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MLB backs Rays in tug-of-war with Braves over Toytown

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If the battle for Toytown turns into a feud between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Atlanta Braves, Major League Baseball has let it be known who’s side it is on.

The ongoing struggle to get the Rays a new stadium is “the most pressing need,” baseball said.

“Major League Baseball is committed to working with the Rays to secure a new ballpark in cooperation with the Tampa Bay region,” the statement said. “This can only happen with the support of local political and business leaders.”

The conflict went public this week after a proposal to build a $662 million complex at the former landfill. It is one of three proposed developments for the site, and it includes the Braves, who said their goal is to move their spring training operations there in 2018.

In the middle of the fight between the Rays and Braves is county tourism money that would be needed to build a new stadium for the Rays if the team remains in Pinellas. That money potentially could be diverted toward the Braves’ proposal.

MLB said it learned of the baseball proposal with the Braves only this week. In a statement Friday, Rays President Brian Auld said the team appreciates the league’s “attention to this matter. We fully agree with and support their statement.”

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who has tried to broker a stadium deal between the Rays and the City Council, told The Tampa Tribune that the city has a long spring training history “but we are now a major league city with a major league quality of life and world-class amenities.”

“My focus is on keeping the Rays in St. Petersburg. Absent that, my focus is on keeping them in our region,” he said in a written statement. “I am hopeful that a majority of our city council members will someday share this priority.”

The Rays, whose attendance ranks last in the league, have been seeking a new stadium for more than five years. However, their lease with the city for Tropicana Field doesn’t expire until 2027, and the council has refused to let the team look for local sites outside the city.

The council rejected a deal Kriseman had with the Rays that would let the team look for stadium locations in Pinellas or Hillsborough counties. Council member Karl Nurse said the goal is the avoid hearing bad news

“To me, the bottom line is the mayor and the city council, between the end of this baseball season and the beginning of the next one, have to put together a deal with the Rays to get started on this thing,” Nurse said. “If that money gets sent elsewhere, I think the door closes and one day we’re going to wake up to the sound of Major League Baseball announcing the Rays will play their first game when this contract ends in another city,” he said.

Council Chairman Charlie Gerdes said the SportsPark proposal and the statement from MLB don’t add much urgency to the situation for him.

“I’m of the opinion it’s fairly urgent already,” he said. “I just want to make sure the revenue source we are currently using doesn’t get (used) for some other project.”

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit garysheltonsports@gmail.com.

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