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Tampa Bay Rays' Evan Longoria has right message, is wrong messenger

ST. PETERSBURG — Evan Longoria is right. The attendance was an embarrassment.

For a market that wants to be big league, for a fan base that claims to be rabid, the idea that about 12,000 bay area residents showed up for what could have been only the second playoff-clinching game in Rays history has to be considered highly disappointing.

So I would agree with Tampa Bay's third baseman. I would acknowledge his point is valid.

And I would suggest he flubbed the delivery.

For this is not an issue Rays players should be discussing.

"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. "It's actually embarrassing for us."

Look, I understand how frustrating it must be for the players and employees of the Tampa Bay Rays. They have busted their humps to turn this organization from a joke into one of the most respected franchises in baseball today.

They have lived the pennant race daily from the start of spring training until this final week of the regular season. Yes, this is their careers, but it is also their passion and a large part of their lives.

But even allowing for their personal attachment to the cause, I still think it is poor judgment to criticize the very people who help fund their paychecks on the first and 15th of every month.

No matter how well-intentioned and heartfelt Longoria's words may be, they will fall on deaf ears for large parts of this community. For, when you step back from the emotion of the moment, what you have is a wealthy man playing in a publicly financed stadium and wondering why more people aren't paying to watch him go to work.

And that's not an argument any athlete can win.

On some level, Longoria understands that. He framed his words carefully.

"I've thought about this for a long time," Longoria said. "I'm not trying to take a low blow at the fans. I'm actually just trying to rally the troops and get more people in here. I'm not trying to say we have bad fans or any of that because, believe me, I've been here since '06 and I love the Tampa Bay community.

"It's just tough to see, and I felt I was the right guy to say it."

And that's flawed. He is not the guy to say it.

Too many people have been hit too hard by the economy to be lectured by a guy who gets more per diem money than many Tampa Bay residents earn in salary. Maybe that's an oversimplification, but it's reality.

It's not that Longoria, or other Rays players, forfeit their opinions because of their bank accounts. All of us have rights to our own opinions. But the players have to understand how this sounds to the mother or father who must juggle the family budget to afford the cost of tickets and parking and a hot dog.

Because the simple truth is athletes and entertainers in this country are ridiculously overpaid. I don't blame them for that. They have special talents, and they are cashing in on America's fascination with celebrity and sports.

But you can't make more money than an entire neighborhood and then question why the people in that neighborhood aren't showing up to watch you play.

I understand. This is an issue that has to be discussed. I've written about it more times than I would care myself. But it is an issue for politicians. For taxpayers. For owners and presidents and commissioners and business leaders.

The problem is not Tampa Bay fans. The guy in the car next to you is not to blame. The teacher at the local elementary school is not to blame. The problem is the market itself. It has some inherent problems, and those problems are larger than a single ticket buyer.

Tampa Bay, as a sports market, kind of stinks. Criticizing the fans is not going to help or change that.

The issue needs to be addressed, but it has to be done at a level deeper than this.

"I don't think there's any more time for rationalizations," Longoria said. "We figured if we have a chance at the beginning of September then maybe the fans will come.

"And now it's the end of September and it's almost October, and we're still kind of looking up in the seats going, 'Where is everybody?' "

They're around.

It's just a lot of them can't afford to show up.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays' Evan Longoria has right message, is wrong messenger 09/28/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 29, 2010 6:43pm]

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