Rays giving away 20,000 tickets

When 12,446 fans showed up Monday night to see if the AL East-leading Tampa Bay Rays could clinch their second playoff berth in three years, Evan Longoria decided he'd seen enough empty seats -- and said something about it.

Longoria, who did not play in the Rays' 4-0 loss to Baltimore, spoke at length about the team's chronically low attendance, calling it "disheartening" and "embarrassing."

"We've been playing great baseball all year. Since I've been here in [2006], the fans have wanted a good baseball team. They've wanted to watch a contender," Longoria told reporters. "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."

Monday's announced attendance was a little more than half of the 23,047 the team has averaged at home this season, despite battling neck-and-neck with the New York Yankees for the AL East lead and baseball's best record for most of the season.

Spurred by fan reaction to Longoria's criticism of Tampa Bay's home attendance, the Rays are making 20,000 free tickets available for Wednesday night's game against the Baltimore Orioles.

Team president Matt Silverman said the club had been discussing the possibility of giving away tickets for the Rays' home finale, but probably wouldn't have actually done it if the players hadn't spoke out. Silverman said the Rays had received mixed reaction from fans in phone calls and e-mail.

"It was something we had discussed, but I don't think we would have," Silverman said before Tuesday night's game against the Orioles at Tropicana Field.

"And it's not about the two players, it's about the sentiment expressed by the team throughout the year about the energy that they get from the fans when this place is full. Two years ago when we clinched against Minnesota, the players celebrated with the fans. It was a packed house. It's that type of celebration of this season that we're looking for."

Tropicana Field, the Rays' much-maligned domed stadium, holds 36,973 for baseball during the regular season.

"In 2008, when we clinched, this place was packed," Longoria said. "It's kind of like what else do you have to do to draw fans in this place. It's actually embarrassing for us."

His teammate, pitcher David Price, had the same feeling. A post to his Twitter page after the game read: "Had a chance to clinch a post season spot tonight with about 10,000 fans in the stands....embarrassing."

Later, Price's page read: "If I offended anyone I apologize I did not think it was gonna turn into this..."

Longoria said the attendance has not had any bearing on the team's on-field effort at home, where the Rays are 48-31 entering Tuesday's game against the Orioles.

"But we're talking about a team in a playoff hunt with the opportunity to clinch. You could at least get 30,000 in here to cheer you on to it," Longoria said.

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

The Rays have a roster full of young, talented players and are polishing off their third straight winning season after starting their existence with a decade of dreadful results. But small crowds at home have been a constant issue, despite the team's dramatic improvement.

Longoria said he had been thinking about addressing the Rays' home attendance for a long time.

"I'm not trying to take a low blow at the fans. I'm actually trying to rally the troops and get more people in here," he said. "I'm not trying to say that we have bad fans or any of that because, believe me, I've been here since '06 and I love the Tampa Bay community. It's just tough to see, and I felt I was the right guy to say it."

Silverman said he had no idea how many fans will show up for the free tickets, which will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis about 2½ hours before game time.

"This is about getting more energy into Tropicana Field, getting this place packed and for the players to thrive off of that emotion," Silverman said. "We saw it in the past. We've seen it this year, and we will see it in the postseason."

The current Rays roster might not be in place for fans to watch next season.

Team owner Stuart Sternberg said last week that no matter what happens, the team will cut payroll during the offseason, meaning pending free agents Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and Rafael Soriano likely will not return.

Tampa Bay's current payroll of $71.9 million -- a team record, but tens of millions less than the AL East-rival Yankees and Boston Red Sox -- is expected to drop to $50 million or less next season.

"No question. Nothing can change that," Sternberg said of the coming payroll reduction, according to the St. Petersburg Times. "Unfortunately there's nothing that can happen between now and April that can change that unless [manager] Joe Maddon hits the lottery and wants to donate it or I hit the lottery."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.