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Earlier in the week Evan Longoria, who is going to be known as the greatest Tampa Bay Ray of all time made some interesting comments.
“Honestly, and this is maybe not something I should say, but my gut tells me that the best decision might be to move the team,”
He continued, “I say that only because I look at the example of the Miami Marlins, and [a new stadium] didn’t really solve their attendance issues. So from purely an attendance standpoint, somewhere else might be better……It pains me to say that, but players want to play in a place where you have consistent support. It’s a selfish thing to say probably as a player, but I don’t know, does anyone really want to play in front of 10,000 a night?…..There are a lot of dedicated Rays fans and obviously it would be a shame for those people to lose the team. But you just hope there is consistent fan support, and it historically hasn’t been there. I don’t know that it’s the easiest case to lobby to build a new stadium in the area. It’s not a slam dunk,”
So let’s divulge into this. The then-Devil Rays from 1998-2007 were probably baseball’s worst franchise. They couldn’t get it together at all. I went to a couple of games in 2005 at Tropicana Field and while I thought it was a ballpark that wasn’t too bad (compared to some of the jibberish that writers say about the place), it wasn’t what I would say an ideal MLB park. However, when I thought if they could ever consistently win and see October games (which I thought was a pipe dream thanks to the Yankees and Red Sox and I do have something to say on that), Tropicana Field would be packed to the catwalks and make the Metrodome in 1987 and 1991 look like a library.
So, in 2008, the Rays played late October baseball, getting to the World Series for the first time ever. Leading up to those games, the Tropicana Field was a loudhouse. A start of something grand a la what we saw in Atlanta with the Braves in 1991? Not exactly. The Rays continued to be near the bottom of the ranks in attendance, unable to crack 2 million fans at the gates and never finishing higher than 9th in the AL in attendance (the Rays could always thank the Indians and Athletics for being lower). Adding on, Tampa Bay consistently lost their home-grown stars to free agency or trade (Carl Crawford, BJ Upton, Matt Garza) because the payroll was dirt low and in order to increase payroll, you need to get more money. And getting more fans meant getting more money. And…..well, they didn’t.
So, at really the onset of the Rays/Devil Rays arrival to the Majors, they have always talked of getting a new ballpark especially after when their fellow 1998 expansion brother Diamondbacks built a retractable roof ballpark with a swimming pool inside the place (of course irony is now, the Diamondbacks are likely shopping around for a new ballpark and may end up getting one before the Rays leave Tropicana). However, with a decade’s worth of losing, interest of a new park waned.
However, for the last 10 years the Rays have been a solid contending baseball squad inside a division that sees the lavish evil empires of the Yankees and the Red Sox go out and get whoever they want and even the other AL East foes of the Blue Jays and Orioles have resources to spend while the Rays have to do best with what they have. And they have done well, netting four October appearances in that span. Not bad. But even with a solid farm system and a team that has a great cycle, the Rays are really a farm system for the MLB teams of plucking their stars similar to Oakland and before them, the Montreal Expos.
So, let’s go back into Longoria’s statements which alluded to “can the Rays get consistent support from the area?”
Here is my problem with this one and honestly, this is a tricky situation. When Bud Selig announced Tampa/St. Pete would get a new franchise, he hoped it was the perfect situation as baseball was a hotbed for some players in that area who called Tampa/St. Pete home, such as the likes of Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff. But this is where it went wrong: the Devil Rays were placed in the American League East. Remember, this is the same area where the Yankees were going to move their Spring Training at in 1996. So not only did the Yankees base their new Spring Training digs in Tampa but you could go see future Yankees stars every night in the baseball season in the Florida State League. And while the entire state holds Spring Training for a lot of teams, putting one at the heart where the face of Major League Baseball calls home and putting them in the same division was bad for business (yes, I know Arizona had first crack of which league they wanted to be in and chose the NL). So when you go to Rays games against the Yankees, the place is packed with Yankee fans. While it isn’t as large as the Yankees, but other teams in the area during Spring Training (Tigers, Red Sox, Orioles), if the Rays host them, the place is pretty solid with fans of those squads too. Now yes, the fans of the Braves (which is a daily double of having Atlanta train close to Orlando and had been the only MLB team in the Southeast from 1966-1992) and the Phillies (training in nearby Clearwater) pack it in especially when those teams are winning, but not as bad as having the Yankees come in. So that was the first whammy for Tampa Bay.
The next bit of “who wants to play for 10,000 fans every night?” I get that from Longoria. You dream of playing on the biggest and grandest stages in baseball with 40,000 fans screaming. And again as I said before, while Tropicana Field isn’t horrible to me, it isn’t as aesthetic as the likes of Fenway Park, Dodger Stadium, or Wrigley Field. And as a player you want to have that. You don’t want to wish that you were up in Triple-A Durham at their park where it is a true gem (yes, I’ve been to that place and it is a gem) instead of playing in an odd baseball venue that fans don’t want to spend indoors with cement walls all around in July, even in the hot Tampa/St. Pete Area. I went back to Tropicana Field in 2012 and noticed plenty of good changes to the place since my first stint in 2005, but I felt like then that the park was maxed out in what actual improvements they could use. And by then I felt like they needed a new park soon. But what he did was irk the fan base off and say that there weren’t many fans supportive of the team. Well, I mentioned with being placed in the heart of Yankee City among others, that it was a giant mess-up there. That’s like having Michigan training camp in being placed right by Ohio State’s campus.
Longoria then points out the lack of success the Marlins have had with drawing fans to their new ballpark in Marlins Park. This is where I differ with Longoria. The Southeast has been more known for their passion of college sports, not necessarily pro sports. And any city that hosts pro sports teams in the area somewhat gets vilified for being a bandwagon town (Atlanta) as the fans of the teams only show up when they win (newsflash people: every city does it with their teams, even the sports rabid Boston, New York, Philly, and Chicago fans; just look at pictures when the Cubs have stunk or when the Browns stink or the Patriots in the early 90’s).
However, Miami is a different ball of wax compared to the other cities in the southeast. It doesn’t really act as any kind of regional city. But Longoria messed up on this comment saying that the fans don’t show up to the new park at all. Well, the area was footed with a bill they didn’t want, with ownership that has dismantled the franchise time after time after time (and carried over to the new ownership led by Derek Jeter) which has not given the fans of that area much faith of the team and a ballpark that doesn’t really have a ballpark feel (which ironically they were leaving from a multi-purpose stadium but somehow that park had more of a baseball feel to it and yes I’ve been to both Marlins venues to watch a game) and then the parking is horrible as well. And the Marlins have been one of baseball’s worst teams for the past decade.
And to me, after being in the Tampa Bay area a few times, that area doesn’t strike me as a typical “southern” city. If you look at the Lightning for the last 15 years, they draw very well and have a great support system there. The Bucs are somewhat of the typical “when they win, the fans pack it in and when they lose the fans prefer to booze” franchise, which again, they aren’t the only fan base to do that. The Rays I think if changes are made can be a VERY SUCCESSFUL MLB franchise. Here’s what I think needs to happen and there are only a few.
First: Move them out of Tropicana Field. Duh to this. Get them a true ballpark that defines the area and has a great ballpark vibe. I think whenever construction starts, you can have an amazing ballpark that would be the envy of Major League Baseball, given the history and the players that have come out of that area.
Second: Flip the Rays into the NL East. There’s going to be some steps before this: First thing is MLB would want to make sure that new stadium deals are placed with the Rays and A’s so they can move forward with expanding the league to 32 teams, which means one would be placed in Montreal and the other Portland. To keep fan interest, I think they would want to see a lot of Toronto/Montreal games more than just the 4 or 6 games they would play each other via interleague play so Montreal would probably be an AL squad, and in the AL East, meaning the Rays would be a great contender to go to the NL. And it would work because they wouldn’t have to see the Yankees all the time and they can possibly take a large chunk of the northern Florida area which many still consider “Braves Country.” They could flip some of those Braves fans perhaps. As for the others, well, there wouldn’t be a strong draw for the Nationals and the Mets training/fan base is more near Miami than Tampa Bay.
If these two things happen however and the Rays still draw poor, then I’d agree with Longoria, but I think given how the MLB butchered the Rays from day one in my eyes, I would love to see what this franchise can do if they were placed in an ideal situation as opposed to what they started out with.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat