Tampa Bay Rays to explore split-season option

Major League Baseball (MLB) has given the green light for the Tampa Bay Rays to pursue the option of splitting its season between Florida and the Canadian city of Montreal, amid the franchise’s ongoing stadium issues.

While the approval merely grants the Rays the ability to explore its options, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said such a strategy would allow the team to “preserve baseball in Tampa, but improve the economics of the club overall by playing some of their games in Montreal.”

He added, according to MLB.com: “There is no commitment on the part of the owners to ultimately approve a plan. The permission that was granted was simply a permission to explore this alternative in an effort to strengthen a franchise that has performed great on the field but continues to be pretty limited from an economic perspective.”

The plan would reportedly see early-season games taking place in Florida, with late-season fixtures moving to Montreal, which has been without an MLB team since the Expos were dissolved in 2004 when the franchise relocated to Washington, D.C. The Rays will be able to explore ballpark possibilities in both cities, including current and new venues.

“I think the Rays still are interested in having a new facility in Tampa,” Manfred said. “The limitations of the current facility in terms of the atmosphere and the location are pretty well known.”

The Rays currently play at Tropicana Field (pictured) in St. Petersburg but have long been seeking a new ballpark. In December, the Rays maintained they were committed to finding a new home in the local area despite admitting they were at “two strikes” following the decision to abandon a project for a new stadium in Ybor City.

In July 2018, the club unveiled plans to create the most intimate ballpark in MLB. The headline feature of the Populous-designed ballpark was a translucent roof accounting for 30 per cent of the project cost and fully enclosing the facility. The stadium would have had 28,216 fixed seats and a total capacity of 30,842. It was projected to cost $892m (£704.7m/€788.4m) and had been earmarked for completion on Opening Day of the 2023 MLB season.

In January, the Rays revealed plans to scale back capacity at Tropicana Field through a new series of capital improvements and renovations which they claimed would enhance the fan experience at the ballpark. Tropicana Field has a current capacity of around 31,000, but the Rays only pulled in an average attendance of 14,258 during the 2018 season, ranking them 29th out of the league’s 30 teams.

This has increased marginally to 14,545 in 2019, but the Rays remain 29th in attendance and this season drew franchise-low crowds of 5,786 and 6,166, respectively, for games on May 28-29.

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg told the Tampa Bay Times that the split-season concept could help to retain MLB in Tampa Bay. “I am committed to keeping baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come,” Sternberg told the newspaper. “I believe this concept is worthy of serious exploration.”

The Rays are said to view 2024 as the earliest date to introduce a split season, with Manfred hinting the concept is a longer-term option with the franchise committed to Tropicana Field through the 2027 season. Indeed, the plan has drawn a strong response from St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

“I want to be crystal clear,” he said, according to the Associated Press news agency. “The Rays cannot explore playing any Major League Baseball games in Montreal, or anywhere else for that matter, prior to 2028 without reaching a formal memorandum of understanding with the city of St. Petersburg. And ultimately such a decision is up to me, and I have no intention of bringing this idea to our city council to consider. In fact, I believe this is getting a bit silly.”

The Montreal option comes after Groupe de Montréal, an entity seeking to return an MLB franchise to the city, last month reached an agreement for a plot of land on which it is seeking to build a stadium.

In other MLB news, the Washington Nationals have become the latest team to commit to installing additional protective netting, with a view towards enhancing fan safety. The new netting will extend down the line and end just short of the right- and left-field foul poles at Nationals Park.

The topic of fan safety has risen in prominence of late and the Chicago White Sox this week revealed plans to extend the netting at Guaranteed Rate Field. During last week’s White Sox home game against the Nationals, a woman struck on the head by a foul ball was kept overnight in hospital.

Incidents involving children have occurred just this month at both Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals.

Image: Eric Kilby