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MLB ends Rays’ ‘Sister City’ vision with Montreal

Tampa Bay Rays principal owner, Stuart Sternberg, has expressed his frustration after Major League Baseball (MLB) rejected the franchise’s innovative ‘Sister City’ venture with Montreal, forcing the team to refocus its efforts on securing a new home in the local region.

MLB’s executive council decided to end the scheme earlier this week, with news of the decision emerging yesterday (Thursday). In June 2019, MLB gave the green light for the Rays to pursue the option of splitting its season between Florida and the Canadian city of Montreal, amid the franchise’s ongoing stadium issues.

The Rays currently play at Tropicana Field (pictured) in St. Petersburg but have long been seeking a new ballpark. “Today’s news is flat-out deflating,” Sternberg said yesterday, according to the Associated Press news agency.

“Things had progressed nicely and things had been working nicely, and then recently it just sort of took a turn to the south and we don’t precisely know why. I have no doubt that what we tried to accomplish with our sister-city plan will become accepted in all of professional sports. Major League Baseball simply isn’t prepared to cross that threshold right now.”

Asked if he felt somewhat betrayed by his fellow club owners, Sternberg replied “that’s a word.” He added: “Sometimes people don’t like to be first. There was a fellow on this call when we went cashless a few years ago said to me, ‘I get it, I understand, but why do you have to be first.’ It’s just people have different approaches to things. We don’t mind being first on things.”

The Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field, where the team has played since its debut season in 1998, is currently due to expire after the 2027 season. The ‘Sister City’ plan had been explored as, despite success on the field, the Rays have regularly ranked near the bottom of MLB in attendance. Last season, the team drew in an average of around 9,500 fans for home games, above only Miami Marlins and Oakland Athletics.

In December 2018, 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 $892m (£657.4m/€786.6m) new stadium in Ybor City.

That followed a failed effort in 2008 to develop a waterfront stadium in downtown St. Petersburg. There are also no guarantees that Tropicana Field could remain the Rays home. In March, the City of St. Petersburg announced a shortlist of four proposals for the reimagining of Tropicana Field, but a baseball stadium is currently not part of this effort.

Sites throughout the local region are now set to be assessed with a view to developing a permanent new home. Regarding how the Rays’ new situation would tie in with the plans for Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch said: “We are working with our county partners and city council to put together the best plan possible, which will work in conjunction with my planned evolution of the Tropicana Field master development proposals.

“With this collaborative approach, I am confident we can partner with the Tampa Bay Rays to create a new and iconic full-time home for Major League Baseball in St. Petersburg while also achieving historic equitable economic growth.”

Tampa Mayor, Jane Castor, added: “All along our goal has been to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay. We had been working on both sister-city and full-season proposals, and now we can focus all of our energy on a full season. I am optimistic the Rays will call Tampa Bay home for many years to come.”

Sternberg, for his part, stated that possible relocation of the franchise outside of Florida is not an option. “It’s probably not served me incredibly well, but I have never threatened to move the team out of the region,” he said, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

“Now that seems to be 101 in the playbook of getting stadiums and arenas built. I don’t criticise it, it just hasn’t been my way. I think introducing that to an area is just not necessarily practical, and it’s not necessarily fair to your fan base.”

In May 2019, Groupe de Montréal, an entity seeking to return an MLB franchise to the Canadian city, reached an agreement for a plot of land on which it is seeking to build a stadium. The deal for the land in the Peel Basin area of Montreal was agreed by the Stephen Bronfman-owned Claridge Investments and real estate development firm Devimco.

Bronfman’s father, Charles, initially brought an MLB team to Montreal in 1969. However, the Expos were dissolved in 2004 when the franchise relocated to Washington, D.C. and was rebranded as the Nationals.

Montreal’s Mayor, Valérie Plante, yesterday indicated her administration will seek to draw up alternative uses for the land that had been proposed for the stadium project. “As Mayor, I must take note of MLB’s decision and continue planning for the highly strategic area of the Peel Basin, which cannot wait any longer to accommodate the housing and businesses we need for the development of our city,” Plante said, according to the Montreal Gazette.

“Our administration intends to work with the Canada Lands Co. and the federal government so that the redevelopment of the sector takes into account the needs of the population. Montreal is a baseball city and I am confident that it is only a postponement.”

Image: Eric Kilby/CC BY-SA 2.0/Edited for size