When the Twins won their last World Series, I was five years old and more interested in preparing to trick-or-treat (in the midst of what would turn out to be a historical blizzard) than watching baseball.
As most are aware, the Twins followed up their championship season in 1991 with a decade-long lull. These were the formative years of my love affair with baseball. In the mid-90s, I spent many an evening inside that massive silo known as the Metrodome, watching bad teams alongside the few thousand other fans scattered throughout. In those days, you could move from your cheap Upper GA seats to the lower deck behind home plate and the ushers would hardly notice or care.
The last baseball game I ever watched within the confines of the Metrodome was played under circumstances not at all similar to those laid out above. It was October 6th of last year, and the Dome was packed with more than 54,000 raucous fans who'd come out to cheer on the Twins -- now a perennial contender -- as they hosted the Tigers in a tiebreaker that would determine the AL Central Champ.
I've seen it both ways, so I'm all too familiar with the atmospheric differences between a packed house and an empty building. The Twins fed off the energy provided by their fans in that final regular-season game, willing their way to a 12th-inning walk-off victory. Had the ballpark been only half as full, the victory would have probably been about half as sweet for the Twins -- had they won at all.
So, I can feel for David Price when he expresses his disappointment with the underwhelming crowds in Tampa Bay. On Monday night, after the Rays suffered a 4-0 loss to the Orioles, Price remarked on his Twitter account: "Had a chance to clinch a post season spot tonight with about 10,000 fans in the stands....embarrassing."
Evan Longoria voiced similar sentiments after the game. I feel for them. That doesn't mean I agree with what they said.
Whether or not they intended it, the comments from Price and Longoria come off as potshots at their team's fan base. It's unfortunate, because there are a lot of very passionate Rays fans and I've had the opportunity to meet and interact with several of them. If I were one of those fans, I'd be downright pissed off at these remarks.
While I can see where they're coming from, it's difficult for me to be sympathetic to the plight of these players. Price and Longoria are millionaire athletes who have the privilege of doing what they love in front of thousands of people, and getting paid a substantial amount of money to do it. The game in question, a Monday night contest, featured an attendance of over 12,000 people. While that's not anywhere close to capacity at Tropicana Field, it's not a small number. If I were ever given the opportunity to do what I love in front of 12,000 people I'd probably consider it the highlight of my life. And yet, Price and Longoria both refer to it as "embarrassing."
Despite the obnoxious invective spouted by a radical faction of clueless people out there, the low attendance at Rays games is not evidence of Tampa Bay having "crappy baseball fans." It's a matter of circumstance. The Rays play in a city with a poor baseball demographic, in a terrible excuse for a baseball stadium that is hours away from the most densely populated areas.
More than that, though, this team lacks the history and legacy that tend to comprise the very fabric of a fan following. The Rays have only been around for 12 years, and for most of that time they've been very, very bad. When I was a young lad learning about the game of baseball in a mostly empty Metrodome, and hearing stories from my elders about Harmon Killebrew, and reading Kirby Puckett's Be The Best You Can Be for the 100th time, the Rays were not even in existence. They don't have traditions passed from generation to generation, Hall of Fame players or a city with an ingrained sense of allegiance.
My parents both grew up in Minnesota and have always embraced the game of baseball. You might say I was born a Twins fan. Nobody who can legally drive a car right now was born a Rays fan. It takes time to build a loyal and passionate fan base, and it's especially difficult in an area like Tampa Bay which faces the inherent disadvantages I mentioned above.
But complaining about your own fans is not the way to build that loyalty. Price and Longoria should know better. I'm sure that, once upon a time, they themselves were baseball-obsessed kids sitting in a mostly empty ballpark and simply appreciating the game.
I doubt those kids would have minded playing in front of 12,000 people.