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Rays Now See Possibility Of Surviving In St. Pete

It wasn't that long ago that the idea of the Rays as preseason favorites to reach the World Series seemed as unlikely as the team moving out of its longtime domed home at Tropicana Field.

And while Tampa Bay spraying champagne at the end of October still seems like the likelier proposition, recent conversations between the mayors of St. Petersburg and Tampa at least provide a glimmer of hope for those pushing for a new a facility.

The meeting was billed as a discussion for how the region can better support its major league baseball team, which ranked 29th in attendance after averaging just 18,879 fans last season. And while the topic of a new ballpark did not come up in the conversation between St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster and Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn, the financial stability they both seek for the Rays cannot be accomplished without one.

"Irrespective of any other discussion, the most important discussion is that the Rays are financially healthy, that they're successful, that they've got a great team coming up in 2012 and we need to support them," Buckhorn told the Tampa Bay Times.

And steps outside of the mayors' involvement have been taken to research ways a new ballpark can be built. Both cities' chambers of commerce have joined together in forming a baseball stadium financing caucus, in an effort to study financing possibilities without looking at particular sites.

And to be sure, the site is likely the biggest hurdle. The Rays are locked into a lease at Tropicana Field through 2027, and Foster has made it clear that he has no interest in allowing the Rays to break it and leave town. Meanwhile, the Rays' efforts to make Tropicana Field a more attractive venue have had little impact on attendance. Owner Stuart Sternberg has said a move closer to downtown Tampa is necessary for the team to remain competitive. And while he has been heartened by the meeting of the mayors and business leaders, "I also think it's going slower than it can be," he told the Times.

Major League Baseball would certainly like to see a resolution to the situation sooner than later, and MLB officials have questioned Sternberg on the team's long-term future. But for now, commissioner Bud Selig has left it in the hands of Sternberg.

"It's up to Stu," Selig said in an interview with Baseball America. "I will continue to talk about it with him, but I believe the local person who lives (in a market) and works there, knows the market much better than anyone coming in. I have a great feeling that Stu is a very smart guy who understands what has to be done."

In the meantime, the Rays already had sold out Opening Day as February wound to a close—a feat believed to be the third-fastest in team history. "It's nice to know, it's heartening that we sold out Opening Day in February," Sternberg told the Times. "Thank God for the 29th."