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Rays’ low attendance during playoff run reignites Tampa-St. Petersburg debate

The paltry support from fans this week as the Rays chase the wild card rekindles an old argument that St. Petersburg can’t support big league baseball.
Empty seats are visible as New York Yankee Gleyber Torres bats against the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
Empty seats are visible as New York Yankee Gleyber Torres bats against the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Sep. 26, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Let’s set the table:

It’s Tuesday, and the Tampa Bay Rays are clinging to the second American League wild card position, leading the Cleveland Indians by a half game. The Rays are set to take on mortal enemies the New York Yankees in the second-to-last home game of the season.

But just 16,699 fans show up. That means Tropicana Field, the smallest stadium in baseball with an adjusted seating capacity between 25,000 and 26,000, is about two-thirds full. Entire sections in the 200-level are empty. The night before, when the Rays took on alternate arch nemeses the Boston Red Sox, fewer than 8,800 fans could be bothered.

The team could win nearly 100 games this season. That old adage that if you win, they will come is nothing more than a Hollywood fantasy.

The paltry support is just the latest chapter in a tired tale, but it reignites an argument — one that Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg has been making for a long time — that St. Petersburg can’t support a big league ballclub. And it’s once again pitting Tampa and Hillsborough County officials against their counterparts in St. Petersburg and Pinellas over where the future of the team should lie.

To those east of the bay, who watched the empty stands with dismay and a varying degrees of frustration, the lesson is clear: It’s time for St. Petersburg to reopen the Rays’ right to talk with Hillsborough. St. Petersburg leaders have shut Tampa out since the team decided in December to drop its bid for a ballpark in Ybor City.

Calling Monday’s attendance “anemic” and “incredibly disheartening,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan said the attendance issues are hurting the region, especially as the team looks to play home games elsewhere. In June, Sternberg announced his intention to explore a two-city scenario, by which the team would split home games between new open-air ballparks in the Tampa Bay area and Montreal. The team needs approval from St. Petersburg city leaders if it wishes to entertain the concept for seasons before 2027, which is when the team’s Trop lease expires.

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“I can’t emphasize enough the horrible sign our community is sending to Major League Baseball,” he said. “I once again implore Mayor (Rick) Kriseman to quit kicking the can down the road, show some leadership and reach an agreement with the team to allow them to explore other possibilities.”

RELATED STORY: Three mayors. One owner. No deal. St. Pete’s futile history with the Rays.

According to Kriseman’s calendar, he has met with Rays leadership three times since the Montreal announcement. The mayor’s office would not answer questions about whether Tampa should be back on the table.

RELATED STORY: St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay Rays leaders meet, this time at barbecue restaurant

“I’m focused on the play on the field and this exciting pennant race, not fan-shaming or how people choose to spend their money,” said Kriseman, who is on a family trip this week in California, via spokesman Ben Kirby.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said her son Seely, who works on the Rays groundskeeping crew, sent her pictures on his phone of the rows and rows of empty seats for Monday’s game. Her takeaway?

"People don't want to drive too far to go to a baseball game," she said. Asked if Tampa was the best location, Castor nodded yes, but said keeping them in the region was the first priority.

She hasn't talked to Kriseman about the Rays, Castor said.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who has said he intends to run for St. Petersburg mayor in 2021, said he doesn’t know how Hillsborough County would finance a new ballpark. County tourism dollars — which would be a major component of any stadium financing — are stretched thinner in Hillsborough than in Pinellas.

“They had a couple years to bring it home, and they didn’t," he said.

St. Petersburg City Council Chair Charlie Gerdes, a noted Rays supporter and who threw out a first pitch on Opening Day this year, said he would be willing to let Tampa back into the discussion as the local home of a split-season team. Gerdes’ term ends in January.

“If splitting games does not work for St. Petersburg’s plans for redeveloping the Trop property, maybe it works for Tampa,” said Gerdes, who took his family to Tuesday’s game against New York. “I’m fine with allowing Tampa to explore that. Because it doesn’t work for St. Petersburg.”

But he wouldn’t let Tampa back in on full-time talks. He said that negotiation could take another two to three years, leaving the valuable 85-acres underneath the Trop in limbo for far too long.

RELATED STORY: St. Petersburg’s future lies beneath Tropicana Field. Do the Rays stand in the way?

“That scenario was given three years to be worked out, so a redo is not called for,” he said. “But if you’re looking at letting them explore a different relationship, that’s a new thing, not a redo.”

Gerdes and Hagan did agree on one thing: the empty seats are a bad look.

“I think the real issue is this reinforces what the Rays are saying about 81 home games and the bay area’s ability to year after year support 81 home games," Gerdes said. "So it lends credibility to their statement that this is problematic.”

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