ST. PETERSBURG — After two of their star players opened themselves up to criticism by complaining about low attendance, the Rays are opening the doors to Tropicana Field, offering 20,000 free tickets for tonight's final regular-season home game.
Team president Matt Silverman said the Rays aren't making the unusual offer in direct response to the critical comments about Monday's crowd by Evan Longoria and David Price, but in an attempt to create the full-house atmosphere sought by players.
"It was something we had discussed but I don't think we would have (done this without their comments)," Silverman said. "And it's not about the two players, it's about the sentiment expressed by the team throughout the year, the energy that they get from the fans when this place is full.
"Two years ago, when we clinched (a playoff berth) against Minnesota the players celebrated with the fans. It was a packed house, and it's that type of celebration of this season that we're looking for."
The 20,000 tickets — which are being provided by the organization, not the players — will be available starting at 4:45 p.m. at Tropicana Field on a first-come, first-served basis.
The Milwaukee Brewers are the only Major League Baseball team to have made a similar give-away, which they did for the final home game of the 2005 season.
The give-away comes two days after a furor erupted when Longoria griped about low attendance.
Just 12,446 people watched the Rays' failed attempt to clinch a spot in the playoffs Monday night.
"For us to play 155 games and go a full season of playing really good baseball, it's kind of like, what else do we have to do to draw fans into this place?" Longoria said after the team's 4-0 loss to the Orioles. "It's actually embarrassing for us."
The backlash began quickly.
News and sports websites were flooded with comments and letters. Many fans shot back at Longoria, who they said is out of touch.
"Evan Longoria said he doesn't understand why more fans are not going to watch the Rays try and win a playoff spot," said Jim Coraggio, 63, of Clearwater. "Perhaps Evan and the rest of the highly paid sports athletics need a lesson in economics."
Coraggio, owner of Mr. Pool in Pinellas Park, said he's a big fan of all the sports teams in Tampa Bay. But when the economy went south, he had to make tough choices. He said he hasn't been to a Rays game since last year, but still watches the team on TV.
"The people that have a lot of money don't seem to understand that people are struggling, every day," he said. "We're just trying to survive. This is ridiculous — gimme a break."
Some fans said Longoria's comment, and a similar one made by David Price on Twitter, was an insult to people who are struggling with their finances — particularly in Florida, where unemployment is higher (11.7 percent) than in most other states.
In 2008, Longoria signed a nine-year, $44.5 million contract. His salary this year is $950,000.
Mitch Rollins, 42, of St. Petersburg, said he couldn't believe Longoria had the audacity to chastise fans and question their loyalty.
Rollins said he, his wife and two kids love the Rays and try to go to games as often as they can. But an outing to see the team play can run the family between $150 and $200, including gas, parking, food and tickets.
"I make $30,000 a year if I'm lucky," said Rollins, a salesman. "For me to go to a game with my family is like half a paycheck."
Besides the actual cost of the game, fans said, the Rays need to understand that baseball isn't the only thing competing for their attention.
School is back in session. And other sports, like football, are back in season.
"They're out of touch with what actual working people do when they make comments like that," said Mike Deetz, 42, of Pinellas Park, who said he brings his family to about 30 games a year. "It hurts. It hurts when you call me out and I'm doing everything I can to support you. … I think it was just a slap in the face."
But some national sports commentators said Tampa Bay and Rays fans are deserving of the criticism.
MLB Network analyst Mitch Williams said Tampa Bay fans don't care about the game or the team. He said he felt bad for Rays players, who he said are playing without the benefit of the adrenaline surge a large crowd can give them.
"This team, these players, they absolutely deserve everything they're getting," he said. "That fan base does not deserve a World Series."
Mayor Bill Foster, a season-ticket holder who attended Monday night's game, said he was disappointed by the crowd. But he understood why so few showed.
"It's a Monday, a school night, a bad economy," he said. "It's Game 156 in a long season. People are excited about the playoffs, where tickets are more expensive. So they're probably saving their money."
Asked about Longoria's comments, Foster gave a long pause and then smiled.
"It's hard to disagree, but just play ball," he said. "It's your job to get hits and play defense and get on base. Now is not a good time to chastise the people you hope to attract. Win it. Clinch it. Just play ball."
Attendance rose to 17,891 on Tuesday night, when the Rays clinched a playoff spot by beating the Orioles 5-0.
After the victory, Longoria said he meant no disrespect to fans who have been attending games. And he said he was sensitive to the plight of people having economic troubles.
"The fans that have been here have been very supportive and that's the biggest thing for me, is just thanking those people and having everybody else jump on the bandwagon with us now and ride us to the postseason," he said.
"Obviously I know people watch on TV, we know the support is there. But from a player standpoint, the more people that are in this building the better we play."
Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.