We here in Tampa Bay haven't started adding the word "nation" to the word "Rays," as in Rays Nation. The Philadelphia Phillies, our World Series opponents, have been doing it forever. So have the Red Sox, White Sox, Cubs, Cardinals, Dodgers, Texas Rangers, Yankees, Tigers, Braves and others. They're all "nations."
What gives a team and its fans license to use "nation" in the handle? I haven't spoken with anyone about this, so what you're getting are my observations. I've lived in three other major league cities — New York, Chicago and Washington (during the years of the Senators) — and I've experienced the exquisite thrill of watching great baseball.
I know that winning isn't everything, but it's a major ingredient in building "nationhood," getting it coded in the genes. Teams with the winning tradition create loyalty among their fans, and they attract new fans, especially young ones, to the ballpark every season. Whether they wind up in last place or in the playoffs, their fans flock to the ballpark. Come hell or high water, these teams are dear to the fans.
But there are teams such as the Texas Rangers, the Rangers Nation, that don't have a solid winning tradition but still generate loyalty. Win or lose, the faithful pack the Arlington ballpark.
Forbes.com, which has statistically shown the teams with the most loyal fans, observes: "The Ranger faithful don't care if the team trades away its best players or spends $252-million to sign an MVP-caliber batter like Alex Rodriguez. No team's attendance is less tied to its on-the-field performance than the Rangers', and nowhere else in the country do fans peel off at a slower rate when the club has thin years."
Cub fans come close. I lived in Chicago, and I became one of those bleacher bums who cheered Cubbies and cursed the opponent. The kids were hooked, too. To this day, school-age boys stand along Sheffield Avenue, with their gloves at the ready, waiting for a homer to clear that Wrigley Field wall. I've hung out there to watch them tussle for the ball.
During good years and bad years, while paying for the most expensive tickets in the majors, Boston fans pour into Fenway Park, especially since the "curse" was broken in 2004. The Red Sox Nation is a tough and seasoned bunch, as we here in St. Petersburg can testify. Nope, you don't mess with Red Sox fans. Fair weather or storms, they love their team.
So, here we are, in Tampa Bay with a winning team, a contender for the World Series championship. Will this phenomenon start the momentum for building the Rays Nation? Keep in mind that some teams that have been around much longer, such as the Seattle Mariners and the Rangers, would gladly trade places with the 10-year-old Rays right now.
Since the Rays' first season, locals have sworn that they would come to Tropicana Field if the team started to win. Well, next year it's put up or shut up, folks. The only thing left is for the team to win it all.
But that shouldn't be necessary. Even if they fall short during the World Series, the Rays have proved they're not a bunch of young, inexperienced chokers. They're the real deal. Time and again, they came back this season to make clutch plays that will be remembered for years to come. Often they made those plays to empty bleachers.
Will they play to empty bleachers again? I've always believed that sport is a two-way street, the team and the fans. Win or lose, the two are joined at the hip and each has a responsibility. Go to Boston, Chicago, Arlington, Detroit and Atlanta; you'll see what I'm talking about. The Trop, land of "Cowbells and Catwalks," should host near-capacity crowds every game, no matter the number of W's and L's on the schedule.
Manager Joe Maddon and his players have done their part. The time has come for the fans to step up to the plate and support the team. Being at the Trop is the only way to feel the full force of Maddon's unorthodoxy, his use, for example, of five pitchers Sunday to get three outs to win Game 7, 3-1. You simply have to be at the Trop, in the stands, to experience the magic.
Are we witnessing the birth of the Rays Nation?