Playing hardball

REMEMBER THE Tampa Bay Devil Rays? Remember the team that began its existence with Wade Boggs and Quinton McCracken, Kevin Stocker and Wilson Alvarez? Remember the team that lost 90 games in each of its first 10 years of existence, the major league team with the minor league name in that miserable ballpark everyone laughed at?

In the past six years, the "Devil" has vanished, and the Rays have claimed two AL East titles, just one fewer than the Red Sox have won in the past 20. They've won 90 games four straight years and in five of the past six. They've been to the World Series. They have smart, respected ownership. They have a manager, Joe Maddon, who is embraced by both the analytics mafia and the writers who still care about the flesh and blood of the people who play the game. They have the 2012 Cy Young winner in David Price and a franchise third baseman in Evan Longoria. They are the game's ultimate success story, the sum of shrewd trades and acute talent evaluation, respected for building through the farm system and the draft instead of with massive payrolls. (And please don't fall for the Red Sox narrative of mind over financial muscle; Boston's five highest-paid players combine for more than the Rays' entire $77 million payroll.)

By almost all standards, the Rays are doing it the Right Way; the only one they've failed to meet is extracting a new stadium from taxpayers, which happens to be the only one that matters on Park Avenue. Their reward for all this is being ignored by the commissioner's office, which has declined to consider a number of inventive options to sustain the Rays economically and competitively.

When Tampa Bay was granted a franchise, the other owners split up $130 million in expansion fees. The problems the Rays have now -- difficult geography, terrible stadium, transplanted fan base with allegiances to other teams -- existed from the beginning, but baseball's leadership paid no mind. The short money was available, and Bud Selig and the owners took it.

Now, the Rays are winning, but their economic health is as perilous as ever. In 16 seasons, the Rays have finished last in attendance nine times, including in 2013, when they averaged 18,645 fans. Last year, according to Forbes, they also ranked just 28th in revenues ($181 million). All of which is why they can't afford their stars -- Price, a free agent after next season, is as good as gone. The successful formula of demanding public money for a new stadium hasn't worked, so the Rays are stuck with Tropicana Field. A salary cap isn't coming. There is nowhere for the team to relocate. And so owner Stuart Sternberg is lobbying baseball for more outside-the-box solutions to keep his team afloat.

Along with Oakland's Billy Beane, whose team is in a similar doomed position -- neglected while annually winning division titles -- Sternberg is a vocal advocate of reorganizing the draft order. He wants it to be based on total revenues instead of the current system of win-loss record, which rewards rich, poorly run teams like the Astros, Mets and White Sox with high draft picks and penalizes the Rays with a lower slot in the draft. But he says baseball has ignored that conversation.

"There's one issue that trumps everything, and we've been banging the table on it," Sternberg told me late last season. "It's all about the amateur draft. God bless everybody, but for the Cubs to pick second this year, and the Red Sox to pick sixth? Draft order should be based on revenue. We and others get penalized for success. We've had six years of not having a pick in the top 20. I'm not saying we need the No. 1 pick every year, but really?"

Tampa Bay's owner may enjoy beating out big-money teams for a playoff spot, as the Rays did last season, but he'd much rather leave the AL East, where his team will forever be at a massive payroll disadvantage to the Red Sox ($163 million) and Yankees ($203 million). The solution is staring Selig in the face. With a $162 million payroll (fifth in MLB), Detroit is a big-spending club. Baseball could realign and move the Tigers back to the AL East, where they resided from 1969 to 1997, with the Rays shifting to the AL Central and fighting only one megamarket team, Chicago. But baseball has ignored this conversation too.

In our many discussions on this topic over the years, Selig has professed to me his interest in the future of small-market clubs, pointing out that he's a former owner of one himself. But his inaction speaks louder than his words -- the man who was able to quickly introduce instant replay and interleague play has only two stalled economic committees to show for the issues in Oakland and Tampa Bay that have existed for nearly 20 years. But it's a problem that can't be sidestepped forever. Baseball and Tampa Bay are stuck with each other, and if leadership is more than just a slogan, Selig and his office should be considering creative ways to sustain the Rays instead of the current plan: waiting for an unfair system to run a good team into the ground.

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