As opening day approaches, great expectations for Tampa Bay Rays

Both local dailies on Sunday featured articles and op-eds on the Rays' viability vis a vis a new stadium, with the Times including a think piece by reporter Stephen Nohlgren suggesting  that St. Petersburg officials make a "bold move" now to get negotiations started on finding a new home for the Rays somewhere in the Bay area.  But there was one sentence that certainly could be construed as risible.

To keep the Rays over the long haul, taxpayers have no choice but to once again open their wallets and build a new stadium.

It's instructive to read the provocative comments on the Times Web site, with fans essentially saying the Rays should pay for the park themselves and that St. Pete officials should not allocate taxpayers' money for a new stadium, with other correspondents claiming that such a stance will alienate the club,  making  it easier for the team to leave, since another community might provide such benefits.

Forgive me for bringing up an exception to all of this, but I will anyway, because it's completely true.

In the mid-1990s, the San Francisco Giants had struck out four different times on ballot initiatives in both San Francisco and in nearby communities on having taxpayers support building a new stadium to replace aging Candlestick Park.  But after consistently losing, the Giants did something pretty radical — they funded the park themselves.  They got an immediate infusion of $55 million in cash for naming rights (from Pacific Bell telephone), and even though it's been tough at times (they have a $17-20 million debt service obligation they will continue to pay out for years to come) the point is — they funded it themselves.

For 98% of professional sports, that is the way it works out.  But it doesn't have to be that way.

And what about on the field?  The Times quoted a report on Sunday that said the Rays starting pitching staff makes next to last in the majors in salary.  All the more reason why one who's not even affiliated with the local team could support them over the teams that hover above them (and everyone else in the American League when it comes to salary and thus talent), the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

The Tampa Bay Rays begin their 13th year in existence Tuesday night against the Baltimore Orioles at Tropicana Field at 7:10 p.m., and there are great expectations that the Rays, owners of the best record in spring training, will be able to duplicate, if not exceed their sensational American League championship season of 2008.

But will the fans come in numbers expected of a team with such promise? (They finally sold out the season opener on Monday).

That's a big question that will be reviewed all year long, with critics (especially those who live north of the Howard Frankland) insisting that attendance would undoubtedly be boosted if the ballpark was located in Hillsborough County.

Though the Rays actually did increase their attendance last year (by 3.5%) while on average attendance was down due to the recession, they still ranked just 23rd out of the 30 MLB teams in average attendance.

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