Club Officials Confident Playoffs Will Pack 'Em In
MARC LANCASTERST. PETERSBURG - Dan Wheeler still remembers the scene at his first postseason series as a big-leaguer.
Published: August 31, 2008
Published: August 31, 2008
As his Houston Astros opened their 2004 National League Division Series in Atlanta, about 15,000 empty seats were evident at Turner Field for the first two games.
"It was definitely strange," Wheeler said. "The last game was sold out, when it was Game 5, but there were still empty seats early on. I think they got to the point where they were a little bit spoiled because they'd been 14 years in a row. But it wouldn't have happened in New York."
Could it happen in Tampa Bay this October? Probably not. But the area's tepid response to the Rays' home games during the stretch drive for the playoffs at least raises the question.
Though the Rays' overall home attendance is up this season, their crowds at Tropicana Field seem to have been driven more by promotions and the opponent's fan base than the play of the home team.
Including Saturday, the Rays have welcomed 18 home crowds of at least 30,000 this season. They hit that plateau for the April 8 home opener against Seattle, all six games played here by the Red Sox and the three games of the Cubs' inaugural trip to the Trop. Of the remaining eight biggest-drawing games, seven coincided with the Saturday night concert series. The lone exception to the trend was a crowd of 33,438 that came to watch the Rays and Tigers on Sunday, Aug. 3.
There will be no such bells and whistles to offer up for a division series the first week of October against, say, the White Sox or Twins. The only draw will be the two most important games in Rays history to date, and team officials are confident that will be enough to pack 'em in.
"We expect that if we're playing games in October, each and every one will be a sellout," said Rays president Matt Silverman. "There's great excitement about the team, and especially given it would be the franchise's first trip to the postseason, we're very confident."
The Rays already have fans queuing up for playoff tickets in a sense. Their season ticket-holders will get first crack at not only the seats they have held all season but additional tickets in the upper deck, and they'll get a discount in purchasing postseason tickets. The Rays also offered playoff priority to those who purchased partial season ticket packages for the second half, and they have expanded those efforts to those who put down a deposit on 2009 season tickets.
Silverman said movement on those fronts has been "encouraging," and activity figures to pick up dramatically as the team's magic number dwindles. Will the interest level and crowds follow for the final home series of the regular season against the Yankees, Red Sox and Twins? We'll see.
But even if people don't come out of the woodwork to support the Rays in September, that doesn't mean they won't show up the following month.
As evidence, take a look at the 2003 Florida Marlins. They averaged 16,290 fans during the regular season before packing their football stadium for the playoffs. In eight home games on their way to a World Series title, the Marlins averaged a remarkable 65,102 per game.
That's a playoff atmosphere, and it's a feeling the Rays crave as they eye October a bit more closely.
"Especially when you play in a dome," said Wheeler, "to have sellouts where everybody's rooting for you and every pitch and every at-bat means everything - your whole year - you find an extra gear when you have 40,000 people screaming at once. There's no better feeling on a baseball field."