TAMPA — On Sept. 15, the Rays made history when they played the Toronto Blue Jays.
But the milestone didn’t come from a no-hitter or home run record. It was the first time ever that a Major League Baseball game began with a team starting nine position players who were all Latinos.
The occasion made it clear that Latino talent is the bedrock of the Rays’ roster. More than a third of the team’s 40-man roster comes from countries like Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela.
But has the team leveraged its diversity to win new fans?
For some Hispanic fans in Tampa Bay, the answer is as clear as the Rays’ win over Toronto (11-0) that memorable day. The date also coincided with a majorswide tribute to Roberto Clemente and the start of Hispanic Heritage Month.
“The Rays are a tremendous team in the stadium, but they lack strength and conviction on the street,” said Gustavo Torres, 45, a Venezuelan fan of the franchise since arriving in Tampa in the summer of 2016.
The Rays’ efforts should focus heavily on Latin communities not only because its population is growing faster than others, Torres said, but to build strong relationships and cultivate the brand.
In Tampa, Hispanics represent 26% of the city’s 385,000 residents. In Hillsborough County, it is closer to a third of the 1.5 million residents. In Clearwater, Hispanics make up nearly 20% of the city’s residents. It’s 8.4% in St. Petersburg, home to 258,000 people.
The Rays franchise declined to share with the Tampa Bay Times the number of Hispanic fans and supporters it attracts in the Tampa Bay area.
The Rays drew 1.3 million fans for the season, their fewest, not counting COVID-19-impacted 2020 and 2021, since 2003. It was also the third-lowest in their 25-season history at Tropicana Field. With an average of 13,927, they ranked third-lowest in the majors, ahead of Miami and Oakland.
Rafaela Amador Fink, the Rays’ spokesperson, said the team over the last decade has worked with diverse organizations and individuals, including broadcasting games in Spanish, and setting up a website and social media in both languages.
But Torres said the Rays should adopt other strategies, like supporting local softball leagues and launching a media campaign in Spanish.
“The Rays need a greater projection in the Latino community and a commitment for the future,” Torres said. “But first, let’s make a human connection.”
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The Rays could forge closer ties with the Hispanic community if they teamed up with local leagues, Torres said.
Five years ago, Torres formed an adult softball team that is now named Gator’s. The group plays every Sunday with six other Hispanic teams at a field in Ybor City owned by the Cuban Civic Club.
Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena is the only Rays player who has visited Ybor’s field.
“Rays have to start at the bottom and come up with new ideas and different things, especially for our kids,” Torres said.
The Rays have rapidly and consistently diversified their roster of Latino players since they started playing as a Major League Baseball franchise in 1998. The tradition has gone hand in hand with the signing of million-dollar contracts. The biggest contract in Rays history was with Wander Franco, from the Dominican Republic.
Carlos Rodriguez, vice president of baseball operations for the Rays, said many Hispanics see the team and their players as an example to follow.
“The Rays are a pretty young team compared to others like the Yankees, who are over 100 years old,” Rodriguez said. “We are aware that there is a need for connection, and we are going to improve that because without the support of the community it is impossible to continue advancing.”
Jerry Romo, former manager of Hispanic and emerging markets of the Arizona Diamondbacks, said baseball teams like the Rays can use their Latino players to increase the sport’s visibility.
The key, Romo said, is to be persistent and original while recognizing and respecting the value of the Latin culture.
“It has to be a 100% effort and not have one foot in and the other one out,” Romo said.
The challenges that Major League Baseball teams face in catering to Latinos should be seen as an opportunity to develop strategies and outreach to the community, explained Romo.
“Many times you have to make an additional effort and learn to be flexible, like, thinking about running a campaign in Spanglish, something that years ago I would have seen as an impossible task,” said Romo. “But you have to get used to it and make adjustments over time.”
Another strategy is to emphasize the Latino culture. Romo recalled The Ponle Acento campaign (“Put the accent on it”) began in 2016 as a way to highlight the influence of baseball’s Latino players and to embrace their heritage.
Most teams gave players the option of adding an accent on their jerseys.
Connecting with community
The Rays over the last decade have started several initiatives to reach the community. The Rays Jersey Program has outfitted more than 80,000 Tampa Bay area tee-ball players and coaches with jerseys and caps since 2014. The program covers more than 80 different leagues in nine counties and areas with Hispanic populations. The initiative has saved those organizations more than $1 million in equipment costs, according to Amador Fink.
The Rays host instructional clinics for their players and coaches in partnership with the Positive Coaching Alliance, a nationwide nonprofit, said Amador Fink. The alliance provides tips to coaches and parents on how to provide a positive, character-building youth sports experience to their teams.
Other initiatives to establish ties with the Hispanic community are the radio transmissions in Spanish of the 162 games (plus postseason), and bilingual social media accounts and the Rays’ website.
Amador Fink also said that they have a program for reading books in Spanish and English at local libraries, schools and at Tropicana Field, and the slogan “Somos Rays,” which translates to “We are Rays.”
In August, Rays catcher Christian Bethancourt, who is from Panama, participated in the Reading with the Rays program. Since its launch in 2006, more than 400,000 students have read during their summer break, and over 74,000 fans won a free game for reaching certain reading goals.
“We are committed to always learning and evolving and welcome input from our fans on how to better connect with the Tampa Bay community,” said Amador Fink.
In a recent interview, Tampa Bay Rays infielder Isaac Paredes, born in Mexico, said he would be willing to visit as many schools and communities with Hispanic populations as possible.
“It’s an activity that brings a lot of joy,” Paredes said. “I haven’t done it yet, but I will do it in the future.”
Yasser Borges, a Cuban and manager of Tampa Bay Rays, a local softball team with no relation to the Major League Baseball franchise, said teams must be embedded in the communities. He pointed to strong connections between baseball players, teams and fans in cities like Miami. In Tampa, said Borges, a little more effort is needed.
“It would be a good idea to do it more frequently. More people would go to the stadium,” Borges said.
Borges’ younger brother, Smaily Borges, a former professional baseball player in Cuba who was an outfielder for the Chicago Cubs, organizes such meetings in Miami between Latino Marlins players and students from his baseball academy, Bomb Squad.
Smaily Borges, 38, said these visits enhance the sport’s visibility and inspire kids.
“There is nothing better than the experience of seeing the player in person,” said Smaily Borges. In Cuba, his father would take him on weekends to see Los Industriales games when he was a child.
“It’s something that marks you for life.”
Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the title for a Rays executive, Carlos Rodriguez.