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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Striking out at Tropicana Field

One of the many enjoyable things about baseball is the daily drama that unfolds as a handful of teams battle down the stretch for a playoff spot.

Baseball fans lucky enough to have a team in the playoff hunt are presented with a dozen or more games that ultimately decide the team’s postseason fate, and a chance at World Series immortality.

The Tampa Bay Rays find themselves in just such a battle this week as they play the Texas Rangers and the Baltimore Orioles in the last homestand of the year.

But you wouldn’t know it by looking at the stands.

Average attendance for first three games against the Rangers, a team competing with the Rays for a playoff spot, hovered around 12,000, well below the team’s league-worst average of 18,000. The highlights on ESPN show home runs soaring into sparsely populated sections of Tropicana Field.

We won’t venture here into all of the reasons put forth over the years as to why people don’t attend the games. We just know Tropicana Field is a failure as a baseball venue. The empty seats this week should eliminate any notion of forcing the team to play there until 2027, the final year of its lease with St. Petersburg.

One of the most talented teams in Rays history is on track to draw the fewest fans in six years. Attendance is dead last among all major league teams

Six weeks ago, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said he would allow the stadium lease to be amended to allow the team to explore sites in Hillsborough County.

Two weeks later, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig declared the talks between Foster and the Rays at a standstill, and said he might intervene.

Shortly after, two city council members said at a public meeting that a price was offered to the team for the right to leave Tropicana before 2027, but that Selig advised the team to give St. Petersburg nothing.

And that’s where we stand today. Hard feelings, empty seats, and no plan forward.

So who’s to blame? Foster was slow to heed the calls from business leaders on both sides of Tampa Bay to let the team explore others sites. But he’s right to demand the team compensate the city for breaking the lease.

Selig isn’t helping matters. Not a word has been uttered publicly since dropping his bomb about intervening. He hasn’t given Foster the courtesy of a phone call, or dispatched anyone from his office to St. Petersburg to talk about how the league might intervene. Questions to his office last week about whether he wants the team to stay in this market were met with silence.

Rays officials aren’t talking about what they might be willing to do to compensate the city, if at all.

On top of all of that, the St. Petersburg mayoral race is complicating matters. Foster is in a fight for his political life with Rick Kriseman, a challenger who says he would allow the team to explore other sites in the Tampa Bay area, provided they pay an exploratory fee. Selig and the Rays may be waiting until after the Nov. 5 election.

By then, the playoff fate of the 2013 Rays will have been decided. Left unknown will be the fate of the franchise in this market. We believe baseball would draw crowds in the area with a centrally located stadium, such as in downtown Tampa. But the Tropicana debacle could sour baseball on the region altogether.

Considering the empty seats this week, the talks can’t resume fast enough.

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