Rays and the Red Sox: familiar players in unfamiliar uniforms

MlbHlSqIn pondering Albert Pujols’ future a few days ago, I made mention of the jarring effect of seeing a ballplayer linked in everyone’s minds to a certain team suddenly appearing in another team’s uniform.

That might not happen with Pujols, but it will happen this year with Carl Crawford.

Up to now, Crawford has been a one-team man.  Through the very bad and the recent good, plus a team name and colour scheme change, he has represented the Rays with distinction over nine years.   But no more; now he’s a Red Sock.

Rays fans have seen the photos of him donning the Red Sox cap and jersey at the press conference announcing his signing, and they’ll see him out on the field in Spring Training games.  However, it will be when they see him out on the field in a Major League game against them when it will really sink home: Carl Crawford in a Red Sox uniform.

Fearing the sight will knock the Rays’ fans out of kilter, Tampa Bay are attempting to restore a sense of equilibrium by turning the tables on the Red Sox.  The Rays reportedly are on the verge of signing former Boston stars Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez to be their left fielder and Designated Hitter respectively. 

Even a casual MLB follower will know this isn’t a like-for-like situation.  Crawford is still held in great affection by the Rays, while Damon and Ramirez have burned their Boston bridges, the former by playing for the Yankees and the latter for being Manny, when Manny being Manny was no longer such a good thing.  Both Damon and Ramirez also played for teams before moving to Fenway and have played for other teams since leaving.

Still, they are best known for their Boston days and their appearance in Rays uniforms, if the deals are completed as expected, will add an extra something to the rivalry between the two teams.  Watching the left-field switch of Crawford and Damon between half-innings will be especially entertaining.

It’s also possible that the signing of two ‘name’ players might tempt a few more fans to Tropicana Field, particularly after an offseason where several established Rays have departed.

The Trop’s capacity has already been reduced from 45,000 to 37,000, but the Rays rarely fill even this amount of seats.  They averaged just 22,578 in 2010.  Putting it into footballing context, their average attendance is on a par with teams like Fulham and Bolton.  The Rays could put a positive spin on the situation and note that their total attendance of over 1.8m in 2010 comfortably outstripped Man Utd’s 1.4m at the top of the Premier League 09/10 charts; however Tampa Bay did play 62 more games than were played in the league at Old Trafford. 

This is how the Rays’ average attendances have shaped up over the past four seasons, covering their most recent bad year and their success in the last three:

Year Average attendance MLB rank
2007 17,130 29
2008 22,259 26
2009 23,147 23
2010 22,758 22

 

Compared to the average of 13,070 in 2003, their average over the last three years is a big improvement, although certainly not as big an improvement as they’ve seen from their on-field success over that period.  The Rays had lost 106 games in 2002 (100 in 2001) and would fall one shy of the three-digit loss mark in the 2003 season, so few could blame the locals from staying away. 

It’s more mystifying why there was a slight decrease, never mind an increase, in 2010.   After making it to  the World Series in 2008 and consolidating in 2009, they beat out the Yankees and Red Sox to win the AL East with a 96-66 record.  What more could the locals want?  A proper ballpark (i.e. not a horribly bland dome monstrosity) in a more accessible location would be a big help, but that doesn’t look to be on the cards any time soon.   The Rays could be staring at disappointing attendances for some time.

I doubt the Rays’ Front Office see Damon and Ramirez as the Pied Pipers who will finally get the crowds into Tropicana Field, but they might help to avert another decline. 

And it will be interesting for the rest of us to watch them too.

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