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Tampa Bay Rays in Crosshairs of Brash Vegas, Restrained Portland

January 2, 2019 - 12:30pm
Action was hot, attendance was not
Action was hot, attendance was not

The abject failure of Hillsborough County to provide a sensible location and realistic financing for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium has emboldened two western cities that yearn for Major League Baseball.

Both Portland and Las Vegas are rumored to be hastening plans for building state-of-the-art stadiums, even without the awarding of a franchise or commitment for one.  Their tactics mirror the personality of each city: Vegas hasn’t disguised its glee at the Rays’ plight; Portland, publicly at least, is playing its cards close to the vest.

The two cities have reportedly expedited their timetables for stadium construction.

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg asserted last month at Major League Baseball’s winter meetings -- held in Las Vegas -- that the ephemeral plans for a new stadium in Ybor City are dead.  Not only was the proposal more flawed than diamonds sold on E-bay, Sternberg was reportedly spooked by associating himself with self-enriching land barons connected to county government cronies.

The Rays owner, a New York resident with no real ties to Tampa Bay, then issued this outlandish statement:

“We’ll continue to look in Tampa Bay and we’ll put our efforts to that,” Sternberg said at a news conference during the winter meetings. “One way or another, we need to figure out where the team is going to be in 2028, if not sooner. Ideally sooner. But absolutely by 2028.”

Don’t buy it. He knows he will find the best deal elsewhere from cities starving for a MLB franchise that won’t be as attendance-challenged as at Tropicana Field, or very likely, any Tampa Bay location.

For decades, the four major professional sports leagues have shunned Vegas, the world’s No. 1 gambling mecca. That longtime barrier has fallen with a gigantic thud.

The city is home to the second-year NHL Las Vegas Golden Knights and is building a $1.5 billion stadium for the relocation of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders in two years. The NBA’s Phoenix Suns, unhappy with ancient American Airlines Arena, are leveraging a move to Las Vegas to gain a new facility in the Valley of the Sun.  In November, Major League Baseball named MGM Resorts as its first official gambling partner.

The convergence of events is stunning.

There is rampant speculation that the Vegas stadium will be built on the site of the Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino, owned by Caesars Entertainment, on Flamingo Boulevard. This would have been heartbreaking a dozen or so years ago, but the property has been on a downhill slide. At least I’ll always have the memory of assisting Teller with a card trick.

What makes the rumors so believable is that Sin City would be hard-pressed to find a better location. In my mind, it is perfect.

The Rio sits on more than 100 acres and is 1.2 miles from Las Vegas Boulevard, the Strip. Close enough but not too close to bottleneck the main drag any more than it is now. Tropicana Field, home of the Rays for the time being, sits on 85 acres.

Future home of the Rays?
Future home of the Rays?

Six-lane Flamingo Road can handle the traffic and it is traversed by Interstate 15. The cross streets surrounding the Rio are more than adequate. The hotel runs a shuttle to the strip, similar to the one operated between Tropicana Field-downtown St. Pete. That’s easily replicated if the Rio site becomes home to the Las Vegas Rays. City buses also serve the property.

I-15 is .6 miles from the projected stadium site. Vegas insiders are betting that demolition of the Rio is impending. Land in proximity to the property is being snapped up by speculators.

Portland, meanwhile, has pined for Major League Baseball for years but, unlike the city 762 miles to the southeast, it’s angling for the Rays with more humility.

John Canzano of the Oregonian, following the Ybor City debacle, wrote that Portland’s movers and shakers should  “operate with caution and humility, and great care.” That’s the Portland way.

Spearheading Portland’s effort to land a MLB franchise is a group known as the Portland Diamond Project. The PDP  has garnered land rights, political support, and allegedly, the blessing of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.

"Tampa fell flat on its face," Canzano wrote, "it didn’t just blink, it shut its eyes." He added that Portland is, by far, the best city for relocation.

The scribe is already concocting nicknames for the team. “Rays” would belie Portland’s reputation for wet weather. His suggestions: Mavericks, Pioneers, Steelhead. Meh!

The loser in the Rays derby can afford to be patient. The Oakland Athletics are also nursing stadium and attendance woes with no solutions on the horizon.

Jim Bleyer, a former reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and Tampa Tribune, writes the Tampa Bay Beat blog.

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