ST. PETERSBURG — Matt Silverman, the typically cautious and calculated president of the Tampa Bay Rays, sent a frightening and not-so-subtle message to all of Tampa Bay on Tuesday.
Baseball may not work here.
As the Rays skidded toward a 10-1 loss in a World Series rematch with the Philadelphia Phillies, Silverman fretted more about the half-full stands at Tropicana Field.
His words — he called the attendance "bewildering" and suggested the Rays may play in the worst major-league market in the sport — caused an immediate reaction from the bay area's baseball fans who wondered if it could be true, or if it were simply posturing.
It also left people asking: Can it be fixed?
"I understand the frustration of Mr. Silverman … but can you blame us?" asked Scott Wyler, 32, of St. Petersburg. "They're a National League team that has very little implication on our division."
Fans such as Wyler questioned everything, from the location of the ballpark to the premium prices the Rays decided to charge for the Phillies series to the fact that the games took place during the week and not on the weekend.
"Maybe the front office could look at 'incentive' and 'promo' ideas for weeknight games, as well as weekend series," said Sue Nette, 56, a season ticket holder from Seminole who complained that the Phillies series was not part of her season ticket package. "That might certainly draw more fans to those games."
For his part, Silverman sought to clarify Tuesday's remarks, saying they were not directed at Rays fans.
"I may have said things about the market but not our fans — we love the fans that come to the games," Silverman said.
The numbers behind the Rays' ticket sales tell two distinct stories:
• Attendance is up in 2009 compared to 2008, way up when measured against 2007.
• And the Rays are still one of baseball's lousiest draws.
Through 34 home games (not including Wednesday's game against the Phillies), attendance at Tropicana Field had increased 23.3 percent from the first 34 games of last season. The spike translates to an extra 4,284 people per game. Only the Kansas City Royals, who completed a $250 million stadium renovation, have seen a higher per-game increase.
At the same time, the rest of baseball is struggling.
Attendance has dropped nearly 5 percent across the sport in 2009. Excluding new smaller stadiums for the New York Mets and New York Yankees, baseball attendance has decreased 3.7 percent.
So while the rest of baseball is trending fewer sales, the Rays are selling more.
To what end?
The Rays, who entered Wednesday with baseball's 13th-best record out of 30 teams, still rank 24th in average attendance. Among teams with a winning record, the Rays rank last.
The team is drawing fewer fans per game than the Washington Nationals, owners of baseball's worst record. They average only about 500 fans more than the Cleveland Indians, the second-worst team in baseball.
And baseball officials and analysts realize things could get worse.
Because the team says it has among the fewest season ticket holders, the Rays' performance on the field more directly relates to their performance at the ticket gate.
"It is no longer a matter of, 'What have you done for me lately?' but rather, 'What are you doing for me now?', " said Maury Brown, founder of bizofbaseball.com.
Put another way: A September pennant race will push the average up. A summer swoon will mean even fewer tickets sold.
"It really doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why 'it's bewildering' that only about 20,000 are showing up," said Dr. Mark Sokolov, 47, a self-described diehard Rays fan and season ticket holder since Day 1. "Mediocrity = excuses = 15-to-20,000 fans. … Seven games back in a tough division at this point in time does not bring out more than the diehard Rays fans."
Neil deMause, a New York writer who edits the Web site fieldofschemes.com and reports on baseball business issues, said Silverman's statements aren't too out of the norm for baseball executives. In fact, he called them mild by baseball management standards.
The talk can be part of a ploy to keep new stadium discussions alive.
"He doesn't actually pin blame on the fans, just say he's disappointed," deMause said. "But then, I lived through the heyday of (Yankees owner) George Steinbrenner, who would have called his fans unprintable names, demanded a new stadium, then fired his pitching coach for good measure."
Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report. Contact Aaron Sharockman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2273.