Rays owner may be forced to move team

BY foxsports • October 5, 2011

At this time last week, the Tampa Bay Rays were brandishing their title belt as the undisputed heavyweight champions of Baseball’s Greatest Night Ever. They had defied their tiny payroll, second smallest in the majors.

They overcame a nine-game September deficit. They caught and passed the Boston Red Sox at the wire, sending shock waves that will be felt for years.

Evan Longoria looked like a young Derek Jeter. Rookie sensation Matt Moore was untouchable in the playoff opener. It was enough to make you wonder if their improbable run would end with champagne spilling on the carpet at Tropicana Field.

It didn’t.

Within six days of Longoria’s indelible home run, the Rays’ season was over. Fantasy gave way to reality.

And for this team, reality is especially harsh. It’s the acknowledgement that next year, once again, it’s their Vespa against the twin Porsches of the Red Sox and New York Yankees.

The Rays don’t operate like other teams. That is what makes them special, and that is what makes them vulnerable. One example: In no other playoff ballpark would I have stood beside an owner and asked if his team would be playing elsewhere in 10 years unless a new stadium is built.

But that’s what I did Monday evening, near the home dugout at Tropicana Field, just prior to Game 3 of the Rangers-Rays series.

“Ten years?” asked Stuart Sternberg, repeating my question.

Yes, I told him.

He thought for a moment.

“I would assume so,” he continued, nodding his head. “I would assume so.”

Sternberg said it matter-of-factly, but it’s clear that he’s frustrated. That became more obvious one day later, when, following the Rays’ fate-sealing Game 4 defeat, Sternberg told reporters that the Rays’ current way of doing business is “untenable as a model going forward.”

He’s right about that. And he’s right to be upset about the most damning flaw in that model: Not enough fans are showing up to watch the Rays at Tropicana Field.

Since it’s fresh in everyone’s mind, let’s start with Tuesday’s season-ender — when the announced attendance was 28,299, not even close to a sellout.

In Kansas City or Pittsburgh – where the fans would love to watch an entertaining team in the postseason — they would have been able to fill a stadium twice that size. But in defense of the Rays fans who didn’t show up, the first pitch was thrown at 2:07 p.m. to accommodate national television. Fans were given less than 48 hours’ notice about the early start time. So I’m willing to give them a hall pass — for that game.

But not the regular season.

For six months, Tampa Bay fans simply did not come to the ballpark as often as they should have. The Rays were coming off a 2010 season in which they beat the mighty Yankees and Red Sox to win the American League East. This year, they staged a second-half comeback for the ages. And yet their average attendance went down, from 22,759 last year to 18,879.

Some context: This year’s average attendance at Tropicana Field was closer to the 2007 figure — when they were the worst team in baseball — than last year.

That is both staggering and sad.

Since the beginning of the 2008 season, the Philadelphia Phillies are the only team in baseball to reach the postseason more often than the Rays. The Yankees have the same number of berths during that span (three). The Red Sox have one fewer.

And yet the turnstiles are tumbling backward.

Sternberg reminded the media Tuesday that many of them had written or said that a winning team would draw big crowds to Tropicana Field.

“Well, we won, we won, we won, and we won,” he told them, “and it didn’t do it.”

During our conversation Monday, Sternberg told me that the Rays fell “well short” of their attendance projections this season, resulting in a revenue shortfall in the “many, many millions of dollars.”

I asked him what that meant for the team’s 2012 payroll. He replied that the figure would likely stay in the ballpark of what it was this year — but that “it could be down.”

“If you fall short this year,” he explained, “that carries forward next year.”

And it’s getting to a point where we need to wonder how many “next years” there are left for the Rays in St. Petersburg.

The most important question to answer is why the ballpark isn’t full. Is it because Tampa Bay fans don’t care about sports in general and baseball in particular? Is it because the Rays play in a domed stadium on beautiful Florida days? Or is it because Tropicana Field is in an inconvenient location for millions of residents in the area?

The first explanation is bogus; the area has rich baseball history, and the Tampa Bay Lightning has an excellent following despite hockey being a non-traditional sport for the region. The second reason is plausible. The third is most likely of all.

Residents of Tampa — the more populous city across the bay — are discouraged from making the trip because of heavy traffic and a lack of mass transit. A ballpark on the east side of Tampa would draw many more fans from Orlando. But that scenario has proved to be more fanciful than the ninth-inning heroics of journeyman Dan Johnson. The Rays’ lease at city-owned Tropicana Field extends through 2027, and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster apparently doesn’t want to be the man who let the Rays (and their ancillary economic benefits) leave town.

The Rays suggested a waterfront ballpark in St. Petersburg three years ago, but that never reached the referendum stage because of complaints by downtown residents. Asked if any progress has been made on a new ballpark, Sternberg replied, “It’s been so wide of a berth that we’re not going to have a shovel in the ground next year.”

Major League Baseball ought to exert some political pressure, but it seems the clubs that get the most attention from 245 Park Avenue are those that behave badly. The Rays are the opposite of that.

Meanwhile, relocation outside of Florida appears highly unlikely — at least for now. Maury Brown, sports business expert and writer for The Biz of Baseball, says moving a franchise would be exceedingly difficult given the current economic conditions and steadfastness with which the other 29 owners hold their territorial and television rights.

So, Sternberg must wait for a solution and hope that general manager Andrew Friedman, manager Joe Maddon, and their respective staffs pull off another low-budget miracle in 2012. That, of course, assumes that Friedman comes back next year. His name has been mentioned in connection with the Chicago Cubs’ GM vacancy. (Asked how confident he is that Friedman will stay put, Sternberg looked toward his shoe tops and said, “I’m not going to get into it at all.”)

Sternberg must sense that a potential Friedman departure would sting worse than Carl Crawford’s after last season. And yet, how can Sternberg promise Friedman a bright future, full of championships, if he stays? Teams need stars to carry them in October, and the Rays cannot afford them.

Smart teams can compete. The Rays have proved that. But the smart and rich ones usually wear the big rings in the end.

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