The Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ first decade may have been the least auspicious of any team in Major League Baseball history. Tampa Bay lost at least 90 games in every season from its inception in 1998 through 2007 and had the worst record in the game during that span.
The first three years of the Rays’ second decade—they dropped the “Devil” prior to the 2008 season—have been considerably better, with a World Series run in 2008, a winning season in 2009 and another trip to the playoffs assured following a 5-0 win over the Baltimore Orioles last night, September 28, that clinched no worse than a wild card berth.
Considering the size of their market and payroll and the titanic task of competing with the bottomless pockets of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the AL East, the Rays’ comeback ranks as one of the more amazing baseball stories of the past quarter century.
And today, the Rays are in fact the talk of Major League Baseball—but for all the wrong reasons.
In response to season-long attendance woes at Tropicana Field, as well as critical comments about Trop crowds from stars David Price and Evan Longoria, the Rays are offering 20,000 free tickets to tonight’s regular season home finale against the Orioles. The gesture was announced less than 24 hours after Price said, via Twitter, that the turnout at the Trop Monday—when the Rays had their first chance to clinch a playoff berth but lost to the Orioles 4-0 in front of 12,466, the fourth-lowest crowd of the year—was “embarrassing.”
Unfortunately for Major League Baseball, the Rays—which drew 17,891 Tuesday as their season average fell to 22,851, less than a hundred fans fewer than their 2009 average—aren’t the only playoff-bound team having some trouble filling seats in the season’s final week.
The San Diego Padres, who are battling the San Francisco Giants for the NL West crown and the Atlanta Braves for the wild card, drew just 22,739 fans for their 1-0 win over the Chicago Cubs Monday, the smallest crowd at Petco Park since Wednesday, September 8 (a span of eight home games) and the seventh-smallest crowd in 32 games since the All-Star Break. A crowd of 27,619—up more than 1,000 from the season average of 26,251—showed up Tuesday to watch the Padres fall to the Cubs, 5-2.
The Cincinnati Reds clinched the NL Central title Tuesday—the franchise’s first playoff berth in 15 years—when Jay Bruce hit a walk-off homer to lift the Reds past the Houston Astros, 3-2, in front of a crowd of 30,151 that included a walkup of 7,786. But the Reds drew crowds of fewer than 22,100—well below the season average of 25,443—to each of the final four games of their previous homestand September 13-16, including a season-low 12,061 to the opener of the four-game set against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The spate of sparsely attended playoff-drive games led Yahoo! Sports baseball columnist Jeff Passan to declare Tuesday that baseball had permanently fallen behind football as America’s favorite sport. Whether it has or not, though, the Rays and baseball can ill afford a sea of empty seats tonight at the Trop.