The Tampa Bay Rays have been a mess since entering the league back in 1998, and their new quest to split home games between Tampa and Montreal is further evidence that this franchise is inept and undeserving of their spot in Major League Baseball. Let’s rewind the clock and look at the countless mistakes Tampa Bay has made at seemingly every turn since its inception a little over 20 years ago.
In 1998, the team referred to themselves as the Devil Rays, a nice, localized nod to the devil rays (think manta rays) that call the oceans off Florida home. The design was innovative and edgy, especially for MLB, a league that honors its tradition to a detriment. So Tampa Bay, realizing their first few years would be marked by losing decided to look good while doing it.
They had sweet vests that aligned well with the trends of the 1990s (the Reds, Diamondbacks, Marlins, and Rockies are just a few teams to rock a vest during that era). Their name across the jersey featured a blue-to-green gradient that espoused tropical vibes. It was also one of the only gradients to be featured on a logo/jersey in any sport.
And their logo, sticking with the ‘90s theme, was rad. Seriously, a black stingray with hues of blue swimming toward the enemy was menacing, unique, and fit in perfectly with the era they played in. The ‘90s were, by far, the craziest decade when it came to extravagant, cartoon-like logos (Toronto Raptors, Vancouver Grizzlies, Houston Rockets come to mind).
So Tampa did one thing right: their uniforms and logos.
But then it all went to crap.
In 2008, the Rays and their completely disconnected-from-the-fanbase owner Stuart Sternberg decided to change the team’s name, colors, and logo. The Devil Rays, mired in a decade of losing, wanted a fresh start. That sentiment is understandable. But that fresh start should, in most cases, modify and upgrade designs, not completely scrap them. And said revamping should come with the fanbase in mind, something Sternberg completely disregarded when he announced the Devil Rays would lose their bite and become the Rays. But this shortened version wasn’t a truncated version of Devil Rays, it was a complete change in structure and form.
The team switched from their sea-gliding creature to the sun’s rays. Yes, the new name was a tribute to the sun’s rays that shine on the glorious Tampa Bay region. The fans weren’t clamoring for a new logo or team name. They weren’t sick of the colors or having the word devil on their chest. No, they were sick of losing, fruitless seasons, and a virtually non-existent fanbase. But Sternberg didn’t take that into account and figured the best way to erase a decade full of bad memories was to rebrand as the Rays. “I think this gives us as an organization an identity,” Sternberg told ESPN.
New identity or no identity
So what he’s saying is that the team has existed for a decade with no identity? That ownership and designers agreed on a uniform concept that wouldn’t represent the team to the fullest extent? Apparently. He continued, “We were tied to the past, and the past wasn’t necessarily something we wanted to be known for.” Guess what, plenty of teams lose for decades and don’t think the first way to staunch the bleeding is to downgrade the team’s logo and uniform.
The Red Sox (for almost a century) and the Cubs (for over a century) couldn’t figure out how to win. Guess what they did? Upgrade the roster, the stadium, the personal, the management. Guess what they didn’t do? Drastically modify the uniforms. They did virtually everything but that.
But with Tampa being Tampa, the problems the club faced clearly involved the uniform.
To make matters worse, the Tampa Bay Rays — and to be clear the Rays is all about the sun and not the fish — decided to pay homage to their original name by throwing an ill-advised devil ray patch on their jersey.
Now the futile club is all sorts of confused. Are they named after the sun or the fish? Should they be renamed a third time as the “Sunfish”? What about the “Sun Rays”? Either way, they should stick to one identify and run with it rather than waver between two disparate identities.
Tampa Bay was awarded an expansion team in 1995 that was slated to begin play in 1998. When the announcement was made official, Tampa Bay should have scrambled to build an appropriate stadium for baseball. Instead, they remained content and agreed to play in the concrete jungle otherwise known as Tropicana Field, a stadium that was supposedly built with baseball in mind (LOL).
The Trop opened up in 1990 with no permanent tenant before the Tampa Bay Lightning moved there in 1993. In 1996, the Lightning left the dome for their new arena, leaving the newly renamed Tropicana Field ready for the 1998 arrival of the Devil Rays. But there was work to be done.
The stadium needed to undergo about $70 million in renovations to get it ready for baseball, over half the stadium’s original construction cost of $138 million. Keep in mind the eyesore of a stadium opened up just six years prior with baseball in mind!
Today, the field is MLB’s only non-retractable domed stadium and is the league’s smallest stadium by seating capacity when the team opts to tarp off the uppermost sections, something that is more common than not.
Now, all would be well if the problems were limited to its ugliness, lack of personality, and limited seating capacity. But that’s only where the problems begin. First, there are the catwalks that line the dome. These catwalks are attached to the dome’s support structure and are necessary for maintenance workers to do repairs. But for baseball, the metal maze that lines the dome’s roof blocks balls and ruins sightlines from the upper deck. The rules regarding what happens to a ball that strikes a catwalk are confusing, vague, and frustrating.
Only Dallas’ new stadium had a problem similar to the Rays’ catwalk situation when punters were booting balls off the massive scoreboard, a feat that is rare and easily rectified. The catwalks, however, still remain, and they haven’t ceased giving teams and fans a headache.
So why not leave Tropicana Field?
Ok, it’s clear that the Rays have an awful stadium, one that usually ranks dead-last in any stadium-ranking list. Even the Oakland Coliseum is better because it’s outdoor at least. So why doesn’t ownership move? Why can’t they figure out how to fund a new stadium? That’s where the ballclub’s real issues begin.
For some reason, the Tampa Bay Rays agreed to sign what appears to be the most binding lease agreement in the history of leases. Bar none. To shorten a complex issue, the Rays are locked into their lease until 2028. To make matters worse, the lease agreement they signed prohibits them from talking to other cities about stadiums and relocation.
Should they attempt it, they will be stopped via court injunction. So if Tampa wants a new stadium, their owner needs to cough up his hard-earned dollar and fully and privately fund it, something he is not willing to do.
With private funding out of the picture, Sternberg pleaded with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who is hell-bent on enforcing the lease between the Rays and his city, to grant him permission to discuss funding with the neighboring city of Tampa.
Sternberg approached the city of Tampa hoping to get some help funding r a new stadium, but the cash-strapped city did not have the funds Sternberg needed. That meant Sternberg had to return to St. Pete, tail between legs, defeated and stadium-less while Kriseman, a Rays superfan, only tightened his grip on keeping the Rays in Tampa.
Desperate times call for desperate measures
Sternberg was desperate. Tampa has no fans and a stadium that was dated before it ever opened. And what does desperation do? It breeds reckless and sometimes stupid actions.
Stupidity was in full force in June 2019 when Sternberg began, with MLB’s permission, to explore splitting time between Tampa and Montreal, a city that notoriously lost its baseball team in 2005. Montreal, as you may remember, had an old, cavernous stadium and a marginal fan base, at best.
Sternberg, fully committed to doing counterintuitive things to his baseball club, told the Tampa Bay Times that “my priority remains the same, I am committed to keeping baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come. I believe this concept [Montreal] is worthy of serious exploration.”
He continued with flawed logic: “This is about helping the team thrive here in Tampa and Montreal having one as well.” So to revitalize a miserable franchise, the solution is to jettison them to Canada to a non-existent fanbase? For half a year? How many different ways can we say stupid?
Baseball in Montreal, part deux
Then Sternberg proceeded to rip into his franchise, saying, “We greatly lag behind the rest of the league. We are at or near the bottom of every economic category in Major League Baseball.”
Nothing like garnering support by tearing the fans apart. But Sternberg wasn’t done being absurd. “Eighty-one home games is a lot of games,” he said. “Does a community need to host that many games to have an affinity for that connection? No other pro or amateur sport comes close to providing 81 home games in a season.”
Ok, so what about the Red Sox? They do fine with 81 home games — so do the Cubs. So do the cities of Chicago and New York, each with two teams and plenty of passionate fans. Most clubs, it would appear, are not concerned with 81 home games.
And the delusional Sternberg wasn’t done yet. Sternberg concluded his baffling interview by saying, “We are expecting it to be a brand new ballpark in both places — in Montreal and here in Tampa Bay.”
Well, those delusions of grandeur were shot down pretty quickly by Mr. Tampa Bay himself, Mayor Kriseman.
“The city will not participate in funding a stadium for a part-time team,” he said. Kriseman, not finished shooting down Sternberg’s baffling plan, proceeded to explain that “the Rays cannot explore playing any Major League Baseball games in Montreal, or anywhere else for that matter, prior to 2028 without reach a formal memorandum of understanding with the city of St. Petersburg.”
The mayor concluded, “And ultimately, such a decision is up to me, and I have no intention of bringing this idea to our city council to consider. In fact, I believe this is getting a bit silly.”
Not taking no for an answer
There you have it, the mayor himself clearly and categorically denying the chance of a split team while the owner of said team continues to march forward with a plan seemingly bound to fail. If that isn’t dysfunction at its finest, then what is?
For the sake of time, we’re not even going to jump into the headache a split-city team would cause regarding: the players needing two homes; dividing fanbases between cities that have both failed with baseball; what the stadiums would do when baseball isn’t being played; getting taxed in two separate countries; how baseball families would basically be uprooted to an unsustainable level; and what the team would be called.
Mull those over if you really want to try your brain.
Tampa, it may be time to give up on the Rays
The Tampa Bay Rays were doomed from the start, something that becomes more and more evident with each passing year. There have been tons of small, glaring mistakes made along the journey to the bottom, but this latest gaffe — attempting to bring baseball back to a hockey town and further divide an already small, weak fanbase — was the icing on the cake. If Sternberg and the Rays can’t fill seats when they are the city’s sole team, how are they going to do it when they are just a half-team calling Tampa home for a few months? How, if they can’t figure out how to get a stadium built for a full-time club, will they get funding for a part-time venture that will sit unused for the majority of the year?
Ownership appears ill-equipped to run a major league ball club, and it may be best for Tampa to dissolve entirely and move to a place that craves baseball, or at least desires it more than the handful of Tampa faithful that still cling onto their dwindling club.