MLB in Portland: Tampa Bay's Troubles Should Force Baseball to Evaluate Markets

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MLB in Portland: Tampa Bay's Troubles Should Force Baseball to Evaluate Markets
J. Meric/Getty Images
Instead of playing in front of empty seats during the playoffs, Evan Longoria and the Rays can expect to play in front of packed houses in Portland, Oregon.

Years and years from now, when someone is forced to look back at the 2011 Major League Baseball season, they may or may not remember who won the World Series. Or who won the MVP. Or the Cy Young.

Heck, they may even forget all about Justin Verlander's epic 24-5 season, especially if the Tigers get bounced before the World Series.

What they will remember years from now will be September 28, 2011, the final day of the regular season. How the gritty, gutty Tampa Bay Rays managed to complete their late season-long comeback to finally surpass the Boston Red Sox for the American League's wild card berth.

They will remember the epic collapse pulled by the Sox in Baltimore (followed by an Orioles celebration, of all things) and an iconic scene in Tampa just minutes later where Evan Longoria finished putting Tampa Bay's signature on the comeback with walk-off home run against the Yankees.

It was truly one of the most unforgettable and surreal nights in baseball history, with the Rays being front and center.

Unfortunately, it seemed like not a lot of fans in the home market cared.

Over the last four years, the Rays have made the playoffs three times, won the AL East (a division dominated by media darlings New York and Boston) twice, and won an American League pennant. The one year where they did not make the playoffs—2009—the Rays still managed a winning record of 84-78 as the defending American League champions.

Again, none of it matters to the masses of the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, and look no further than Rays owner Stuart Sternberg to get an opinion on that.

"We replicated last year and our numbers were down," Sternberg said after Tampa Bay's dream run ended at the hands of the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series. "The (television) ratings were down. The rubber has got to hit the road at some point. We're four years into winning. We're getting to the point where we don't control our own destiny. This is untenable as a model.

"When I came in here in '05 and '06, I saw the stars, and I was confident that we could put a winning product on the field—and I was told by you guys and others that all we needed was a winning team. Well, we won. We won. We won. And we won. And it didn't do it."

Evan Longoria, the Rays' superstar and the guy who will personify the team's unforgettable run into the playoffs, has been baffled.

"We've been playing great baseball all year. Since I've been here, the fans have wanted a good baseball team. They've wanted to watch a contender. And 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 as to why it's only 15,000 to 20,000 in the building."

If you think that the Rays have to clinch a World Series title to change things, forget it. You are dreaming. The Tampa Bay Bucs won a Super Bowl in 2003 only to be rewarded with empty seats a few years down the road when they were back to rebuilding. The Tampa Bay Lightning won a Stanley Cup just a year later in 2004 only to return to irrelevancy soon thereafter.

Baseball fans are some of the most loyal in sports. Empty seats around the country in places such as Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Seattle are not because of a lack of fan support. They are because of apathy towards teams that do not put a contender out on the field. The fans in those very same markets will come out in droves if their franchises put together a product anything similar to what the Rays have done recently.

Instead of addressing this problem, the league has instead decided to reward markets such as Miami with new stadiums. It seems as though MLB is trying to force baseball down the throats of these warm-weather Florida cities instead of looking at markets similar to the ones I mentioned above: cities that will support the team to a degree through thick and thin and go absolutely bananas at the very thought of contention (see: Milwaukee, Wisconsin).

One of those markets is Portland, Oregon, a city that made a serious bid in trying to land the Montreal Expos last decade but fell short. If a baseball team enjoying the kind of success that the Rays have was in Portland, the town—based on its unwavering support for the Portland Trail Blazers and its surprisingly unmatched enthusiasm for Major League Soccer's Portland Timbers—would literally shut down to support them.

Even before MLB decided to settle on Washington, D.C. for the Expos instead of Portland, Red Sox legend Johnny Pesky, a Portland native, had been consistent in advertising his hometown as a ripe market for Major League Baseball.

In 2006, Pesky was quoted as saying, "What Portland always had was good fans. I haven't been back in five years, and the growth has been phenomenal…Portland is bigger than more than a few other cities that host major league baseball. Why shouldn't Portland have a club? I think they should get a shot. I think Portland will have a team in three or four years.''

Previous mayor Tom Potter was more concerned about putting money towards education than another sports team, and many of the city's citizens are happy to focus on other civic matters instead of spending billions of dollars on a sports team that may or may not be competitive.

But additional sports teams can do wonders for a "one-horse town" like Portland. This is a city that is about to feel the economic hit from the NBA lockout more than most other NBA markets. The impending crisis already had the Portland Oregonian coming out with a front page story on the lockout's impact in Monday's edition of the newspaper.

"The value of the Blazers team to this community is measured in the millions," Drew Mahalic, CEO of the Oregon Sports Authority, was quoted as saying in the feature article. "Their absence will, quite frankly, be devastating to the Portland regional community in that it impacts so many different businesses when they play."

Anyone questioning the worth of a sports team to a city's economy during these harsh economic times—especially Portland—is about to get a crash course in the subject once the NBA starts cancelling regular season games.

We are talking about a city that, according to the "Bring MLB to Portland!" Facebook page, "generated a stunning 4.3 cable TV rating for Seattle Mariners' games, a better mark than 19 MLB cities recorded for their own teams—including the Yankees, Cubs and Giants. Most impressively, the Portland region then produced a 4.5 rating during the 2002 season, when the Mariners failed to make the playoffs."

Sure, sports teams bring a lot of negatives to the table. A lot of Portland citizens that I have spoken to have said that having professional sports in the city year-round may even increase crime rates. It will force the local government to take money away from issues that really matter to the city and put it towards a team that not everyone will necessarily be a fan of.

But this is a city that became a model franchise for Major League Soccer, of all things, almost overnight. The Portland Timbers and their "Timbers Army" section have become a symbol for the city. MLS commissioner Don Garber put his faith in Portland by predicting that it would, indeed, become a model MLS franchise, and the city responded by selling out the entire season before a single game had been played.

And that's for Major League Soccer. Sure, Portland has been referred to as Soccer City, USA by some, but this is clearly a market starving—starving—for another professional sports team. Nothing will make it more evident once the Rose Garden becomes empty during November, December, and beyond--months when it is usually sold out for regular season NBA games and becomes one of the loudest buildings in the league.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the country, a sunny market on Florida's Gulf Coast could care less if its small market baseball franchise can show that it can compete in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox for four years running now.

Put that together, and you have a perfect storm for baseball to put another franchise in the Pacific Northwest. Maybe this time, however, the league will get it right.

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