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Rays President Brian Auld fields fast pitches and softballs at Tiger Bay

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In a rare public appearance, Tampa Bay Rays President Brian Auld candidly spoke about the team’s intention to do everything possible to stay in the Tampa Bay region. Despite his assurances that management prefers staying in the region, Auld said little to indicate whether the future of baseball in St. Pete was certain.

“We’re going to work to keep this franchise here for generations to come,” Auld said during a Suncoast Tiger Bay luncheon at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club in downtown.

Auld had about 10 minutes to give his own statements regarding the team prior to taking questions from members of the non-partisan political club. During that time he skated over the deadlocked agreement between city and the team that would allow the Rays to explore potential stadium sites outside of St. Pete.

Instead, Auld made the case for why the Rays are an integral part of the Tampa Bay community. He reeled off a list of ways the team works to better the community including mentorship programs, reading readiness, organizing Walking School Bus events and partnering with law enforcement to build respect between struggling communities and police.

The spiel sounded more like a commercial for the team as Auld listed its employee practices including paid volunteer days where workers can spend the day chaperoning a child’s school field trip and how management actually sends employees home to catch a PTA meeting or a child’s baseball game. He touted the team’s policy to pay $2 more than the mandated minimum wage and its support for diversity including same-sex marriage.

But the team’s sense of desperation as it sits at the very bottom for attendance rates was glaringly obvious. Auld pitched the importance of members of the community taking in a ball game and seeing the look on a child’s face when they eat cotton candy for the first time.

“Spend more time in our ballpark because you’ll begin to experience these magical moments as well,” Auld pleaded.

Auld said the team came into the Tampa Bay market 10 years ago knowing it would be a challenge, but with attendance numbers the worst in the league they have no choice but to consider options. The biggest option is a new stadium.

“In my opinion, I know it would be fool-hearted to invest in a new ballpark unless we are sure it is the best place,” Auld said. “That is why we have been asking for permission to look in the region and that’s why we’re not willing to budge on that particular issue.”

Despite his insistence that the team’s preference is to stay local, Auld touched on the potential outcome baseball fans fear most – that the Rays could move out of the region entirely if they aren’t able to consider options.

“If the goal is to make sure the Rays play in St. Pete until 2027, that can happen,” Auld said. “If St. Pete’s goal is to keep the Rays here at whatever cost to losing the team longterm, that [use agreement] will do that.”

The use agreement forbids the team from even flirting with the idea of moving outside the region. The Memorandum of Understanding brokered between Auld and his team and Mayor Rick Kriseman’s legal staff would allow Auld to begin exploring stadium sites anywhere in Pinellas or Hillsborough County, including St. Pete.

But City Council is deadlocked 4-4 on approving the MOU. Two people were present for his talk who play key roles in determining the fate of Kriseman’s MOU. One was City Councilmember-elect Ed Montanari. Montanari will replace Bill Dudley, who has consistently been one of the “no” votes. Montanari has also said he would reject the MOU.

Montanari said, despite Auld’s subtle pleas and assurances, he remains a “no” on the issue.

“It’s complicated,” Montanari said after the luncheon. “How big is the loss going to be? What’s a fair value? These are questions that need to be answered.”

City Councilmember Wengay Newton also listened in to Auld’s talk. He’s also been a firm “no” on the MOU. But Newton will also be replaced at the end of this year.

The Tampa Bay Times and the Tampa Tribune both have endorsed Lisa Wheeler-Brown as his replacement, the main reason being she supports the MOU. If she is elected she would likely represent the fifth vote needed to move the issue forward.

One question arose during Auld’s time at Tiger Bay surrounding those endorsements: should voters be asked to choose a City Council member based on that sole issue?

Auld’s answer was “no.”

“I would encourage voters to vote on what they care about,” Auld said. “The Rays do not want to [have] any undue influence on that.”

There was little uncovered Friday that hadn’t already been hashed out in the public eye, but Auld did give a slight idea of what a new stadium could look like.

He suggested a stadium that is open 365 days a year, not just when there are baseball games or concerts. He said it could be a place where families could come and picnic or let their kids run around.

“We can make something truly special that becomes a piece of the landscape,” Auld said.

But again, he couldn’t say where that would be most ideal because he is contractually required to not even think about it.

The stadium debate aside, there was one hilarious question posed to Auld about the literacy of his ball players.

“Would you support a remedial grammar program [for players],” asked Shirley Bassett, who told him she’s watched too many interviews with players who say things like, “I seen the ball.”

Her question was met with a chorus of laughter from a crowd probably glad she said it and not them. He answered by declaring that foreign players are given plenty of opportunities to learn English, but those weren’t the players Bassett was referring too.

Auld nervously responded, “OK, so, we’re going to do all we can” and then promptly moved on.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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