Mayor Bill Foster said Wednesday that he doesn’t see the Tampa Bay Rays doing much to market the team in the Tampa Bay area.
But Pinellas County Commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala said Foster went a step further when he called her Friday.
” ‘I believe that they are deliberately trying to hurt the team financially by not promoting it adequately,’ ” Latvala recalled Foster telling her.
In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Latvala remembered responding: “Really, really? Why would they do that?”
He didn’t answer, but Latvala said she assumed he thought the Rays are trying to depress attendance to gain leverage in their bid for a new stadium.
But Foster, who has called himself the Rays’ biggest cheerleader, questioned Latvala’s version.
“That’s stupid, that’s ludicrous,” Foster said. “That was not said. I would challenge Susan to her face if she says I said that. She won’t put words in my mouth.”
Told of Foster’s denial, Latvala stood by her recollection of what he said Friday. Foster was “very concise and clear” that the Rays weren’t “putting all the resources they really could because they want it to fail,” she said.
There’s a lot riding on who said what and why.
Today, the City Council will discuss Rays marketing and what the city can do to help, one week after its contentious discussion last week on the team’s future.
Even what Foster acknowledges telling Latvala — that he’s not seeing enough marketing by the Rays — illuminates much about St. Petersburg’s standoff with the team.
If what Latvala says is true, it would further escalate the brinkmanship that started last year between Foster and Rays owner Stuart Sternberg.
Sternberg has said that the club can’t make it financially at Tropicana Field, but Foster is opposed to discussing any new locations outside the city and has threatened to sue anyone who does.
City Council members can amend the use agreement to allow the Rays to look at Tampa and pressed Foster to discuss an overall strategy. Foster has said he has a detailed plan to keep the Rays, but hasn’t revealed what it is.
Foster said he called Latvala on Friday to discuss Rays marketing. He said he wanted to gauge the chances of using county hotel taxes to promote the team.
Latvala said Foster asked if she believes the Rays have correctly handled a promotion agreement with the county’s tourism agency. She said she does.
She said Foster told her the Rays spent about $500,000 on marketing, and it was on the low end of Major League Baseball. She said he also told her that he had people close to him researching the issue, but did not identify them.
Foster acknowledged telling her that the Rays spent $500,000 on marketing. He said he got that figure from a reporter.
“Sometimes even reporters get it wrong, but this one is credible,” Foster said.
Rays spokesman Rick Vaughn said the team spends “far in excess” of $500,000 on marketing.
“Our budget for giveaway items alone exceeds that amount,” he said in a statement.
The different recollections of what Foster told Latvala confused council member Leslie Curran. She has urged Foster to openly discuss plans to keep the Rays.
If Latvala’s right, Foster is undermining the city’s relationship with a crucial St. Petersburg business, Curran said.
“Why do we want to pick a fight with them?” she said. “The one thing I don’t understand is why for a city that wants to keep the Rays, why would it take this adversarial position about marketing?”
St. Petersburg Times