We have long-resisted the urge to venture into the world of interviews, but we couldn’t be contained any longer. In what may become a regular feature, we debut our first interview (actually once upon a time we interviewed Chad Orvella). The questions were tough, in part because we wanted to see how good of a dancer Stuart Sternberg is (very good) and in part because you can often learn as much from a non-answer as you can from a real answer. Below we learn Sternberg’s thoughts on how the economy may impact baseball, whether the Rays can remain viable at their current payroll level, what he would change if he were Commissioner and his goal for the Rays in 2009…
The Rays Index interview with Stuart Sternberg
RI: Before we get started, give us a short bio on Stuart Sternberg, from a baseball perspective…What was your favorite team growing up? Did you have a favorite player? Did you play baseball? We envision you as a scrappy David Eckstein-type, always smiling, all-glove, no bat. What was the first Major League Baseball Game you ever attended? Other than a Rays game, is there one game you attended as a fan that sticks out in your memory?
SS: Sandy Koufax,I played through High School and was always a center fielder. Number 3 hitter with a great glove and legs.
RI: OK. Let’s get to work…Outside of the contracts handed out by the Yankees, free agent spending was way down this year. Whether it was a renewed sense of fiscal responsibility or just a lack of funds, Major League Baseball appears to be suffering to some degree in this economy. And now we are hearing that the NBA is handing out loans to teams and several professional sports franchises are cutting back staff…If the economy does not show a strong recovery in the near future, what do you foresee as the short-term and long-term impacts on Major League Baseball?
SS: An even greater separation between the high revenue teams and the rest. There could be a greater bunching “The Rest”. Teams that were , in the past middle market will come down a bit to the rest of the pack. Not good news for competitive balance.
RI: The Rays were one team that did spend money this off-season. You are already on record as saying that the team likely won’t be able to add payroll during the season…Can the Tampa Bay Rays be a viable franchise with a $60 million payroll? And what do you need to see (on the field and off) in order to remain a viable franchise beyond the 2009 season at the current payroll level?
SS: Viable , yes, consistently successful, no. 60 million, and we are stretching it quite a bit here this year cannot do it on a consistent basis.What we are able to do this year is a direct benefit from steps we took in 2006.
RI: You, Andrew Friedman and Matt Silverman have received a lot of praise for bringing new ideas and new points of view to a sport that is often resistant to change…As an owner, have you tried to be active in bringing fresh ideas to Major League Baseball, whether it be on the field or how it operates as a business? In general, how receptive have the other owners been to you and your ideas? And do you feel you have a louder voice among the owners now that you have helped build the Rays into a successful low-payroll franchise?
SS: I think that the voice we have within MLB is some emulation, a direct response to our results last year. We are this years flavor.
RI: Along the same lines…If you were commissioner for a day, what is one change you would implement immediately?
SS: NO DH. That would be the most beneficial quick change to competitive balance not to mention a much better product.
RI: Speaking of which, Bud Selig is 74 years old and if you count his years as acting commissioner, his tenure of 17 years is second only to Kennesaw “Mountain” Landis…If Selig were to retire in the next year or two, give us at least one name you would like to see on the short list to replace Selig and what are the criteria you would look for in the next commissioner?
SS: Bud Seligs greatest asset is his love for the game. He believes that if we do what is in the best interests of baseball then we are doing the right thing, I am paraphrasing there a bit. I would expect the next commissioner to have that same mindset though it would be nearly impossible for that person to have Bud’s love for the game and what it represents to our society. People underestimate how important that really is.
RI: For Major League Baseball, the steroid issue seems to be like the cockroach that you keep missing with your shoe. It just won’t die, and yet many people both inside and outside the sport have long approached this issue, and continue to approach this issue as just a storm that will eventually blow over…In your opinion, how do we get past the steroid issue?
SS: Time, only time. I would say a complete disclosure of all that happened during that era would do it as well, but that can never happen. Too much time has passed and no person or group of people can provide the answers.
RI: Last season the Mets and Yankees drew more than 8 million fans combined. This season, the Yankees have seen full-season season ticket packages increase by more than 20% and even had to cut off sales so that tickets would be available for smaller packages and single-game sales…Knowing this, could New York City support a third baseball team, specifically in your old stomping grounds, Brooklyn? And, other than encroaching on the territorial rights of the Mets and Yankees, what is the argument for NOT having a third team in New York City?
SS: I would think from a financial standpoint it certainly could. The state of California has 5 teams. There is probably another market or two that could support MLB as well.
RI: When the Rays first proposed the idea of a waterfront stadium, it appeared as though the plans and the decision-making process were under team control, with input from outside sources such as the St. Pete City Council. Recently it appears, at least on the surface, that much of the decision-making process has been taken away from the team…Do you feel this is an accurate depiction and if so, does this concern you? What is the Rays level of input at this point and how much say does the team have on specific issues like where the new stadium will be built?
SS: Our organization spent a good deal of time and resources developing and implementing a thoughtful plan for a new ballpark. We never believed we had all of the answers. This is now in the hands of a dedicated group of business and civil leaders who collectively have a better handle on what is needed in the Tampa Bay region. I am extremely pleased with our cooperation with Charlotte County and the magnificent facility that resulted in.
We produced a fantastic community asset which is fan focused. It was all done at a fraction of the cost which other spring training facilities have been built or proposed. In addition we brought in a minor league team to make their home there as well.
RI: St. Pete Mayor Rick Baker wrote an op-ed piece for the St. Pete Times discussing the stadium proposal. In that piece, Baker wrote that he hoped the ownership of the Rays “will take steps to more closely identify the team with the city.” It seemed pretty clear to us that Mayor Baker was suggesting that the Rays path to a new stadium might be less difficult to navigate if the team changed their name to the “St. Pete Rays.” Obviously this would go against the Rays attempts to become a more regional entity…Has the mayor (or the City Council) ever made any specific demands or requests in regards to changing the team name? And if changing the team name is not viable option, what other steps can the team make to more closely associate with the city of St. Pete and satisfy the city’s demands?
SS: Certainly the ballpark on the ST Pete waterfront would have gone a long way. While there are numerous mentions in the national media of Tampa Bay , the city of St Petersburg is not being ignored. We have a bunch of data which measures the exposure St Petersburg has received, it is quite substantial.
RI: Finally…Prior to the 2007 season, people snickered when you said the goal for the season was 50 home wins. That year, the Rays won 37 games at the Trop. People snickered again last March when you set the same goal. But you had the last laugh when the Rays finished 57-24 at home. What clearly outlandish goals have you set for the 2009 season?
SS: Snickered? That’s being kind. Derided is more like it. An outlandish goal? To compete in the American League East a second year. Probably the most difficult task in all team sports.