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Rays fans can blame only themselves

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Tracy Ringolsby

Tracy Ringolsby is a Hall of Fame baseball writer. He is in his 37th year covering Major League Baseball, is a co-founder of Baseball America, and is in his fourth year as pregame and postgame analyst for Colorado Rockies games on Root Sports.

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Tampa Bay Rays fans deserve some sympathy.

That is, if you can find any — Rays fans, that is.

The Rays are being slowly dismantled, not by desire but, because of the economic reality that the ownership faces.

The Rays built a franchise the way the public claims to want a franchise to be built, from the ground up.

They created a team that played the way the public claims it wants a team to play, featuring flash and dash and a determination to win.

They produced results that fans are supposed to endorse, advancing to the World Series two years ago, and winning the American League East this year, finishing ahead of baseball’s two big spenders, the Yankees and Red Sox.

The Rays have the fourth-best record in the major leagues the past three seasons, behind only the Yankees, Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies.

The fan response?

You can virtually hear a pin drop at Tropicana Field, not only this year but most every year since the Rays were created out of expansion back in 1998.

The Rays are 25th in attendance in the past three years, ahead of only Pittsburgh, Florida, Cleveland, Oakland and Kansas City. When the Rays clinched the AL East title on Sept. 28, the paid attendance was only 17,892.

The franchise has drawn 2 million only once — the inaugural season of 1998.

The result?

As Rays players reach free agency, they become members of the Tampa Bay alumni club.

If the ticket-buying public doesn’t care, why should ownership?

This offseason, the two players who arguably were the team’s most popular followed the path of free agency elsewhere. Center fielder Carl Crawford signed  a seven-year, $142 million deal with Boston, and Carlos Pena hooked on for one year with the Cubs, who will be paying him $10 million. That’s the seventh-highest salary at Wrigley Field and more than double the $4.5 million guarantee of Ben Zorbist, top earner on the Rays.

That’s not all. The Rays have a trade on hold with San Diego that would make shortstop Jason Bartlett a Padre. They are shopping right-hander Matt Garza. And free agency has taken away four relievers who ranked among the top six on the team in appearances

Joaquin Benoit, signed to a minor league contract a year after sitting out the 2009 season because of rotator cuff surgery, signed a three-year deal with Detroit. Lefty Randy Choate signed a two-year contract with Florida. Rafael Soriano and Grant Balfour are still entertaining offers.

And who can blame the ownership? Businessmen are in business, after all, to make money. And the Rays ownership has spent money in scouting and player development that has translated into big-league success but hasn’t translated into a growing fan base.

These aren’t the Florida Marlins of H. Wayne Huizenga, who brought in high-priced mercenaries for 1997, won a World Series, and the day of the celebration parade ordered a fire-sale of the franchise.

These aren’t the Oakland A’s of the late Charlie Finley, who became so bitter at the changing labor scene in the '70s that he ran such a bare-bones operation that the late Bobby Hofman actually served as the traveling secretary, media relations director and third base coach, simultaneously.

These aren’t the modern-day Pittsburgh Pirates, who have been unable to figure out how to win on a tight budget, and are now under the direction of their third ownership group during what has been a pro sports record-setting 18 consecutive losing seasons.

This is a franchise that has been a role model in how to build a winning team on a budget, but has been a box office failure.

The funny thing is when several players expressed disappointment in the lack of fan support after the AL East clincher, the public actually took exception to the attitude of the players. And to mend fences with what fans they do have, the Rays ownership decided to give tickets away for a late-season home game.

The good news is that folks actually showed up and filled the seats at the Trop that game.

The bad news is giving away tickets doesn’t help a franchise avoid having to give away its talented players.

The Rays are living proof.

WELL-ARMED

As impressive as the Philadelphia rotation’s Big Four may be, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels have some work to do if they are going to earn the title of the best rotation ever.

STARTLING ROTATIONS

Fearsome pitchers leave opposing lineups trembling. Which teams boasted the best staffs ever?

The 1954 Cleveland Indians were anchored by a rotation of Early Wynn, Mike Garcia, Bob Lemon, Art Houtteman and the late Bob Feller, who died Wednesday.

The four of them combined to start 147 of 156 games for the 111-43 Indians that year. (Cleveland had two tie games.) The team’s .721 winning percentage was the best ever for a major league team. The 2001 Seattle Mariners did win a record 116 regular season games, but it was in a 162-game season and Seattle’s winning percentage was .716.

The Indians five starters in 1954 were a combined 93-36 with a combined 2.96 ERA. Feller, Lemon and Wynn all are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Oh, by the way, despite the strong arms, the 1954 Indians, who finished eight games ahead of the Yankees in the AL standings, were swept by the New York Giants in the World Series.

FAMILIAR FACE

Arizona decided to sign Xavier Nady instead of Austin Kearns after looking at the free-agent market for outfield depth. New Arizona general manager Kevin Towers has a history with Nady. Towers was the man in charge in San Diego when the Padres used their second-round selection — the 49th pick overall — to draft Nady out of the University of California in 2000. Five years later, Towers traded Nady to the New York Mets for center fielder Mike Cameron.

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COME ON BACK

Andy Pettitte kept saying he wasn’t sure if he was going to retire or pitch another year.

Lee may well have made the decision for Pettitte.

With the Yankees unable to sign Lee, the re-signing of Pettitte has to be a priority. Face it, right now, their No. 3 starter is A.J. Burnett , who last year was 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA, and has won more than 13 games only once in his career.

Tagged: Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies, Padres, Rays, Cliff Lee

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