After the conclusion of the 2008 World Series, Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon went on his honeymoon with his new wife. Before he left, he told reporters that he was really hoping to see someone, somewhere in Europe wearing Rays gear. Most know the story; he ran into a vacationing fan from the Bay area wearing a new Rays hat.
This signified to Maddon, as well as the team and the fan base, that the Rays had come around as a franchise, and had begun to plant to the seeds of success. This past season the Rays won 84 games, and were it not for the magical 2008 season it would have been the most successful season in club history. It also shows 2008 was no fluke, and the Rays are a legit threat to the traditional AL East powers.
However, not even two years of success has brought fans to the turnstiles. The Rays ranked near the bottom of attendance last season, despite coming off an American League Pennant.
So where is everybody?
It's a very simple answer: they're on their way.
As recently as 2005, it was very common to go to a game at which attendance figures did not even approach 10,000, and any game against the Red Sox would turn Tropicana Field into Fenway Park-South. As recently as last season, when the fans seemingly refused to support the team, media critics from across the country seemed to ask the question,"Why does nobody down there support the baseball team?"
A Different Generation
Rays baseball began in Tampa in 1998, a solid 12 years ago. There's not much tradition to be made in 12 years, and when the team is less than mediocre, it's hard to get fans attention.
Original uniforms were ugly, creating a very un-marketable product. The team would sign big name free agents, only to reveal them to be also-rans, killing the trust the community had in the front office.
After the inaugural season, fans stopped coming to Tropicana Field. Eight years later, fans are slowly coming back through the gates, to watch a baseball team deliver for the first time.
Most residents of the Tampa Bay area are transplants from the north who aren't going to switch their allegiances to a different team overnight. They would, however, bring their children to games at the Trop, which is incredibly family—and kid—friendly. Now, those kids are growing up Rays fans, and are just now beginning to be able to appreciate what is going on in the baseball world.
An Empty Shell No More
It goes without question that Tropicana Field is an ugly warehouse of a stadium and baseball deserves to be played in a better environment. Over the years there have been games at the Trop to which less than 5,000 fans attended, and all 12 viewers on TV could hear the outfielder whenever he shuffled his feat. It was a very rare sight to see the Trop full, but when it was, it was a beautiful sight.
There are now more of those beautiful sights, with more sellouts and more games of 30,000-plus. It doesn't hurt that the Rays lost only three games in 2008 with a crowd of more then 30,000.
The Trop is loud, the catwalks play tricks on opposing players, the glares from the roof are overwhelming, and the nooks and crannies of the playing surface give the Rays a home-field advantage like no other.
Fans are beginning to flock to Tropicana Field to see a new, exciting brand of baseball. In 2009, tickets for the home opener against the Yankees sold out in less than eight hours. With sustained success, it won't be long until every game at the Trop is a sea of navy and powder blue, with new fans who have been raised watching Rays baseball. Tampa Bay is beginning to support the Rays, who in 2010 will have the highest payroll in club history. New York and Boston beware, these Rays wont disappoint their fans, nor their community, this season.