MAXWELL:  Devil Rays could use a loyal following

6/27/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I was part of the nearly 30,000-strong crowd at Tropicana Field on Sunday that watched the Devil Rays whip the New York Yankees 5-4. Needless to say, victory was sweet, especially because it came against the mighty Yanks. Even sweeter, the Rays came from behind, winning in the closing innings.

Perhaps no team besides the Yankees can bring such a crowd to the much-maligned dome to see the D-Rays play. With 22 wins and 54 losses, ours is the worst team in major league baseball.

The morning after the Rays beat the Yankees, New York Times sports writer Buster Olney used the term “giddy” to describe the Rays as they marched to the infield for the post-game handshake.

Nothing is worse than losing to the Rays. One of my uncles in Brooklyn telephoned and wagered $100 that the Yankees would beat the Rays by 10 runs. So caught up in our local inferiority complex, I dared not take the ridiculous bet.

No one respects our team. Here is how Olney assessed Sunday’s loss under the big umbrella: “The Yankees are stalled again, and in a season of fits and starts and no winning streaks of more than four games, their stunning 5-4 loss to the pitiable Devil Rays today was like having sand poured into their engine.”

A close 5-4 loss is “stunning”? Yes, when it is to the D-Rays. Our team is “pitiable”? Well, that is the opinion nationwide.

Like tens of thousands of other bay area residents, I have ignored an important reality: Within a few minutes of my house, I have a park where I can see live major league baseball. Yet, I have attended only eight games since our team has been in town.

Why do we stay home on game day and act as if our team is a mere addition to our collection of exotic fauna?

The ugly truth is that, unlike other teams in the majors (the Florida Marlins may be in the same boat) the D-Rays do not have a loyal following. We talk a lot about Florida being a state where most residents are from “somewhere else.” Well, in the case of baseball, most of our fans are from “somewhere else” and for “someone else.”

During Sunday’s game, for example, I counted more people cheering for the Yankees than for the Rays. After the game, I saw people openly weeping over the loss.

I have lived in three cities that have major league teams. In these cities, the overwhelming majority of fans are rabidly loyal to the local teams. Many Cubs and White Sox fans travel 100 miles or more to see their teams play. Many Braves fans do not hesitate to drive to Hotlanta to see the Braves lose yet another heartbreaker.

My relatives in Los Angeles rarely miss a Dodgers home game. They still call their team the Brooklyn Dodgers and get misty-eyed at the mere mention of Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella and the 1955 World Series.

Last Sunday, I saw more Yankees T-shirts and caps than those of the Rays. None of this bodes well for the Rays. To fill the bleachers and establish a loyal following, the Rays will have to win decisively for many seasons. They also must win with at least one player who has bigger-than-life star quality.

Each time Derek Jeter peeped out of the dugout, Yankees loyalists went wild. We need a Roger Clemens, a Barry Bonds, a Ken Griffey Jr., a Cal Ripken Jr., a Nolan Ryan who can pull in warm bodies and make them cheer.

No single player here has real drawing power. No one creates that contagious excitement that infects thousands.

We also have the problem of the bridges: To the south, folks in Palmetto, Bradenton and Sarasota refuse to cross the Skyway Bridge to watch the Rays. And to the north, most Tampa residents would not be caught dead driving across the Gandy or the Howard Frankland to see the Rays play. For sure, they would not be caught dead in the dome.

The D-Rays are not the Cubs, the league’s doormat that keeps fans returning year after year. When I lived in Chicago, nothing could keep my schoolmates and me away from Wrigley Field. We were going to see the team, the game. We went to be part of the ritual of baseball.

Something tells me that if we fans started supporting our team even while it is losing, we could create that sense of ritual that has sustained the Cubs for generations. Sure, I hate losing. Even more, though, I would hate to see the D-Rays taken from us.

Once the team is gone, baseball is gone from St. Petersburg forever. We need to support the Devil Rays. The next home stand is July 3-8. We play the Toronto Blue Jays and the Florida Marlins. See you at the Trop.