Thursday, June 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays lead in standings, trail in attendance

ST. PETERSBURG — School isn't out in Milwaukee, either.

Gas prices are up in Kansas City, too.

Also, there are a lot of other things to do in San Diego.

Things are tough all over. The economy is rotten in Minnesota, and the sun is hot in Texas and the ballpark in Denver is a long way from a lot of people's homes.

Still, customers seem to find their way to the baseball park.

Just not here.

At the ghost town known as Tropicana Field, the Rays won another baseball game Wednesday afternoon. As you might have heard, they have turned into quite the national story by now. Once again, there weren't a lot of fans there (10,927) to witness it. That, too, has garnered the nation's attention.

No one is laughing at the Rays anymore. Just at their market. More and more, that is the new impression of Tampa Bay baseball. It is a place where the team is playing out of sight, largely because no one is in the stadium to see it. Baseball hasn't seen a team this interesting in years, and around here, no one seems interested.

And by now, the most important question of all seems fairly obvious.

Is this market ever going to be interested?

For a decade, it has been hard to blame someone for not following this team. There were too many last-place finishes, too many bad athletes, too much lost hope. For most of their intertwined history, the fans and the franchise seemed to take turns letting each other down.

At 32-21, however, shouldn't there be a bandwagon?

And if so, shouldn't a few more seats be occupied?

The Rays are in first place for the 16th day this season, more than in all such days of their history combined, and few people seem to care. They have won nine of their last 11 series, and no one seems to have noticed. They have young, likable players, none of them named Ben Grieve or Wilson Alvarez, and still, no one is scalping tickets.

And if not now, then when?

Privately, when they are deep in their offices and no one is listening, the Rays' front office has to be troubled by the bad crowds. So far, they have operated with the belief that if the team got better, the crowd would follow along. But what if it doesn't?

Does the question change from "How do we get a new stadium?" to "Why do we want a new stadium?"

And by the way, how does Stuart Sternberg get his hands on one of those red signs?

Let's agree on this: A new stadium wouldn't be a cure-all for the Rays. If the 30 home dates of this season tell you nothing else, it is that the franchise is taking a risk, too. If first place won't guarantee fans, a new place won't, either.

Consider this: The Rays have begun each of their last three games in first place. They are fresh off the cover of Sports Illustrated. ESPN cannot get enough. From a distance, even Cubs manager Lou Piniella is urging his old neighbors to get to the park.

And, still, they drew 33,612 fans for their three-game series against the Rangers. By comparison, five teams drew more than that on Tuesday night alone.

On Sunday, the Rays had the second smallest gate in baseball. On Monday, they had the smallest. On Tuesday, they had the smallest. You could put a ballpark in Chernobyl, and it would draw more fans. Except for the Marlins and Pirates, everyone does.

So far, the Rays are averaging 2,782 more fans per game than after 30 home dates last year. However, they are still more than 10,000 fans below the league average.

There are those who would argue that the fans need more time, that attendance is a lagging trend when it comes to victories. And there may be something to that. Two months isn't a lot of time to erase 10 years worth of scars.

Go back to 1991, when the Atlanta Braves had seven straight losing seasons. Despite a surprisingly good start, the Braves averaged only 19,580 fans through June 16. Out of their first 25 home dates, 15 of them drew fewer than 15,000 fans. (The Rays, who average 17,938 fans, have had 13 dates with 15,000 or fewer, three of them in Orlando.)

After that, however, Atlanta's fans became wrapped up in the success, too. They averaged 29,477 fans the rest of the season and finished with more than 2.1-million.

Want another example? In 2006, Detroit had had 12 straight losing seasons. It had crowds of fewer than 20,000 in nine of its first 15 dates. After the fans became interested, they finished with 2.5-million.

When Rays' manager Joe Maddon was a bench coach with the Angels, he and manager Mike Scioscia used to gaze at the empty seats and wonder why the team didn't sell them cheap, just to get people in the stadium. Eventually, the crowds came. Eventually, he says, they will come here, too.

At this point, however, believing in the market is about hope and faith. There isn't enough evidence to be sure. Remember, after 20 seasons of waiting for baseball, this franchise didn't sell out the second game of its history.

Meanwhile the team is playing well. And therein lies a lesson.

Turns out, it is lonely at the top.

At the Trop, too.

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