ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In September, Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg watched his plucky team, the one with baseball's second-lowest payroll, pull off one of the most dramatic comebacks in history to reach the postseason for the third time in four years. On a gorgeous October afternoon Tuesday, Sternberg walked inside the Rays' 20-year-old domed stadium for a possible elimination game. Even with blue tarps spread across sections of seats, the game drew about 6,000 fans under capacity.
Sternberg then watched his team's season end with a 4-3 loss to the Texas Rangers. And while liquids sprayed in the Rangers clubhouse down the hall, a very, very frustrated Sternberg stood in the middle of a very dry and very quiet Rays clubhouse.
The rubber has got to meet the road at some point here. We're getting to the point where we don't control our own destiny. This is untenable as a model going forward.
”-- Rays owner Stuart Sternberg
"I am frustrated this year," Sternberg said of losing to the Rangers for the second consecutive year. "We've replicated last year [on the field] and our attendance numbers were down 15 percent and our ratings were down. The rubber has got to meet the road at some point here. When you go through the season, you control your own destiny, if you win out. We're getting to the point where we don't control our own destiny. This is untenable as a model going forward."
Sternberg made no threats nor speculations, but it's never good to hear owners talk about rubber hitting the road.
Michael Lewis and Hollywood made "Moneyball" about the wrong team. The franchise that has overcome every obstacle over the past decade is the Rays. Despite needing Groupon to stay within budget, they have reached the postseason three times, won the AL East title twice and played in a World Series the past four years. And yet only Oakland drew fewer fans this season (1.5 million).
"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," Sternberg said. "Well, we won. We won. We won. And we won. And it didn't do it."
The Rays won the first game of this series 9-0 when they started a rookie who was pitching for the Durham Bulls one month ago. They lost the final three by four total runs. The difference in Game 4 was Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre, who tied the postseason record with three home runs. The Rangers signed Beltre to a five-year, $80 million contract last winter. That's almost twice the entire Rays payroll ($42 million). His average salary ($16 million) is as much as every Ray who was on field for the first pitch combined.
"[The Rangers] thump. They pitch the ball. They have some pitchers who've improved and they went out in the offseason and during the season and spent and spent and picked up some players," Sternberg said. "You go back a couple years and their attendance and ours was identical. And they're a different franchise this year. They won. [Attendance] went through the roof."
It probably doesn't make Sternberg feel any better that the Rangers were bankrupt last year, either.
The Rangers went from that bankruptcy to new ownership and their first World Series in club history. Unlike the Rays, they also were able to parlay that World Series into robust attendance and popularity. Although their payroll is still a middle-of-the-road $92 million, they're advancing to the American League Championship Series thanks to a potent offense; deep, underrated pitching; and excellent defense.
According to the Cot's Baseball Contracts site, the Rays' payroll is lower this year than it was three years ago. And it's $30 million lower than last year.
This made for an interesting scene after the game. Rangers minority owner Nolan Ryan stood outside the Rangers clubhouse, so low-key it was if they had just won a game in June rather than a postseason series. He talked about the versatility and veteran presence Beltre gave them and about what lay ahead. "We've got a ways to go yet," he said. "This is the first step."
Meanwhile, Sternberg talked about how the financial decisions made in the past couple years limited the Rays this year. He says he would make those decisions again but admitted wondering how more money would have helped.
"When you're sitting here at this point and you lost by a run, you know another X dollars might have changed things," Sternberg said. "Three or five million wouldn't have changed things necessarily but 15 to 30 might have. That's where we were. And for the foreseeable future that's what we've got."
The Rays have been pushing for a new stadium for several years. That is not a popular agenda at any time, but particularly not during a crushing recession.
"You can look at us and potentially Oakland as the only teams in that respect," Sternberg said. "And Oakland by hook and crook will have a situation clearer well before we will, and we will be the last man standing. Or in this case, lying down."
Despite Sternberg's frustration, the Rays actually are in better shape this winter than last. Unlike last year when they lost Carl Crawford, three other All-Stars and much of the bullpen, the core of this year's team (other than perhaps B.J. Upton) is expected back. Plus, Matt Moore is a promising arm to join a rotation that led the league in ERA. They will be competitive again next year.
But how long can the Rays continue to produce talent and stay within their budget?
"I don't have all the answers to it, but we've answered any questions stadium related, market related, economy related, area related, sport related," Sternberg said. "Whatever you want to say, there are 29 other teams passing us like we're going in reverse right now. Except on the field. And at some point that changes.
"To a team, winning solves ills. And we are four years into winning and we're no better off right now."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Follow Jim Caple on Twitter: @jimcaple