Photo:Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays, on opening day, 2014.
A tale of two Florida baseball cities
This month, as the 2014 baseball season dawns, a tale of two Florida cities.
In St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and his management group continue, more or less, to do everything right. The Rays continue to put money into their much-maligned ballpark, Tropicana Field, spending millions on the "fan experience" — employee training, upgraded concourses, restrooms, bigger video screens, etc. Ticket prices remain affordable. Although as a structure the Trop is aging and deteriorating, it's always been more accessible and a better place to watch a game than its reputation would have it.
The Rays continue their aggressive marketing, with postgame concerts, promotions and a league-leading number of bobbleheads and other giveaways. The team participates in the community (although Sternberg hasn't moved here), and its foundation is active philanthropically.
The Rays' front office is collaborative and cohesive, with a creative, data-intensive approach to analyzing talent and trading players. The Wall Street-like focus on asset valuation has let the Rays keep a core group of stars that gives the team an identity while not overpaying for the other talent they need in order to compete. Meanwhile, the team continues to stockpile young pitchers that other teams ultimately overpay for.
Rays manager Joe Maddon is one of the most interesting people in baseball. And with the second-lowest payroll in baseball, the Rays — once the American League's designated laughingstock — field teams that are fun to watch and are competitive, with six straight winning seasons, a World Series appearance and the playoffs in four of the past six years.
In Miami, well, just turn everything that's true about the Rays inside out and that's the Marlins — inconsistent, indifferent and chaotic. Turmoil and conflict in the club's front office is well documented: Owner Jeffrey Loria is a one-man negative publicity factory — fans loathe him and the sporting press all but foams at the mouth: "The most dishonest owner in sports," according to ESPN, the magazine; "a toad," according to cbssports.com columnist Scott Miller, who also took a shot at the team's president, David Samson, Loria's former stepson, as a "walking organizational virus."
The Marlins don't have to worry about tinkering with a stadium — Miami-Dade taxpayers built them a $600-million palace two years ago after Loria poor-mouthed local politicians into thinking he'd leave unless the team got a new place to play.
On the field, the Marlins have two World Series championships (the first under former owner Wayne Huizenga) but have been inconsistent year to year. Loria spent big on a bunch of star free agents in the stadium's first year (2012), but quickly blew up the roster when the stars didn't deliver.Last year the team lost 100 games. They start this year with 21 new players from the 25 on the 2012 opening day roster.
So different in so many ways, the two teams have one thing in common: Difficulty getting people to come to games. The Rays were last in attendance during Major League Baseball's 2013 regular season, with an average of 18,646 attending each game. The Marlins were just slightly better at 19,584 per game.
The attendance figures make a mockery of the attempts to explain them. Pre-Sternberg, the Rays supposedly didn't draw because they didn't win. Now that they win, the reason they don't draw, supposedly, is because of the stadium.
The Marlins, who have never drawn well, including during their championship years, have a new stadium, so that excuse doesn't work for them any more. Now the reason they don't draw well, supposedly, is Loria.
Who knows? Florida cities were never hotbeds of frustrated fans yearning for their own teams — spring training baseball in Florida emerged as a way to attract tourists, not as a two-month surrogate for the Show. And today, we live in a much different age than the years when most baseball teams were knitting themselves into their cities' civic profiles.Could it be, given 70-inch Tvs at home and massive competition from all manner of other teams and pastimes, that there's simply a limited appetite for actually attending baseball games in Florida?
If that's the case, then Miami, with a lousy owner, can look forward to paying, eternally, for a stadium eternally half full.Loria will sell the team at some point and walk away with several hundred million dollars. If that's the case, then Tampa Bay, with a great owner, can look forward either to no team or a mostly empty stadium in Tampa rather than the mostly empty stadium in St. Petersburg. Sternberg, at some point, will walk away with a couple hundred million dollars, either bought out by the other owners or by another rich person with less sense.
As a baseball fan, I hope it's still possible for a healthy marriage between a team and a community and that 2014 will see the Florida teams turn some kind of corner in terms of attendance. For the moment, in any event, it is time to focus on the guys playing the game on the field. It's getting harder to be optimistic about the future of baseball in the state, but spring is not a cynical season.