Tampa Bay Rays: Still a tough sell

A scene in the Trop for a September 2008 game. The Rays were in the World Series a month later. AP Photo/Mike Carlson

On Sept. 28, 1959, Henry Aaron saw the future. The Milwaukee Braves, the two-time defending National League pennant winners, played host to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of a best-of-three playoff series to determine who would meet the Chicago White Sox in the World Series.

In Wisconsin, the Braves' story is legendary. The team moved from Boston after the 1952 season and became perhaps the greatest comet in major league history. The franchise was an immediate powerhouse, both financially and in the standings. In 1954, the Braves were in the pennant race until Aaron, then a rookie, broke his ankle in Cincinnati in early September. In 1956, they lost to the Dodgers on the final weekend of the season. They won the World Series in 1957, and took a three games-to-one lead in the '58 Series before losing to the Yankees in seven games.

Milwaukee was the first team to break the 2 million mark in attendance and -- competing with megacities New York, Los Angeles and Chicago -- led the league in attendance for six consecutive years. The Braves ushered in the modern era of stadium economics: parking, concessions and the attitude that teams play in markets rather than cities.

Then, in late September 1959, the Braves of Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn (all future Hall of Famers) were poised to head to the Series for a third straight season. But when Aaron and the others looked around Milwaukee County Stadium that day, they saw more empty seats than die-hard fans. Only 18,297 showed up. Aaron, looking at the paltry attendance for the most important game of the year, has always pointed to that day as the beginning of the end of the Braves in Milwaukee.

The rest of the story is also legendary: The Braves led in each of the first two playoff games with the Dodgers, but lost them both. Milwaukee never contended again; by 1966, the team was gone, playing in Atlanta. The Milwaukee Braves are perhaps baseball's most-forgotten great team.

Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria and Joe Maddon must be wondering if they are witnessing right now what Aaron and the Braves saw that long-ago day in 1959. The Tampa Bay Rays, the worst team in the history of organized baseball during their first decade (no franchise had ever lost 90 games in each of its first 10 seasons of existence), have never been a financial powerhouse or a fan favorite in a region historically dominated by snowbirds, transplants, spring training, retirees and football, but there are similarities to the scene in Milwaukee 50 or so years back. In recent years, the Rays have done everything right. They've drafted smartly. They've developed through the farm system. They've hired well. They've put marketable players on the field.

And barring a seismic collapse this month, they'll make the playoffs again this season and have a chance to go to the World Series for the second time in three years.

And yet Tampa Bay, despite having the second-best record in baseball (a mere game behind the Yankees heading into Thursday's action), is ninth out of 14 American League teams in attendance. When the Rays won the pennant in 2008, Tampa Bay was 12th of 14 in attendance. Teams generally can expect a spike in attendance during the year after an exciting pennant-winning season; but in 2009, the Rays finished 11th. They've never ranked higher than seventh and have never drawn more than 2.5 million fans.

The notion that fans will come out to support winning baseball is not holding with the Rays. And if the franchise cannot attract a fan base now, with one of the most exciting teams in baseball, it is difficult to envision a promising future for baseball in the region, one in which the Rays can sign and retain top players and so remain competitive.

On Monday, Aug.16, the Rays played the Rangers at home, and the matchup featured David Price against Cliff Lee, both of whom are among the top pitchers in the game. It was a possible first-round playoff preview. The Rays were chasing the Yankees and fighting off the Red Sox in the AL East race, and had their ace on the mound.

The announced attendance for Tampa Bay's 6-4 win was 18,319.

Back to Milwaukee, 1959. Arthur Daley, the first sportswriter to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, was in County Stadium writing for The New York Times that late September day as the Dodgers beat the Braves, 3-2. The images in his Sept. 29, 1959, Times column mirrored the scene at the Rays-Rangers game 51 years later:

The big blow was a home run in the sixth by Johnny Roseboro, the only forthright shot of the afternoon. He blasted a pitch over Henry Aaron's head and into the right field bleachers. On landing, the ball startled two sparrows and five fans who were dozing peacefully out there. Then everyone went back to sleep.

Once upon a time Milwaukee was rated as the most rabid town west of Flatbush. The devotion of the wild-eyed fans to their flannelled heroes approached an ecstatic fervor. Nothing deterred them. They braved rain, snow, discomfort and second-place finishes. Enthusiasm refused to waver.

… The support Milwaukeeans gave their Braves must have been moral. It certainly wasn't physical. The bleachers were virtually empty. Vast spaces in the grandstands were vacant. This could have been a run-of-the-mill Monday in the August dog days against the Phillies with nothing obvious at stake.

When the Braves left for Atlanta, their faithful fans in Milwaukee were devastated. The team has been replaced -- the Brewers have been in Milwaukee since 1970 -- but many in the city still long for the days of Aaron and Spahn, Mathews and Johnny Logan, Joe Adcock and Del Crandall.

In Tampa Bay, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has never had hard evidence that the region will support baseball on a long-term basis. The newness of the franchise seemed to wear off after the first year (1998); between 2001 and 2007, the Rays were last in the AL in attendance.

The past three years of contending baseball haven't translated into tickets or energy. The Rays are smothering the Red Sox and frightening the Yankees right now, and it still isn't evident that many people care.

Most baseball people believe (or, at least, want to believe) that the problem for the Rays is the ballpark. They assume a new stadium in Tampa will solve the apathy. But the Rays have already invested in a pristine new spring training complex in Port Charlotte in an attempt to become more marketable in the state, to become "Florida's team," if you will. And in today's economy -- Florida has been hurt more than most -- a publicly financed stadium in the short term is unrealistic.

In his more frustrated moments, Sternberg acknowledges that the Tampa area must show more enthusiasm if the Rays are to stay. But he knows that moving isn't much of an option. Baseball employs limited revenue sharing, which means individual franchises rely on significant ticket sales and local television revenue to survive. By that measure, the Rays realistically have nowhere to go -- unlike the old Braves, who had their eye on Atlanta four years before they left Milwaukee.

For a variety of reasons, baseball has never warmed to the Las Vegas market. Vegas has the population base, but that population is considered too transient to sustain a big league team. Many baseball executives believe the Las Vegas economy -- a nighttime/weekend phenomenon because of the casino-tourist traffic -- hurts the ability of locals to support a team; prospective fans will be working during prime game times. Baseball people are also not convinced the casino industry will welcome a new business -- 81 baseball games -- competing for the entertainment dollar.

Portland, Ore., a darling site at various junctures during the past dozen years for the Montreal Expos, Florida Marlins and Oakland A's, contains a smaller metropolitan population than the 4 million people in the greater Tampa-St. Petersburg area; and it's a smaller television market than Tampa, which is 13th in the nation. Baseball has long been intrigued by going international -- especially the prospect of a border team that could draw from both San Antonio and Monterrey, Mexico -- but the tanked economy has stalled any thinking on a grand scale.

And there are baseball people who lean toward the position long held by former commissioner Fay Vincent: The best available market for a new or moving franchise is New York City, giving the area a third club, as in the old days of Willie, Mickey and the Duke.

In the meantime, good baseball is being wasted in Florida. Price and Matt Garza are formidable on the mound, strong enough to match up with any team in October, the Yankees included. Crawford is a star whose best years aren't being seen by home-market fans, either because they have better things to do or they're waiting for a new place to watch the games. Even with increased attendance and television revenue, a team in Tampa Bay's position might have difficulty keeping this group of talented players together. (See: Cleveland Indians, 1994-2001.)

The window on the Rays' wondrous emergence is closing faster than the post office on Saturday.

Without greener pastures on the horizon in the form of a new stadium or a brand-new market, the Rays may simply collapse and die, piece by piece, year by year, free-agent defection by free-agent defection. If that happens, the blame can't fall entirely on management and the players. The fans will be responsible, too.

The stakes are high. The product is there. It is up to the market to support it.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42