I sit in the upper deck of Tropicana Field watching the Rays lose a heartbreaker to the Red Sox. There are 21,000 fans in attendance. About 15,000 of them wear Rays paraphernalia, testimony that the Rays fans who come to the game are loyal and passionate. About 6,000 wear Red Sox red. Considering that the Red Sox have been around since 1903 and have fans with almost religious devotion, their numbers aren't surprising. Still, I would have thought more people would have come to see two of the best teams in baseball.
The game ends with a 3-0 win for the Sox. Josh Beckett pitches a one-hitter. Rookie Jeremy Hellickson makes one mistake, a meatball that Kevin Youkilis hits for a three-run home run. The game takes a little more than two hours.
During the game I take an informal poll of the fans sitting around me to find out why attendance this year is even worse than last. Some answers are financial, some have to do with the state of the game and some relate to management.
1. It's the economy, stupid. An awful lot of people are out of work, so many Rays fans sit at home and watch the games on television.
2. The Rays charge more for Red Sox and Yankee games. This is related to point one. For the Red Sox game the cheapest seats, in the upper deck, are $21, and depending on the location go as high as $300 per ticket. The average seat costs $50. Add to that the $20 cost of parking in a Rays lot, plus nine bucks for a beer, and six bucks for a hot dog, and you can see that going to a game makes it really tough for a family of four.
3. Tampa residents feel that having to drive a half an hour to go to the games is too much of a burden to see major league baseball. Are you shitting me? When I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, I used to get on the train and ride for 45 minutes to New York City and then take the subway a half hour to go up to the Bronx to watch the Yankees. Red Sox fans park 10 miles away and take the MTA or pay $50 for parking close by. Getting to and leaving the Trop is a cakewalk compared to going to games at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. That Tampa wants to be rewarded with a new stadium because Tampans refuse to cross the Howard Frankland Bridge seems grossly unfair.
4. Stop threatening to leave town. Nothing — I mean nothing — pisses me off more. Said a friend of mine, "Why put your heart and soul into a team if you don't know whether it's going to stay?" Indeed.
5. When Sternberg announced during the 2010 pennant race that "next year the salary budget will be cut in half," Rays fans decided not to buy season tickets in 2011. I know he was trying to be open and honest with his fans. But in the middle of the pennant race?
6. When the 2011 season began, the following Rays were performing somewhere else: Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Joaquin Benoit, Jason Bartlett, Rafael Soriano, Dan Wheeler, and Matt Garza. Seeing Crawford go was the cruelest blow. Replacing him and the rest of the crew, moreover, was a whole cast of unknowns: Reid Brignac, Sean Rodriguez, Dan Johnson, Sam Fuld, Juan Cruz, Kyle Farnsworth. Turns out these guys can play, but there were plenty of fans who didn't want to spend money on what was shaping up to be a rebuilding year.
7. Pitching and defense is boring to watch. Too many Rays games lack offensive excitement. Last year the Rays won the pennant with an offense that saw batters strike out and walk a lot — which wasn't all that much fun to watch. This year the Rays offense is just as bad, even with Pena and Dan Johnson gone.
8. The steroid ban. So why is the hitting so anemic? It's pretty clear to me. We decided to clean up the game by getting rid of the steroids, and we've obviously done a great job, because home runs are down to levels not seen since the late 1960s. Is it a good thing? Some argue that these players are adults and should be allowed to build themselves up any way they desire. I, for one, long for the days of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hitting bombs and filling ballparks. Was Barry Bonds a bad guy? Not when he had a bat in his hands.
9. Manny quit. This is related to the point above. The Rays signed Manny Ramirez, who should have been the most exciting player to bat for the Rays since Jose Canseco hit 34 homers in 1999. (Sorry, Carlos.) Manny would have made the Trop come alive, but as we all know, he failed a drug test during spring training, and so he only played in five games, getting zero hits, before he was caught and decided to retire. I grieved over his loss. Manny, we hardly knew ye.
10. When Ben Zobrist talks about God as the reason he hit a home run, you just want to ask him: Where was God when you struck out? One problem the Rays have is their insistence on character. They want preachers and do-gooders on the team. Casey Stengel, for one, never wanted a player who put God before him. Neither did Billy Martin: he wanted boozers, partiers and street fighters on his roster. The Rays, a milquetoast team, never make headlines (or excite fans).
11. The ladies love Longo, but not when he's hitting .255. With the departure of Carl Crawford, the Rays are left with exactly one crowd favorite, and that's Evan Longoria. Unfortunately, Longoria has the personality of a jellyfish. He tells fans he can't sign on the sweet spot of a baseball because he has a contract with a sports company that forbids him from doing so unless you pay him a hundred bucks. One time a friend of mine wheeled her 90-year-old mom onto the field to meet Longoria. "He ignored her," she said. "I was heartbroken."
12. Cowbells. I love them, but if you look on the Rays blog, you'll see fans who say they won't come to games unless the cowbells are banned from the stadium.
So why is attendance down?
Answer: All of the above.