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The world may not believe it, but passionate Rays fans do exist

John Romano | Tampa Bay is a unique market, but that does not mean baseball fans will not live and die with every World Series pitch.
The Tampa Bay Rays pose with the American League championship trophy following their victory against the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the Championship Series on Saturday night in San Diego.
The Tampa Bay Rays pose with the American League championship trophy following their victory against the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the Championship Series on Saturday night in San Diego. [ GREGORY BULL | Associated Press ]
Published Oct. 18, 2020

What a pair we make. A baseball team no one can solve on the field, and a baseball community no one understands at the box office. The world marvels at one, and ridicules the other.

Yet there was a moment Saturday night that goes a long way toward explaining this complicated relationship. It was after the Rays had beaten the Astros in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series in San Diego, and after their ticket to the World Series officially was punched.

By this point, it was past midnight back home but the party was just beginning in the Rays clubhouse. Manager Kevin Cash came out for a Zoom call with reporters and answered questions about the game, his decisions and the ball club. As the moderator began to wind down the session, Cash interrupted him and turned back toward the camera.

“Let me say one thing: To all of our local writers, bay area and Florida, please thank the fans. It’s unfortunate they are not here with us, but they’re a big part of this,” Cash said. “Hopefully, they are celebrating like we are tonight. Thank you.”

It was unsolicited and entirely heartfelt. For anyone watching outside of Tampa Bay, it also was probably surprising.

As far as the world is concerned, the Rays win in spite of Tampa Bay fans, and not in conjunction with them. And, if you base it on attendance and revenues, there is definitely some truth to that way of thinking.

In the days before the pandemic closed ballpark doors, Tampa Bay was near the bottom of Major League Baseball in attendance. Not just in 2019, but year after year after year. The last time Tampa Bay was not last or next-to-last in attendance was back in 2010.

The Rays accomplish more with significantly smaller payrolls not because they are showing off, but because they really have no alternative. With less revenues coming in, there is little margin for error in terms of what they spend on acquiring and keeping players.

Does that make Tampa Bay a poor baseball market? From a sheer bottom-line perspective, yes it does.

But that’s a description and not an explanation. It doesn’t spell out that demographics and geography and economics have more to do with the lack of paid attendance than the passion for a ball club. In other words, it’s a distinction between systemic problems and individual devotion.

The marriage is not loveless, it’s just complicated.

That’s why it took someone such as Cash, who grew up in Tampa and understands the market’s history, to bring it up at the exact right moment and with the proper viewpoint and eloquence.

Ozzie Timmons understands this, too. The Rays first base coach is a native of Tampa who was going to Brandon High and the University of Tampa in the 1980s and early 1990s when Tampa Bay was still pursuing big-league baseball. He played for the Rays 20 years ago when the stands were still populated with Red Sox and Yankees fans, and he’s seen younger generations slowly begin to come to the ballpark.

“There’s a big difference from when I played,” Timmons said Sunday while watching the Bucs game at the team hotel in San Diego. "The people who were coming to Rays games 20 years ago are having kids themselves and they’ve grown up with the idea of the Rays as their team.

“Would we like to see more fans? Yes, but we have diehard Rays fans. They’re out there, and we’re trying to give them more reasons to keep coming out and watching because this is an exciting team.”

So I guess the point I’m trying to make is this:

If you’ve been following this team, whether on TV or radio or as past purchaser of tickets, enjoy this coming week. It’s been hard-earned and a long time coming for fans who have seen this team come close several times in the past dozen seasons.

Baseball requires a commitment that is different from other sports, and it requires more time, money and patience. A trip to the World Series is a journey like no other.

The rest of the baseball world may look down its nose at Tampa Bay, and the franchise’s future in this market is as uncertain as ever, but that doesn’t make your passion any less real.

This is your team, this is your town, this is your time.

As Cash said, I hope you’re celebrating.

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