Frankenstein and the Rays’ Sister City Concept

In 2018, the Tampa Bay Rays introduced the Opener, a novel concept in which a relief pitcher started a game with the purpose of shutting down an offense in the first few innings. The Opener would then hand the ball to a bulk pitcher, who went three-to-four innings before giving way to the usual bullpen corps.

When the Rays introduced the Opener strategy, many in baseball thought it was blasphemy. Starting pitchers have roles and this is the way the pitcher order has been for generations. How dare the Rays upset the natural order of roles, titles, and statistics?

When analysts looked at the Rays roster, however, they quickly understood what the team was doing. By not recognizing a “pitching rotation,” the Rays were looking a level deeper. They were stacking pitchers on a per-game basis, with the intent to win each game and hence build enough wins to make the playoffs. Once it was understood, the Opener was applauded and eventually copied throughout the league.

Besides being a sly way to neutralize lineups, the Opener represented the “Rays Way” amidst financial necessity. The team could not afford a typical major league rotation of four or five quality starters. Relief pitchers are cheaper and easier to find. They couldn’t find five aces, so they built ace performances using multiple relievers, with the additional bonus of paying them less. If you can’t find a hundred-million-dollar starter, build one.

As Plato said, “necessity is the mother of all innovation.” This is how the Rays think, whether it is starting pitchers or piecing together positional production with two or more platoon players. They are the Dr. Frankenstein of major league strategy.

In 2019, Stu Sternberg and his front office introduced the Sister City concept in an attempt to finally settle the Rays’ long stadium saga. The Sister City concept has the Rays moving from St. Petersburg, where attendance has been a struggle (as I have often explored on Fangraphs) to the more populated side of Tampa Bay. While doing so, they would also move 40 home games to Montreal. The plan calls for two smaller-sized stadiums that are cheaper, tax-payer funded, and outdoors.

The Sister City plan has been routinely bashed, trashed, and lambasted by fans and national and local media. Like the Opener, many have called the Sister City idea a form of blasphemy. Teams have locations, they have homes, and that geographic home gives them a title and an identity.

Unless it doesn’t.

Let me be clear from here: I hate the Sister City plan. Few writers in Tampa Bay and beyond have focused more words and time into poking holes in the Rays’ Sister City plan. I think it is bad for Tampa Bay and bad for baseball. But after listening to a presentation by Rays President Brian Auld a few weeks ago, I think I understand what the Rays are trying to do and why. I don’t like it, but I understand it.

The Rays have put on their Dr. Frankenstein lab coats and are trying to build a top-10 market. Like combining relievers to build a top-10 pitching staff, the Rays are attempting to piece together smaller, cheaper stadiums in multiple markets to build top-10 revenue to be on par with teams from New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other major markets. If you can’t find a billion-dollar market, build one.

Like Frankenstein’s monster, the Sister City plan could be seen as genius if it wasn’t so grotesque.

If the goal is to make X dollars, without the help of other teams and the luxury tax, and to afford Y dollars in growing salary demands, it doesn’t matter what market the revenue comes from. The goal is to make the revenue to keep your players.

For example, Wander Franco is highly regarded as one of the next superstars in Major League Baseball. Let’s say, for estimate, he becomes the next Francisco Lindor. Cleveland could not afford to keep Lindor after his sixth Major League season. They traded him to the larger market Mets, who promptly signed him to a 10-year, $341-million contract.

Currently, whether due to income or frugality, the Rays hardly ever sign anyone over $15 million a year. Six years from now, Franco could be asking for Lindor money. If he wants a 10-year deal, the most the Rays would possibly offer is probably $150 million. Franco’s agent wouldn’t even answer the phone.

However, if the Rays double their revenue by playing in two different markets — a huge if, but follow along — they could possibly offer Franco 10-years and $300 million. Not quite Lindor money yet, but at least his agent may come to the table. Now repeat this process for Randy Arozarena, Shane McClanahan, Luis Patiño, and Shane Baz.

Resigning any or all of these talents would require the Rays to double every revenue stream while still maintaining their current costs. With the Sister City plan, the Rays would have two TV deals, two radio deals, two merchandise markets, two ticket-buying publics, and two 100% tax-payer funded stadiums. All the pieces needed to build Frankenstein’s baseball market.

The need for a Frankenstein market is the pitch the Rays should be making to the Tampa Bay public, not ham-fisted attempts at cultural reciprocity, travel, and economic benefit. For better or for worse, the Rays have focused their Sister City marketing efforts only on politicians and business leaders. This is good to grease the wheels of progress, but it won’t prevent public outrage.

If Frankenstein’s monster were created today, Dr. Frankenstein might be praised as a genius within scientific circles. As in the Mel Brooks’ classic telling, the bourgeois may come from miles around to see the monster sing and dance. There is even a chance the experiment might be imitated and Dr. Frankenstein’s work duplicated, for better or worse.

One of the biggest reasons I have opposed the Sister City concept is that it will open a Pandora’s box of geographic fluidity in sports. As other teams mirrored the Rays’ Opener strategy, other franchises of similar market size will attempt to combine theirs with other markets. The Pirates might look to pair with Nashville. The A’s might look to Las Vegas as a Sister site, not a relocation. The Marlins might look to Charlotte. Cleveland could pair with Louisville. And that’s just in baseball.

As I wrote on my site, “Fans and the record books will be confused with the fluidity when other teams will start moving. Imagine the excitement when the Nashville/Pittsburgh Music Pirates play the Vegas/Cleveland Desert Guardians in a World Series that won’t be local to half the applicable fanbases.”

Following the Sternberg model of market assembly, smaller market teams in every sport could look to combine markets, or better yet, adopt a WWE or Harlem Globetrotter-model of traveling circus with no geographic loyalty and little cost in facilities. Unless an owner has ties in a region, this could be a dream scenario.

Stu Sternberg’s Frankenstein baseball market may make Sternberg money. It may make money for his business partners in Tampa and Montreal. But in the movies, Dr. Frankenstein’s assembled monster faced the scorn of the public. They viewed it as grotesque and abnormal, despite having all of the features of a virile human. The same will be true of Stu Sternberg’s assembled abnormal monster market. The Tampa Bay public and many in the media will not accept it as normal, and when they come after it with pitchforks and torches, the creature will have no choice but to follow the original novel and flee to the snowy north.





Michael Lortz is a consultant in the Tampa Bay area. He wrote about the business of Tampa Bay baseball on his site: TampaBayBaseballMarket.com . He can be reached at @tbbaseballmkt . His first novel, Curveball at the Crossroads, is now available.

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montreal
Member
montreal

To me, the franchise would do really well in Montreal, but continue to flounder in Tampa. The fans refuse to support the team in Tampa. Imagine when they feel even less loyal because they only get half the games. They should simply move to Montreal. The support is waiting for them. Things have changed in Montreal and baseball interest is way up.

pete2286
Member
Member
pete2286

Define the support that is waiting for them. If you simply mean plenty of local baseball fans it is not enough…they have them already. If you mean $1 billion stadium funded entirely by tax dollars the Rays would move in a heartbeat but if they had a free stadium waiting for them, they wouldn’t have concocted this plan. Stu lives closer to Montreal than Tampa Bay anyway and fans down here don’t feel he has any allegiance or interest in our community at all.

NYYfaninLAAland
Member
Member
NYYfaninLAAland

Its a lot of ifs. Will both markets build new taxpayer funded stadiums for a 40 game season? Hmmmm…. it seems the Tampa area fans think if they can just relocate to a new Tampa area stadium the revenue problems will at least improve. Will the owners approve it? Its an important precedent, with benefits to at least some teams (reduced AL East travel for the division), but issues as well (another Canadian border issue set). And there’s the possibility of reducing Revenue Sharing payments to the Rays. A big incentive to duplicate the experiment in other RS recipient markets.… Read more »

Johnnie T
Member
Johnnie T

I think it could work better if the Sister City was kind of in the same region. Of the weaker markets out there, I am thinking , Oakland and Sacramento, Cleveland and Columbus or Buffalo, and Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Perhaps Tampa could try Orlando instead. Can’t think of someone for KC, Milwaukee, or Pittsburgh. But really, most of the big AAA cities could support a partial MLB franchise…

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

Such a plan might help their revenues, but its effect will be limited as long as baseball teams still draw a large chunk of their revenue from ticket sales. No matter how many home sites you may have, each team is only allowed a total of 81 home games, and using smaller stadiums severely limits how many tickets can be sold per game. (Sure, the Rays don’t sell many tickets now, anyway, but that’s beside the point.) I’ve said it before, but the best thing the Rays could do would be to simply move out of the Snowbird State entirely.… Read more »

weekendatbidens
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weekendatbidens

The Rays are posturing, just as the Athletics, hoping to gain pressure over the public officials, from outpouring public support, to get their perfect business situation where they have a larger than life stadium with surrounding around that they have the rights to develop. Oh, and the taxpayers fund it. Most people are aware by now that taxpayer stadiums are not a sound idea. Teams like the Rays still can afford to build their own stadium, even if it has to be more modest, which considering how the Trop looks with fans in the stands wouldn’t be outrageous. I just… Read more »

Skin Blues
Member
Member
Skin Blues

The Rays have every reason to want to double their revenue, but zero reason to want to double their expenses. So why not just keep expenses the same? The reason teams that spend very little money isn’t because their owners lack resources; it’s because additional dollars spent won’t bring commensurate revenue. TB consistently builds 90-win teams with $75M so why would they ever bother spending $100M+? There’s no incentive.