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Tampa Bay Rays fire stronger salvo in bid to get new stadium

ST. PETERSBURG — Feel free to interpret the comments of the Rays team president any way you wish.

You can look at his words as an insult. You can consider his observations to be whining. You can ignore his remarks altogether.

Or, you might want to consider this possibility:

Those comments were a shot across the bow.

Years from now, you can look back at this moment as the true beginning of what will eventually become a polarizing debate over whether Tampa Bay is a worthy Major League Baseball market and whether Tropicana Field is an adequate facility.

True, the issue has been alive for years — we have the blue ribbon stadium committee and the yard signs to prove it — but the Rays have been careful to approach the stadium and market short­comings with a pacifist's calm.

Now, those days may be waning. When Matt Silverman expressed disappointment about attendance at Tuesday's Rays-Phillies game, it was a new direction in rhetoric. Silverman may have been truly disappointed. And he was clearly frustrated. But the folks running Stuart Sternberg's franchise are not the rash types. They do not act without considering the consequences.

So you can be certain there was a message behind Silverman's words.

And that message is Sternberg will not wait forever.

"Nights like (Tuesday) night give us pause, and make us question how quickly we can get this ramped up," Silverman said Wednesday. "It makes us question whether we have the firepower we need to keep this team compelling and competitive."

Silverman was careful to say he was not criticizing the team's fans. His remarks, he said, were directed at the market's viability.

Essentially, Silverman is questioning how a World Series rematch could have drawn fewer fans than 12 other games Tuesday. Fewer than Kansas City at Houston. Fewer than San Diego at Seattle. Fewer — by half — than Minnesota at Milwaukee.

In that context, it is hard to disagree with Silverman. You can say it was a Tuesday night, but it was also Tuesday night in Seattle. You can say it was not a natural rivalry, but neither is Kansas City-Houston. You can say Tampa Bay is a small market without a history of winning but, um, Milwaukee?

This doesn't mean you should hop in your car and head to Tropicana Field tonight. A newspaper columnist has no right to tell anyone how to spend their money. And neither does the president of a baseball team, for that matter.

But it is also true that a baseball owner does not have to accept poor attendance with a shrug. If a winning record and a World Series rematch are not enough to draw even an average amount of fans when lesser matchups and weaker teams are playing before bigger crowds, an owner has a right to question the level of support.

Which brings us to Silverman's verbal brushback.

"We're not shooting for the moon. We don't expect to be a top-five team in attendance," he said. "But when we're near the bottom of the major leagues in attendance on a night with a special matchup, it shows how far away we are from the league average. It just doesn't feel good."

No community happily hands over hundreds of millions of dollars to an owner to build a new stadium. Nearly every market with a new stadium has endured angst and heartache making the decision. And nearly every owner has been forced to cajole, warn or beg to get the point across. Judging from Silverman's words, we are in the early stages of this process.

I do not believe Sternberg will ever threaten to move the Rays out of Tampa Bay. But I do think he will grow tired of fighting an uphill battle if attendance is not commensurate with the team's record, and he will sell the team if he does not see a solution.

So where do things go from here?

I believe the Rays have already given up on downtown St. Petersburg. And, with every crowd below 25,000, I think they have a little less faith in Pinellas County's ability to support a big-league team.

They have put this issue in the hands of the ABC committee for now, but eventually there will be more talk of Tampa and Hills­borough County.

It may seem farfetched that Hillsborough would build another sports complex after spending a ton of money on Raymond James Stadium and the St. Pete Times Forum in the past 15 years, but I think a community trying to lure something new is often more motivated than a community trying to retain something it already owns.

So, again, feel free to be angry at the nerve of millionaires in search of tax dollars. You have every right if you do not believe a major-league team in Pinellas County is worth a sizable investment.

Just understand the status quo is not going to last.

A night at the ballpark

Attendance figures from Tuesday's major-league games:

MatchupAttendance

Colorado at Angels42,233

Minnesota at Milwaukee42,008

Boston at Washington41,517

Yankees at Atlanta40,828

St. Louis at Mets38,903

Cubs at Detroit38,046

S.F. at Oakland32,854

Cincinnati at Toronto30,351

Kansas City at Houston30,049

San Diego at Seattle23,537

Dodgers at White Sox22,251

Texas at Arizona21,379

Phila. at Tampa Bay19,608

Cleveland at Pittsburgh19,109

Baltimore at Florida10,222

Tampa Bay Rays fire stronger salvo in bid to get new stadium 06/24/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 25, 2009 9:12am]

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