Jersey Rays: Pipe Dream or Just-Barely-Conceivable Pipe Dream?

Normally, the Tampa Bay Rays complaining that their home stadium is a dump wouldn't be news here in New York, given that 1) people have been complaining about Tropicana Field since before the Rays even debuted there in 1998 and 2) the Rays only enter New Yorkers' radar in the odd seasons when they threaten to break through the Yanks-Sox oligarchy in the A.L. East.

All that changed this week, however, when Peter Gammons, former star of ESPN and the $20 bill, mentioned in his MLB.com column that "there are smart people in the Major League Baseball offices wondering if there's hope of even discussing a potential move of the Rays to New Jersey or Southern Connecticut over certain protests from the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox and Phillies."

It was just one line in a long essay about whether Florida is fit for major league baseball (verdict: if you can't love B.J. Upton, who can you love?), but with that, a meme was born. Soon enough, WNBC was blogging about where you could fit a stadium in North Jersey, and from there it was off to the races.

So, could it actually work? From the Rays' perspective, undoubtedly — and that's not a comment on the state-of-the-artness of the Trop or the underwater-ness of the Florida economy, but rather on the awesome might of the New York-area media market. When I ran some numbers for Baseball Prospectus a few years back (subscription-only, sorry — hey, it's the future of journalism), it turned out that a Florida team could turn a profit on a move to New Jersey even if they had to pay for a new stadium out of their own pocket, thanks largely to the massive boodle that they could rake in from Big Apple-priced cable deals.

In fact, adding a third team to the tristate area would have benefits for baseball as a whole as well. For those who haven't noticed, MLB has a bit of a competitive balance problem, where the big-market teams like the Yankees and Mets have been able to spend their opponents into the ground on the strength of their outsized revenues. (In the Mets' case, of course, they've been mostly using the money to dig a hole to the N.L. East basement.) Adding a third team to the region, as NBC blogger Craig Calcaterra noted last month, would dilute the New York teams' economic advantage in one fell swoop without resorting to a salary cap or extreme revenue sharing or other means that might tick off the players' union. Some economists have even suggested that New York could reasonably support five teams with its population — a baseball reincarnation of the Stapleton Stapes, anyone?

The big obstacle, of course, is that such a move would undeniably tick off the Steinbrenners and the Wilpons, who would not be pleased to see a large chunk of their media money get reassigned to the Jersey Swamp Things or the Connecticut Nutmeg Counterfeiters. While the notion of "territorial rights" is a convenient MLB fiction, conferred on baseball owners by themselves to ward off exactly this sort of market poaching, it's a fiction that by now has a long, established history, one that Yankee and Met lawyers would no doubt be eager to bring up in the inevitable lawsuits that would fly if a third team tried to land in the area.

There are, however, two possible scenarios where a third New York franchise might just be feasible, if you squint just right. First off, the owners of the Oakland A's are currently involved in a squabble of their own over territorial rights, seeking to relocate to San Jose, which the owners of the San Francisco Giants point out is officially their territory — albeit only because of an aborted Giants move to the South Bay way back in the '80s. One possible outcome of this Bay Area battle is for MLB commissioner to sit both sides down and negotiate a price for indemnification of their relinquishing their grip on San Jose. Once that precedent is set, if the price is low enough that when translated to New York dollars a team could relocate here without having to sell off all their best players to pay it ... but that's a big "if."

The alternate route: New Jersey or Connecticut could file an antitrust lawsuit against MLB, charging that the whole "territorial rights" canard is an illegal conspiracy to deny them the right to relocate a business to their state. Yes, baseball has an antitrust exemption, dating back to a bizarre case involving the owners of the Baltimore Terrapins of the Federal League, but plenty of scholars believe it's on shaky legal grounds, which is why MLB has tended to try to avoid allowing challenges to get as far as a courtroom. In fact, the last legal challenge to the antitrust exemption was put forward by the state of Florida in the early '90s, after MLB refused to let the Giants relocate there — a suit that was later settled out of court by the granting of a new expansion team to Florida.

That team? The Tampa Bay Rays. At least somebody would be happy about the irony.


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