Thoughts on the Tampa Bay Rays and their need for more fans

I have every logical reason to like the Rays.

  • I was born and raised in Central Florida.
  • I went to grad school in Durham, where the Durham Bulls play. The Durham Bulls have a great history of Minor League baseball.  They are currently the Triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays and I was fortunate enough to watch influential players for the Bulls rise to fame in the Tampa Bay organization (I have a Durham Bulls souvenir cup stored in my closet with David Price--the all-star pitcher for the Rays--on it). I literally watched Alex Cobb pitch live in Durham at the beginning of the week earlier this season and in Tampa Bay at the end of the same week. Last night he started a playoff game for the Rays.
  • I'm mostly against the money game played in baseball, though I'm cognizant of the necessity of it.  The Rays found a way to, at least currently, defeat it.
  • I went to school in Lakeland, FL (an hour from the St. Pete stadium in which the Rays play) and made the trek to the Gulf Coast many a time in college to watch the Rays play the beloved Red Sox (the cheap seats were $13 before they went to the World Series).
  • I now again live in the greater Tampa area and can find a Rays game on television in this market easier than I can any other team's game. 
  • I was a child when the franchise started. 
  • Matt Joyce, the Rays' star designated hitter, played baseball for the National Championship team of my alma mater and current employer, Florida Southern College.

But I'm not a Rays fan. 

I was not a lifelong Red Sox fan either. I was an Atlanta Braves fan from my early childhood years because of an obsession I had with Chipper Jones (Chipper was from my hometown--the field where I played Little League now bears his name--and his father was a pitching coach for the Stetson Hatters...the university my parents attended). I saw Bobby Cox thrown out in Yankee Stadium (is there a stadium of which he hasn't been thrown out?) and was made fun of as a child in a bathroom in Yankee Stadium.  From then on, I hated the New York Yankees with a passion.

I crossed over to paying attention the the Red Sox in late high school, they won the World Series and broke the great curse in 2004, and I connected with a few fraternity brothers whom I would not have otherwise connected with regarding the Red Sox. I met some pretty great friends who were Red Sox fans as well. From them on, I considered myself a Red Sox fan. And hey, they hated the Yankees too. Always a plus. 

Before we get to the Rays, something ought to be made clear.  I'm painfully aware that the Red Sox have in many ways become the new Yankees.  Boston fans are known nationwide for being obnoxious. Boston was recently the victim of a terrorist attack (though admittedly not of the level of 9/11).  Boston was taught by the work of Steinbrenner and New York to pay out the wazoo for players to get them to stay with your ball club (although can we talk about how different this team is than either championship team?).  Boston now has the fourth highest payroll in MLB (two of the three above them are not playing in the playoffs: New York and Philadelphia). Boston has payed the Major League Baseball game and they've played it well. It's fun to watch them win but at times painful because of the way I know it happened.

Back to Tampa now. 

Tampa Bay has combated the stereotypes of baseball.  Since Maddon came on board, the Rays have remained competitive at least in the AL East.  And they've done it with one of the lowest salaried payrolls in baseball. Just to make clear just how well they've pulled this off, it's important to see the records of those surrounding them.  The two teams with lower salaries, the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins, have 51-111 and 62-100 records respectively.  Not only are the Rays over .500 this season, they're holding onto a slim change of getting to the pennant series.  They're playing in October with the third lowest salary in MLB. If professional baseball is a money game, and it has been since the Yankees bought the Babe from his original home, the Rays are defeating this game over and over and over again. It's respectable and inspiring to say the least.

So the Rays,  now only 15 years old, are competing in a state known only for spring training in baseball and filling their relatively small stadium as we move into October.  They're competing against the best team in the nation and surprising them in key moments with quality pitching and well-placed hits by talented and somewhat underpaid batters. The Rays are doing what the rules to this money-based game should not be permitting.  The Rays are winning.

As a Red Sox fan who loves exciting baseball and lives in Florida, how could one not like the Rays?  The stadium.  Yeah, I got that.  Tropicana Field is a piece of crap. But other than their sad excuse for a baseball stadium, what is there not to like about the Rays? Despite having a short, and albeit rough, history the Rays are inspiring more and more central Floridians to care about baseball.  In case you were wondering, the Buccaneers in Tampa haven't really done that for football. In a state where clear-cut identity and even accurate state-wide stereotypes basically don't exist (Florida), the Rays are commandeering a following.  It's kind of special, really. But unfortunately it's only in October.

I made a comment on Facebook last night that spurred some controversy (surprise) about the level of fan attention after the Rays literally squeaked by a sweep of the division series against the Red Sox (Jose Lobaton hit a homerun in the bottom of the ninth--the game had been tied at 4--to win the game).  If the Rays had lost last night, I would have likely seen two or three posts like "Great season Rays! Get them next year!" or "Rays gave it all they had!"  Two or three posts, maybe a few more (this is based off past years observations). Instead I was met with "YEAHHHHHHH!!! GO RAYS!!!!" or "WALKOFF BABY!!!!  YEAH LOBATON!!!" over and over and over and over again.  The loyal fans came out, sure.  But so did the locals who weren't aware of much of anything before the last few nights.

Unsurprisingly, the Rays fans on my Facebook wall came out in droves to call me a "typical Boston fan" or "that guy" or whatever.   This is inspiring to me in that it shows that the Rays really DO have a loyal following despite the lack of ticket sales in Tropicana.  I'm grateful for their friendship and accountability. My comment was really to remark that given the amount of tickets I've purchased to Rays games, I've supported the organization more than many many of its fans.  This is my point.

Given their salary, the Rays can afford (right now) to have a lack of loyal fans.  In the long run, I'm hoping this will remain the same.  I fear that a new stadium's cost, years of ALMOST winning the pennant, and the persistent reminder of that World Series ring that is just beyond grasp might change the organization.  Let's be clear: I hope it does not. But I fear it might.  This might require a raise in salary (again, I hope not...) and it might cause the organization to market itself more fans. Fans in October matter, but they don't matter as much as season-long fans.

I don't wish to troll the Rays or their loyal fans much at all except for a little playful banter here and there.  I have a lot of respect for them; they were able to be fans of a team when I just couldn't. What I think the Rays need is more fans.  They'll get there.

And MY GOD do I hope they do because they're not going to be able to afford a new stadium without them.