Texas Rangers v Tampa Bay Rays - Game 3

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg: “This is untenable as a model going forward.”

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After yesterday’s loss to the Rangers, Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg held court and he brought the noise regarding the Rays’ future. The extremely pessimistic and damn nigh depressing noise.

The upshot: the Rays keep winning but attendance goes down. About how the model that he and everyone believed in — win games, get fans, get money — just doesn’t apply in St. Petersburg, and that because of it, there is little hope for the future of the Rays. You often hear owners of small market teams talking about the “challenges” they face, but caught after yesterday’s loss, Sternberg was far more frank than we are used to hearing:

“I am frustrated this year. We’ve replicated last year [on the field] and our attendance numbers were down 15 percent and our ratings were down. The rubber has got to meet the road at some point here. When you go through the season, you control your own destiny, if you win out. We’re getting to the point where we don’t control our own destiny. This is untenable as a model going forward.

“”When you’re sitting here at this point and you lost by a run, you know another X dollars might have changed things. Three or five million wouldn’t have changed things necessarily but 15 to 30 might have. That’s where we were. And for the foreseeable future that’s what we’ve got … Whatever you want to say, there are 29 other teams passing us like we’re going in reverse right now. Except on the field. And at some point that changes.”

Which stinks. But the fact is, Sternberg bought the Rays fully-aware of the challenges of drawing fans in St. Petersburg, fully-aware of the terms of the stadium lease which ties his team to Tropicana Field and fully-aware of how challenging getting public funding for a ballpark is in this economy.  It’s a bad situation, yes, and I feel bad for Rays fans, but Sternberg needs to get past his griping stage about this and try to do something about the team’s situation.

What can he do?  Well, if it’s truly hopeless, he can sell.  If he doesn’t want to sell for some reason he can try to negotiate some sort of buyout of the lease with St. Petereburg and look into privately-funded stadium projects either in the Tampa Bay area or elsewhere.  What he can only do for so long, it seems to me, is to (a) continue to state the bleedin’ obvious about the Rays’ lot in life, because that doesn’t fix anything; and (b) beat his head against the wall in an effort to get local government to fix his problems.

My sympathies, Mr. Sternberg. Really, you have them, because you’re right, it shouldn’t work this way.  But get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’, ya know?

Joe Blanton signs with the Nationals

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 07:  Joe Blanton #55 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in the sixth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium on June 7, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post reports that the Nationals have signed Joe Blanton to a one-year contract.

Surprised it took this long given that Blanton was excellent out of the pen for the Dodgers last year, posting a 2.48 ERA and 80/26 K/BB ratio over 80 innings. But even if it’s a late signing, it’s not a terrible one: Blanton will receive a $4 million salary and will have the chance to make an additional $1 million in performance bonuses. UPDATE: The salary structure is kind of odd. Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post reports that Blanton will get only $1 million in 2017, plus some incentives, and will have $1 million deferred to 2018 and $2 million deferred to 2019.

And he got two weeks off work. Bonus!

Baseball doesn’t need gimmicks to draw in young fans. It just needs to be baseball.

MESA, AZ - MARCH 6: Chicago Cubs ball and bat bags are seen prior to the game between the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds on March 6, 2015 at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona. The Reds defeated the Cubs 5-2. (Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images)
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MESA, AZ — I didn’t set out to ask Robin Mitchell about pace of play, rules changes, how to best execute an intentional walk or how to turn kids into baseball fans. I was interviewing her about other stuff. She brought those topics up on her own.

“I heard them saying that they were not going to throw four pitches for intentional walks anymore,” Mitchell said. “I’d prefer that they throw the pitches because anything can happen. There can be wild pitches. And that’s the exciting part of baseball. That you don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t think we need to speed the game along.”

For most baseball fans such sentiments are tied up with a devotion to baseball purism, tradition or their distaste for change. But such is not the case for Mitchell. While the lifelong Chicago resident went to Cubs games as a child, baseball has not been a lifelong obsession. Rather, it’s something she has become reacquainted with via her two baseball-obsessed boys, Jake, 11, and Bennett, 9.

Mitchell and her boys live on the north side of Chicago and, over the past two years, her sons have developed a huge affinity for the Cubs, almost by osmosis. It was certainly a good time for it, as the Cubs have become winners, and Mitchell allows that since Jake and Bennett didn’t “have to suffer through some of the more challenging times,” their attraction to the game became easier. It’s clear to her, however, that they are not going to be fair weather fans.

“They love baseball,” she said, implying that it’s not just homerism for the current World Series champions at work. They love the sport itself and began to play it too. It’s not easy for Mitchell to say whether their playing led to their fandom or vice-versa. It all sort of happened at once, with each reinforcing the other.

I asked her what about baseball, specifically, appeals to them. What, at a time when Rob Manfred and everyone connected to the game is worried about the sport’s seeming inability to attract and hold on to young fans, keeps Mitchell’s sons engaged.

For them, it seems to be all about accessibility and engagement. Being in Chicago and living close to a park is important, as is having all of the games available on TV. Also important to them: appealing young stars.

“It helps that the Cubs have some really nice players who seem like really nice guys,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes we see them in the neighborhood even. Ben Zobrist. Anthony Rizzo. David Ross. Whenever we’ve seen them out or at an event they’re always kind and polite and give the boys encouraging words.”

But isn’t baseball . . . boring? And slow? Don’t kids like video games and kinetic action? Doesn’t a 19th century pastime with a sometimes turgid pace turn off 21st century kids?

“No, are you kidding?!” Mitchell said. “We don’t leave the game before it’s over. That’s what we do. It doesn’t matter what the score is. We love the pace of baseball. In the world of electronics, with everything moving really fast and being gimmicky, there’s something I think that my boys and I find appealing about baseball. I can share it with them and we all just slow down.”

As we talked, Jake and Bennett ran around a field just outside the Cubs clubhouse, playing catch and practicing rundowns with a couple of other boys they just met. Mitchell and I spoke for nearly a half hour. They played the whole time and looked like they wouldn’t stop unless or until their mother dragged them away.

We have spent a lot of time lately talking about how to fix baseball. I don’t know that anyone has made a compelling case that, despite the challenges the game faces, it is actually broken. Robin Mitchell doesn’t think it is. Neither do Jake and Bennett. While Rob Manfred and Joe Torre propose increasingly unorthodox methods for speeding things up, some pretty basic and longstanding factors are continuing to attract young fans:

  • The availability of games almost every day;
  • An exciting and successful local team;
  • The charisma of baseball’s biggest stars;
  • The ability for kids to play the game themselves and to emulate those stars on a little league field; and
  • The chance for parents to share their love of baseball with their children.

These are the factors which have always made up baseball’s appeal. Perhaps Major League Baseball should concentrate on ensuring that those factors, which are proven to draw in fans, persist and flourish. Perhaps they should concentrate less on chasing hypothetical fans via gimmicks aimed at fixing problems which are far-from-established.