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Officials: Rays balk at paying to break lease

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Published:   |   Updated: September 6, 2013 at 06:58 AM

ST. PETERSBURG — Talks between the Tampa Bay Rays and city officials about the team's lease at Tropicana Field have stalled, largely because team officials say they won't pay the city any compensation if the Rays leave the stadium before the contract expires in 2027, according to two City Council members.

That hardline stance was the Rays' response to a city offer allowing the team to move to a new stadium if it agrees to pay an undisclosed amount for every year remaining on its lease and to pay for demolition costs of the Trop and any outstanding debt on the stadium, said City Council Member Bill Dudley.

City Council members on Thursday blamed Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig for the impasse, saying he is behind the Rays' negotiating position.

“We offered them a price,” Dudley said. “Selig has told them don't give us anything.”

The Rays' negotiating position is a slap in the face for the city and Pinellas County residents who have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing and subsidizing Tropicana Field, City Council Chairman Karl Nurse said.

“Their premise is they shouldn't have to pay us anything,” he said. “I can't imagine how they can say, 'We owe you nothing. Goodbye.' And I can't imagine the city agreeing to that.”

Mayor Bill Foster said he could not talk about negotiations because both sides agreed to keep them confidential. He confirmed there are no further talks scheduled with the Rays. Foster is the city's sole elected official who has been participating in the negotiations and has staked out the city's position since he took office. Until recently, Foster has insisted the team honor its obligation to play at the Trop through 2027. City Council members have not been directly involved in the negotiations but receive updates from Foster.

In a memo sent to City Council members Wednesday, Foster said talks with the Rays had been “productive” until an Aug. 15 meeting of MLB owners, when Selig threatened possible intervention in the stadium issue.

“It has become apparent to me that Major League Baseball has no intention of assisting the city and Rays in reaching a mutually beneficial solution,” Foster said in the memo. “Nor does Major League Baseball seem interested in a cooperative effort to keep the Rays in the Tampa Bay region for the long term.”

Rays officials declined to comment on negotiations but were critical of Foster for saying anything.

“The Rays organization is singularly focused on the excitement of a pennant race and the opportunity to reach the postseason,” spokesman Rick Vaughn said in an email. “It in unfortunate and unproductive in so many ways that Mayor Foster chose now to publicly describe our conversations. We have remained silent about the details of our discussions, and we will have no further comment today.”

The league also had no comment on the mayor's remarks, according to Major League Baseball spokesman Pat Courtney.

Despite a winning record in recent years, the team's attendance has been among the lowest in baseball.

For several months, the team and the city have been negotiating a framework that would allow the Rays to scout the Tampa Bay region for suitable stadium sites. The team has said it can't continue to play at the Trop through the end of its lease and has insisted it must be able to look in Hillsborough County as well as Pinellas County for a new stadium site.

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg has suggested several times in recent years that baseball's other owners were growing restless with the Rays' lingering stadium problem. Richer teams such as the New York Yankees subsidize less profitable teams, including the Rays, through revenue-sharing payments. That money is supposed to make small-market teams more competitive and, eventually, more financially viable.

It's not clear how much the Rays receive every year through revenue-sharing, but documents leaked by Deadspin.com in 2010 show the Rays collected about $35 million in 2008.

Councilman Charlie Gerdes, who in February suggested the Rays pay a fee to explore stadium sites across Tampa Bay, said MLB's involvement led to the talks stalling.

“Bud Selig and other owners who are revenue-sharing with the Rays aren't interested in an area that can't seem to support a team without revenue-sharing,” Gerdes said. “The pressure is coming from others who are sick and tired of revenue-sharing.”

In his memo, Foster reiterated that his goals are still to protect the city's investment while helping the Rays remain in the Tampa Bay area.

He faces a tough reelection battle in the Nov. 5 general election against challenger Rick Kriseman, a former state lawmaker who has said he supports the idea of an exploration fee and that he would protect the city's investment in the Trop.

Nurse, one of four council members to endorse Kriseman, said he does not expect talks will resume until after the election.

“I don't see any other solution until Nov. 5 with a new mayor taking a run at it or the existing mayor finding a new approach,” he said.

codonnell@tampatrib.com

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Twitter: @codonnellTBO

msasso@tampatrib.com

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