ST. PETERSBURG, Florida– With the Tampa Bay Rays on the verge of getting the blessing from St. Petersburg's city council to explore possible stadium sites in Hillsborough County, there's one little line in the negotiated deal that some critics say could pose a big problem down the road.

A subtle clause – requested by the team, according to St. Petersburg officials – could potentially allow the Rays to play up to 10 "home" games in a market outside of Tampa Bay once they left Tropicana Field {READ SECTION 6, ARTICLE vi OF THE CONTRACT HERE}.  The 10 games are not a guarantee and could include international trips to Japan or Cuba; but the permission might also apply to other markets in North America.

The Rays' Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with St. Petersburg sets a price for damages if the team chooses to end its Tropicana Field contract before 2027 in favor of a stadium elsewhere in Pinellas or Hillsborough Counties. However, the stadium does not need to be new and the Rays only need to sign a promise of some sort to play there through 2027.

"There's no assurances after 2027,"  said former Mayor Bill Foster, who could not come to terms with the Rays regarding a possible Tampa stadium search in his four years as mayor (2010-2013).  "(The MOU) weakens the original agreement so much that you're setting a measure of damages allowing them to leave the region prior to 2027."

Foster said the failure to require a long-term commitment from the Rays might open the door for the team to use the 10 "home" games to test the waters of other potential MLB markets while still playing the majority of their games in a temporary location elsewhere in Hillsborough or Pinellas County.

Tampa Bay baseball fans became familiar with MLB relocation threats in the 1990s, as the Mariners, Rangers, and White Sox all used the threat of a Florida relocation to score taxpayer-funded stadiums in their home markets.

The Rays chose not to comment on the story Tuesday.

A representative from Mayor Rick Kriseman's office said Tuesday the administration didn't question the Rays' motives, and proponents of a regional stadium search have backed the Rays' claims that the MOU is the only way to ensure long-term success in Tampa Bay and they have no interest in looking outside the region for their next home.

Foster speculates that for only $24 million, the Rays could tear up their existing contract after the 2017 season and start playing 71 home games in an existing Tampa Bay minor-league stadium – potentially with additional, temporary seats – and play 10 games a year in markets like Montreal, New Jersey, or Mexico City. They would then only need to deal with the unknown legal repercussions of their new lease(s) if they wanted to leave before 2027, rather than the seemingly-ironclad contract the team is currently locked into with St. Petersburg.

"This weakens Tampa Bay's (hold on the Rays)," Foster said of the MOU, set to be voted on Thursday.  "This amendment is by far the biggest weakening of the (original) agreement that we've ever seen in the past 15 or 20 years."

TIMELINE: Rays' Stadium Saga

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers recently drew public scorn after they requested the freedom to play a second home game away from Raymond James Stadium. The team ultimately compromised with the Tampa Sports Authority and secured the right to play both home preseason games in another market.

The Rays have had a more difficult time renegotiating their contract with St. Petersburg, which has been complimented by legal experts for its crafting of the stadium use agreement. In 1998, the Rays guaranteed 30 full MLB seasons at Tropicana Field, without many of the loopholes that have allowed other pro teams to escape their respective leases early.

And when the Rays asked for permission to play three games at Disney's Wide World of Sports in 2007, a cautious city council negotiated a one-time exception with the team, as well as a contract amendment that stipulated no "home" games could be played away from Tropicana Field without city council's permission. Council allowed the Rays to repeat the series again in 2008.

In exchange for permission to play games in Orlando, then-mayor Rick Baker and council negotiated additional compensation for the city, as well as the promise from the Rays they would not play any out-of-market games against their best-drawing opponents, such as the Red Sox, Yankees, or Tigers.

Foster was city council chairman when the Rays first asked about Orlando in 2006.

"I remember how contentious that was (in 2006/2007)," said Foster, who could not come to terms with the Rays regarding a possible Tampa stadium search in his four years as mayor (2010-2013).

But any new contract deciding how many "home" games the Rays can play away from home in 2018 and beyond would be up to whatever governmental agency owns the facility they're playing in at the time, whether it be a brand-new stadium or a temporary arrangement.

City council is expected to approve the new MOU Thursday, after previous councils rejected similar deals by 5-3 and 4-4 margins.

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