Fans flock to Rays' new digs — attendance up 30 percent

PORT CHARLOTTE — Maybe it's the World Series run. Maybe it's the fancy digs. Maybe it's the new fan base. But whatever the explanation, the numbers don't lie: Attendance at the Tampa Bay Rays' spring training games climbed 30 percent this year.

Across the rest of Florida, it's down about 20 percent.

The Rays wrapped up their first spring training season outside St. Petersburg with a 2-1 win Wednesday against the Minnesota Twins. The near-sellout game pushed attendance beyond 100,000 this spring, the Rays say, well past the previous record of 79,000.

"There is a real excitement here," said Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt, the executive who oversaw the team's spring move from St. Petersburg. "People have just responded. Maybe the World Series has something to do with it. But it's not just that."

Judy Rochelau clenched a baseball and blue Sharpie along the first base rail, hoping B.J. Upton would walk by.

Rochelau, 73, of North Port had been a casual Rays fan before this season.

Now the retiree from New York is addicted. Wednesday's game makes 11 games this spring for Rochelau.

"I've really gotten into it," said Rochelau, who before only occasionally watched the Rays on television. "It gives us something to do. I drag my husband here."

Rochelau has three signed balls from manager Joe Maddon and another from third baseman Evan Longoria. She arrived Wednesday before 10:30 a.m. — 2 1/2 hours before the first pitch.

"I'm sad that they're going," she said. "But I'll have to get up to see them this summer."

Kevin Burke, 48, of Port Charlotte watched Rays pitcher Brian Shouse warm up from the boardwalk above right field.

"People have been waiting for this for a long time," said Burke, who is involved with the local Little League and has been impressed with how accessible the team has been to area kids.

"It's so nice to have the Rays down here. This is something that has the whole area excited, I can tell you that."

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The Rays averaged more than 6,500 a game at the newly refurbished Charlotte Sports Park. At St. Petersburg's Al Lang Field last year, the average crowd was under 5,000.

The Rays sold out eight games this year, including four in a row. The increases put them in the top half of all major league teams this spring.

"We're accomplishing what we set out to do," Kalt said. "One, we wanted to give our players a first-class facility. And two, we wanted to establish a foothold for the team in this area all the way down to Fort Myers. We're doing that."

The new park — which underwent a $27.2 million renovation — might also be playing a role. Two other teams opened new facilities in 2009, the Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers, who moved from Florida to Arizona this year, have seen a nearly 40 percent attendance increase, with an average attendance of more than 9,500 fans a game. The Indians, who also moved to Arizona from Florida, saw a slight decrease in average attendance.

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Manager Joe Maddon says he's slowly persuading fans in southwest Florida to abandon their Boston Red Sox hats. Or at least look for a half-Rays, half-Sox hat.

Among the converts: Tom Taylor, an admitted Boston Red Sox fan from North Port, who sported a Rays hat Wednesday. The spring season ticket holder says he always rooted for the Rays because they were an underdog.

Taylor, 52, loves that spring training is back in Charlotte County.

"It's great," he said. "The employees are great. And I love baseball, so you can't beat this."

Maddon, who addressed fans after Wednesday's game from behind home plate, said the experiment of moving the Rays south for spring training has exceeded expectations.

"The people have been great," Maddon said. "It's pretty special what's been happening here."

The Rays hope the momentum translates north to St. Petersburg once the team returns to Tropicana Field for its home opener against the New York Yankees April 13. (Very few tickets were still available Wednesday.)

While team officials won't specifically discuss the number of tickets sold for this upcoming season, they say sales are up, but not enough.

Kalt says ticket sales should be up from 2008, but that the team would still rank near the bottom in terms of overall attendance. Season ticket sales also are up, Kalt said, but the team still will rank last or next-to-last compared with other major league clubs.

"We've come a long way from three years ago," Kalt said. "But we've got a long way to go."

Fans flock to Rays' new digs — attendance up 30 percent 04/01/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 4, 2009 11:38am]

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