>Empty Seats and Empty Heads

>By The Common Man

The Common Man wants to tell you a story.
Once upon a time, there was a baseball team emerging from several seasons of dismal failure and establishing a new tradition of winning baseball. The club had several exciting young players who had grown up in the organization together, and who had come to love being teammates. The baseball team played in an abhorrent indoor stadium that seemed to actively make watching baseball less fun, if such a thing were even possible. Late in September, with the team all but assured of making the postseason, the team played a weekday game in their domed monstrosity and drew just a handful over 12,400 fans.
That team is, of course…

…the 2002 Minnesota Twins. On September 10, the Twins beat the Detroit Tigers 11-4 in front of 12,408 fans. The day before, they beat them 5-2 in front of 11,684. The day after, they won again, 8-2 before 13,106. Minnesota ended the series up 14 games over the White Sox. But Minnesota still didn’t feel much like celebrating. On Septermber 25, with just four more regular season games ahead of them, the Twins played in front of 15,314 on a Wednesday. The next day, they drew just 17,772. And on the last Friday night of the 2002 season, just 21,905 fans came to the Metrodome to watch the Twins beat the With Sox 3-1.

All day long, pundits and players have argued that Tampa fans “don’t deserve” their Rays after 12,446 fans paid to watch their team take on the Orioles on Monday. That the Rays should play somewhere where they’ll be appreciated. And that fans like that don’t deserve to watch a good team. In one typical response, The MLB Network’s Mitch Williams said on the air last night “That fan base does not deserve a World Series. It does not deserve to have a World Series in their town…. It is embarrassing.” (h/t to Marc Topkin) Bullshit.

Did Twins fans deserve to lose their team after 2002? How about after 2003, when they drew 18,293 on Thursday, September 2? Or 2006, when they drew 15,728 to a Monday, September 11 game when they were leading the AL Central by just a game and a half. How about in 2008, when they were down a single game to the White Sox on September 9, but only drew 17,015? Or maybe after September 16,2009, with the team down 4.5 to the Tigers, when they managed only 16,921 fans? The Twins have drown 3,063,327 fans this year, have they finally passed Mitch Williams’ litmus test?

In 2000, the Minnesota Twins drew 1,000,760 fans to the park. The next year, as they fought the Indians for the AL Central crown, that number shot up to 1,782,929 (which was still only 11th in the AL). Their attendance continued to grow throughout the decade, reaching its Metrodome peak last year with 2,416,237 fans. That’s 140% increase over 2000, and 35% increase over 2001. The Rays have seen a similar increase in their fan support since becoming competitive in 2008. In 2007, they drew 1,387,603 fans (far above the Twins’ base-level of support in 2000). In 2008, it jumped to 1,811,986 (again, a higher actual number of fans than the Twins drew in 2001, and a 30% jump in attendance). But it will take the Rays a while longer to build a sustained presence at their park. And in the meantime, as we’ve seen with the Twins in 2010, anything they can do to build a whole new park will do even more to help their attendance.

Really, the absence of Rays fans from the ballpark is a function of location, ballpark, and economy. Not of passion. Given the lack of consumer confidence in this country, it’s no wonder that fans are staying home from baseball games, football games, movie theaters, and restaurants. The Rays park sucks to go to, the food will apparently damn near kill you, and is so far out of town that it takes half a day to get there.  Who wouldn’t, some days, rather watch from their living room, spending $8 on a six-pack instead of a single beer, and not having to take kids to bathroom breaks and “for walks” because they’re bored? 

By the way, the suggestions that fans should simply plunk down $400 to get seats, food, drinks, and souvenirs for the whole family are being driven by the complaints coming from David Price, who is making $1.8 million this year, and Evan Longoria, who is making $950,000 this year (and will make $11 million next year). And they’re being supported by Williams, who earned something like $12.5 million in his career (according to BR.com) and is making who knows how much to pontificate for the MLB Network, and now Sean Casey, who made $41 million and also now works for MLB Network. All so that the Rays, who collectively make $72.8 million as a franchise feel better when they’re playing. Can you imagine the bubble these guys live in? Get real.

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