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Nick Friedell

Taking the pulse of a pennant race at Tropicana Field

Big League Stew

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On Tuesday night, BLS contributor Nick Friedell headed over to the Red Sox-Rays game at Tropicana Field to check out the scene — or the lack thereof. Armed with an open mind and no preconceptions, this native Floridian attempted to get the pulse of the Rays' fan base as their team hurdles toward the playoffs. His report is below.

It's an hour before one of the biggest games in Rays' history and the line at the ticket window is almost non-existent. I walk up to the official standing in front of the box office and ask the ticket seller what the cheapest seat in the lower level costs. He shoots me a quizzical look and tells me that I will have to drop about $50 bucks. He walks me over to a diagram of The Trop to make sure he has his facts straight. It was seemed he hadn't answered this question too many times.

After seeing on the diagram that it will only cost $14 bucks to actually get into the game, I ask the official if I would be able to move around to better seats once I got inside. He pauses, and a small smile breaks across his face.

"I probably shouldn't be telling you this," he says "But yeah, people do that all the time."

With this knowledge in my back pocket I walk around for a few more minutes knowing that I'm in good shape even if I can't find a good seat from somebody outside. As luck will have it, I turn around and see two men holding a single ticket up in the air.

"It's seventy bucks," they say, pointing to the face value on the ticket. I tell them I'm not looking to spend that much, so they ask how much I'm willing to fork over.

"Thirty," I say, and the ticket is mine.

I can't believe how easily I am getting into the game. The Red Sox are in town and playing in a game that means everything for both teams. We're in the heart of a pennant race. Yet here I am walking down the steps in section 113 to my seat in the sixth row directly behind the Red Sox dugout.

Welcome to September baseball in Tampa Bay, I suppose.

* * *

So how do you explain why people are still staying away from The Trop even though the Rays are this close to winning a division crown for the first time, knocking off perennial powers like the Yankees and Red Sox along the way? I ask around and everybody has their opinion.

Butch Ford, a 50 year old charter fishing guide from Largo, Florida believes that the lack of interest is due in part to the demographics of the Tampa Bay area.

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"I think most of the people over thirty around here are from somewhere else," he says.

Ford himself grew up in the New England area as a Red Sox fan, but after the Rays came to his new hometown he switched allegiances. He hears the excitement of fans around town growing each day.

"(The Rays) are the conversation on the marine radio every morning" Ford said. "It used to be nothing but Bucs."

Interest and excitement may be up, but that hasn't translated to success at the gate for the Rays, and that's a fact that everyone is noticing. An announced total of 32,079 fans are here for the game and while that's high for the Rays, I'd say almost half are Red Sox fans. The franchise has argued that it needs a new ballpark to help generate some more excitement (and revenue) within the community, but the fans I speak with believe the team needs to consistently put a winner on the field to get people to show up.

"I don't think a new stadium is the answer," Rays season ticket holder Dave Cosper says. "I think it's just maybe a couple consecutive years of building a program that people can really appreciate."

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The scary part is that if fans actually did show up to the games the Rays would posses the biggest home field advantage in baseball. At times, The Trop is rocking. I've been going to games in St. Petersburg for years, and it can be so quiet that you could hear the chatter in the dugout. While this currently isn't the type of atmosphere that you would expect from a late September baseball game with two teams fighting for first place, it's clear that the potential for a rowdy atmosphere is there ... if only more people — and more importantly, more Rays fans — would show up.

As I wait in line at the concession stand, I overhear Cosper discussing the situation with some befuddled Boston fans who can't believe the stadium is not completely full. The lack of support is hard to put into words.

"It's too much I guess maybe of a shock," Cosper says of the reason why more fans aren't showing up. "Or it's too early for people to get hooked into what they're watching right now ... I don't understand it."

Does anybody?

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