Rays Fans Hope World Series Improves Future Turnout
Fans at local watch parties hope the Rays' recent success proves to the community the team is worth showing up for.
The Tampa Bay Rays will try to take the lead in the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday.
The teams have each won a game in what has been one of least-watched World Series in terms of national TV ratings. And in-person attendance at the two watch parties hosted by the city of St. Petersburg hasn't been great either.
But fans who have turned out are passionate about their team.
When Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe hit the first of his two home runs in Wednesday's Game 2, the crowd at the new St. Pete Pier came alive.
About 100 or so people cheered loudly from coned-off "pods" spread out across the waterfront lawn, nowhere near reaching capacity.
Other factors besides lack of interest likely played roles in the low turnout, including coronavirus concerns and it being a weeknight.
But fans who made the trip to the Pier said they enjoyed the atmosphere.
“We live in the boonies,” joked Sarah Curtis, who came with her husband, two kids and friends. “We're all the way in Land O'Lakes, so any chance to come to downtown St. Pete, hang out with friends and check out the Pier, we haven't been here before, it’s beautiful.”
“Not only that, but the weather is perfect, you can't beat it," added her husband Justin.
The couple says they would normally go to several games a year at Tropicana Field, with Justin taking advantage of the discounted tickets for veterans.
The small crowd here mirrored the often poorly-attended games at the Trop that led some Tampa Bay area residents to joke during this no-fans-allowed season that all Rays games are socially distanced.
But Justin Curtis doesn't buy the idea that this community doesn't appreciate its baseball team.
“I think it's an accessibility issue,” he said. “We were just talking about how the ferries don’t come down here, you know, tying the upper peninsula of Tampa to the lower peninsula of Pinellas. It's got to be easier, it's got to be easier, especially when you're expecting that fans just like to drink and have a good time, you don't want to make it dangerous.”
A few pods over, friends Amanda Cooper and Diana Nieves-Oake had a different theory. They said there are a lot of northern transplants in the community who are already loyal to teams like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox that have been around for generations — unlike the Rays, which played its first season in 1998.
While Cooper said she's been a fan since the beginning, she's had to do some convincing in her own family. But she said the team's recent success is helping.
"My son, he was a Phillies fan, but he's a Rays fan now,” Cooper said. “I kind of gave him some crap about being a bandwagoner, but that's okay, we'll take them all, we'll take them all,” she laughed.
Nieves-Oake chimed in, “But our kids are fans, so hopefully they're on board and will support [the team] going forward as well."
Several blocks away, next door to Tropicana Field, as many if not more fans packed into Ferg's Sports Bar.
Customers like Parker Perry, 21, sat at spread out tables across the open-air bar. The lifelong Rays fan said he normally tries to go to at least 20 games a season.
Perry hopes being in the World Series proves to this community that the Rays are worth showing up for.
“I think after this year people are going to realize, don't laugh at us, we're not the laughing stock, we beat everybody above us,” he said, his voice rising with passion. “I mean who are you going to root for, you want to root for the Yankees? Fine, we'll smoke 'em, we’ll smoke ‘em.”
One thing all fans interviewed agreed on: keep the team in St. Pete.
The Rays have a contract at Tropicana Field until 2027, but the last few years have been filled with debates about potentially moving the team to Tampa, splitting the season with Montreal, or leaving the region all together.
Back at the Pier, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman wouldn't bite on questions about the team's future in the city.
“So right now we're really just focused on what they're doing on the field,” he said. “We don't want to do anything to distract or take away from what the players are accomplishing and what they have accomplished this season in a really tough time.”
Kriseman said bringing home a World Series championship would make for a historic sports season for the community, which also recently celebrated the Tampa Bay Lightning winning the Stanley Cup.
A Rays victory party would likely draw bigger crowds than what's been seen so far, and the mayor said the city is preparing now to ensure celebrations put safety first.