(Photo Credit: REUTERS/KELLEY L COX)
Evan Longoria is the best player in the history of the Tampa Bay Rays by a clear margin. Now in San Francisco after a trade this past offseason, Longoria was recently interviewed by Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, and in that interview said something fairly shocking: he outright said the Rays would be better off moving out of Tampa.
Honestly, and this is maybe not something I should say, but my gut tells me that the best decision might be to move the team. I say that only because I look at the example of the Miami Marlins and [a new stadium] didn't really solve their attendance issues. So from purely an attendance standpoint, somewhere else might be better.
Longoria expressed regret for his opinion and acknowledged how painful losing the team would be for true Rays fans, but also asserted that players preferred to play in front of bigger crowds, and expressed doubt that building a new stadium would attract new fans to the historically under-supported Rays.
The interview comes at an important juncture in the history of the franchise. The Rays are in negotiations with local leaders to solidify the team's long-term future in the area, and sites are being identified for a potential new park—one that Longoria says might be redundant.
Is he right? Is his old club doomed in Florida? Let's take a closer look.
The Rays certainly have issues with attendance. In their 20-year history, they have never broken the 2 million-fan plateau.
Part of that certainly has to do with the fact that they've been putrid for most of their existence. They've been dead last in the AL East in half of their 20 seasons, but even in their six-year glory period under Joe Maddon from 2008 to 2013, they never broke the 1.9 million or so fans they produced in their inaugural season. Indeed, in 19 of their 20 years, they've been in the bottom five in league attendance, and have been last in the American League each of the last three years.
They currently sit in that spot this season, with an average attendance of just 14,711. They aren't the worst in the major leagues—the Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates, both of whom actively engaged in large-scale teardowns this winter, are below them—but it looks like another year of a largely empty ballpark.
The question then becomes why the Rays have such a problem. Given the issues both the Rays and the Marlins have drawing fans, some believe that Florida, despite its attractive climate, simply can't supply enough fans for a major league team. Significant portions of the population in the Miami and Tampa areas are retirees who have transplanted from elsewhere, bringing their own fandom with them. The Florida teams therefore sit at a disadvantage, as they'll be unlikely to convince, say, a retired Yankee fan to renounce their allegiance and take up with the local team.
But there are still enough people born in Florida for these teams to be viable. The answer for the Rays has to lie elsewhere, and the main culprit has to be Tropicana Field.
The Rays are likely the only team with an interest in building a new stadium that can say with a straight face that their primary motivation to do so is something other than greed. Tropicana Field is a slag heap. Despite the team's efforts to spruce it up over the years, its sterile interior is more evocative of a warehouse than a baseball stadium. Its permanent dome—the only one left in baseball—causes on-field issues with its system of catwalks, which require an extensive set of ground rules. It also requires the team to play on artificial turf—one of only two teams left in the league to do so.
To top that all off, the Trop is in a terrible location. Sited in St. Petersburg rather than Tampa, it is far from the center of the team's fan base. The only approach to drive to the stadium bottlenecks traffic, making driving to the stadium very difficult, which is bad because it also has no significant public transportation links. It's also the smallest ballpark in the league. Capacity can be expanded with upper-bowl seats that are normally tarped off, but these tend to have obstructed views.
It stands to reason that a better site for their ballpark would help the Rays draw more fans. Earlier this year the club announced a preferred site in the historic Tampa neighborhood of Ybor City. While such a park would probably be on the smaller side and require a roof of some kind given Florida's summer weather, if the team properly integrated it into the neighborhood—something their neighbors in Miami failed to do when they built Marlins Park—it could turn into one of the most fascinating neighborhood ballparks in baseball.
A new ballpark is not, of course, a guarantee that attendance will improve. Longoria noted the failure of the Marlins to significantly increase attendance with a new ballpark in Miami, but to compare the two teams may not be fair. As just noted, Marlins Park was badly sited and it is difficult to get there. In addition, Marlins fans are perhaps the most abused in the history of baseball.
Of the four owners in their history, two (D. Wayne Huizenga and Jeffrey Loria) used the team purely for profit and rank amongst the worst in the history of the game. A third, John Henry, merely used the team as a stepping stone to his eventual goal of owning the Boston Red Sox. The current owners, led by Bruce Sherman and fronted publicly by Derek Jeter, have not endeared themselves to fans after ripping apart a promising team for very little trade return. This winter's fire sale was just the latest in a series that have dotted the team's history and bred a climate of mistrust between the Marlins and their fans, one that has depressed attendance for decades.
Where to go?
While Longoria is clearly of the opinion that the team should move, he did not suggest to Topkin any potential site for relocation. That poses a problem because there isn't exactly a clear alternative.
The most viable may be Montreal. Our own baseball editor, Josh Benjamin, suggested just such a move last season. The Toronto Blue Jays still hold preseason exhibitions in Montreal's Olympic Stadium, and strong attendance in recent years shows that the city's appetite for baseball may have returned. The question of a new stadium would have to be addressed there too, but there is also a much more significant stumbling block: the Expos.
The Expos played in Montreal from 1969 to 2004, after which the financially strapped franchise moved to Washington, DC and became the Nationals. If the Rays were to move to Montreal, MLB would have to give serious thought as to how it would treat the history of the old Expos, as well as the Rays. While the Rays have won an AL pennant in their time in Tampa, it's worth wondering whether fans in Montreal would be interested in celebrating the accomplishments of another team rather than the history of their own club. The team saw little of the playoffs, but oversaw the birth of a half-dozen or more Hall of Famers.
A better model for baseball returning to Montreal is probably the way the NFL addressed the problem of Cleveland at the turn of the century. After the old Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens, Cleveland was awarded a new team, but the official history of the Browns was transferred to the new franchise. Essentially, the Ravens were treated as the expansion team, with their official history beginning when they moved to Baltimore. Given the extensive history of the Expos, the better idea is to replicate that procedure if they are to return baseball to the city.
There are other cities often mooted as expansion sites that the Rays could move to, but all of them have issues. Places like Charlotte and Portland could support MLB teams but lack the baseball infrastructure to even temporarily house a team while a major league stadium is built. Las Vegas has shown itself a viable market for major sports franchises with the success of the NHL's Golden Knights, but baseball's dark relationship with gambling would always loom over an MLB team there.
Maybe the Rays aren't necessarily viable in Florida, but the question then becomes whether they could do any better elsewhere.
What to do?
In the opinion of this writer, moving the Rays would be premature. In terms of aesthetics and accessibility, the team has never had a decent stadium. A well-executed new ballpark like the proposed Ybor City project could go a long way to making the team more viable. Using the Marlins as a parallel for how well much or little a new ballpark will help isn't exactly accurate. The Rays don't have the adversarial relationship with their fans that the Marlins do, and they can use their downstate neighbors as an example of what not to do when choosing the location of a ballpark. If they avoid those mistakes, a new park could be a huge boost.
Until they've had a chance to prove themselves, moving the Rays out of Florida shouldn't be considered. If they still struggle to fill seats after a good amount of time in a new ballpark, then it will be time to seriously look at alternatives. Until then, we're acting on an incomplete set of data—one that must be completed before a decision is made.