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Winning tradition had to start sometime for Rays

October 27, 2008

by Matt Kane

I think we get it by now, the Rays making it to the World Series is one of the most unbelievable stories in sports history.

I have to agree.

While residing on the Atlantic Ocean side of Central Florida for three years, I ventured the three hours west on Interstate-4 to St. Petersburg to watch the then Devil Rays play a few games. Let me tell you, the Devil Rays were far from looking like American League champions back then.

If the Yankees or Red Sox weren’t in town, Tropicana Field was lucky to house 10,000 fans per games. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the Devil Rays averaged under 20,000 fans per game in each season from 1999 to 2007. Only in its inaugural season of 1998 (30,942) and this season (22,370) has Tampa Bay averaged more than 20,000 fans.

When the Yankees or Red Sox were in town, the Trop was pretty full, with maybe 30,000 fans in attendance. The Yankees and Red Sox always lure fans to stadiums around Major League Baseball, but, for the most part, the fans at the host stadium are there to see the home team challenge the visitors from New York and Boston.

Take the Metrodome, for example. When the Yankees or Red Sox come to town, the place fills up, and the fans are looking for the Twins to slay the giants, not to see the Yankees and Red Sox dominate.

That wasn’t the case in the past at Tropicana Field. The Yankees and Red Sox filled the stadium with fans who wanted to see the Yankees or Red Sox win. It seemed Derek Jeter got a much bigger ovation than Carl Crawford.

Having been a partial season ticket holder for the Twins in the mid-1990s, I understand losing will cost a team fans, but it seems like the Devil Rays never really had their own fans.

It might be because they are so new, and haven’t won before this season, but I kind of think it has more to do with where the Rays are located.

Apparently, being a team in Florida is not the best idea.

The Florida Marlins have won two World Series championships in their 16 years of existence (1997, 2003), but, like the Rays, have ranked at or near the bottom in attendance every season.

The Marlins drew more than 20,000 fans per game in every one of their first six seasons, but have done so only twice (2004 and 2005) in the last 10 seasons. The 2004 season, which drew 21,539 fans to then Pro Player Stadium, followed Florida’s second World Series win. The Marlins drew 22,872 fans per game in 2005.

So, why don’t the Marlins draw better?

Because they are in South Florida. Who wants to spend $8 for a beer inside a ballpark when you could spend $8 a beer on South Beach, where the people watching is so much better?

For the Rays, growing up in a town where the Yankees are already established through their spring training home in Tampa makes it difficult to compete. No team can compare to the Bronx Bombers, especially a team that had a previous best season of 70 wins.

Each spring, New York snow birds fly south to the Gulf Coast of Florida to spend a couple months with their pin-stripers before the real season begins. These New Yorkers have been doing so since they moved into Legends Field in 1996.

Before that, the Yankees were in Fort Lauderdale.

The Yankees have the richest tradition in baseball, and that includes spring training.

The Rays have had a difficult time drawing headlines from the Yankees, but, this season, they have finally done so by doing what, beating the Yankees in the regular season and then the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series.

Sadly, I kind of doubt that the Rays’ run this season will pull them even with the Yankees, as far as popularity. But a winning tradition of Tampa Bay baseball has to start sometime, and that time is now.

A World Series title will help that tradition.