Home MLB'Weekly' Hit Ground Ball ‘Weekly’ Hit Ground Ball 2008: Week Four

‘Weekly’ Hit Ground Ball 2008: Week Four

by Matt Smith

Rays dreaming of a Disney ending

Major League Baseball made a visit to Disney Land this week, but thankfully it was no Mickey Mouse affair.

The Tampa Bay Rays played a three-game series against the Blue Jays at the Disney Sports Complex in Orlando, following their series against the Rangers at the venue last season. The new environment proved to be a success on the field for the Rays as they swept Toronto and increased their Major League record at Disney Land to 6 and 0.

That success was repeated off the field as well. The Rays and Blue Jays pulled in crowds of 8,269, 8,989 and 9,540. While these are low for Major League standards, they were close to sell outs in the small stadium and sell out home crowds are something of a novelty to the Rays. Over the course of the 2007 season, the Rays’ average home gate was just over 17,000, which leaves plenty of spare seats considering Tropicana Field has room for just under 44,000 spectators. The Rays’ Disney Land experiment was an attempt to drum up some extra publicity and to reach out to the wider Florida community.

It’s a smart move and is a sign that they recognise the need to be proactive. Last season, the Rays’ home gates were the second worst in the Majors. Sadly for the Florida region, only the Marlins could do worse, averaging crowds of just below 17,000. Major League Baseball’s struggles in Florida are even extending to Spring Training. The Grapefruit League is facing an exodus, with the Dodgers, the Indians and the Reds being the latest teams to confirm that they will be leaving Florida behind and heading to the rival Cactus League in Arizona.

Faced with such difficulties, it is up to the Rays and the Marlins to give their local communities a reason to come out and support them.

Attractive and exciting new venues could be one part of the answer. After several years of posturing and relocation threats, the Marlins have finally reached an agreement to build a baseball-only stadium to replace their tenancy at the ill-suited Dolphin Stadium. The current estimated cost of the 37,000 seater stadium is $515m (about £260m) and it is scheduled to open in April 2011. Meanwhile the Rays announced plans for their own baseball-only stadium in November last year. There are many political hoops to jump through before work can begin and approval is far from a given. Naturally, locals are concerned about possible tax hikes and fans also doubt whether sitting in an open-air ballpark is going to be an attractive proposition during hot and humid Florida summers. Still, there are positive signs that a new Rays ballpark is on the horizon.

These new homes can also be joined by a touch of re-branding to bring a fresh and exciting new feel to the teams. The Rays have already gone down this route by dropping the ‘Devil’ from their name and embracing a new colour scheme this season, while the Marlins are set to be re-named the Miami Marlins as part of the new stadium deal.

But new homes and new names will only get you so far. The best way to get fans into a stadium on a consistent basis is to put a winning team on the field. Admittedly the Marlins’ two World Series victories didn’t really have much of an impact on attendances, but Dolphin Stadium undoubtedly held them back from capitalizing on these achievements. The Rays have good reason to be optimistic for the future as they are developing a fascinating group of talented young players. Many baseball fans would like to see somebody break the New York-Boston monopoly in the AL East. With the Orioles at the start of their own rebuilding programme and the Blue Jays tripping themselves up at every turn, Tampa Bay are the team most likely to do it over the next five years or so.

If they do, they won’t need to go to Disney Land any more to sell out their home stadium. That will be bad news for Mickey and his friends, but great news for Tampa Bay and baseball in Florida.

Week Four wrap-up

The D-Backs (17-7) are showing little sign of slowing down. They now lead the NL West by six games, while the Padres have sank to the bottom losing eight of their last ten games. At 16-8, the Cubs are pushing Arizona for the best record in baseball with the Cards and the Brewers on their coat tails in the Central. The Marlins (14-10) have held on to the top spot in the East for another week, but the Phillies, Mets and Braves are looming ominously.

In the American League, the Red Sox (15-11) have lost four in a row to allow the Orioles (14-10) to tie them for first place in the East. The Rays are on a charge, winning their last five, while the Blue Jays ridiculously threw Frank Thomas away and lost six on the spin. The Tigers have picked up their game in the Central and, although they are still stuck in the cellar, they now sit just three games behind the division leading White Sox (13-10). The Indians have won their last five to get them to .500 (12-12). In the West, the Angels and A’s (both 15-10) are still tied at the top. The Rangers are already seven games behind, which should please a few Liverpool fans at least.

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