The Rays, winners of last year’s American League pennant, again own the AL’s best record at 73-47, but you wouldn’t know it from scanning the crowd Tuesday night at Tropicana Field. Apparently a five-game lead over division rivals Boston and New York in the AL East wasn’t enough to pique fans’ interest with just 4,795 spectators attending Tuesday’s 10-0 rout of Baltimore. Unfortunately, that’s nothing new for the Rays who, despite their on-field success of late, have struggled to gain a real following, ranking a distant third in their own city to the far-more-popular Lightning and Buccaneers.
Meanwhile four hours south down I-75, the Marlins, plagued by years of irrelevance, constant roster turnaround and a frustrating ownership group intent on spending as little as possible, are waging much the same battle. Tuesday’s mid-week tilt with Atlanta attracted just 6,079 (16-percent capacity) fans to newly-rebranded loanDepot Park, which—with few exceptions—has been a ghost town since the day it opened in 2012.
In sharp contrast, the Harford Yard Goats (Double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies) packed 6,850 fans into sold-out Dunkin’ Donuts Park—the Goats’ home field since 2017—Tuesday for First Responders Night (shout-out to Hartford Courant columnist Don Amore for a phenomenal find). The Yard Goats, losers of five straight, own the worst record in the Double-A Northeast Division at a dismal 29-61. That’s right—a bottom-rung minor-league team in a city that couldn’t keep the Whalers from defecting to Raleigh of all places is drawing bigger crowds than either of MLB’s Florida-based franchises.
Hartford certainly offers fewer entertainment alternatives than Miami or Tampa, making Yard Goats games, by default, the hottest ticket in town (let’s also not dismiss the impact of COVID, which continues to ravage Florida). But even by that logic, it’s still hard to reconcile a lousy Double-A team in Central Connecticut posting better attendance numbers than a perennial playoff contender barreling toward another AL crown. That disparity shines a white-hot light on the frightening reality that faces Tampa Bay as a successful small-market club playing in a community that couldn’t care less about it. With no end in sight to their stadium conundrum (many would consider cavernous Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg outdated and an eyesore relative to more modern venues), it’s entirely possible we could see the Rays, in the not-so-distant-future, split their home schedule between Tampa and another city like Montreal.
Of course, the Rays are not alone in this regard. The Diamondbacks, headed for one of their worst seasons in franchise history, have struggled with light attendance of late (7,796 made it out to Chase Field for Tuesday night’s series opener against the Phillies), while the perpetually underappreciated A’s remain at odds with Oakland, using Las Vegas and Portland as potential leverage in talks for a new stadium. Last week’s “Field of Dreams” game in Iowa was well-received, creating positive buzz for a sport that desperately needs it. But while baseball continues to thrive in the Northeast and most major media markets, in other parts of the country like Miami and Tampa, America’s pastime is fighting for its life.