On June 20, 2019, Major League Baseball made an announcement with critical implications for Tampa Bay—giving permission to the Rays organization to explore splitting home games with Montreal. While Rays ownership claimed otherwise, many fans believe that this marked the first step in the eventual relocation of the franchise. As a Rays fan myself, the announcement was a gut punch, signaling the beginning of the end for the incarnation of the organization love. Now, I want to look backwards to see what led to this point. Where did it all go wrong?
Part of the answer can be found in the very beginnings of the franchise. The quest for an MLB team in the Tampa Bay area started long before the Rays came to town. From the 1960s onward, solid attendance at spring training games convinced local leaders that a major league franchise could be viable. Throughout the subsequent decades, attempts were made to lure other teams to the area, but were unsuccessful. This convinced baseball proponents that a stadium should be built, operating under the Field of Dreams premise that other teams would then relocate there. Thus began the construction of the “Florida Suncoast Dome,” or what is now known as Tropicana Field.
But what seemed like a smart move might have been one of the biggest factors in hurting the eventual Tampa Bay franchise. Officials were anxious to get a stadium up and running, leading them to rush to build one in St. Petersburg, despite being away from the population center of the area, Tampa. Combined with substandard public transportation, this would have an impact on attendance, even as the team garnered solid television ratings.
Another problem was the stadium—beset by structural issues within its first few years of existence. The idea in Tampa Bay was to build a facility that could host baseball games in the area’s climate, while being easily used for other sports and purposes. Yet soon after, this trend went by the wayside, as stadiums were soon built specifically for baseball, meant to evoke nostalgia for ballparks of the past. The Dome felt out of date before a game was even played.
And despite the hopes of area leaders, teams didn’t jump ship to Tampa Bay, instead using it as a bargaining chip to get better stadium deals in their own cities. When MLB finally awarded Tampa Bay with an expansion franchise in 1998, things had already gotten off to an inauspicious start.
Despite all these issues, the Devil Rays may have been a successful franchise if the team was good. But while fellow expansion organization, the Arizona Diamondbacks, broke a league record by winning a championship just three years into its existence in 2001, the Devil Rays struggled through ten years of ineptitude. From 1998-2007, Tampa Bay finished in last place in the AL East in every season but one, never losing less than 90 games in a year and cementing the team’s brand as one of perpetual hopelessness.
This couldn’t have come at a worse time for the franchise, since it came into being during a period of renewed interest in baseball. The nostalgia of old-fashioned ballparks combined with the steroid era’s inflation of offensive stats drew new fans to games. Yet the Devil Rays were never able to take advantage.
In 2008, the team received a name change and a new identity, using an analytics-minded front office powered by GM Andrew Friedman to become consistently competitive. But by then, it may have been too late. Interest in baseball in America was already in decline, and the Rays had lost the opportunity to make superfans out of young people in the area.
There were other reasons behind the Rays’ lack of success in drawing fans. For one, the Rays rapidly trade players for undervalued assets, which may help a small-market team win baseball games, but makes it hard to have star players.
But timing has hurt the Rays above all else. Suppose instead of rushing to build the unwieldy St. Petersburg stadium, local leaders took the time to build a more aesthetically pleasing park in Tampa. What if the Rays won an early championship, or owner Stuart Sternberg discovered Andrew Friedman right out of college, and Friedman built a competitive team before the “Moneyball” A’s ever brought analytics to popular consciousness? There are many “what ifs” when it comes to the history of the Rays. And while the franchise’s future seems to be in limbo, it is hard not to think about how a few different choices might have brought the franchise to a better place, with much less pain for those involved.