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Rays welcome Hillsborough commission's invite to talk

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 10:38 PM
TAMPA -

Sometime in the next few weeks, the management of the Tampa Bay Rays will get a letter formally inviting them to appear before the Hillsborough County Commission to talk about the baseball team's future.

The team's owner indicated Thursday that such a meeting is not out of the question.

Buoyed by an opinion from the county attorney that they were on solid legal ground, county commissioners voted 5-2 Thursday to invite the Rays to talk about their long-term plans.

Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who pushed for the meeting, said a letter will go to the Rays in a few weeks and, if the team accepts, a meeting will be scheduled for October or November.

The Rays told The Tampa Tribune the team will accept.

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, in an email response to a reporter's question, welcomed the commission's action.

"Since 2008, we have suggested a regional dialogue to ensure the successful future of (Major League Baseball) in the Tampa Bay Region," Sternberg said. "We greatly appreciate the Hillsborough County Commission's action today and look forward to the progress which this regional discussion can bring."

Hagan, notified of Sternberg's response, said he was "extremely encouraged."

"Not to say I'm surprised, but I'm definitely encouraged," Hagan said. "I didn't know how this would be received by the Rays or if they would even accept the invitation."

The Rays have a contract with the city of St. Petersburg to lease Tropicana Field until 2027.

On Wednesday, Hillsborough commissioners received a legal opinion from the county's managing attorney, Robert Brazel, saying they could indeed talk with the Rays as long as specifics — such as possible sites or financing for a new stadium — were not discussed. Brazel also said the discussions should be in public.

But that same afternoon, St. Petersburg City Attorney John C. Wolfe said in an email to the Tribune that such talks would harm St. Petersburg's image and could result in a legal action.

Holding the meetings in public would not absolve the Hillsborough commission from liability, Wolfe said.

His statement resonated with Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Kevin Beckner, who voted Thursday against sending the meeting invitation to the Rays.

Higginbotham said he worried such discussions would open the county to a lawsuit for tortuous interference — intentionally damaging another party's contractual or business relationship.

Beckner said he couldn't support Hagan's motion without a pledge that neither the chairman nor anyone else from the county would engage in "backroom discussions" about building a stadium in Hillsborough County to lure the Rays.

Also of concern to some commissioners was the damage that such discussions could do to relationships between the region's two largest counties and two most important cities, Tampa and St. Petersburg.

"If we're going to try to be good regional partners and neighbors, this is not the way to go about it," Higginbotham said.

Commissioner Sandy Murman agreed, saying the discussions could create an "adversarial" relationship between Hillsborough and St. Petersburg.

Hagan brushed aside those concerns, noting it had been 2½ years since a group of business leaders called the ABC Coalition concluded the Rays needed a new stadium. Since that time, Hagan said, neither St. Petersburg nor Pinellas County has made serious efforts to find a solution that would keep the Rays in this region.

"I respect St. Pete and Pinellas County leaders; many of them are my friends," Hagan said. "But it's been nearly three years, and they have been reluctant to do anything."

Hagan pointed out, as he has before, that the team is a regional asset and has made the post-season three out of the last four years. Yet it draws the second-worst attendance among Major League Baseball teams.

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has weighed in, too, issuing dire warnings about the future of Major League baseball in the Tampa area without a new stadium.

During Thursday's meeting, Hagan asked Brazel whether the county is on sound legal ground conducting general discussions with the Rays in public about the team's future.

Brazel said yes, as long as the focus is long-term intentions and staying in this region.

"And … as I've mentioned, the Rays doing the talking and us doing more of the listening, I think we're fine," Brazel said.

Brazel said that it is unlikely St. Petersburg could recover damages from Hillsborough County if the Rays compensate the city for breaking its lease.

"As you know, there's been many cities that have lost sports teams over the years to other cities. … I'm not aware in any of those cases of those cities who lost the team being compensated or even making a claim for the loss of their image or a loss of their reputation," Brazel said.


msalinero@tampatrib.com (813) 259-8303

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