Stagnant attendance means Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg can't buy the bats the team needs

ST. PETERSBURG

The fan in the middle of the room probably looked much the way you looked Tuesday evening. Probably, he felt worse.

He leaned against a counter, and his lips were tight, and his sad eyes seemed to be staring off into the distance. An entertaining, improbable baseball season had just ended for the Tampa Bay Rays, and the man looked as if the finality of it had punched him in the stomach. His words came out small and quiet, but it was easy to find the disappointment in them.

There in the middle of the Rays clubhouse, there was frustration on the face of Stuart Sternberg. More of it, he admitted, than he has shown.

Even worse, there seemed to be resignation.

He saw what you saw. He felt what you felt. Sternberg spent most of the day with his partners in the owners' suite behind home plate, and like you, he could not help but notice how badly the Rays needed another bat. Maybe two. Maybe more.

Sadly, this kind of ending was inevitable, of course. This game or another, soon or sooner, the Rays were going to go home after being clubbed by bigger bats. The Rays simply do not hit the ball the way the other major-league playoff teams hit it. They can match pitchers with anyone, and they can take away your breath with defense. But hitters? Hitters, specially the high-priced thumpers, earn more than the Rays can afford to pay and, Sternberg says, they cannot afford to pay more because of all of the empty seats.

In other words, this might be as good as it gets for Tampa Bay baseball. The crowds are probably not going to get significantly better, and the payroll isn't going to go up, and the Rays still aren't likely to have enough hitting. They seemed destined to be limited, doomed to be flawed.

If that disappoints you, you should see it from Sternberg's viewpoint.

Consider:

• "It won't be my decision, or solely my decision. But eventually, major-league baseball is going to vaporize this team. It could go on nine, 10, 12 more years. But between now and then, it's going to vaporize this team. Maybe a check gets written locally, maybe someone writes me a check (to buy the team). But it's going to get vaporized."

• "If I had $80 million to put out there, we'd be moving along in life," Sternberg said. "We just don't have $12 million to put into a hitter."

• "When I came here, I was confident we could put a winning team on the field, and that would do it. We won, and we won, and we won and we won … and it didn't do it. Whatever it is, there are 29 other teams passing us like we're going in reverse now. Except on the field, and at some point, that changes."

• "As the owner, I could have affected things today. Today, and a couple of games where a thumper would thump. I could decide to mortgage the future and trade all the young guys, but the truth is that we would only get $9.82 extra at the gate. So what's the sense?"

• "These guys deserved better. They deserved better. We need some horses."

It is not a pretty subject, the future of baseball in Tampa Bay. And talking about money is always a difficult game to win for a sports owner. No matter what side you happen to be on, no one seems able to have a reasonable discussion about it.

This time, however, perhaps you can understand the frustration of a man watching his team get outnumbered again and lacking the wallet to do anything about it. Perhaps you can sympathize with someone who wondered how another bat or two might have changed the outcome.

For instance, Texas signed free-agent third baseman Adrian Beltre to a six-year, $96 million contract in the offseason. He hit three homers Tuesday against the Rays.

"If it's just one (hitter), you deal with it," Sternberg said. "Two, you make do. But four of them? Three of them? If we had gone on in the playoffs, we would have faced that from one team after another. Every team has those guys."

In some ways, this series was lost years ago, when winning didn't move the needle on attendance. Consider this: Tuesday's crowd of 28,229 was the smallest playoff crowd in the history of the team. It was the smallest crowd in the MLB playoffs since 1981, when the Brewers drew 26,375 in a division series game against the Yankees.

Fewer than 30,000? For a team playing only its 12th home playoff game in team history?

Sternberg said he was not surprised. He said he was not disappointed. But, yes, there is a correlation between how much a team earns and how much it can spend.

"I'm not going to say I let them down," Sternberg said, "but what's been done over the last few years has dramatically affected our ability to compete this year. We lost this game in '08, when our attendance didn't move, and in '09, and in '10, and this year when it went down."

Sternberg paused.

"If we won the World Series this year, I wouldn't think my attendance would get higher. It didn't go up in '09 when we got to the World Series (in '08)."

Even with a $42 million payroll, Sternberg said the team didn't turn a profit this year. (Give or take a little, it broke even.) That means the bats won't be any more imposing next year. That means the roster will be flawed, and the possibilities will be limited.

Perhaps, it means the wrong team dancing on the infield.

Stagnant attendance means Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg can't buy the bats the team needs 10/04/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 5, 2011 11:36am]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...