Rays Hope To Stay In Fans' Hearts, Budgets

When the baseball-watching world last left the Tampa Bay Rays, their home stadium was ringing.

They only won a single game in the World Series. On the other hand, the Rays, perennially the worst team in the American League, won a World Series game. The cacophony of cowbells clanged off the catwalks in their indoor stadium in St. Petersburg, Fla.

But after making the World Series last season, the team's principal owner Stuart Sternberg is blunt about the below-average attendance his team is expecting this year.

With the economic downturn, Sternberg says that last year wasn't the best year to win. But given the other option, the Rays will take it. This year's team packs even more talent than last year, he says, and he thinks that will sustain attendance. Sternberg is also counting on Americans turning to baseball in bad times like they have in the past.

"People are going to want to come out and maybe get away a bit and watch a good baseball game," he says. "As long as we're providing a great diversion and playing good baseball, I think build it and they will come."

Fan Sean Hogan put it another way: "If they win, we will come." Hogan was sporting a Rays cap at a recent game in Clearwater, Fla. It was the World Series rematch, spring training version. Once again, Tampa Bay battled Philadelphia.

Wearing a Phillies cap was Lou Hogan, who lives just a few miles from where the Rays play their regular season games. Like a lot of locals, Hogan was skeptical about the Rays' chances of drawing big crowds.

"I think that they'll show up for the first month or two of the season," Hogan said, but if the team fades, they can expect dismal attendance. On top of that, Hogan adds, a visit to the stadium isn't exactly a treat. "To me, it's the worst place to watch a game in the entire league — and I've been to several stadiums."

The Rays know they need a better facility, and they know now is not the time to get one. But Rays Vice President Andrew Friedman says that even with the challenges, the Rays Nation is growing into a plucky little republic — at least compared to last year.

Last year, finding a fan wearing a Rays shirt or cap was so rare that Friedman would e-mail colleagues when he saw one. Now, he says, it's commonplace.

The team says season ticket sales are up. They've kept seats affordable, and as a result have sold out opening day against the Yankees. Even if the team only inches up in attendance and income, they may be comparatively better off — because many of their rivals will be doing worse.

Sternberg says he's not wishing economic troubles on the other teams, but if hard times hit the competition — sorry, when they hit — the Rays may actually find themselves on top. Last year, they made the World Series despite bad attendance and one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. This year, doing just a little better when most others are doing a little worse may be enough for a championship.

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