Rays are right to be frustrated

The Rays are sick and tired of Tropicana Field and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Nor should they.

If I were the Rays, I’d be ticked off, too.

Here they are, arguably the best-run franchise in the sport, and they’ve got no chance of sustaining success in their freak show of a ballpark – a ballpark built with the wrong kind of roof in the wrong part of the region.

Quite understandably, it’s driving club officials nuts. And now, with the team on the verge of falling out of contention, the Rays’ frustration is pouring out.

Manager Joe Maddon tore into the Trop on Tuesday, calling it “improper” for Major League Baseball, saying it had “served its purpose” and that it was “time to move on.”

Team president Matt Silverman followed with an even bigger doozy of a statement, saying that Trop-related issues were affecting the team’s performance.

“It’s hard to combat the national media’s depiction of our stadium,” Silverman said. “Our situation has become a distraction. It’s affecting the clubhouse and it spills over onto the field of play. It damages the national reputation of St. Pete, and it harms the Rays brand.”

If only for a moment, let’s interrupt the pity party.

The Rays’ players are professionals. They need to suck it up through poor attendance, broken lights in the catwalks and everything else. The Trop sure didn’t stop the team from winning the AL East in two of the past three seasons and reaching the 2008 World Series.

Another thing: Owner Stuart Sternberg knew full well when he bought the team in 2005 that the Rays’ lease at the Trop ran through ‘27. Then again, maybe Sternberg thought he would get more cooperation from local officials. St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster misses the forest for the trees when he talks about forcing the team to honor its lease.

It’s difficult to take Foster seriously; in April, he called the Trop "an absolutely beautiful facility" and compared its catwalk rings to Wrigley’s ivy. But if the mayor wants to best protect his constituents, he should extract money from Tampa for the Rays, develop the land on which the Trop now sits and keep the team within 30 minutes of his city instead of losing them to another place thousands of miles away.

Attendance normally jumps for teams that reach the playoffs and especially the World Series. But in ‘09, the season after the Rays reached the Series, their home attendance improved by less than 1,000 fans per game, to 23,147.

Last season, the average dropped to 22,758 while the Rays won the division again with arguably their best team, producing a last hurrah for Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and Co.

This season, the average is 19,740, third worst in the majors, even though the team is surprisingly competitive again.

The Rays, as Maddon said, need to move into a retractable-roof ballpark in a more centrally located part of the Tampa Bay area; that would be Tampa proper. And if they can’t pull off such a feat in the current economy, then baseball needs to help them.

I know, I know – baseball didn’t contribute to the financing of PNC Park in Pittsburgh, the Marlins’ new stadium in Miami or any other recently opened facility. Well, maybe it’s time to adjust that policy. The NFL helps finance new stadiums. Why can’t baseball?

If the Pirates, Marlins and others scream, baseball can remind everyone that the poorer teams receive plenty of assistance through revenue sharing.

The Rays obviously are one of those teams, too. But times and circumstances change. The Rays are not about to be rescued by a publicly financed ballpark, or by some sweet deal for another city. Yet clearly, they’re worth saving.

Frankly, baseball should be inspired by the renaissances in Pittsburgh and Cleveland this season – and the coming revival in Kansas City, one day soon. Fix the Rays, get the Athletics to San Jose and those franchises will follow the same pattern.

I can’t remember who said this, but I wish it had been me: Markets don’t fail baseball; baseball fails markets.

The failures in Tampa Bay and Oakland leave both franchises to operate with virtually no margin for error. Realignment might help the Rays in particular, but only so much.

And now, another round of selloffs looms for both clubs.

The Athletics, as detailed by FOXSports.com’s Jon Paul Morosi, are planning to trade numerous veterans. The Rays, after losing many of their best players to free agency last offseason, likely will entertain trade offers for another set of quality performers – right-hander James Shields, center fielder B.J. Upton and closer Kyle Farnsworth.

The Rays’ problem is that they might be the third-best team in the AL, but it does them no good if they are the third-best team in the AL East. Trading Shields, an All-Star pitcher who is under an affordable contract, might appear counter-productive. But the Rays need to exploit every opportunity to get younger, cheaper and better – or they will get swallowed whole.

The good news, if you want to call it that, is that Rays GM Andrew Friedman can do whatever he pleases without losing popular support – the fans aren’t coming, anyway. But the scary part is, the Rays soon could lose Friedman, too; some high-revenue team is certain to offer him the chance to compete on a more level playing field. Then what?

The Rays will still be stuck in their freak show of a ballpark. And their outlook, if possible, will be even more bleak.

No wonder they’re ticked off.

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