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Friday, October 01, 2010

"Narrative Likability Factor" & The Tampa Bay Rays

  • Baseball City?:  It was fortunate I held off a few days before addressing the Rays, because a new component was introduced to their NLF formula just this week, when, following their postseason-clinching win over the Orioles, Evan Longoria and David Price sparked a minor controversy by complaining about the lack of support they were getting from Tampa fans, as crowds have been very light in the waning weeks, even though the Rays are chasing the top record in the AL.  This isn't really a "new" story, as Tampa's attendance problem, alternately blamed on an apathetic fanbase, an unattractive and inconvenient ballpark, and a miserly owner, has fueled relocation speculation for a decade, essentially from the moment the Rays entered the league.  The Rays went to the World Series in '08 and have now put together competitive teams for three consecutive years, so their quality of play is no longer to blame, yet attendance is essentially unchanged.  Many are speculating that the Rays TV ratings have improved significantly enough to offset mediocre attendance, but owner, Stuart Sternberg, has already cited it as one reason why he will be scaling back the payroll in 2011.  The outcome of this postseason may, to some extent, decide the future of baseball in Tampa.  Not only do the Rays need the revenue which playing baseball in October generates, but they may need a championship in order to promote support for a new stadium.  Without that stadium, Sternberg may elect either to scale back salaries to an extent that competing in the AL East would be even more far-fetched, or could seek to relocate the team to someplace like Charlotte.
  • Good For Bloggers:  Sabermetrician and baseball blogger extraordinaire, John Keri, has written a book about the Rays front office philosophy, called The Extra 2%, scheduled for publication in March.  Not only would a win probably increase interest in the book, which I expect could potentially be as interesting and influential and Michael Lewis's Moneyball, though likely not a popular, but it would certainly strengthen his argument about Andrew Friedman's well-executed plan if the Rays also had a championship trophy to hang their hats on.
  • The Break-Up: To that effect, there is little doubt, win or no, that the very special collection of talented players, almost all of which came up through Tampa's minor league system, will start going their separate ways come November.  Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena are free agents.  Many have speculated that B. J. Upton, following two disappointing seasons, may need a change of scenery.  Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, and others may also go on the trading block as Friedman commits to the rebuilding process.  If and when the Rays make it back to the postseason, they will likely be have a dramatically different composition.  This set of players will go down in history as their first quality Rays team, one that captured our imaginations with their improbable surge to the front of the AL East, a place generally reserved only for the monolithic franchises of New England.  When Tampa's best are all playing for one of those monoliths, it would be nice if they had a Rays ring to annoy the other millionaires with.  
What with those eight last-place finishes in their first nine seasons, it's easy to see how the Rays could still be viewed as an underdog.  They are not, clearly, following three seasons in which they averaged 92+ wins.  They have one of the cagiest GMs in the league and are loaded, both at the major and minor league level.  The Rays have been built to perform like a well-oiled machine.  Unfortunately, they sometimes play the game that way.  They are professional and business-like in almost every way, but not always animated and full of moxy, the way we generally presume our underdogs to be.  And, at an individual level at least, there is very little sense of urgency.  Almost every playoff team has an icon or token player - Roy Halladay, Jim Thome, etc. - whose legacy fuels the entire roster's desire to win.  In Tampa, there is no player on the roster older than 35 (Randy Choate) and the average age is 28.  These guys certainly don't feel like this could be their "last chance".

Narrative Likability Factor: B  

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