Let That Devil Out

A lot of people like to rip on the Tampa Bay Rays fanbase for the low attendance numbers this season. For all their outstanding performances and surprise position atop the only tough division in baseball, the Rays are 12th in attendance among AL teams – ahead of only Oakland and Kansas City.

Part of this makes sense – if a city won’t come out to see a winner, who will they come out to see? – but most of it doesn’t

The Rays have never won more than 70 games in a season, but more than that they’ve never really established any kind of history yet for fans to cling to. Retiring Wade Boggs’ number aside, what former players’ jerseys do Rays fans really wear? Fred McGriff, for his two years of late-career might? Aubrey Huff, for his franchise-record 128 career home runs? Commemorative t-shirts of the magical squad that inaugrated St. Petersburg baseball by going 63-99? Hardly the stuff people cling to, and with that kind of track record it’s not hard to blame anyone for staying home.

But let’s say for a second the Rays were drawing insanely high numbers. Let’s say the Rays had started selling out regularly once people figured out this year’s team was for real. Then what? The only good outcome is membership in one of baseball’s two worst neighborhoods: front-runners and tourist attractions.

Until recently, the Cleveland Indians held the record by selling out 455 consecutive games.

“And just how,” you may ask, “did the Cleveland Indians, of all people, do that?”

Simple: by winning. A lot. Their streak began June 12, 1995 and didn’t end until April 4th, 2001 (a game against the Sox, naturally). The Tribe took the division five times in that stretch, and the numbers translate to roughly one ticket sold nightly for every ten residents of the Forest City. The Indians dismantled their team after taking the AL Central again in 2001, and the sellouts never returned. So what do you get? Accusations of bandwagon-jumping, of front-running, of a city full of fair-weather fans who’d rather be wearing dog masks.

On the flipside, you have teams like the Cubs and Red Sox, two teams able to fill the stadium nightly without really having to prove anything. The Red Sox just broke Cleveland’s streak by way of a few well-executed second-place finishes; the Chicago Cubs have averaged 80% capacity per night since 2002 despite only two (soon to be three) seasons above fourth place.

So if those Rays fans are to really justify their position and worthiness, what are we on the outside to demand of them? And as Sox fans, are we really in a position to point fingers at anyone’s attendance figures? In 2000, the Good Guys had the best record in the American League yet finished ninth at the turnstiles. Even the 2005 team that went all the way only brought in 28,000 nightly. If winning isn’t enough, then what is?

Moving to Lakeview, apparently. Or, alternately, to Cleveland.