NEW YORK — We keep hearing that this series doesn't matter all that much.
That when it comes to the Yankees and Rays, the final standings are just details.
Because when you get right down to it, the difference between finishing first or second in the American League East this season is not terribly dramatic. The winner heads to the postseason, and the loser probably will, too.
So, yeah, I can see where some people might be overlooking the moments in between.
But I bet you know better. I bet, if you've been paying attention, you understand what is at stake.
And even if you had forgotten, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has not.
An hour before Tuesday night's game, Sternberg stood outside the third base dugout at Yankee Stadium and talked about the idea that these were the final few weeks of games for a team that will never be together again.
There was no discussion of departing players. No announcement of specific payroll limits. Just an emphatic reiteration that the Tampa Bay Rays will not be able to afford this same group of players in 2011.
"No question. Nothing can change it," Sternberg said. "Unfortunately there is nothing that can happen between now and April that will change it, unless Joe Maddon hits the lottery and wants to donate it."
The Yankees can act as if the AL East crown is some token piece of jewelry because they've won it 17 times and will be in contention again next season. For the Rays, it means something different. For Tampa Bay, it is an opportunity that should not be ignored.
The Rays have a payroll in the $70 million range, and Sternberg insists that is not sustainable. Tampa Bay is on pace to draw fewer than 1.9 million fans to Tropicana Field this season, and teams with less than 2 million in attendance are typically not big spenders.
Recently leaked financial documents suggested the Rays turned a profit when they had a miniscule payroll in 2007 and a smaller profit in 2008 when they reached the World Series with a larger payroll. The Rays say they have lost money since, and Sternberg says the infusion of a half-dozen postseason gate receipts will not have a dramatic impact on the financial books this time.
"You could take the most optimistic scenario (and) we couldn't come close to turning a profit this year," Sternberg said. "What happened in '08, we took some revenues in, specifically having a seven-game series with the Red Sox, and it did contribute to what we did in (payroll) in '09. But when people talk about the lift that you get, it's really about how you do after the season in selling tickets for the next year.
"While we had gotten a pretty reasonable bounce in season tickets (in '09), it just fell back, as I talked about this year in the beginning. (Sales) were terrible. And I'm not optimistic that we're going to have the kind of lift that we had in '08, which we needed to be double what it was. So I'm not optimistic that we're going to have that kind of bounce. It could happen, but it's not going to."
In real-life terms, this means Carl Crawford's time in Tampa Bay could be done in about a month. It means Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit might be heading out the bullpen door. It means Jason Bartlett could be traded, and perhaps Matt Garza, too.
It means a club the Rays have spent years creating and cultivating could be on its way to being younger, cheaper and less impressive the moment the final game of 2010 is played.
Does that thought hurt, I asked Sternberg.
"Worse than it hurts anybody else," he said. "It's who we are; it's who we have to be. We took every shot we could at not having to have this happen. Along with the great fortune in 2008, along with what looks to be great fortune this year, we put everything in place to have it happen, to put us in a position so we'd be able to keep adding, keep signing, (doing) more long-term deals, stuff like that. It wasn't meant to be."
So don't be fooled into thinking these games don't matter.
Maybe from a historical standpoint they are only somewhat significant. And maybe from the point of view of playoff seeding for a division winner or a wild card they mean a little bit more. But for fans who have followed this team from the early days of spring, these games should mean the world. Almost as if a dear friend is preparing to move away forever.
Time is running out on the 2010 regular season.
And probably a whole lot more.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.