If not now, then when?
All things considered, the owners of the Tampa Bay Rays couldn’t have dreamt of a better scenario than what they’re watching unfold during the magical 2008 season. For the first time in team history, the Rays are winners, last night’s despicable choke job notwithstanding, and a new aura hovers over the team.
For the first time ever, the Rays are likely headed to the postseason, and few in the Tampa-St. Pete area seem to care. While 29,772 watched the Red Sox demoralize the Rays, 13-5, last night at Tropicana Field, that’s far from a sellout crowd of just over 36,000. Principal owner Stuart Sternberg expressed his disappointment that the team probably wouldn’t be able to draw 20,000 Thursday night against the Minnesota Twins. That game kicks off four-game series that could have wild card implications with Minnesota seven games off the pace.
With just six games remaining on its home schedule, Tampa Bay's 21,533 per game average is better than only Oakland and Kansas City in the American League. Tropicana Field's capacity percentage of 51.1 is worse than Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Seattle, and Washington, cities that were forced to give up on their teams' pennant races sometime between Memorial Day and the All-Star break.
Florida baseball. Apathy at its worst.
Before last night's game, the last time the Rays played at home on a weeknight not against Boston or New York, they drew 14,039 against Toronto on Aug. 28. The previous night, it was 12,678. For a first-place team. The Rays are holding a lottery on their web site for the "opportunity" to purchase postseason tickets. The best opportunity will probably be to walk up day of a playoff game and have your pick of seats.
Cinderella story or not, there comes a point when you have to decide that something just doesn't jive in the community. And the Rays certainly are not the right fit for a Tampa area more fixated on football, fishing, and NASCAR. In few cities is the NHL a bigger draw than major league baseball, but that is precisely the case in a city where winter frost is only a sporadic sight. The last-place Tampa Bay Lightning drew an average of 18,693 last season, a 95.9 percent capacity.
St. Pete Times columnist John Romano wrote last month:
Call it sobering. Call it disappointing. Soon, you may be calling it disturbing or threatening.
Because if you assume the attendance figures have been lost in the excitement of the division standings, you are naive. The commissioner's office has taken notice, and owner Stuart Sternberg has surely been paying attention.
And what they see is a community running out of excuses. It's no longer about poor ownership, because Sternberg's crew has done everything possible to reach out to the fans. And it's no longer about losing because the Rays have been among baseball's best teams for four months.
So if it's not about the team or the owner, then it is an indictment of the market or the stadium location.
At this point, that has to be the conclusion, doesn't it? Residents no longer have the excuse of having to endure a perennial last-place team, with the Rays chock full of young talent that has exploded onto the scene this season. And, as Romano points out, this ownership has already tried giving free parking, allowing fans to bring their own food to the park, and did not raise ticket prices this season, one of only two teams not to do so.
But they still stay away. Yes, the awful ballpark is one reason, yet in 1994, the Montreal Expos drew 1.276 million in a strike-shortened season at the incomparably terrible Stade Olympique. The Twins average 27,597 at a Metrodome that won't exactly ever make any list of the game's crown jewels.
The Rays still face an uphill battle in their quest for a new ballpark, fighting public pressure that denotes that new parks will only bring an average of 2.2 more wins. But in Tampa Bay's case, this is really less about financial viability for the short-term, and more about its quest to be seen as a sporting institution in the area, something the Rays can't be considered in their sad little dome.
But the question still lingers, is a new ballpark even worth it? Would this team be better off someplace else, even if the cities mentioned once again are old standbys Vegas and Portland? If they're not coming out for this team, at these prices, then who exactly would they come out for?
In recent Octobers, it has been Atlanta that has been the scorn of baseball fans everywhere, many of whom can't understand how the team didn't sell out playoff games, even after years of NL East titles under their belts. Still, in 1991, the year the Braves went from worst to first, Atlanta drew 2.14 million fans, a number that increased as the season wore on. In 2008, in Tampa Bay, that hasn't been the case. While the rest of America revels in the great story that is the Rays' surge to relevance, Tampa-St. Pete yawns.
On the bright side, you can't call them bandwagon fans. Just don't consider them fans at all.