Image: Carlos Pena and Alex Rodriguez
Kathy Willens  /  AP file
As the second half of the baseball season begins, the newly minted Rays are gunning for the playoffs.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/17/2008 9:52:42 AM ET 2008-07-17T13:52:42

Fewer than 350,000 people live in the city of Tampa. Yet in the past five years, its denizens have witnessed sports success that much bigger cities (think Seattle or Atlanta) must envy.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers captured the Super Bowl in 2003, upending Oakland; a year later, the Tampa Bay Lightning was crowned Stanley Cup champions.

But during that span (and even before), another local team finished dead last, again and again. Ninety-five losses were bad enough in 2005 – when their own skipper, Lou Piniella, couldn't stand managing the squad – but 101 defeats ensued the following year, worst in baseball. Then called the Devil Rays, the franchise, founded in 1998, was poised to become the Los Angeles Clippers of baseball, a perennial bad joke.

As the second half of the baseball season begins, the newly minted Rays – bearing ray-of-sunshine uniforms and cheered on by a fresh mascot named Raymond Ray – are gunning for the playoffs. Whereas the smoke from the Cuesta-Ray Cigar Bar at Tropicana Field (which is actually in St. Petersburg) once served to blot out the mishaps below, today it's victory cigars all around.

And the improved play on the field has turned the long-beleaguered franchise into a money-generating force.

Through July 1, the Rays’ home attendance – a puny 1.4 million for the whole 2007 season, more than one million spectators less than the American League average – had exceeded 930,000 fans. The team drew more than 100,000 alone for a three-game series against its American League East division rival, the Boston Red Sox. Though the average ticket price is only in the teens and the unappealing, domed Tropicana Field is tiny (about 36,000 seats), the Rays do sell some pricey tickets for the Home Plate Club, which costs fans anywhere from $210-$272 a game.

According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, merchandise sales soared more than 70 percent within the first 75 games. The franchise has set record TV ratings on Fox Sports Network more than once this season. For the second year, the team has tried to expand its fan base by playing three games in nearby Orlando at Champion Stadium, part of Disney's Wide World of Sports complex.

All of this makes sponsors happy, Anheuser-Busch and the St. Petersburg Times among them (the latter’s racks were once unceremoniously tossed from the park by a previous owner upset by the newspaper’s coverage).

Revenue is flowing in while the team’s payroll – $25 million in 2007, about the same as New York Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez – is almost the lowest in baseball, beaten only by intrastate rival Florida.

There is a price for success, though. According to Forbes, the Rays raked in nearly $100 million from baseball’s revenue-sharing system from 2005-2007. The franchise cannot expect any boon from that source soon, given the growth of its “net local revenue” (as spelled out in MLB”s basic agreement) during the 2008 campaign. And no doubt its 2009 payroll will move significantly higher.

At the beginning of the season, Forbes ranked the value of the Rays at $290 million, the second-lowest in baseball (again, only beaten – if that’s the correct word – by the lowly Marlins). With increased season-ticket sales and new sponsorships likely, no doubt that valuation will easily surpass $300 million by 2009, which will hearten principal owner Stuart Sternberg.

Once with Goldman Sachs, Sternberg has moved to turn around the woebegone franchise since he first invested in it four years ago. His big goal is building a new outdoor waterfront stadium in St. Petersburg. Though a November referendum was desired, it looks now as if the franchise will need to develop broader support.

But back to baseball. Led by manager Joe Maddon and featuring ageless Don Zimmer as a senior baseball adviser, the Rays – despite a recent seven-game losing streak – entered the All-Star break with 55 wins, one of the best records in baseball. With the likes of 22-year-old third baseman Evan Longoria, who leads the team in home runs, and a daring squad that ranks first in the American League in stolen bases (more than 100, triple Detroit’s number), Tampa Bay is prepared to fight to the finish for first place against two teams, Boston and New York, whose combined payrolls are bigger than the budgets of Third World countries.

Perhaps the only danger in Tampa Bay amid the team’s success is bulging waistlines. Last year, Dunkin Donuts’ partnered with the franchise to give a free doughnut to customers who showed up after a game, as long as they referred to a Rays’ victory during their order. Sixty-six victories didn’t prompt threats of an obesity outbreak.

This season? Rays’ fans may need the services of tailors to let out their pants – repeatedly.

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