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This may be the Rays’ last chance, and ours

John Romano: The Rays have their first playoff game at Tropicana Field in six years on Monday. Will it also be their last?
Groundskeepers hand paint the ALDS logo on the turf at Tropicana Field on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019 in St. Petersburg.  LUIS SANTANA   |   Times
Groundskeepers hand paint the ALDS logo on the turf at Tropicana Field on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019 in St. Petersburg. LUIS SANTANA | Times [ LUIS SANTANA | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Oct. 7, 2019|Updated Oct. 7, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Come 1:05 p.m., the past does not exist.

Not the warnings from the owner, nor the insults from the outsiders. Not the shortcomings at the box office, nor the trespassing of Montreal.

Once the first pitch is thrown by Charlie Morton at Tropicana Field in Game 3 of the American League Division Series on Monday afternoon, all the smears are temporarily washed away. And for three hours, we can remember what baseball in Tampa Bay was supposed to be.

What it should be.

The crowd will be as large as any we’ve seen in this building since the middle of 2016. The game against the Astros will be as significant as any played at the Trop in six years. And the shivers will be as real as we once imagined they would be.

“My family had season tickets to the Detroit Tigers when I was young, and I still have memories of the Tigers winning the World Series in 1968 when I was 6,’’ said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. “I can remember riding my bike with a ‘World Champions’ cardboard sign I made, taped to my handlebars.

“That’s a memory that’s still vivid in my mind 51 years later because it was such an emotional moment in my life. That’s what baseball, or any sport, can do. It instills an emotion that transcends whatever else is going on in your life at the moment.’’

And yet that bond — that devotion — has not taken hold after 22 seasons in Tampa Bay. Or, at the least, it has not translated to the bleachers. Tampa Bay’s attendance of 1,178,735 this season is baseball’s lowest for a playoff team in a non-strike season since the 1975 Oakland Athletics. In case you’re wondering, that covers 284 different playoff teams.

For two decades, we have sought answers and pointed fingers. And yet nothing has changed.

Winning teams, losing teams, it hasn’t mattered. Days like today are more rare than a quality closer around here. And all of the projections, studies and gut feelings of the 1980s and ’90s have not borne out.

“We strongly felt if we built that stadium the community would step forward in a big way. We thought every day would be like (Monday),’’ said Bob Stewart, who was on the St. Petersburg City Council that approved the construction of Tropicana Field in 1985. “Obviously, we misread the situation.’’

Does that mean it is too late for Tampa Bay?

The MLB Network recently produced a documentary called The 1995 Mariners: Saving Baseball in Seattle that detailed how one unexpected playoff run, and a thrilling Division Series victory against the Yankees, rescued the franchise at a time it was considering a move to Tampa Bay.

Now the Rays are in a similar situation with owner Stu Sternberg proposing a radical new plan that would split the season between Montreal and Tampa Bay. Is it possible the Rays have a franchise-defining moment like that in front of sold-out crowds at Tropicana Field Monday and Tuesday?

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“I think the damage has been done. I don’t think a few more thousand people for a couple of games against Houston is going to make any difference in Stu’s mind,’’ prospective Montreal partner Stephen Bronfman said on Mitch Melnick’s Montreal radio show this week. “They have a broken situation. They know they have to fix it, Major League Baseball knows they have to fix it, and we’re working on the fix.’’

What a pair we make. A team that often surpasses expectations, and a fan base that usually falls short of expectations.

And now the intersection of hope and reality will come together one more time Monday at Tropicana Field.

Maybe, as you walk through the turnstiles or turn on the television, it might help to recall what summers were like around here before the Rays arrived. How much it seemed a community was ready for the daily companionship of a big-league baseball team, and how integrated the Rays have become in our lives even if we do not always show up at Tropicana’s doors.

Maybe three hours this afternoon will be the reminder we have all needed.

“I remember going all around three different counties, giving speeches at Rotary Clubs and selling season-ticket deposits and the enthusiasm was incredible,’’ said Jack Critchfield, who led the community effort to get a team in the 1990s. “You would have thought everybody here couldn’t wait for baseball.

“I regret that it hasn’t turned out that way, but I sincerely hope it’s not too late.’’

First pitch is hours away.

The Rays have lost the first two games of a best-of-five series, which means Monday may be their last chance.

And maybe it is ours, too.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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