During 2018, outfielder Tommy Pham went from a Cardinals team with a traffic-jam outfield picture to a Rays team that had room for him among the regulars. And he responded. Thus far as a Ray, he played 39 games with an impressive .343/.448/.622 slash line. Over a full season Pham might well have done for the Rays what he did for the 2017 Cardinals.
But Pham noticed something about his new environs. He noticed that Rays fans were reasonably passionate about their team—if they showed up at all. The Rays put on a surprising 2018 show and finished with a 90-win season while having the American League’s worst home attendance. Their 1,154,973 2018 attendance shakes out to an average home crowd of 14,259 per game. Traffic accidents are known to draw larger crowds per capita.
Speaking from the Domincan Republic where he’s playing winter ball, in an interview with MLB Network, Pham admitted he missed the typically powerful support Cardinal fans have shown their team for what seems centuries.
It sucks going from playing in front of a great fan base to a team with really no fan base at all. St. Louis, they’re one of the few teams where, day in and day out, they have 40,000 fans at every game. That’s something that I miss. Because even out here in the Dominican they have a strong fan base with the team I’m playing for, their fans are very supportive, they’re loud, and the Rays, they just don’t have that.
Do I think something has to happen, whether it be a new ballpark or maybe a new city? I think so. If you have a team that’s going to be winning 90-plus games, competing in that division, and you don’t have any fan support, then that’s a huge problem.
When Pham’s remarks hit Twitter, it wasn’t exactly a flood in one or another direction. For every Rays fan who all but ordered the outfielder to keep his big mouth shut until he’d been there more than a few months, there were those who admitted, however grudgingly, that Pham had a point.
“While it’s perhaps unwise to criticize fans in a public manner, it’s hard to argue against what Pham is saying,” wrote Dayn Perry of CBS Sports. “There are, as Pham indicates, reasons for the paltry attendance, but that doesn’t undermine his general point. As for those reasons, the Rays of course play in what’s on the short-list of worst ballparks in baseball.” That’s like saying the government is on the short list of the worst public nuisances in the country.
Born as the Suncoast Dome and once called the Thunder Dome, Tropicana Field was built in the first place because St. Petersburg wanted a piece of the Tampa Bay sports action following the birth of the NFL’s Buccaneers. They also thought they were going to get the White Sox before the birth of the current U.S. Cellular Field (nee Comiskey Park). The 1990s expansion brought them the Rays (born the Devil Rays).
The Rays and their fans profess need for a new and more reasonable ballpark. The Trop resembles a warped saucepan with a ceiling lights’ plate covering it on the angle on the outside, and a pool table contorted out to a reputed baseball field on the inside. The team is stuck there through 2027, thanks to a lease that bars them from talking to adjacent communities about building a new park, which helped put the kibosh on the Rays’ ideas about moving to and building in nearby Ybor City.
And baseball government has made the standard declarations about finding “equitable solutions” to the question, which usually means owners with means still taking it out of the public treasury. Never mind that the Rays’ principal owner, Stuart Sternberg, is a Wall Street wheel with ties to financial pipelines even the deeply connected Walter O’Malley once only dreamed of having. (Sternberg also spends most of his time in New York, which doesn’t exactly do wonders for a Rays fan’s morale. Say what you will about other owners but a lot of them at least live among and know the pulse of their suffering hordes, however they choose to misread it.)
Not that a new ballpark would necessarily solve the Rays’ fan base question. The Marlins down south have a smashing (sort of) new ballpark and baseball’s worst attendance. The Marlins, of course, have been as mis-managed/mal-managed as the Rays haven’t, and they’ve also been guilty of the once bitten/twice shy syndrome: they won two World Series in their first two decades, and almost overnight their owners broke up the winners dramatically enough. And the current Marlins overseers, led by former Yankee mainstay Derek Jeter, seem to be baseball’s version of the Barnum & Bailey Circus—with the clowns holding the keys, the ones they acquired in exchange for a sense of humour.
One passionate Rays fan slapped Pham for comparing a franchise as old as the National League itself to one barely 20 years old. Comparing them to other expension franchise might not work, either. It’s easy to point to the Mets stirring passions from their own birth, but the Rays weren’t created in the wake of two storied franchises moving out of their metropolitan area, either. They also didn’t have the chance the Mets had of playing in what was left of a legendary ballpark, while awaiting the finish of the playpen New York’s tyrannical building/planning czar Robert Moses once tried to jam down the Dodgers’ throats rather than let them build their own new home. The Polo Grounds had a history; the Trop has a miss-tory.
(Here’s one for you. The Trop is in St. Pete, not Tampa. Once upon a time, when Moses tried strong-arming O’Malley into what would become Shea Stadium, he said, “If we play in Queens, we’re not the Brooklyn Dodgers anymore.” How ticklish has it been for the Rays to be based officially with a harbour, not a city or borough?)
Even when the Rays experienced their best period including a World Series appearance, they were never among the American League’s best-attended home attractions overall, unless certain teams stopped by on tour to roust the Florida transplants up and out to the dome. One look at the ugly Trop doesn’t necessarily erase Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium, or Camden Yards from their baseball consciousness.
And neither they nor the natives are watching on television all that much; overall Rays television viewership isn’t exactly a local, never mind a statewide chartbreaker. The good news is that the Rays weren’t exactly dead last in regional television ratings in 2018; that dishonour fell to the Angels, but the Angels were sixth in baseball in total attendance (3.02 million) and average attendance (37, 297) per game. The bad news is that the Rays were number 20 around baseball. Disallowing for teams affected more heavily by baseball’s ridiculous broadcast blackout rules, the Rays aren’t exactly baseball’s version of The Voice on the tube. Oops—the flatscreen.
The arguable face of the Rays’ first period of greatness would say Pham has too much of a point. Last May, Evan Longoria—dealt to the Giants last winter—said aloud that he thought a new ballpark wouldn’t be the real answer and that the Rays might even have to think of moving. “There are a lot of dedicated Rays fans,” he told the Tampa Bay Times, “and obviously it’d be a shame for those people to lose the team. But you just hope there’s consistent fan support, and it historically hasn’t been there. I don’t know that it’s the easiest case to lobby to build a new stadium in the area. It’s not a slam dunk.”
One thing that might be a slam dunk is a Pham dunk, the numbering of Pham’s days as a Ray. Speaking the plain truth when a particular party line runs the other way is known to change your employment as soon as your employer can arrange it.