ST. PETERSBURG — Never let it be said Tampa Bay crumbled under the pressure of a pennant race.
When the Angels came to town last week for a showdown between the two best teams in the American League, we yawned. When the Blue Jays showed up this week for a key division series, our pulse remained steady.
And, in a remarkable display of grace under pressure, we continue to stay away from Tropicana Field in droves.
If this is pennant fever, when did we get inoculated?
The Rays have been the worst-drawing team in major-league baseball for the past two weeks, which is a little embarrassing when the rest of the country keeps calling Tampa Bay the feel-good story of 2008.
"To me, it's about how disheartening it is for everybody in the organization — the players, coaches and front office — to not see the excitement funnel its way into Tropicana Field," team president Matt Silverman said.
Granted, this is an old topic. It's not exactly breaking ground to say Rays fans have often led the league in apathy and were close to the top in ho-hum.
But, in recent days, the market has set a new standard for disinterest considering this is Tampa Bay's very first pennant race. For three consecutive games against the American League West-leading Angels last week, the Rays drew the day's smallest crowd in the majors. Then the Blue Jays showed up this week, and fans grew even more scarce.
"The TV ratings are high, and that's a great sign, but it hasn't translated to the number of people at Tropicana Field. It really takes the wind out of our sails," Silverman said. "We've poured our hearts and souls into making this a great draw, and a great fan experience. And to come home after a great road trip and have … the smallest crowds in major-league baseball was discouraging.
"We're proud of what we have done to turn the organization around. We've done everything we could to make it a compelling experience at Tropicana Field."
Look, there are plenty of sound reasons why the Rays are not among the best draws in baseball. The franchise is still relatively new, the team has been mostly wretched before 2008 and this is not among the richest markets in the country when it comes to disposable income.
So, no, you wouldn't expect the Rays to draw 40,000 a night like the big markets in New York or Los Angeles. And you might not even expect 30,000 a night like historic baseball towns such as Boston or St. Louis.
But 12,678? When the pennant is in sight?
Call it sobering. Call it disappointing. Soon, you may be calling it disturbing or threatening.
Because if you assume the attendance figures have been lost in the excitement of the division standings, you are naive. The commissioner's office has taken notice, and owner Stuart Sternberg has surely been paying attention.
And what they see is a community running out of excuses. It's no longer about poor ownership, because Sternberg's crew has done everything possible to reach out to the fans. And it's no longer about losing because the Rays have been among baseball's best teams for four months.
So if it's not about the team or the owner, then it is an indictment of the market or the stadium location.
Already, there are people in the organization who are suggesting it was a blessing in disguise for the waterfront stadium proposal to fall through. Already, there is talk that downtown St. Petersburg is hopeless as a major-league market and that a location in Hillsborough County might be the answer.
At this point, the only fallback St. Petersburg has is season ticket sales. Historically, teams do not see a major bump in attendance until the year after a successful season when season ticket sales increase.
The Rays, like most teams, do not release their season ticket figures, but it is believed they are in the 6,000-8,000 range, which would put them 29th in the majors, and a long way from 28th.
"What's going to be most telling is the response (to season tickets) this offseason," Silverman said. "That's where we are the most deficient."
There are those who would argue this is nonsense. Tampa Bay's attendance has risen from an average of 17,148 last season to 21,206 this season, and shouldn't that be good enough?
Yes, that's a nice start, but it's still near the bottom of MLB standings (26th of 30 teams), and tonight's Rays game will be the fifth time in the past six games they've drawn less than 16,000.
So, if you're sitting in the owner's box, how do you not look at a stadium more than two-thirds empty, while the team is in first place, and wonder if this is as good as it gets?
Once upon time, they offered free parking. Then they said you could bring your own food to the park. The Rays were even one of two teams in the majors to not raise ticket prices this season.
So my advice:
Heck, why not just hold out until they let you come for free.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]