Last night, to relish in the victory of my beloved Tampa Bay Rays, I began reading every article I could find about the wild card game. But instead of getting to relive the incredible baseball that the team played, I was bombarded by the frustrating, but hardly new media spin about the Rays: that they have no fans.
Take the front page New York Times article about the win: “Still Playing on Road, the Rays Send Another Team Home for Good.” The very first paragraph reads “Although they are unappreciated at home, their riveting road show has earned them a date in Boston.” The article goes on to frame the entire game in the context of how rip-roaring the Cleveland stadium was and how nobody in Tampa watches the Rays: “in four postseasons, the Rays have a winning record on the road and a losing record at home.”
Wait what? Seriously? The Times is going to lead a front page story about a team’s extraordinary victory where the stakes couldn’t be higher with a broad and completely unsupported statement like the Rays are unappreciated?
I was frustrated, but I can’t pretend like I was surprised. Articles written about the Rays can’t help but mentioning, incessantly, that Tropicana Field has one of the lowest attendance figures in baseball.
But the Rays completely unappreciated at home? Absolutely not.
Go to Tampa. The city walks around in Rays gear and talks about the team the way they did with the Bucs in the early 2000’s. The Rays are one of the goofiest and consistently most fun to watch teams playing, and fans embrace it with open arms. The fans being a lot more people than make the trek out to the Trop regularly. Look at the TV ratings. In 2010, despite attendance at the Trop, the Rays had the 5th highest local TV ratings in the majors. This year the TV market has remained strong as well.
There’s also this notion that the Rays are at a disadvantage in the Trop and better on the road. This year the Rays were 51-30 at the Trop. For comparison, the Red Sox were 53-28 at Fenway. So I guess the difference between Fenway’s homefield advantage unlike anything else in the history of baseball and the Trop’s thank God they don’t have to play there does it even count as a homefield is TWO GAMES. Right before this (undeniably incredible) road trip began, the Rays swept the Orioles in a 4-game series that was… at home. So let’s stop pretending like the Rays have been winning mostly on the road because baseball fans can actually appreciate them there. Wake up.
Are the Rays attendance figures pathetic? Absolutely. No question. It hurts every time I see so many empty seats in the Trop. But the problem is the Trop, not the fans, and most certainly not the Rays organization. Deep into St. Petersburg, it’s a giant pain to get there from most places in the Tampa Bay area (where 4.3 million people live, by the way). And clearly, it leaves much to be desired once you’re there. It’s the place where somebody got hit with a stray bullet while trying to enjoy a game.
The fans are there, and they’re passionate, but the team desperately needs a new home. The conversation should be about how the city of St. Petersburg is stubbornly and backwardly holding the Rays to a lease that doesn’t expire until 2027, not about out of context attendance figures or blanket statements about Rays fans. The former is the conversation that will be constructive to the organization. We should be putting pressure on Mayor Foster of St. Pete to do something positive for the area and stop blocking the Rays from finding a new stadium, not mocking the fans for cheering from home.
Guess what, New York Times: the actual number of Rays fans may be the most undervalued number in baseball.
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