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John Romano: Group not giving up on Pinellas County for Rays

For the most part, this has been a tug of war among power brokers.

The moneyed. The influential. The people with real estate in their portfolios and political capital in their pockets. While the big shots have debated the future home of Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay, the rest of us have watched in exasperation.

And to a couple of baseball fans in Pinellas County, that made no sense.

So the author and the custodian teamed up to make a difference. More accurately, they teamed up so that you might make a difference.

Facebook and Twitter pages were launched (Home Run Pinellas) and meetings were scheduled at Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill (the next one is Wednesday at 7 p.m.) to encourage fans to attend more games. The idea is Rays ownership might be convinced the team's future is in Pinellas County (instead of Hillsborough) if significant attendance gains can be made.

"We're definitely in the baby-give-me-one-more-chance mode," said Jack Cone, a former cabdriver and custodian who has joined author Peter Golenbock in this crusade. "I think this is doable if we can just get fans to attend a couple more games a month."

As concepts go, this one sounds simple and logical.

Unfortunately, it may also be farfetched and fanciful.

In the midst of the team's current six-year run of on-field success, Rays owner Stu Sternberg made "MLB average" attendance his goal.

During that time, the average major-league team drew a little more than 30,000 per game. Tampa Bay's average attendance has been a little more than 20,000 per game, with a league-low of 18,645 in 2013.

Yet as daunting as that gap looks, the effort has at least one influential supporter.

"It does sound logical, and it mirrors our marketing campaign in the second half of last year when we asked fans to attend one more game," said Rays president Matt Silverman. "I know we've talked about being league average, but if we could get to 25,000 a game we'd be drawing 2 million a year and that would be close to acceptable. I'd take it."

The problem is jumping from 1.5 million to 2 million is not easily done when selling one ticket at a time. That's why overtures to the Chamber of Commerce and other civic organizations will be part of the group's appeal. A splinter group (Baseball Is Good Business.org on Facebook) has also formed to chase corporate support in Pinellas.

Golenbock, who has written numerous baseball bestsellers and is a Rays season ticket holder, is not convinced Tampa is a better answer and says fans shouldn't assume this will all work out.

"A lot of fans seem to be happy watching on TV," Golenbock said. "My argument to them is that at some point you're not going to have a team to watch if things don't get straightened out.

"Brooklyn fans never believed for a moment that the Dodgers would leave, either. And I know because I interviewed them when I was writing Bums (an oral history of the Brooklyn Dodgers). What I really don't want is for all of us to wake up one morning and realize the Rays are heading to Montreal."

For now, that seems farfetched, too.

There is an answer to be found somewhere in Tampa Bay. An answer where finan­cing and land and attendance all come together.

And if this grass roots effort works, you might even have something to say about it.

John Romano: Group not giving up on Pinellas County for Rays 01/20/14 [Last modified: Monday, January 20, 2014 10:24pm]
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