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Don't blame Tampa Bay; maybe Florida and baseball don't mix

Tampa Bay Rays first baseman James Loney rounds the bases in front of a sea of empty seats after hitting a home run in the second inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on June 24 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Tampa Bay Rays first baseman James Loney rounds the bases in front of a sea of empty seats after hitting a home run in the second inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on June 24 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

The mayor and the baseball owner are making nice.

The economy is improving, and the team continues to win.

Which brings us to Rays fans.

Wherever they are.

Somehow, after finishing last in the major leagues in attendance in 2012, the Rays are drawing fewer fans this season. Significantly fewer.

Attendance in Tampa Bay is down roughly 13 percent from the same point last year. A historic attendance drop of nearly 40 percent by the Miami Marlins is the only thing keeping the Rays from again having the smallest crowds in baseball.

So are there any conclusions to be drawn from this?

Well, perhaps Major League Baseball is not indigenous to Florida.

Granted, that is a long way from being a revelation. Attendance has been a problem for as long as the Rays and Marlins have existed.

But the issue is typically argued through the lens of individual markets, and not as a predicament inherent to the state.

In other words, maybe the lords of baseball were expecting too much.

There are reasons it took a century or so for baseball to make it to Florida. There are reasons teams relocated or expanded to Atlanta, Baltimore, Houston, Kansas City, Milwaukee (twice), Minnesota, Montreal, Seattle (twice), Texas, Toronto and half of California before giving Florida its very own dugout.

So maybe it shouldn't be such a shock that Tampa Bay and Miami have consistently found themselves at the bottom of the attendance heap.

And, yes, we've been over the explanations lots of times. Unpopular ownership, challenging demographics, unattractive stadiums, lack of corporations, etc. They are all legit reasons, and it would be nice if MLB would occasionally acknowledge that.

Still, you can't simply say we have a good reason for always languishing near the bottom of the heap, and expect to leave it at that. Eventually, push will come to shove.

The Rays have already proven that a sharp ownership group and a quality team are not enough. The Marlins have proven that simply building a new stadium is not enough. In order for baseball to thrive in Florida, all factors have to be close to perfect.

So where does that leave us in Tampa Bay?

The same place we were yesterday, and the same place we will be tomorrow. Attendance is not likely to grow magically, or even organically, in the next few years.

The baseball stadium has not been a major factor in the upcoming mayoral election in St. Petersburg, and perhaps that makes sense. The stadium use agreement has another 14 seasons, and so baseball's threats have not yet grown nasty.

On the other hand, if history is any guide, this problem will not go away on its own. So instead of waiting for an inevitability, it might make sense to attack the problem when leverage is still our friend.

Baseball was once considered a grand idea in Florida when franchise fees were being paid and TV ratings were being considered.

Back then, we were considered partners with MLB. That should still be true today.

Florida has not turned out to be a baseball paradise, and we share in that blame. But, truthfully, so do MLB leaders.

And if this is truly a problem that needs fixing, they should be down here offering a helping hand.

Don't blame Tampa Bay; maybe Florida and baseball don't mix 07/06/13 [Last modified: Monday, July 8, 2013 8:51am]
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