The Yankees and the Rays both clinched playoff spots last night, though we still don't know who will win the A.L. East and, thus, home-field advantage throughout the American League playoffs. This should be a time of joy for both teams. It's not quite. The Yankees are still worried about their postseason rotation and, in this view, aren't nearly as concerned about starting the playoffs on the road in Minnesota as they should be. But the Rays, the Rays are having about as lousy a week as a franchise that just clinched its second-ever playoff berth could possibly have. It is up for debate how much it matters, both over the next month and over the next ten years.
It's always pleasant, in a world of safe, empty quotables, when an athlete goes off-message like Rays David Price and Evan Longoria did early this week, bemoaning the small crowds at Tropicana Field even as the team clinched a playoff berth. On one hand, you understood their frustration: Price and Longoria are two of the most exciting players in baseball, and it should be fun for exciting players to clinch playoff spots. You can imagine how many times over the last couple of years each player has looked at the empty seats at the Trop and said, "someday, when we win some more games, this place is going to be rocking." It's sad for them that it hasn't happened, even if they probably regret saying anything.
On the other hand: They're hardly alone. (The Reds and the Padres haven't exactly been filling the stands during their playoff chases, either.) And the problems with the Rays' attendance aren't about having lousy fans, or distant management. As Joe Sheehan wrote in his absolutely must-subscribe newsletter, it's about location.
They play in a dome in an awful location separated from the population center with limited traffic routes and poor public transportation to the park, in a location that isn't a destination before and after games. If you live in Tampa and want to see the Rays play at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday, you have to really want it. The park is on a peninsula that is accessible from the mainland by four connectors, just two of which are major ones, one of which comes in all the way up by Clearwater, about 20 miles to the north.
It's one think to make people cross a body of water if there are many ways to do so, particularly via public transportation. The Yankees could move to the Bronx in 1923 because it wasn't a big deal to get over the East River. It still isn't. But if you live or work in Tampa, it is a big deal, a hassle, to get to Suncoast Dome, so much so that I can completely understand why the population has by and large rejected the option for almost 15 years, even as the team has made itself extremely watchable.
The Rays could probably build a stadium in a better location, like, say, by Raymond James Stadium where the Buccaneers play ... but that spot is taken by Steinbrenner Field, spring training home of the Yankees. At every turn, the Yankees have them cornered.
Also of note: As Yankees fans can certainly attest, even though teams are clinching playoff berths, the last month of baseball hasn't exactly been the most thrilling one, because everyone has known the four American League teams in the playoffs. It's difficult to fire oneself up for playoff seeding. The Rays may have to give out 20,000 free tickets tonight to goose the crowd and respond to some bad PR, but when the playoffs start next week, and the games become more appointment viewing, don't expect opposing teams' fans to be able to take over the place. The Rays drew well during the 2008 playoffs, and that place was full of Rays fans. Rays fans do exist. It's just a hard park to get to, it's more fun to watch on TV, they play in a dome, and besides: It's Florida. The freaking Heat won't be selling out every game this year.
This is to say: None of this is the end of the world. You won't see empty parks during the playoffs. (Not even in Atlanta!) The last week of the baseball season, it's tough to get fans when you're not in a pennant chase (and sometimes, even if you are). We forget this because the Yankees are always in a pennant chase. But it's hard elsewhere. Come playoffs time, no one will remember any of this, other than a stray Joe Buck anecdote here or there. Thank heavens. The playoffs start in less than a week, people. Let's keep our eyes on the prize here.