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Baseball fans are due for a reckoning after this season

Ken Hensley removes tarps from 5,000 seats in Tropicana Field that went on sale Monday. Some have obstructed views.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Ken Hensley removes tarps from 5,000 seats in Tropicana Field that went on sale Monday. Some have obstructed views.

First of all, to dispatch with any pretense of objectivity: Go Rays.

Tampa Bay's baseball team comes home tonight to play a fifth and decisive game against the Texas Rangers in the first round of the American League playoffs. Tonight's winner goes on to play some team or another from New York City for the league championship, and a place in the World Series.

The Rays lost the first two games to the very good Rangers at home in St. Petersburg last week, looking as though they had forgotten the purpose of those wooden stick-thingys that baseball players carry to home plate. They rebounded to win games 3 and 4 in Texas over the weekend.

Now here we are in a grand and exciting showdown. A Bop at the Trop. There is no reason the revived Rays should not win tonight, except perhaps for a certain Mr. Lee, the Rangers' best pitcher, who has rudely consented to pitch again. He must be dealt with.

And so the uphill climb continues for the young Rays, playing in their 13th season, having finished outside of last place in the American League East only three times. They have had to deal with a low payroll, especially compared to the New York and Boston teams, and with playing in a home market that is — as many in the national media like to remind us — Not A Baseball Town.

We loyal Rays fans are defensive, naturally. Didn't the Cincinnati Reds make the playoffs this year with Rays-like attendance? Is anybody sneering that Cincy is Not A Baseball Town? How come we won the division, but the Yankees (oh, right, that's the name) got the prime-time TV games? What is it with this weird string of bad calls against the Rays by the umpires? And so forth.

And yet, even in the middle of playoff glory, in our hearts we know there are questions about this, and about us. The Rays have fiercely loyal followers but not, so far, the widespread casual fandom of the football Bucs.

The attendance is weak. The stadium is old and, although we loyalists have a certain affection for it, objectively speaking it is a tin can compared to the beautiful baseball cathedrals of the modern age. The Trop also has proven to be, at least psychologically, inaccessible for most of the people in Tampa Bay, and three years of winning baseball have not dramatically improved that.

So we in Tampa Bay are due for some reckoning after this. Fans know it and non-fans know it — those who think Tampa Bay needs professional sports for its identity, and those who think that subsidizing millionaires is the biggest waste of tax money around.

Thirteen years is not that long, really. Not compared to the decades of suffering of a Chicago Cubs fan. Our friends and rivals the Texas Rangers, for their part, are the only team in baseball (so far) never to win a playoff series. The Boston Red Sox went for 86 years between winning a World Series in 2004. Here we are, in the playoffs for the second time in three years, out of 13 seasons total. Non c'e male. Not so bad. We are old hands at it now. We have the luxury of taking the longer view, instead of being gape-mouthed about it, like a rube seeing the big city for the first time.

From here ...

From here, we embark on the longer term. In terms of pure baseball, the Rays already have announced they must shed payroll next year and some of their higher-paid talent. The coming years will feature the by-now familiar mix of young sign-ees under contract, brilliant acquisitions and inspired on-field management. (Right, Joe?) The idea always is to get several times the bang for the buck of the Yankees.

As for Tampa Bay's financial and political relationship with its baseball team, that is less certain. Everybody and his cousin knows that sometime in the next very few years we have to make a decision. Will we and the Rays build a new stadium, better located, and settle in for a long-term marriage? Or will we be unable to come to terms, even if that means the team moves sooner or later to a more welcoming market? (Yes, yes, the contract runs until 2027. Let's see what an army of lawyers does with that.)

One of two things is likely. Either the team's ownership and the political leadership get together on a mid-Pinellas stadium location, with a big pot of Mr. Sternberg's money, and not awfully much more than the existing tourist-tax behind it as the public contribution . . .

Or else they don't. And if the people of Tampa Bay make the conscious, well-considered decision not to do it, and the team leaves, then really, that will be fine. Sad, but fine. But let's stress the "conscious" and "well-considered" part.

Speaking selfishly and with biases, here's hoping they work it out and we have many decades of scrappy, mid-market professional baseball in front of us, with a good location, a beautiful stadium and a strong fan base that stretches across Tampa Bay and indeed all of west-central Florida.

It puts too much on a single game, or even a single year, to say that what happens tonight should determine what happens in the long term. But, you know, it wouldn't hurt, either, if they finished their historic comeback and went on to face that New York team for the league championship. It wouldn't hurt at all. Just to recap, then: Go Rays.

Baseball fans are due for a reckoning after this season 10/11/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 12, 2010 1:18pm]
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