tampabay.com

Rays say it's just a timeshare, not a relocation bid

Team looks to expand market with three games in Orlando.

By GARY SHELTON
Published December 1, 2006


Three games, the man said. Just three games.

After all, a team needs new fans. Especially when the attendance is down, the payroll is down and the winning percentage is down.

So why not broaden the horizons?

Why not play a few games in Orlando?

Why not take your season and sell off a few spare parts?

Sigh. It was troubling 17 years ago when it was Hugh Culverhouse talking about a dalliance with Orlando and, yeah, it's a little unsettling to hear Stu Sternberg singing the same lyrics.

For one thing, most of us expected more of Sternberg than to see him follow Culverhouse's business model, and it would be nice if someone would rip it from his hands before he hires Richard Williamson, loses Doug Williams and alienates Bo Jackson.

For another, isn't it bad form when an owner flirts with another while he's still in his honeymoon period?

"This is purely about us expanding our market," Sternberg said Thursday. "This idea of us leaving town ... it's not even an issue."

Agreed, moving three games of an 81-game home season isn't the same as moving three out of eight, as the Bucs were prepared to do. Losing a Rangers series is going to affect about 25,000 fans, even if one of the lost games includes a nifty giveaway such as B.J. Upton Bobbleglove Day.

"I can understand people feeling queasy if we were talking about playing 30 games, but we're not." Sternberg said. "But the last thing I would want to hear is: 'Good riddance. Tell them to get the hell out of here.' If people are concerned, it's because they care."

Also, it's because no one understands the way the relocation game works quite like baseball fans in Tampa Bay. We have winked at our share of owners. We've built new stadiums in Chicago, in Seattle, in San Francisco. Frank Lloyd Wright didn't get as many buildings built as we have.

In other words, there is a little paranoia to being a Tampa Bay sports fan. And for those who have supported the Rays, bless their scarred little hearts, this is not a comfortable notion.

Three games in Orlando against Texas? Who is to say that in the following year, it doesn't become six games? Or 10, including a series against the Yankees? What about a series in Jacksonville? What about one in Miami in 2010 (by then, the Portland Marlins won't mind).

And what about the inevitable day when an Orlando city commissioner says: "Lease or no lease, why don't we build a stadium and get the Rays permanently? Maybe we can change their name to the Devil Rays of the Caribbean."

Knowing what savvy businessmen you and I are, at this point we would stroke our chins and say: "Well, you know, we want to stay in Tampa Bay. But we sure could use a new stadium."

And, gee, wouldn't that be fun?

For the record, I believe Sternberg when he says he has no ulterior motives. He wants more fans. He wants more than the 20-25 games a year that are televised into the Orlando market.

And, yeah, it would be good to see a few more fannies in a few more seats, which might lead to a few more dollars to spend on a few more players. Orlando Cabrera, maybe. Orlando Hernandez. Orlando Hudson. Maybe Orlando Cepeda can be the hitting coach. Tony Orlando and Dawn can sing the anthem.

Still, opening this door can set a lot of things in motion beyond good intentions. Yes, the Rays are kids, but no one wants to share custody. It's the reason Shamu doesn't have a place in Tampa Bay.

To be fair, Orlando could chase a team - maybe this isn't a plot to steal the Rays, maybe it's a plot to steal the Rangers - without those three days in May. For instance, cities have been pursuing the Marlins without ever seeing them up close. In the case of the Marlins, perhaps that's why.

As far as a new stadium, Sternberg repeats himself, "I will never demand a new stadium."

Still, it is hard to get away from the uneasy feeling that something is being lost here, something compromised. Do fewer games mean less faith in the market? After all, the Yankees don't play games in Newark. The Braves don't play in Chattanooga. The Rockies don't play in Boulder.

Besides, when it comes to the play of the Rays, shouldn't we be more concerned with "how" than "where"?

As long as we are channeling Culverhouse, remember that the reason he flirted with Orlando was that he wasn't convinced he could draw fans here even if his team was good.

Guess what? For a while there, the Bucs were pretty good, and the fans came. Guess what? Some of them came from Orlando.

So save the bus fare, Stu. In baseball, the key to the game is getting home. Sometimes, it's staying there.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805 or at gshelton@sptimes.com.

Your thoughts? Rays in Orlando

The Devil Rays are looking into the idea of playing a three-game series in the Disney/Orlando area next season. Is it a good idea? Do you have a problem with it? Are you worried this means the Rays are thinking of moving? Tell us what you think. Send your comments 100 words or less along with your name and hometown to sptsnews@sptimes.com.