Sunday, October 09, 2005

Devil Rays Emergent?

Probably one of the bigger shames in major league baseball is that there is a team who, last year, celebrated a 4th place finish in their division. Because it was the best finish in their history. While watching the other 3 of the 4 most recent expansion teams make at least one post-season run in their first 7 seasons, and two of them win it all, the Rays have finished 5th, 5th, 5th, 5th, 5th, 4th, 5th.

After moving into a market that everyone thought would embrace baseball...where everyone kept threatening to move (including the potential future Nats owner when he was mismanaging the Mariners), the only way you can describe the Devil Rays is "failure". They're not even really the lovable losers, as attendence has been miserable, and not even 40% of the baseball fans in the Tampa Bay area self identify as Devil Rays fans.

Okay, yes, they are in one of the most cut throat divisions in baseball. They have to play a total of 38 games a year against the two largest payroll in the game, while fielding the cheapest payroll. The payroll that the owner has said he can afford with the number of fans they have coming into the games. It creates a pathetic Catch-22 situation. The payroll doesn't grow because the fans don't come because the team loses because the payroll doesn't grow.

Now. My grandmother lived in St. Pete until she died. She always loved sports. She was always thrilled to sit and talk about how the Buccaneers were doing, and for years, was always willing to give her opinion of the latest rumor that baseball might be coming to Tampa Bay. Because of that, I always hoped for baseball there, and I've always hoped it would flourish. For those reasons, I've always been sort of a closeted Devil Rays fan, and with the recent way that I've been treated by the ownership of my previous AL team, I'd probably call them my AL team for the time being.

For the first time, it's looking like that might actually be a good decision. I feel like we're at the ground level of something, which is exciting. BOTH of my teams are really starting at the ground floor with the potential of exploding. The managing ownership of the Devil Rays has transferred a year earlier than expected, and the first thing the new owner is doing is cleaning house. Most of the head office has been canned, which is fine, because there has been a cancer in this team that goes so much beyond just what's going on the field. He's declared parking will be free next year in a move to get more people to come to the games.

The official slogan for the DRays 2006 campaign? Under Construction.

There are a lot of problems, and they won't all be fixed at once. In fact, the new owner is basically considering next year entirely a growing year, and will promise nothing out of the team. I'm not sure if he's honestly expecting the DRays to follow suit and end up in the sellar of the ALE again next year, or if he's tempering expectations so that any success is seen as unexpected, and might pull people to the games.

Because that's the ultimate goal. People need to start coming to the games.

And one of the hurdles? Tropicana Field. A dome built years before a team was ever announced for Tampa Bay, it was thrown up in the hopes that baseball would see a ready-built stadium that allowed for the same kind of immediate move that RFK allowed for the 'Spos. However, and I'm going from the second hand experience of my grandmother and parents as I've never been in town when the DRays are, the stadium just is not a good place to see baseball. It's a joke. It's an ugly, cavernous, concrete box that doesn't offer any real reason to show up and attend a game. Okay, there's the Columbia Restaurant there, so you can get the best Cuban sammiches on the planet, but this is a stadium where there's even only one souvineer stand.

The new owner has announced yesterday that he will never say the team needs a new stadium. However, at the same time, he made it clear that the team needs a new stadium. His promise is to never ever use the word "need", but he also said he's willing to work with city officials if they, by any chance, happen to want to build the team a new stadium. Now, in Tampa Bay, you need a roof. I know a lot of people have problems with baseball being played indoors, however, there's the new paradigm of stadiums. Look at Minute Maid Field in Houston, or the new stadium that HOK has designed for the Marlins. Retractable roofs can now work, and they can make a stadium not FEEL like an indoor stadium, while still providing protection from St. Petersburg weather. The era of the baseball dome is past. Yeah, when Houston built the Astrodome, it seemed like the wave of the future, but it's sort of retro-future. It's like Epcot center. The way people in the 60s thought people in the 80s would live.

Do the Devil Rays need a new stadium? It's really hard to economically justify one right now...but yes. Build it and they will come? I hope.

I'm really hoping the DRays are on the verge of something big. They deserve it. They've been lost in the wilderness too long. Hopefully a day will come in the not-to-distant future where DRays fans will come out of the closet, and be happy to wear TB caps.

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