When I moved to South Florida a few years ago, I really had no interest in any of the pro teams down here. Then in 2008, the renamed Tampa Bay Rays won me over by capturing an AL East title with a quirky manager, a young team that played a fun brand of baseball and a fraction of the payroll of the Yankees and Red Sox.
Jimmy has since taken to referring to me as a “bandwagon Rays fan.” I won’t say much in my defense except for this:
a) If there is such a thing as a Rays bandwagon, it’s not all that big.
b) I seem to remember Jimmy wearing a Red Sox hat an awful lot starting somewhere around 2003.
With that bit of disclosure out of the way, a couple of interesting Rays news items have popped up over the last few days.
On Friday, The Tampa Tribune reported on rumors that Rays majority owner Stuart Sternberg “might take a run at buying all or part of the (New York) Mets.” In case you haven’t heard, the Wilpon family is trying to sell at least some of their ownership in the Mets to deal with financial and legal issues related to their involvement in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Sternberg has denied the rumors that he’s interested in heading up to New York.
The next day, a St. Petersburg Times article led off with MLBPA chief Michael Weiner assuring Rays players that the franchise wouldn’t be targeted for contraction during upcoming labor negotiations. The contraction talk apparently started with this comment by Yankees co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner:
“At some point, if you don’t want to worry about teams in minor markets, don’t put teams in minor markets or leave teams in minor markets.”
That led to speculation that Major League Baseball might attempt to contract the Rays and Oakland A’s, as it tried to do with the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos a decade ago.
It’s hard not to look at both of these stories in the context of the Rays’ ongoing quest for a new stadium to — hopefully — boost their attendance figures. (Despite winning their second AL East title in three years, the franchise ranked 22nd in attendance last year with 1.84 million fans.)
By nearly all accounts, Tropicana Field is a lousy place to watch or play baseball (just ask Joe Maddon), and its location in St. Petersburg is inconvenient for many of the fans who want to come to games. But it’s hard to see taxpayers in the Tampa Bay area footing the bill for a new stadium in this economy, especially when the Rays still have another 16 years left on their lease at the Trop. The swindle that the Florida Marlins perpetrated to get their own stadium (see here, here and here) probably doesn’t help the case that the Rays are trying to make four hours to the west on the Gulf Coast.
The Rays do need a new stadium, but that alone isn’t going to solve the franchise’s attendance problems. Unfortunately, until one gets built, more stories about contraction or Sternberg moving the team or himself are likely.