Menu

BASEBALL

Victory after victory, but Rays can't win

The Marlins think they have a solution: a new, downtown, retractable-roof ballpark that will open in 2012.

The A's dream of a solution: a new ballpark in San Jose after they reach a deal to satisfy the Giants' claim of territorial rights.

What exactly is the Rays' solution?

Uh, next question.

Here the Rays are, the best and most exciting team in baseball, blessed with a creative front office and progressive ownership.

And they're screwed.

Oh, the Rays should draw a decent crowd Saturday when they host the Mariners (MLB on Fox, 4:10 p.m. ET), but mostly because the rapper Nelly will be warbling his hit, "Hot in Herre," in a postgame concert.

ZZ Top, John Fogerty, Barenaked Ladies, the Go-Go's -- the Rays' Saturday concert lineup is easily the best in baseball.

If only their actual lineup could draw on its own.

The Rays' problem, of course, is Tropicana Field, the wrong kind of stadium (a dome) in the wrong part of the Tampa Bay region (St. Petersburg).

Consider:

Less than one-fifth of the area's population is within a 30-minute drive of the park, by far the lowest percentage of any major-league club according to a report by the ABC Coalition, a group exploring a new stadium for the Rays. The Rays' season-ticket base, believed to be in the range of 8,000 to 9,000, is only one-third corporate, while the typical major-league club's base is two-thirds corporate, the report says. The Rays, after reaching the World Series in 2008, increased their average home attendance by only 83 fans per game in '09. Most teams, when coming off championship-caliber seasons, generate far larger increases.

The verdict, then, is in.

Through 15 dates, the Rays' average home attendance is 23,064, a number that ranks 20th in the majors, a number described by one high-ranking MLB official as "very disturbing."

The exec qualified his remark by noting that it is early in the season, but the Rays' numbers actually were juiced by a three-game series with the Yankees that averaged more than 31,000 fans per game, plus perhaps the most enticing promotional program in the sport.

A more accurate portrait of the team's attendance woes occurred on April 27 and 28, when the Rays drew crowds of 10,825 and 10,691 against the A's -- with both teams in first place.

Granted, those games were on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, with school still in session and the economy still an issue.

But no other major-league games were as poorly attended on those nights -- not in Florida, not in Kansas City, not anywhere else.

In fact, the numbers all the more damning considering that Rays fans are not apathetic. TV ratings are double what they were last season, according to a major-league source.

The most tempting solution, then, is for the Rays to move to Tampa; the team's proposal for a waterfront, retractable-roof ballpark in St. Petersburg, doomed by a lack of public support, also would have been problematic.

Tampa, though, would not necessarily be nirvana.

Its advantages would include a greater corporate base and larger population center, as well as a proposed high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando that could be completed by 2015.

But Florida is Florida.

Many people within the industry are not convinced that the Marlins will prosper at their new ballpark in Miami. The tropical weather is so appealing, fans can go to the beach, shop outdoors, do a zillion different things. The same, of course, is true in the Tampa Bay area.

Besides, the relocation of the Rays to Tampa is barely worth discussing, at least at the moment. The Rays' lease at Tropicana Field runs through 2027. The appetite for building publicly financed stadiums probably is at an all-time low. And the region is so provincial, the Rays might alienate as many fans as they attracted by moving to Tampa.

The bottom line: Even if the Rays did everything right -- built a state-of-the-art facility, generated the same momentum that the Twins did before moving into Target Field -- success hardly would be guaranteed.

So, where else?

Orlando? No way baseball would want to compete with Disney.

Mexico City? Difficult to imagine the logistics.

Portland, Charlotte or some other smaller city? Too risky.

MLB.com's Peter Gammons and the New York Post's Joel Sherman have raised the possibilities of New Jersey or Connecticut, but the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox almost certainly would prefer their built-in monopolies to the likely tradeoff, a reduction in revenue-sharing contributions.

Here's a thought: Contraction.

Not of markets, per se, though unfortunately that would happen.

Of ownerships.

Such a concept is sheer fantasy, highly impractical, unlikely to ever draw commissioner Bud Selig's support.

But just think: If the Rays played in Pittsburgh, they would pack PNC Park. If they played in Kansas City, they would fill Kauffman Stadium.

So, stick the Rays in Pittsburgh. Stick the A's in Kansas City (for old time's sake) and leave the Bay Area for the whiny Giants.

Voila!

Instant management upgrades for the Pirates and Royals. Twenty-eight teams, less revenue sharing, a greater slice of the pie for all.

True, Selig would never act to remove Royals owner David Glass, one of his closest allies, and Pirates owner Bob Nutting only took over in 2007.

There also is no sign that either owner would volunteer to be bought out the way Disney did with the then-Anaheim Angels the first time talk of contraction surfaced in the early 2000s.

Fine, find a better solution.

The Rays do everything right, and still they can't succeed.

Something is terribly wrong.