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Maybe Rays just like look of empty seats

It's perplexing, I'll admit. Trying to figure it out, I would guess, might even be infuriating.

The Devil Rays have raised their ticket prices, and now you must decipher the rationale behind their maneuver.

Is it that they really have that much gall?

Has lunacy finally taken hold?

Or, are they just that stupid?

I've got to tell you, I'm stumped. Never saw this one coming. Nope, it didn't occur to me that if you take bad attendance and add it to a bad team, the answer comes up as higher prices.

I don't know, maybe there is precedent for this style of marketing. Perhaps the Rays figure they are so gosh-awful, they can sell themselves as a cult-like phenomenon. Sort of like Barry Manilow.

Because, frankly, nothing else makes sense. This is a team desperate to make a connection with fans, and its solution is to tick people off?

What's next, charging the National Anthem performer admission?

Oops, I think they already tried that.

Now I'm sure the Rays would want to spin it differently. That they're doing the common family a favor by selling upper deck seats for $5. It's just the desirable seats that are quadruple the price of a movie ticket.

Look, my intent is not to sound like a grouch. I understand the price to view big-league events zipped past reasonable somewhere in the early 1990s.

The larger issue is the lack of perception. The inability to read the mood of the paying customers, and to understand their eagerness. Or lack thereof.

This has been a problem from the very first day of the franchise and it's clear, at this point, that it will never change under Vince Naimoli.

He has never understood he is in the entertainment business. That he is selling a luxury, not a necessity. And, in that line of work, it is critical to make the consumers feel as if they are getting their money's worth.

The simplest method, naturally, is to offer a winning team. Winning cures all types of ills. It makes a homely stadium feel homey. It makes a cranky owner seem shrewd. It transforms a bad market into a rabid one.

Given that the Rays have never been a winning team _ and the forecast for 2005 is mostly gloomy with scattered moments of mirth and glee _ then Naimoli needs to sell something else.

Hope would be good.

Expectations would be nice.

Instead, the offseason has been disappointing, and anticipation of this season is already at low tide.

The centerfielder ripped up his knee and will miss the first half of the season. The first baseman left skid marks on his way out of town.

Lou Piniella asked for two starting pitchers and two big bats. He's gotten a platoon DH and a weak-hitting shortstop being moved to third.

The five leading contenders for the starting rotation combined to win 31 games last season _ even though all five had career-highs in wins.

And now ticket prices are going up?

It would be laughable if it weren't so sad.

I understand Tampa Bay, as a market, is not without fault. Even with the perpetual losing, fan support has been far less than impressive.

So, you could argue, Naimoli has a gripe. But, instead of working to make it better, he continually makes it worse.

I don't mind that Naimoli is a tough businessman. Most millionaires tend to know their way around a checkbook.

But he's never understood the need to appeal to fans. To make them feel welcome. To make them feel as if they have a stake in the team.

His style has always been to bully. To demand instead of request. To shout instead of schmooze. He's done it with government officials and business leaders. He's done it with fans. Heck, he's done it with cops and raccoons.

It would never occur to him that he needs to be the gracious one. That, until he has a product that sells itself, he has to offer more.

In that regard, the Rays have failed miserably,

They have contests, but only because they're tied to promotions. They have thousands of empty seats, but wouldn't dream of letting you wander closer to the action. They offer inducements, but it always feels like you're dealing with a Stepford wife. As if there is an ulterior motive to the politeness.

What they have never gotten their arms around is the idea that they need the fans more than the fans need them.

The Rays are not a public institution. They're not the Red Sox, a team with an allegiance handed down through generations. They are not the Cubs, with a stadium that sells itself. They are not the Yankees, with a history of success and the world's largest metropolitan area to draw from.

The Rays have never been shy about pointing out the challenges of this market as a reason for their absurdly low payroll. But they never acknowledge those challenges when it comes to offering fans something special.

Maybe you disagree. Maybe I'm wrong about everything. Maybe raising ticket prices will mean more revenue and a larger payroll in 2006.

But I'm guessing it will have the opposite impact. That more fans will be turned off, which means less revenues. That along with a loss in ticket sales, the Rays will lose a corresponding percentage of parking and concessions. That the lower level of the stadium will be more empty than ever, which makes viewing a game even less exciting.

That all Naimoli has done is perpetuate the image of the Rays as cheap losers.

I actually long for the day when the Rays have reason to raise prices. When they're a success and the fans are fighting to get inside. When it's a hotter ticket than the Bucs, the Lightning or the Meet the Fockers sequel.

But that day is not yet here.

And I fear it may have just been pushed further away.

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