Column: Rays’ sister-city plan a really, really dumb idea
There have been plenty of harebrained ideas down through the years.
New Coke. Hair in a Can. “The Godfather Part III.” Auto-Tune. The Ford Pinto.
Well, it’s time to add another one to the Hall of Shame:
The Tampa Bay Rays’ nonsensical scheme to play half their home games in one city, the other half in another city some 1,500 miles away.
In two different countries, for that matter.
Strangely, a franchise that does pretty much everything right on the field — the low-budget team made it to the World Series last season and is heading back to the playoffs with the best record in the American League — keeps messing things up away from the diamond.
Plagued by dismal attendance despite their success, the Rays have been trying for years to come up with a replacement for Tropicana Field, a monstrosity of a domed stadium located in sleepy St. Petersburg, far away from much of their potential fan base.
Having been thwarted at every turn, the Rays came up with a plan that you’d swear was a joke if they didn’t keep saying it with a straight face.
Taking a page from the old Kansas City-Omaha Kings — look it up, kids — the Rays are pushing to play spring training and roughly the first half of the season in Tampa, then shift north to Montreal to play the rest of their home games.
Oh, Canada, what are they thinking?
Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman gave an incredulous look when asked about Tampa Bay’s so-called “Sister City” proposition.
“Having two homes, people with families, people with kids in school, I think that’s quite a bit to ask,” Freeman said. “There’s no other way to put it. That would be a lot.”
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts expressed a similar sentiment.
“The season is hard enough as it is,” he said. “If that’s what the Rays think is the best for them, then that’s great, but it’s certainly something that is not ideal.”
Let’s see if we can grasp what the Rays are supposedly hoping to do by the time their Tropicana Field lease runs out in 2027, if not sooner.
Clearly, this boondoggle hinges on the Rays somehow persuading both cities to build new open-air stadiums, which they presume will be more viable economically since neither locale has shown much interest in subsidizing a domed or retractable-roof facility that would be optimal for a full season in either spot.
The Rays would hold spring training on the Gulf Coast and the first part of the season in Tampa. Then, just as the stifling Florida heat is really setting in and Montreal has finally thawed out from winter, the Rays would shift north to play the remainder of the regular season, hopefully completing their home schedule before the thermometer plunges again.
Of course, if the Rays made the playoffs, they would either have to play outdoors in Montreal in October — not ideal, to say the least — or shift back to Tampa — better weather, but a jarring change heading into the postseason.
San Francisco pitcher Kevin Gausman pointed to more practical concerns, which would surely raise the ire of the powerful players’ association.
“You think about taxes, too,” he said. “You’re playing in Florida, where there’s no state income tax, and all of a sudden you’re playing in Montreal? I don’t know what the taxes are there, but it’s probably pretty high.”
And what to call such a team?
The Rays nickname does not work in Montreal, which is eager to bring back the beloved Expos moniker from its previous big league team, which moved to Washington in 2005. Maybe they could borrow a a page the NFL in its fledgling days.
Struggling to stay afloat during World War II, the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers merged for the 1943 season, played home games in both cities, and became known as the “Steagles.”
Anyone up for the Exrays?
The Steagles, of course, were merely a temporary solution to deal with extraordinary circumstances, not unlike more recent two-city adaptations.
— The Expos, in an interesting twist, played 22 home games in Puerto Rico during each of their last two seasons in Montreal in an attempt to boost the bottom line of a lame-duck, MLB-owned franchise that wound up becoming the Nationals.
— In 2005, the NFL’s New Orleans Saints split their home games between San Antonio and Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Big Easy.
— This season, baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays actually played in three different home stadiums because of COVID-19 restrictions, starting out at their spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida, before moving north to Buffalo for about two dozen home games and and finally back to Toronto at the end of July.
“Extremely difficult,” Roberts marveled. “I give (Toronto manager) Charlie Montoya and the Blue Jays a lot of credit for what they’ve had to go through this year.”
There have been attempts to play in multiple home cities, though nothing on the scale that Tampa Bay is proposing.
In the old American Basketball Association, for instance, several teams tried a regionalized approach within a single state. The Carolina Cougars held home games in Greensboro, Charlotte, Raleigh and Winston-Salem. The Floridians played in Miami, Tampa, Jacksonville and West Palm Beach.
Most notable were the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, who considered both cities home during their first three seasons in the NBA. Admittedly, they are much closer to each other than Tampa Bay and Montreal — about 185 miles apart — which made it more feasible to play 26 home games in Kansas City and 15 in Omaha.
Even then, the unique arrangement didn’t last. The Kings dropped Omaha from their name after three seasons, eventually shifted all home games to Kansas City and wound up moving to Sacramento in 1985.
Clearly, two-city teams do not work long term. But the Rays keep insisting that it’s the only way for baseball to survive in the Tampa Bay area — even if it’s only for a half-season a year.
The Rays were going to put up a sign at Tropicana Field touting the Sister City plan during the playoffs, only to change course when they were rightfully called out for angering what few fans they have and causing an unnecessary distraction for their players.
“I made a big mistake, a real mistake,” Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said this week in an interview with the team’s radio network. “I absolutely should have known better. And really, I’m sorry for that. I’m here to tell you and tell the fans that the sign is not going to go up.”
Now, he needs to take an even bigger step.
Call the sister-city plan what it is.
A really, really dumb idea.
AP Sports Writers Beth Harris in Los Angeles and Janie McCauley in San Francisco contributed to this column.
Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and check out his work at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
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