19to21: September 24, 2008
Examing the Mystery of the Missing Rays Fans
19 to 21
No, that’s not how many fans come to the average game at Tropicana Field, it’s Baseball...Then and Now
News Item: September 19, 1954 – The Philadelphia Athletics play their final game in Philadelphia.
Right about… now, they should be preparing to dance in the streets and waterways of the Tampa Bay area. From St. Pete to Clearwater to Tampa to New Port Richey to Bradenton, baseball fans should be preparing to celebrate not only the Tampa Bay Rays’ first appearance in the post season, but their first pennant. But, are they? If a baseball team finishes first, and nobody comes, does it really finish first? This, and other conundrums, are posed by the 2008 Rays. Though hardly the first Cinderella team to go from worst to first, the Rays may be the first to also still finish last in attendance. And, if that’s the case, what does it say about the support, or lack thereof, for baseball in the Tampa Bay area?
Actually, that’s not true. The Rays aren’t last in the American League in attendance, they’re 12th out of 14 (thanks to the Royals and Athletics), having drawn an underwhelming 1.81 million fans to Tropicana Field. There are good reasons why the A’s and Royals have drawn 1.5 and 1.6 million to their respective ballparks. Excepting the fluky 2003 season, major league baseball hasn’t been played in Kansas City, at least not by the home team, for, oh the last two decades or so. That’ll kill fan interest every time. As for Oakland, it should be obvious by now, some 40 years after the Athletics moved there from, that’s right, Kansas City, that the Bay Area on the left coast just can’t support two major league baseball teams, no matter how good they may be. But what of the Tampa Bay area? After 10 season of utterly execrable baseball, the Rays have given the region not just a winner, but, by all odds, a pennant winner as well. Maybe even a World Series participant. During those awful 10 years, the Rays (then known as the Devi lRays) finished fourth once (in 2004) and dead last every other year. And, their attendance mirrored their sorry status on the field. With the exception of their first year (1998) attendance of 2.5 million, the Rays have never, as in never, gotten near the 2 million mark. They have, in fact, been equally dead last in attendance in the AL for the last seven seasons.
Year Attendance AL Rank
1998 2.5 M 7
1999 1.56 M 10
2000 1.45 M 13
2001 1.3 M 14
2002 1.07 M 14
2003 1.06 M 14
2004 1.27 M 14
2005 1.14 M 14
2006 1.37 M 14
2007 1.39 M 14
2008 1.81 M 12
And they’ve tried everything. Bringing in local heroes like Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff. Hiring every over-the-hill slugger they could find, like Jose Canseco, Greg Vaughn and the aforementioned Crime Dog. Featuring one of the ultimate feel-good stories in Jim Morris. Free parking. Lowering ticket prices. Allowing fans to bring food to the game. (You get thrown up against a wall and strip-searched if you try that at Turner Field in Atlanta.) Even hiring a promotional genius like Mike Veeck. They’ve even tried, for 2008 at least, mirable dictu, winning! Nothing has worked. Why?
There appear to be two likely answers… either the ballpark and its location are a hindrance to attendance, or the Tampa Bay area just isn’t a good “baseball town.”
Preparing an amicus brief on behalf of the Tampa Bay area in this matter is a long time baseball player, umpire, fan and former resident of the Tampa Bay area, Bob Umbarger. A quintessential sports fan, and a former Top Gun in the Air Force, Umbarger lived in the Tampa/St. Pete area for 11 years. Here’s what he has to say…
“I lived in Tampa for 11 years. The Rays need to be on the Tampa side of Tampa Bay. Tampans can\'t relate to the St. Petersburg location of their home indoor stadium... simple as that. The Bucs sell out every game... and it\'s NOT a football town... it\'s a sports town that needs a baseball stadium to be proud of, NOT an idiotic Dome with 2000 ground rules as balls hit the roof every game.
“Amenities stink at the `Dome.’ Not enough men\'s rooms.... no FEEL... no HISTORY... just massive mortar and steel everywhere. It was seemingly built on a `bare bones’ budget. Families these days come to games for more than baseball... they want a decent meal... along with other things that they see on TV... waterfalls, fireworks, pretty girls as ushers, a clever mascot, etc. St. Pete lacks in all those areas.
“...it is my honest opinion, and that of a lot of the guys in the Air Force at MacDill AFB. We all (mostly) came from or from near "sports cities" and to a man we knew the St. Pete Tropicana Bubble wouldn\'t work... and it hasn\'t. Heck, it takes an hour to get there from most any part of Tampa. A new stadium will = sellouts... with a winner, of course.
“The section of St. Pete where the stadium is built, is NOT the greatest neighborhood. I’m reminded a bit of going to Connie Mack Stadium as a kid, when my Dad gave quarters to begging kids to `watch the car’... in hopes four tires remained on the car after the game.”
(For those of you who never had the unique experience of attending a game at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia during the old ballpark’s declining years, the neighborhood kids had a great racket going. “Watch your car for a dollar, mister?” was their pitch. And, Umbarger exaggerates a little. It was more a matter of hoping your car had four wheels remaining when you came back after the game.)
That’s one side. The other was presented recently by Dugout Central’s Scott Jensen, who flat out proclaimed that the Tampa Bay area didn’t deserve a first place team. Jensen stated that it wasn’t a matter of Tampa’s small-market status -- the Tampa/St. Petersburg/Clearwater market is the 19th largest in the U.S., and bigger than, among others, Baltimore, Denver and Milwaukee. No, Jensen says the problem is far more basic… “Tampa is not a baseball town and never has been. It might take decades of good play from the Rays, with a smattering of teams like this year\'s, for the Rays to become a baseball town. And it\'s not fair to ask Rays\' owner Stuart Sternberg to miss out on so much revenue for that long.”
While this may be strictly anecdotal evidence, it is worth noting that, during November 1978 and also the late summer of 1995, this writer had the occasion to spend a couple of weekends in the Tampa Bay area. During the former period – during which the two biggest news stories were the Jonestown Massacre and the Eagles’ Miracle of the Meadowlands (thanks, Joe Pisarcik) – the Bay Area was practically ga-ga over the Buccaneers, and this after the 1976 “go-for-0” season and the 1977 2-12 season. The entire region was orange, despite the fact that the Bucs were, at that time, WORSE than the Rays. Jump ahead to September 1995. Tampa Bay had been granted a major league baseball franchise in March 1995, some six months before. And, you couldn’t see ANY signs that baseball would be coming to Tampa or St. Pete. No D’Rays logo items, no D’Rays caps, no stories in the newspapers, not even stories on what was going on in baseball. No nothing. In fact, every TV in New Port Richey that September was turned to, not baseball, but the Ryder Cup. (And this was before Tiger Woods was TIGER WOODS, when he was merely human.) Hmmm.
For whatever the cause, and despite (or maybe because of) the popularity of Spring Training baseball in the area, the Rays have not had much success at Tropicana Field, either winning games or winning fans. As a result, Major League Baseball has made it known that they must be out of their current facility by 2010.
So, where should they go? Jensen suggests that the usual suspects for re-location… Portland, Las Vegas, Oklahoma City… have the same basic draw-back as Tampa/St. Pete, they’re not baseball towns. No, if you’re looking for a new location for a homeless franchise with some good young players, what better place to send them than to a location where major league baseball is already played, and loved? Sound crazy? It’s happened before, in a couple of different fashions, not the least of which was in 2005 when the Expos re-located from a city that was clearly not a baseball town (Montreal), to one that was, the Baltimore/Washington megalopolis.
There have actually been seven instances in the 20th and 21st centuries (not counting new leagues – the American League in 1901 and the Federal League in 1914) when major league teams have been moved to an area that either already had a major league team, or had had a major league team previously, and was currently hosting a team in the high minors. And, in each case, attendance improved in the new location, sometimes dramatically. Why? Because these teams were moving to baseball towns. True, sometimes they were moving from baseball towns (Boston, Milwaukee, Baltimore, St. Louis) as well, but, typically they were moving from markets that were either over-saturated or not yet ready for prime time. The moving teams were; the 1901 Milwaukee Brewers, the 1902 Baltimore Orioles, the 1952 Boston Braves, the 1953 St. Louis Browns, the 1967 Kansas City A’s, the 1969 Seattle Pilots, and the 2004 Montreal Expos.
Team Attendance Rank
1901 Milwaukee 139,000 7th
1902 St. Louis 272,000 5th
1902 Baltimore 175,000 8th
1903 New York 212,000 7th
1952 Boston 281,000 8th
1953 Milwaukee 1,826,000 1st
1953 St. Louis 297,000 8th
1954 Baltimore 1,061,000 5th
1967 Kansas City 727,000 9th
1968 Oakland 837,000 8th
1969 Seattle 678,000 10th
1970 Milwaukee 934,000 7th
2004 Montreal 750,000 16th
2005 Washington 2,732,000 8th
So, it’s been done, and it’ll work. If you go to the right place. And where might that right place be for the Rays? Jensen suggests the obvious locations – New York (by far the largest metro area) and Boston (where the only way you’ll get in to Fenway Park is if someone dies and leaves you his tickets), and one less-obvious spot – Philadelphia. As they said back in 1776, that’s the spirit! Jensen makes the point that Philly offers the same opportunities as Boston – it’s a large market with just one team and a passionate (to put it mildly… Umbarger, even though he now lives in South Carolina, is an example of that) fan base. And, Philly also has a couple of extra pluses – baseball has been very hot, even for this baseball town, since Citizen’s Park opened in 2004, and the fandom is on the lookout for a champion (having not had a World Series title since 1980). Despite teams of various levels of disappointment in 2004, 2005 and 2006, the Phillies drew 3.25 million, 2.67 million and 2.7 million in those seasons. Last year’s National League East champions brought in 3.11 million while the 2008 version, though underachieving for much of the year, are on the verge of breaking the 2004 record, standing at 3.21 million to date, with five home games left.
There also is one other factor that Jensen didn’t mention. Something that Phillies Chairman of the Board Bill Giles knows, and just one reason why the Phillies would likely fight like Peter Angelos to keep the Rays out of Philly. Up until 1954, Philadelphia was an American League city. Starting when St. Connie Mack came to town in 1901, Philly fell in love with the American League. Now, it might have had something to do with the fact that Philadelphia Inquirer sports Editor Frank Hough was an investor in the team (and their best PR man), but, from the very beginning the Athletics were hot stuff. Although the Phillies outdrew them, 235,000 to 206,000 in 1901, by the very next season, the A’s were way ahead, 420,000 to 112,000, and they never looked back. As another quintessential Philadelphia fan, also named John Shiffert, has noted, “when I was growing up, everyone was an A’s fan, no one rooted for the Phillies.”
Ancient history? Maybe, but Giles didn’t think so. Or at least he didn’t think so back when he was running the Phillies out of Veterans Stadium. During a conversation in a Vet concourse with Philly’s great guru of baseball memorabilia (still another quintessential Philly baseball fan), Ted Taylor, Giles admitted… let’s let Taylor tell the story…
“Bill Giles once told me, `the wrong team left town.’ Giles and I were walking the concourse at the Vet -- he was pitching me on moving the big Philly card show from Willow Grove to the Vet -- and he said that the new Camden Yards scared him because Philadelphia was an American League city and he expected loads of fans to defect and head to Baltimore to enjoy AL ball in a nice new stadium.”
And, Giles was right. It was only coincidence that the wealthy Carpenter family buying the Phillies came at the time (the late 1940s) when Mack was getting old and retiring (and his two sons were turning senile before he did) that put the Phillies on top after decades (like since original owners Al Reach and John Rogers sold the team in 1903) and of being undercapitalized and second class citizens. Otherwise, it could easily have been the Phillies leaving town in the mid-50s.
Yes, the logistics of moving the Rays to Philly would be daunting, as would the legal challenges, and the Phillies, not wanting to give up their monopoly, will scream bloody murder. Still, there are no Peter Angelos’ running the team, and for all his blustering, he couldn’t keep the Expos out of Washington. So, maybe, the Phillies will have to share Citizen’s Park in a couple of years. They did the same with the Athletics at Shibe Park from 1938 to 1954. Put two really good teams, two 90 game+ winners, in that lovely new park now, and the Philadelphia Police Department will have to hire extra traffic cops and SEPTA will have to add extra trains to the Broad Street Subway in anticipation of five million or so fans coming to see the Phillies and the… how about the Centennials, or maybe the Bicentennials, or maybe Keystones, (or Quakers?) in recognition of the 1875 National Association team and/or Philly’s place in American history?
It’s an idea to give Taylor, Umbarger, or any other Philly baseball fan goosebumps.