Where Are The Tampa Bay Rays Headed?

A general view as pitcher David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches in the first inning against the Texas Rangers in Game Three of the American League Division Series at Tropicana Field on October 3, 2011 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

The question posed in the headline to this post can be read in two ways.

Rhetorically, as in "What baseball direction should the Rays take now that they've been eliminated from the postseason in the first round two straight years?"

Or literally, as in "Should the Rays start thinking about moving out of the Tampa Bay area because of poor attendance, and if so, where could they go?"

The rhetorical question could be asked for some time, particularly with rumors that teams like the Cubs and Angels, who have general manager vacancies, might be interested in the Rays' Andrew Friedman. So let's look at the literal question, which is made more important today by Rays owner Stuart Sternberg's comments about the poor attendance at Tuesday's division series game against the Rangers.

Here's another quote from Sternberg that might be illuminating:

"It seems clearer to me by the day that we're going to be the last man standing," Sternberg said. "And everything I know, and talking to these guys, baseball is just not going to stand for it anymore. And they'll find a place for me. They won't find a place here though. So it's up to us, to everybody, to figure out how to get it right. …

"We've come so far with this, with all the people who are interested and watching. I do believe we've grabbed into (them) a little bit, and to say it's a good thing, it's fun, it's good for your kids, it's a nice sport. … And that's my real concern, that we won't get to finish the job that I know we were right there to do."

The problem for Sternberg and the Rays is that although that could have been said yesterday, it wasn't; that's from before this season began. Nothing has changed. Here's the basic problem, summed up three years ago by John Donovan at SI.com:

The main reason the Rays have failed to win the hearts of folks in Central Florida is the same one that explains the Marlins' similar fate in South Florida, says Michael Kalt, the Rays' point man for the new stadium. "Part of the reason that baseball hasn't been very successful here in Florida ... really comes down to the venues [do] nothing to highlight that feeling that this is baseball, in Florida," he says. "I mean, they stuck us in a UFO and [the Marlins] in a football stadium."

The "new stadium" referred to in that quote would have looked like this:

Now that is stunning. It's unique -- no other baseball stadium looks anything like that -- and it fits in with the culture of the region. Unfortunately, it will likely never be built; the Rays gave up on getting funding approved for that park. Further, St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster says he is going to hold the Rays to their lease for the Trop and not allow them to seek out sites in the Tampa Bay area outside that city; thus they have few options there other than to stay in that "UFO", which no one likes and that is in a location difficult for the bulk of area residents to get to.

What can Sternberg do? There have been rumors that the New York native, who grew up a Mets fan, is interested in buying that team if they come on the market, but he claims to be uninterested. However, what if he could move the Rays to New Jersey?

There are over 22 million people in the New York metropolitan area, of which about 4.2 million live in the New Jersey counties closest to the Meadowlands, where the New York Giants and Jets play and which is the most likely site for a baseball stadium. 4.2 million -- that would instantly make the Rays part of (approximately) the 12th largest market in baseball, about the size of Boston or Detroit. The New York City area supported three teams for more than 50 years until the Dodgers and Giants moved to California.

There is, of course, one not-so-small issue with the Rays moving to New Jersey, and it's not the lack of a stadium (unsuited as it is for baseball, they could probably play at the new Meadowlands football stadium for a couple of years while one is built). It's the territorial infringement payments the Mets and Yankees would likely ask for for invading their turf. What the amount of such payments would be is anyone's guess. But it would still be better than to allow one of baseball's best-run franchises (at least given their on-field success over the last four seasons) to wither away in an area that doesn't seem to care to keep it.

There aren't really any other cities in North America large enough to support a major league team that don't already have one. Sure, San Antonio, Portland, Nashville and Charlotte, among others, have expressed varying degrees of interest, but they don't have the market or media clout that you'd get from moving a team to New Jersey.

That's what I'd do, if I were MLB's moguls -- approve a Rays move to New Jersey, with some payments to the Mets and Yankees. It's the best way to save one of the up-and-coming franchises in baseball. What do you think? Vote in the poll.

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