Will the Rays Fan Support Flat Line in 2009?
Here in Tampa Bay, the Rays fans are a bit new at this winning tradition thing. Our fellow brethren in the American League East, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees have established these traditions that we are striving for after a successful 2008 campaign. I can admire the courage and the determination it takes to follow a team with such traditions, but how is a team only around for 11 years to fight such a monster wall of expectations.
Heck before 2008, the Rays faithful had only one season where we could cheer and find success, and even that was only a 70 game winning season. And because of that lack of solid confidence at times, I am tempted to remind people that there might be a short lived backlash into the past ways for fans if the Rays do not get off to a great start in 2009. This area has always craved a winner. We have won Super Bowl trophies and Stanley Cups, but that World Series trophy was being salivated over by the millions who live in the Tampa Bay area.
So are we to believe that the hysteria and the mass explosion of excitement will be in the air in April when we first open the 2009 season after a short road trip through Boston and Baltimore? As fickle as that might sound, the team has only had that one brief practice into the realm of respectability. And because of that, there might be a slide or two in 2009 due to the increased awareness that this team is coming to play every night or day now.
No more will there be teams that will be surprised or caught unaware of this teams potential. Teams around the American League will not be resting players or even expect to sweep a series against the Rays any time soon. The air of uncertainty is gone from the Rays sails and they are on course to come into each contest as a stepping stone back to the promised playoff lands. The Rays will come out hungry in 2009, because they have been in the classic, and they want to get back there as soon as possible.
But can this team battle day in and day out with a huge expectation on it from the start of even Spring Training games? That sense of responsibility comes with the success of winning a A L Pennant. You get a huge target set straight on your back and you either back up your claims, or fall by the wayside and let the winners’ pass by waving at you.
In the past, the Rays fans and the team have done a lot of waving at losing streaks and misplays in games. But with the increased defense and the Rays Bullpen coming to win every night, it made for a more interesting 7-9th inning in games in 2008. Can they build upon that experience and step it up a notch or two and finally contend nightly with everyone at anytime, or will 2008 just be a case of catching some teams napping and the Rays feasting on their downward seasons.
But what if the Rays do not get off to a monster of a start in 2009 ? Will the “boo” birds be ringing in the papers and from the stands even if we start off near .500 in April. Will the once vocal and energetic fans still come in bunches to every game, or only for the “Prime” games against the likes of the Red Sox and Yankees. Will a losing streak silence the cowbells and hide the home made signs for the blue and white clad Rays, or will the fan base again convert back to whoever is winning more games at the moment.
That is the problem with living in a region that boasts only 10 percent population over 30 years of age who were born in the area. Everyone is from somewhere else in the country, or the northeast. And with that move came a sense of tradition in following your old team no matter what. But just because you have a relative or even a parent who is entrusted to another team, do you feel obligated to support your new local team.
I have always wanted to ask any of the Boston or New York faithful who come here if they support any of the other local NFL or NHL teams. Do they still hold a traditional place in their hearts for the Rangers or Giants. Or maybe even the Jets and the Islanders if you are from the Gotham city. And do all Boston fans still cheer for the Bruins and Patriots even if they might have down seasons.
The pitiful thing here is I think the region is still polarized and not committed to the Rays even after posting one of the best turnarounds in the annuals of baseball period. I hate to say it, but after years of other sports teams in the area not living up to expectations, could the Rays be bunched into that bushel of apathy after just a short time again. I think it is the Rays responsibility to keep a good product on the field and in the stands.
Fans will come for the games, but they also come for the entertainment before and after the contests in Tampa Bay. Some of the best attendance marks in 2008 came during the Concert Series on Sat night, when the team regularly sold out the entire Trop. so people could sing and dance in the aisle after the games. But do we have to be as gimmicky in 2009? I hate to say it, but we still have about a year before the rest of the Tampa Bay area can trust that the Rays are on the right path here.
I think a good barometer of the support factor might come in a few weeks at the Rays 2009 Fan Fest. That is usually a good sign of the type of support and the excitement about the upcoming season. But could that even be a bit more downplayed this year because of the team being based in Port Charlotte instead of here in St. Petersburg. It will be interesting to see how the distance and the Fan Fest will be changed because of the long commute for the event.
I know, I know, what else does the team have to do to show it wants to be winners, well it does go beyond the field. In the next few months the Rays marketing department will have ample chances to remind and entice the area’s fan to again come and support the team. Now you know that the Opening Day game against the New York Yankees will be sold out, but is that because of the pennant raising before the game, or because of the Yankees.
Fans in this area may have to make a choice in 2009. They might have to decide if the bandwagon effect works for them, or they might just want to hop on board and be a full time supporter of the local team. Who knows what is going to happen in 2009, but you can bet the team will fight until the last out in October in the 2009 season. I not expecting a huge turnaround in 1 season after our greatest success on the field to translate into huge attendance numbers.
The team might be expecting a large increase, but that will come with the team winning again. I hate to say this, but this region is like a lot of small market teams, there is a lot to do besides baseball on any given weekend or even weeknight. But if the support is there, the team will again do everything in it’s power to showcase themselves again as the team to beat. But the crowd as a 10th man has been instrumental in the past in making the difference late in a contest.
So as I am again getting ready to go cowbell shopping for 2009, and buying 2 dozen fresh white balls for the upcoming Fan Fest. I truly think that 2009 will be a closer contested divisional series than ever before in the A L East. There are three team poised to fight for the title, and 1 sitting back and might jump over the heap if we forget about them. I am looking forward to the first game, and cheering for my hometown team again.
The boys’ played longer into the season in 2008 that ever before, and might still be a bit shell shocked at the result, but the area is proud of them and want to again show their spirit and energy to the team. 40-some days and the guessing game starts all over again. It seemed like just yesterday I was writing about the World Series match ups and the rain delays. And the Rays and the Phillies get to relive it all again a few times during Spring Training, both in Clearwater, and in Philly.
Let’s Go Rays!!!