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Column: Maybe Tampa Bay really is a lousy baseball market

Don't be embarrassed by the attendance figures. Perhaps, it's just the way it is, writes Joe Henderson.
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Spending your money to follow professional sports teams is not a moral obligation. Even if times were good (which they aren't), you don't owe the teams a thing.

Buy tickets, don't buy them whatever. It's your choice.

But it works both ways, so don't blame the Tampa Bay Rays for wondering whether they really have a future around here after 12,446 fans showed up Monday at Tropicana Field on a night when the home team could have clinched a playoff spot.

Two of the Rays' brightest stars – Evan Longoria and David Price – went public after the game.

Longoria called it "disheartening" in a lengthy chat with reporters. Price used Twitter to call it "embarrassing."

Price quickly retreated, sending a follow-up tweet that read, "If I offended anyone I apologize. I did not think it was gonna turn into this "

Actually, it has been "this" for a long time, and I'm surprised it has taken until now for players to speak up about it. You can go all the way back to the beginning, when the second game that the then-Devil Rays played had plenty of available seats. A lot of them have stayed empty, even though these Rays have become a model organization.

I said before how I feel about this. The Trop is a lousy stadium in just about the worst location that could have been chosen for a franchise that serves the entire area. Throw in a bad economy plus the fact you can watch almost every game from the comfort of your living room on the hi-def, and it's a no-brainer that attendance is going to be significantly affected – especially on weeknights.

But all that means is that what people outside the area are saying about this place might be true. This really might be a lousy baseball market.

"Since I've been here in '06, the fans have wanted to watch good baseball – they've wanted to watch a contender. For us to play good baseball for three years now and for us to be in a spot to clinch again and go to the playoffs, we're all confused with 15- to 20,000 in the building," Longoria said.

He was asked about the usual rationalizations for the sparse gathering.

"I don't think there's any more time for rationalizations," he said. "We figured if we have a chance at the beginning of September, maybe the fans will come. Now it's the end of September and it's almost October, and we're still looking up in the seats and going, 'Where is everyone?' "

You never win by picking a fight with fans, so the reaction to Longoria will be interesting. I'm sure he'll get blistered on the talk shows.

"It's a tough situation for us. A lot of the visiting teams come in and wonder where are all the fans? It's a little bit embarrassing for us," he said.

"We're one game away from clinching a postseason spot. We have enough guys in this room to celebrate with, but we'd love to celebrate with the fans, too. It's just tough to see that."

Maybe the safe ploy would have been to keep quiet. After all, when asked earlier about the small crowd, manager Joe Maddon shrugged and said it was "about what I expected."

"Quite frankly, that's just the way it is," Maddon said.

Maddon also praised "the group" who did show for making as much noise as 12,446 fans can make – especially on a night when the Rays got the bats knocked out of their hands and lost to the Baltimore, 4-0.

I'm kind of glad Longoria didn't play it safe, though – even though it meant another round of Bay area-bashing from national media.

"I'm actually just trying to rally the troops and get more people in here. I'm not trying to say we have bad fans or any of that," Longoria said. "Believe me, I've been here since '06 and I love the Tampa Bay community. It's just tough to see, and I felt like I was the right guy to be able to say that."

The Rays aren't the only local team in this situation. The Buccaneers have had the first two home games blacked out on local TV and are dropping hints that they don't expect a sellout all season. The announced crowd for Sunday's game with Pittsburgh was more than 57,000, but about half that total included Steelers fans who took advantage of a rare chance to see their team.

The Lightning will be opening soon and that could be a tough sell. They've played to half-full houses at the Forum for a while.

It's interesting that the University of South Florida's announced attendance was more than 40,000 for its football game with a bad Western Kentucky team last Saturday. To the consumer, maybe the Bulls represent a better value for the buck right now.

Rays owner Stewart Sternberg has already said payroll will be slashed next season, and he was criticized for that, but I think he was just being honest with the fans. Frankly, Sternberg is the best pro sports owner this market has ever had. He's not running a charity. He's selling a product, and the market continues to profess undying indifference.

A couple of months ago, some of baseball's most sensitive financial data got leaked, and teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates looked bad for taking revenue-sharing money while keeping payroll down. The Rays actually looked good for using the system to stay competitive, but that won't continue.

Not like this.

They'll draw about 1.8 million fans this season, about 500,000 less than what they need to have a chance to keep this marvelous team intact.

I'm not jumping to any conclusion that the Rays will move out of the Bay area. It's extremely difficult to move a baseball team.

I do believe there will be a new stadium in the region, but it could take most of this decade to make that happen. Maybe that will help.

But maybe that will just be a $700 million gamble on a market that may have more important things to do than spend the night at the ball yard. If that's how it is, so be it.

It might be disheartening, but it's not embarrassing.

Maybe it's just who we are.