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Tuesday, Jul 29th

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St. Pete ratchets up legal threats over new Rays ballpark

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Tampa Bay Rays

Just when it appears there's some movement on a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark, St. Petersburg officials step in to throw cold water on the proceedings, threatening to sue anyone who pitches the team on a new facility.

The legal threat comes from St. Petersburg City Attorney John Wolfe, sent directly to Hillsborough County attorneys and promises legal action if the county, which encompasses Tampa, discusses new ballpark with the Rays ownership. The basis of the threat: a clause in the Rays' Tropicana Field lease that forbids the team from entering into "any agreement or negotiations (directly or indirectly)" regarding a new facility. Hillsborough County officials want to meet with the Rays and see what their needs are; the Rays have agreed but no meeting has been scheduled.

Now, setting aside the fact that Hillsborough County isn't a party to the Tropicana Field lease (it's pretty hard to enforce a contract provision against someone who didn't sign the contract), the threat relies on a potential pressing of "tortious interference" -- a civil matter -- against Hillsborough County regarding ballpark negotiations. Tortious interference is notoriously difficult to prove in civil court; St. Petersburg would first need to establish damages (which may be difficult; although the Trop lease runs through 2027, debt on the facility is set to be paid off in 2016) and then prove Hillsborough County led the Rays to break a lease. While the letter from Wolfe was full of rhetoric and opened the possibility of suing individual Hillsborough County commissioners individually if they met with the Rays, it's pretty clear that this letter is nothing more than gutter-level rhetoric.

The irony is that things have been going pretty well for St. Pete officials when it came to the Rays: the team has indeed asked to look at ballpark solutions across the entire region, but only after discussions about the future of the Trop. And a Carillon Business Park location is clearly still in the mix. As we noted, bonds on Tropicana Field are set to be paid off in 2016: it's pretty easy to see a scenario where the Rays play at the Trop through 2016 while bonds are being paid off and a new ballpark is being constructed. If the team moves, the city is left with a very, very attractive parcel of land close to downtown St. Pete that surely would attract the attention of developers.

Things move slowly in St. Pete: Mayor Bill Foster still hasn't responded to the Rays' offer to resolve the future of the Trop before any discussions of a new ballpark. This letter -- full of sound and fury, signifying nothing -- does nothing to advance the discussion or address any outstanding issues.

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