to move this team away from Tampa Bay."

Tuesday's announcement was a momentous occasion, but there is still a long way to go, as Auld said.

For now, the Rays will wait for the City Council's vote.

"It's been such a huge undertaking to get to this point on Tuesday that, really, as frank as I can be, I'm only focused on -- not that I have any sway on it -- seeing how things go," Sternberg said. "And then we will get on to what's next."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.