As a lifelong resident and baseball fan, I have followed our region's quest for baseball since the 1970s. I remember the excitement when Major League Baseball finally awarded us the franchise in March 1995 after many missed opportunities.
A longtime season ticket holder for the Tampa Bay Rays, I will never forget the majesty of witnessing the 2008 season from my comfortable perch in Section 302. Win or lose, I enjoy attending games at the air-conditioned Trop, even more so since Stuart Sternberg and his leadership team have shown their commitment to placing a winning product on the field while keeping prices reasonable and giveaways and weekend concerts abundant.
Sternberg has expressed legitimate concerns about attendance, the lack of corporate support and the omnipresent regional bickering. He has witnessed the challenges of filling stadium seats and fostering partnerships in a region where so many people think of somewhere else as "home" and so many companies have headquarters with deep sponsorship pockets far beyond the Tampa Bay area. Wherever the Rays ultimately play in this region, these realities will not change any time soon.
Sternberg's comments at his June 21 press conference will be condemned by some as the first salvo in a long and protracted struggle between the city of St. Petersburg and the team. Internecine battles and accusations will most likely resume between the varied interests that have historically viewed bridges across Tampa Bay as insular boundaries similar to Transportation Security Administration screening stations or border crossings.
Despite the concerns about attendance expressed by naysayers who never cared about baseball in this region, we must remember that "butts in seats" is just one measure of a team's support. Broadcast ratings are fine, Rays gear adorns more fans than in years before, and support remains strong even if raw attendance figures paint a different picture. Many fans have embraced the positive direction of the franchise under Sternberg's leadership, even if their pocketbooks or circumstances make it difficult to be there at every home stand.
Although statistical comparisons are always controversial in baseball, I compare the Rays' 2008 season to that of the 1967 Boston Red Sox. In both cases, struggling teams transformed into champions. Tampa Bay averaged 22,370 per game in 2008, the Red Sox averaged 21,337 at Fenway in 1967. The two prior years, when the Red Sox sat in the basement of the American League, attendance at Fenway was 8,000 to 10,000 per game — far less than that of the 2006 or 2007 Rays. When the Red Sox returned to the World Series in 1975, they again had fewer people per game (21,587) than the 2008 Rays.
What about the Yankees? In 1995, the first year of their great run of the late 1990s, the Bronx Bombers made it to the playoffs with an attendance averaging slightly more than 23,000 per game, a number comparable to the 2008 Rays. An equally unimpressive average of fewer than 26,000 per game sat in Yankee Stadium during the World Series seasons of 1976 and 1977.
Yes, I know that I have compared "Big Apples" and orange cowbells. But my point is this: In the years before ESPN, Fox Sports, YES, NESN and MLB.com broadcast every game — a time when people wanting to see the Red Sox or Yankees had to buy seats at the stadium — the championship teams taking the field in Boston and New York played before crowds similar to or smaller than the 2008-2010 Rays. Attendance improved over time as fan loyalties touched younger generations. The same thing will happen with the Rays.
The game has changed. A franchise's success is now measured more heavily by the number of fans at the stadium since cameras can regularly pan to rows of empty seats. However, we must remember that amateur and professional baseball has a long history in the Tampa Bay area that dates to the 1860s. Wherever the ensuing discussions take us, whatever their outcome, all parties involved should recognize this tradition and understand that regional bickering and hastily conceived solutions will do more harm than good.
Jim Schnur, immediate past president of the Pinellas County Historical Society, lives in Largo.