By Jeff Louderback
The ALDS has arrived in St. Petersburg with the Red Sox carrying a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five spectacle. Tonight, the Red Sox can complete a three-game sweep of their American League East rivals. As usual, Tropicana Field will appear more like the southern ballpark of the Red Sox than the home of the Rays. Heck, chances are Wil Myers will be mocked by a loud chorus of Red Sox fans at his own stadium.
If there was a formal study, likely it would be determined that there are more Red Sox fans than Rays fans in the Tampa/St. Pete area. This is Florida, after all, and a multitude of residents are from the northeast and the midwest. We live here in the sunshine and the warmth to escape the long, bitter winters of the north – and we are proud to call ourselves Floridians – yet our sports team allegiances remain unbreakable, as they should since that is the definition of a real fan.
For those of you New Englanders who are in town for tonight’s game and have yet to experience Tropicana Field, let me provide you with a primer. Simply put, it is the worst ballpark in baseball. Catwalks circle the top of the dome and interfere with balls in play. Games are played on artificial turf and not real grass. And the gimmicks are plentiful. A peculiar mascot named Raymond roams the park and beats on a drum. Before the game – and at times throughout the game – there are flashing lights and loud music, as if the Rays organization is attempting to create the feel of a 70s discoteque, except the result is noise pollution. If the Rays are losing late in the game, a video montage of inspirational scenes from a plethora of classic movies is shown, just as it was when the Rays were the Devil Rays. People wearing Rays apparel (that most of them just bought at the park) are armed with cowbells, which they aimlessly clang, even though most of them know little about the team.
I call so-called Rays fans “snowbirds” because they are part-timers. There are a few exceptions to the rule – you can fit them in the upper level party deck at the Trop, but true Rays fans do exist, just as the endangered Florida Panther is periodically spotted – but most people who call themselves Rays fans have shirts and hats with the price tags still affixed, and they cannot name five players on the active roster without looking at the scoreboard.
If they see you in public and you are adorned in Red Sox apparel, many Rays snowbirds will offer a snide remark. Among the many I have heard include, “You live in Tampa Bay, so you should support the Rays.” Of course, most of these commenters are the same people who believe it is socially acceptable to clang cowbells at a baseball game and dance to a hop hop cat puppet that appears on the scoreboard.
Somewhere, Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks’ character in “A League of Their Own”) is shrieking, “There are no cowbells, hip hop cats and catwalks in baseball!”
Rays snowbirds just don’t understand the concept of feverishly supporting a team year-round, year after year, regardless of where the team is in the standings.
Simply translated – Toto, we’re not in Boston anymore.
I have seen the Red Sox at ballparks across the country. The worst behaved and least knowledgeable baseball fans reside at the Trop. Yes, even worse than fans at Yankee Stadium and Comiskey Park (no, I am not calling it by its sponsored name). Of course, at the Trop, Rays snowbirds are always vastly outnumbered when the Red Sox or the Yankees are in town, which is the only time you can’t hear players talking on the field.
Go to a Rays-Mariners game, for example, and you can close your eyes and think you are at the U.S. Open watching Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. That is how quiet the Trop is without the Red Sox or the Yankees.
As an organization, the Rays are respectable, even though Joe Maddon is a bit full of himself (especially for a club that rarely wins a series in the postseason). They have Evan Longoria and Myers, who will likely emerge as one of the better outfielders in the AL. The pitching is usually strong, though the now embattled David Price will probably be traded in the offseason and the club will be forced to rely upon young arms like Matt Moore, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi. The front office is young and bright, aside from not creating a balance between pitching and offense.
The owner? Well, Stuart Sternberg can afford to spend much more than he does, but he keeps the Rays payroll limited and that will continue until the Tampa Bay region figures out a way to build a new retractable roof park in Tampa (not St. Pete).
Hopefully, for the sake of the region – and the cadre of Red Sox fans in the area – the Rays remain in Tampa Bay for the long term. As for tonight, Red Sox fans, savor the home away from home, the wide selection of tasty ballpark fare (I love the barbeque and the Outback Steakhouse items), the beer that is less than $10 and the guarantee that the game will be played because it is in a dome.
You will have no choice to stomach Rays snowbirds clanging cowbells and dancing to the hip hop cat on the scoreboard. But that is tolerable. A Red Sox game at the Trop features the roar of Red Sox fans. The only difference is that the Rays will bat last.