ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Spurred by fan reaction to All-Star Evan Longoria's criticism of Tampa Bay's home attendance, the AL East-leading Rays are making 20,000 free tickets available for Wednesday night's game against the Baltimore Orioles.
Longoria called Monday's turnout of just 12,446 for a game in which the Rays had a chance to clinch the second playoff berth in franchise history "disheartening." All-Star pitcher David Price weighed in on the subject on Twitter, calling the small crowd "embarrassing."
Team president Matt Silverman said the club had been discussing the possibility of giving away tickets for the Rays' home finale, but probably wouldn't have actually done it if the players hadn't spoken out. Silverman said the Rays had received mixed reaction from fans in phone calls and e-mail.
"It was something we had discussed, but I don't think we would have," Silverman said before Tuesday night's game against the Orioles at Tropicana Field.
"And it's not about the two players, it's about the sentiment expressed by the team throughout the year about the energy that they get from the fans when this place is full. Two years ago when we clinched against Minnesota, the players celebrated with the fans. It was a packed house. It's that type of celebration of this season that we're looking for."
Tampa Bay entered Tuesday night with a magic number of one to clinch a playoff berth for the second time in three years. They held a half-game lead over the New York Yankees in the division race, as well as in the chase for the best record in the AL, which means home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Attendance has long been an issue for the cost-conscious Rays. Their average of 22,913 through 79 dates, ranked 22nd in the major leagues.
Longoria sat out Monday night's 4-0 loss to Baltimore with a strained left quadriceps, but didn't back off in expressing his opinion on the potential clincher drawing the fourth smallest crowd of the season at Tropicana Field.
"I don't think there's any more time for rationalizations. We figured if we have a chance at the beginning of September, then maybe the fans will come. Now, it's the end of September, and it's almost October, and we're still kind of looking up in the seats and going, 'Where's everybody?'" Longoria said.
"I'm not trying to take a low blow at the fans. I'm actually just trying to rally the troops. and get more people in here. ... It's just tough to see, and I feel like I was the right guy to be able to say that."
Price, an 18-game winner who was on the mound Tuesday night, tweeted: "Had a chance to clinch a postseason spot tonight with about 10,000 fans in the stands .... embarrassing."
Local radio talks show were flooded with calls from fans ripping millionaire ballplayers for complaining about attendance. Silverman said the team received feedback from people who were disappointed with the comments and from others who tried to explain the lack of support.
Longoria said Monday night that the subject rarely comes up in the clubhouse, primarily because players are accustomed to small crowds. There have been five sellouts of 36,973 this season.
"It's kind of become something that's not even talked about anymore because we just kind of expect it. But that's really not something that we want to come to expect," Longoria said. "We want to be able to go out there and know there's going to be 30,000 to 35,000, especially in a time like this."
Pitcher James Shields said players understand the factors that can contribute to low attendance, including the economy, location of the stadium and Tampa Bay's history of losing before the team's improbable run to the World Series two years ago.
"I think a lot of us kind of feel the same way, but it doesn't mean anything bad toward them. It's just we want the support. We need the support. We need people to come in here and cheer us on," Shields said.
"I can understand the whole entire season getting the crowds that we get, but this is the last week of the season. We're in first place in our division. We're ahead of the New York Yankees. I mean, you can't ask for any better baseball than what we're doing right now. That's the whole gist of what went on last night as far as I'm concerned."
Silverman said he had no idea how many fans will show up for the free tickets, which will be available on first-come, first-serve basis about 2½ hours before game time.
"This is about getting more energy into Tropicana Field, getting this place packed and for the players to thrive off of that emotion," Silverman said. "We saw it in the past. We've seen it this year, and we will see it in the postseason."