ST. PETERSBURG — Let's face it, the Rays have known some sad days.
There was the day they actually had a champagne toast to celebrate not finishing in last place. The day they lost their 15th consecutive game in 2002. The day their owner threw down with a raccoon, and the first day they handed a check to Pat Burrell.
But has there ever been 24 hours quite like this?
In one continuous news cycle, we saw three of the team's most popular players head toward the door. Carlos Peña signed a free agent deal with the Cubs. Shortstop Jason Bartlett was apparently dealt to the Padres in a deal with some details still to be decided. And, just before midnight, Carl Crawford signed one of the richest contracts in baseball history with the Red Sox.
It wasn't so much that the players left — that was pretty much expected. You just didn't expect to see it lined up like a parade. And, in Crawford's case, pointing toward Boston.
That was the one that hurt. That was the one that felt like betrayal. And that is the one that seems to have Rays fans in an angry mood. The question is, where should that anger be directed? Who is the villain in this fairy tale gone bad?
Do you blame Stuart Sternberg for being cheap?
Naturally, this is the easy target. The most popular choice.
Sternberg is the owner who has said the payroll cannot be sustained at the 2010 level of more than $70 million. In this case, the bucks literally stop here. Sternberg says the team has lost serious money in recent seasons, and he will not continue at this pace.
Is this true? I honestly don't know. Nor does anyone else outside of the business.
What I do know is Sternberg has been true to his word in most matters. He boosted payroll for three consecutive seasons. He built a winner. And, based on leaguewide attendance and payroll numbers, his claims are not out of line with the rest of Major League Baseball.
The Rays drew between 1.7 million and 1.9 million fans in 2008-09. In the past five seasons, 22 other teams have drawn a similar number (between 1.6 million and 2 million) and those teams have had a median payroll of $60.8 million.
In other words, based on those numbers, Sternberg has spent more than comparable owners.
So do you blame Crawford for being greedy?
This was a popular theory among Boston-bashers. They knew Crawford was going. They knew he was going to become insanely rich. They just couldn't understand how he could choose a rival in the same division.
The greatest player in Tampa Bay history is now the reason a lot of people think the Red Sox will succeed the Rays as American League East champion in 2011. Should Crawford feel guilty about that?
Are you insane?
The Red Sox threw $142 million at him. The next-best offer was apparently $108 million from the Angels. Sure, you could argue that once you get into a contract with that many zeroes, the final tally doesn't really matter.
But, honestly, would you leave $34 million on the table?
So do you blame the Red Sox for stealing a Tampa Bay icon?
After all, Red Sox management never has been shy about criticizing New York. They've called the Yankees the Evil Empire. And they've suggested New York's free spending could bring about baseball's ruin.
Yet the Red Sox have now acquired Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez in the same week, and could push their payroll to levels reached only by the Yankees in baseball history.
You could say they're being hypocritical. You could suggest they are destroying competitive balance.
On the other hand, you might also be a wee bit jealous of the commitment shown to their fans.
So do you blame yourself?
Tampa Bay has underperformed as a baseball market, and low payrolls are the natural result.
This is not rocket science. The three teams with the worst attendance in 2009 were Pittsburgh, Florida and Oakland. And so the three teams with the lowest payroll the following year were Pittsburgh, Florida and Oakland.
There's a reason Florida could not hold on to Josh Beckett or Miguel Cabrera. Just as Oakland could not hold on to Barry Zito or Tim Hudson. And just as Kansas City is prepared to trade Zack Greinke.
Ownership has made significant boosts to the payroll in three consecutive seasons, and attendance has not grown at similar levels.
Yes, Tampa Bay has struggled as a baseball market. Of that, there is little doubt.
But it's also true the economy has been rougher here than most places. And we have an uninspired stadium in a poor location. And there is a lack of corporations and high-end jobs in the marketplace. And the team is still relatively new so fan identification is still growing.
So who do you blame?
"What's a little deflating, and very disappointing, is what is taking place in the industry this offseason and what will continue to take place over the coming weeks," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "It accentuates what we're up against.
"That said, we've got to continue to do what we do. Insulate ourselves, work hard, work smart and put ourselves in position to compete for titles. It's just that it's become increasingly more difficult. It's the system that's in place."
Baseball has been like this for decades.
Even before free agency and $100 million contracts, there has been class warfare in the game. It doesn't necessarily have to be anyone's fault. It's just the way the game works.
Sort of like life itself.
It's not always fair.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com.