ROBERT SMITH, host:

Baseball is swinging into its first full weekend of spring training games, but in this tough economic year, teams are worried. One is in a strange situation. The Tampa Bay Rays are the defending American League champs and yet one of the league's toughest business cases. The Rays won the pennant but drew some of the smallest crowds in baseball last year, at least until the very end of the season.

This year, the Rays are looking to build on their success on the field despite big economic worries off it. NPR's Mike Pesca has the story.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Unidentified Man #1: The Tampa Bay Rays.

MIKE PESCA: When we last left the Tampa Bay Rays - we, the baseball-watching world - their home stadium sounded like this.

(Soundbite of cheers)

PESCA: 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. One reporter - okay, this reporter - went right to baseball commissioner Bud Selig about the noise.

Unidentified Man #2: Commissioner, does this dome, does it comply with OSHA standards for noise in the workplace?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUD SELIG (Commissioner, Major League Baseball): Obviously, they're playing here, so I guess it does.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Actually, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration says 95 decibels is the permissible exposure limit over four hours, the length of a World Series game. At the 120 DB din generated by 40,000 Rays fan, quote: Employers must implement engineering and work practice controls. Unfortunately for the Rays, such sounds may not be a thing to worry about this season.

Team President Stuart Sternberg is blunt. The year after making the World Series, his team will have below-average attendance. That hasn't happened to an American League franchise in a quarter century. Sternberg also says that with the bad economy, last year wasn't the best year to win. But given the other option, the Rays will take it.

Their manager, Joe Maddon, presides over a team with even more talent than last year. He thinks that will sustain attendance, along with the fact that American culture has often turned to baseball in bad times.

Mr. JOE MADDON (Manager, Tampa Bay Rays): The people are going to want to come out and maybe get away a bit and watch a good baseball game being played. As long as we're providing a great diversion and playing good baseball, I think you build it, and they will come.

MR. SEAN HOGAN (Fan, Tampa Bay Rays): It's like that "Field of Dreams," if they win, we will come?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Movie paraphraser Sean Hogan was sporting a Rays cap at a game in Clearwater. It was the World Series rematch, spring training version, Tampa Bay versus Philadelphia.

(Soundbite of applause)

PESCA: Wearing a Phillies cap was Lou Hogan, who lives in the area just a few miles from where the Rays play their regular-season games. He, like a lot of locals, is skeptical about the Rays' chances of drawing big crowds.

Mr. LOU HOGAN (Baseball Fan): I think that they'll show up for the first month or two of the season, and if they start to fade, they'll do the same thing they did before, and bring about 13,000 in a game. To me, it's the worst place to watch a baseball game in the entire league, and I've been to several stadiums.

(Soundbite of applause)

PESCA: 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 even with the challenges, Rays Nation is growing into a plucky, little republic, at least compared to last year.

Mr. ANDREW FRIEDMAN (Vice President, Tampa Bay Rays): In fact, I remember oftentimes seeing someone with a Devil Rays hat on or a shirt and sending an e-mail to some people, hey, I just saw a guy with a Rays hat on. You know, now it's commonplace.

PESCA: 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 a bit in attendance and income, they may be comparatively better off because many of their rivals will be doing worse.

As owner Stu Sternberg says, he's not wishing economic troubles on other teams, but if they come — sorry, when they come — the Rays may find themselves gaining on the league.

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 of the others are doing a little worse may be enough for a championship. Mike Pesca, NPR News, Tampa, Florida.

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