Will Rays ever draw big at Tropicana?

BY Ken Rosenthal • September 19, 2013

Monday night, Rangers vs. Rays, first game of a pivotal September series at Tropicana Field.

Rays lefty David Price, sitting in the home dugout on the first base side, said he could hear fans chanting at him all the way from the left field seats.

Price tipped his cap. The fans went, “Yeah!” And as Price recalled Wednesday, the fans probably thought it was quite cool, conversing with him from 400 feet away.

Ah, the simple pleasures of cheering for a team that draws only 10,724 in the middle of a pennant race. And 10,786 the next night. And 14,827 the night after that.

Sorry, no one could blame the Rays if they ordered Mayflower moving vans and snuck out of town, Baltimore Colts-style.

Where exactly would they draw worse?

The Rays’ poor attendance is nothing new – they were last in the majors last season, next-to-last in 2011 and 23rd in ’09, the year after they went to the World Series. But the crowds this season might be the most disappointing yet.

Commissioner Bud Selig is talking about taking action to help the Rays secure a new ballpark, but good luck getting a quick result – the Rays’ lease at the Trop runs through 2027 without a buyout provision.

Sewage Central – Oakland’s O.co Coliseum – is an even more pressing concern for baseball. But the Rays’ situation is an enduring blight, and an A’s-Rays American League Championship might give Selig a nervous breakdown.

The Rays’ issues are well-documented. The park. The location of the park. The location in Tampa Bay, period.

It’s not that the Rays don’t have fans – they could finish in the top third in baseball in local TV ratings, according to a recent report in the Tampa Bay Times. And it’s not that they’re the only team in the area that struggles with attendance; the NFL’s Buccaneers, who play in Tampa, have been blacked out on local TV in 19 of their past 24 home games due to their inability to sell a required number of tickets.

The subject is delicate – fans are entitled to spend their money however they wish and should not be criticized for staying home.

The Rays’ problems, however, are long past the point of absurd.

Here is a club that has produced six straight winning seasons with low payrolls, matching the Cardinals for the second-longest streak in the majors behind the Yankees, who are headed for their 21st straight.

And here is a club that is again last in the majors with an average home attendance of 18,485 – the Rays’ lowest figure since ‘07 and more than 1,000 per game less than the Astros, who have produced three consecutive 100-loss seasons.

Imagine how far attendance might fall if the Rays ever stop winning. Imagine how difficult it will be for them to sell out the 34,078-seat Trop if they host the American League wild-card game on Wed., Oct. 2.

The Rays, from Price to third baseman Evan Longoria to manager Joe Maddon, say all the right things, expressing appreciation for the fans who do come to Tropicana Field. But even Selig has had enough.

On Aug. 14, Selig said that he was considering appointing someone from his office to become directly involved with what he called “stalled” negotiations for a new Rays ballpark.

“They’ve been a model organization, extraordinarily capable,” Selig said. “Under this ownership, they’ve done everything in their power to make their ballpark situation work. They have a very, very, very competitive club. Years have ticked with no progress to resolve the situation. And frankly – and this is coming directly from me – baseball needs a resolution to this problem.”

Well, that resolution might be years away.

For the most part, the Rays’ players experience large crowds only when they are on the road. A number of them are still talking about the atmosphere last weekend in Minnesota, where the crowds for their series against the awful Twins were in the 27,000 to 28,000 range.

And that’s just one example.

“I was talking to David (Price) today,” Longoria said. “We can remember how tough it was when we played (the Rangers) late in the year at their place. That’s one of the toughest places to play because of the crowd noise. It makes such an impact on the way that the game is played.

“You go up to the plate, if there are 10,000 fans in the stands and it’s not very loud, your heart isn’t racing as fast as it is when there are 50,000 and it’s loud, and you can hear your own thoughts because that’s all you can hear. . . . Let it not be misunderstood – the fans dictate the emotion of the game.”

Sabermetricans will scoff at such talk, but the Rays are 49-17 since 2008 when drawing crowds of 30,000 or more – a .742 winning percentage. Longoria and Price both noted that the Trop is electric when sold out, and that even 10,000 can sound like 20,000 inside the dome. Such days, though, are few and far between.

Fans of visiting clubs often comprise a significant portion of the home crowd; Price said he sometimes will get booed for making a pickoff throw to first while the visiting pitcher will not.
Maddon, for his part, no longer even addresses the issue with his players.

“We stopped worrying about that a couple of years ago,” Maddon said. “We thought after we went to the World Series in 2008 that there would be a paradigm shift regarding the attendance. But it hasn’t occurred.

“You stop talking about it. We know we have a very supportive following; the Tampa Bay area is very supportive. We know that they’re not going to show up – we know that. So, we just appreciate the group that does.”

Still, the players can’t help but wonder why they play in front of so many empty blue seats. The Rays expect better crowds against the Orioles this weekend – 20,000 on Saturday, 27,000 to 28,000 on Sunday. Still, shouldn’t the Trop be packed? The Rays lead the American League wild-card race by a game. The Orioles are only one game out for the second spot.

“We understand the crowds may be sparse on a weekday home game when we play somebody that is not in our division,” Longoria said. “But really, if you’re a baseball fan or a Rays fan, what more could you ask for?

“This is what we play 162 games for, this block of games that is going to determine our season. It is what it is. But if you’re a baseball fan, I don’t know how you can not want to show up.”

If nothing else, the experience is intimate.

So intimate, you can exchange greetings with your favorite Ray from 400 feet away.

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