Our correspondent Jordi Scrubbings is back with his latest installment…

I recently arrived at the conclusion that the Rays are the perfect Florida team. They epitomize the state in a way no other professional team does. I think I’ve mentioned before that I am a Florida State grad, and if one postulates the theory that former FSU head coach Bobby Bowden was “Old Florida” – where “daggum it” was a popular phrase and the good ol’ boy system ran rampant – then the Rays are the best team to carry the mantel in the post-Election 2000, post-real estate bust, post-recession “New Florida”.

A few months ago, I explored how difficult it is to win fans in Florida, but there isn’t a reason why fans shouldn’t support the Rays. Looking at the Florida sports landscape, if we cast other sports teams into certain Florida “roles” none are as perfect as the Rays. The Miami Dolphins, for example, are like my grandparents’ house near the Villages. My grandparents have been around forever and they keep muddling along, living day-to-day as old people do. Sure, they might win a bingo tournament and be the talk of the town for a week, but their most recent accomplishments will never compare to their own personal glory days. And like Archie and Edith’s reverence of old Herbert Hoover, Dolphins fans shed tears to the past and sing songs to the memories of Marino, Shula, and their heralded ’72 perfect season.

Staying down south, the Rays baseball brethren, Florida Marlins, are as Florida as an oft-traded beachside timeshare. With their two World Series Championships and several mediocre years, they are the residence that sits frequently empty mired in perpetual disarray, only to be fixed up and flipped to new owners. Yet somehow while the neighbors think they are a blight and the homeowners association has lost all semblance of control, the owners fleeced the city for wads of cash to build an entirely new home.

Admittedly, I don’t know my Bucs and Lightning histories as well as I should. I know the Bucs stunk hideously, were good for a bit, went back to stinking, turned the corner with Dungy, won with Gruden, struggled again for a bit, and have just now found their groove again. But I am not sure how that relates to Florida culture. Really bad, good, bad, good, great, bad, and good. That’s more like a roller coaster at Busch Gardens than a predictive model.

Anyway, let me explain why I think the Rays are more “New Florida” than the aforementioned teams or any other team in the state.

First and foremost, let’s look at the Rays current living conditions. Like many Floridians, the Rays ownership moved into a fixer-upper home thinking the conditions were prime for renewal. They spent their hard earned money on upgrades and modifications. Then reality struck. The market plummeted faster than Scott Kazmir’s ability to get out hitters. Now the Rays, like most Floridians, are stuck in their current homes, unable to sell or renegotiate the agreements binding them their place of residence. For the Rays, it is a terrible lease, while for many Floridians living in homes that are undervalued, it is their draconian mortgages that keep them in the red. The only difference is where there are thousands of vacant homes destroying the market value for homeowners, there are no empty stadiums for the Rays to move to, unless you count the remnants of several minor league parks scattered throughout Central Florida.

Second, the Rays are perfect for Florida because like the state they are moving past their cheesy schlock gimmicky stage and rapidly progressing into an era of responsibility. If one were to compare the Namoli Era to plastic flamingos and kitschy “Wish You Were Here” postcards depicting arrays of oranges and palm trees, then the Sternberg Era is when people decided Florida is more than just a collection of bingo halls, spring break meccas, and retirement communities, it is a legit place to live, work, and raise a family. It is where elections are decided, Space Shuttles are launched, and decisions on wars are made.

The Rays are also similar to the state of Florida in that they are making smarter decisions on long-term development. For years Florida was the land of whimsical development decisions, where housing developments, Best Buys, and Wal-Marts were built without any care or consideration for their environmental impact. Which is similar to how the Rays once acquired talent. They would sign million dollar closers, aging sluggers, and other assorted has-beens or never-will-bes.

Now there is a growing movement on both fronts to follow a process of growth and responsible management. There is more cognition of the overall landscape of the both organizations and efforts are made to maintain growth and overall organizational health. The only fear is whether it is too little too late.

Fourth and most interesting to me is how the Rays talent development at the big league level should be readily accepted by the average Florida sports fan. People like to call Florida a “football state” and cite that as one of the reasons the Rays don’t belong, but in reality a college football state is perfect for the home of the Rays.

The most popular players in Florida college football history only played four years for their school. No matter how great a player like Tim Tebow, Charlie Ward, or Jim Kelly is, he can only quarterback for his respective schools for a few years before he must move on to bigger and better things. So how in concept is this different than a majority of the Rays homegrown talent?

Admittedly, there is no NCAA-like law stating a player like Carl Crawford had to leave the Rays, but until baseball changes its fundamental financial system, it might as well be mandate that players will change from small market team to a larger market franchise at the end of their initial contractual obligation. Small market organizations, like college athletic teams, have to develop a cyclical talent development process (or a feeder chain) to replace their departed talent.

Of course, this cyclical talent development process has been used by state football programs for decades. While fans root for the name on the back, the name on the front of the jersey is far more important. Florida sports fans need to understand this is the way the Rays must operate under the current climate of Major League Baseball. While the Rays can try to circumvent a few departures by signing a select group of cornerstones to team friendly contracts, they and their fans have to prepare for a majority of their talent to depart, just as a university athletic team would.

The Rays starting pitching staff presents possibly the best example of this college athletic talent development process. With the Rays emphasis on drafting and developing young starting pitchers, their rotation slightly resembles the usual quarterback cycle of college football teams. The “ace” is usually the number one starter and also the most senior talent. Behind the ace lines up each other quarterback respective of their experience. Then after each season, the departing senior begets a younger leader, as Chris Leak begat Tebow, Casey Weldon begat Ward, and Jim Kelly begat Bernie Kosar who begat Vinny Testaverde.

Although David Price (Class of 2008) is considered the ace, one could also make the argument that it could be James Shields (Class of 2006). Behind them is Andy Sonnanstine (Class of 2007), Jeff Niemann (Class of 2008), Wade Davis (Class of 2009), Jeremy Hellickson (Class of 2010), and Alex Cobb (Class of 2011). As the Rays traded Matt Garza, fans shouldn’t be surprised to see Shields, Sonnanstine, and possibly Niemann moved to make way for younger pitchers such as Matt Moore or Chris Archer (Class of 2013?).

So by being stuck in a home they don’t like, shucking their schlocky past, developing for the future, and using a process of cyclical talent development, the Rays should be understood and welcomed by a vast majority of everyday, average Floridians. They are a team most Florida residents can identify with.

And last but definitely not least, there is one final bond the Rays share with many long time Florida residents: while Florida old-timers do things to purposefully antagonize Northerners such as drive slow or say “y’all”, the Rays do one thing that ruffles the feathers of their own friends from the North: they win AL East titles.

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9 Comments

  1. Gus says:

    Your analogy couldn’t be worse. The Rays have the most favorable lease in MLB. They are low overhead (no material lease payments when attendance is under 2M — curious how that seems to be their ceiling, isn’t it?). They are like the neighbor whose house is paid off. Not fancy, but not drowning in debt. They may aspire to the house in the gated community, but know they couldn’t afford to live there even if they got approved for the mortgage).

    Like many northerners, they were going to get themselves way underwater with their Al Lang teardown proposal without learning the community. The locals told them this was folly — outdoor baseball, are you kidding us? Not to mention there are better things you can do with $15 in additional stadium costs – spend it on ballplayer for one, since people won’t go to a fancy stadium if the team stinks.

    They are Florida’s team in this sense — the northern people criticize them, call their homes tacky and not the establishment ideal. But the people here don’t care. They like air conditioning and no rainouts. They want a respite from the unrelenting summer sun. They like their place just fine if the Yankee owner would stop complaining about it.

  2. Shin Guards says:

    I think I am finally beginning to see what is going one with MLB and especially how it effects our Rays. Firstly, Tropicana is THE BEST place to see a ballgame. Those who complain are simply repeating what they hear others saying (primarily baseball owners, etc.) As Gus pointed out – who would want to sit outdoors in Florida in the summer, day or night??!!

    In fact, I would go so far as to say entire families may be drawn into being Rays fans by the air conditioned stadium – we are one such extended family,. All had our favorite teams (me for nearly 50 years as a Mets fan) – yet as we began doing the 300 miles round-trip (we live near Naples) we more and more elected to go north to the Trop rather than east to Orange Bowl (add various names over the years, decades) as we hated chancing rain outs, not to mention the melting of human flesh during day games. Slowly but surely the best staff in all of sports (dare I say, in all American business) won us over one by one – until now we have the grandparents, kids, and yes, even 3 year old grandson cheering on the Rays! We attend 20-25 games per year – driving approximately 7000 miles per year to do so! How can soooo many of those cry babies in Tampa proper complain about driving across the bridge to go to games??

    Back to the idea at hand. Baseball, and perhaps even the principles of the Rays, do not want their fans to accept nor like the Trop. Think of it in business terms. If you own a business housed in an old building, wouldn’t it have huge financial gains to be housed in a top of the line facility worth x millions of dollars? Of course so, thus it is them (owners and management) against us the fans who I truly believe in the majority have no qualms of enjoying baseball in the friendly and temp controlled the Trop. If it were me running the organization, I would hype the Trop for all it is worth and especially the amazing care and concern by all employees. It is a rarity in this day and age and society to go out and have a good time for what a Rays game will set you back – play it up don’t hide in shame because of an ill conceived idea that your stadium is out dated -Wrigley and Fenway are a bit older than the Trop, yet remain the two most popular arenas in all of US sports.

    • Carey says:

      Last time I checked, this (http://mlb.mlb.com/hou/ballpark/index.jsp) had AC. It would also look really nice in the Channelside district of Tampa.

      Bad argument. The Trop is a dump and it’s a dump in perhaps the worst location in MLB with respect to being centrally located to the population. Ask youself this: Is seeing a game at the Trop, with it’s unfinished concrete, florescent lighting, barn-like echos, etc., appreciably better than watching at home on a 50″ HD TV?

      For me the answer is a resounding NO. Which is why I never miss a game – watching at home.

      I go to that dump 3-5 times a year and every time I wished I’d stayed home or watched at the local watering hole with my buddies. In fact, I would say the Trop actually has Anti-Atmosphere.

  3. Carey says:

    Interesting points, but I’m going to take this a little deeper (sans stadium/greedy owner/etc. whining).

    I’ve been saying something along these lines for the last 3 years, but on a more serious note as I believe the ultimate success of this team lies in its ability to become the team for “real” Florida.

    First off, we know that “Florida” becomes available next year when the Marlins change to Miami as part of their stadium deal. Now, as someone who was born and raised in Florida and attended THE University of Florida, I can tell you that 90% of those who reside outside of the 561/954/305 basically consider South Florida a different state. And, in just about every respect it is (I like to describe is as New York on Crystal Meth with palm trees). In short, “Real Florida” is part of the South in just about every respect. South Florida is anything but. Just a hotter, tackier version of New York with less inteligent people and bad attitudes.

    We all know who awful our TV deal is (IMO, the biggest mistake Sternberg and Co have made with this team). That said, I believe the key to the Rays success (because attendance, even with a new stadium IN TAMPA, will never rival the Boston’s of the world) is bringing in the whole state, kinda like what the Braves did with the Southeast Region in the 90s. I wouldn’t stop with taking the name Florida either. I’d hammer the state (especially Orlando) with PR, events, etc. I’d have events at and with FSU and UF. In short, I want TV sets tuned to the Rays in every house west of I-75 and north of I-4. That gives us a better deal on our next TV contract or maybe even a Rays Network. Could also help attendance in a small way.

    Ultimately, I think we need more than this area to survive. And, let me just leave with this. I was born and raised in St. Pete (Old Northeast) and I am not threatened by the concept of the Rays in Tampa. Frankly, it’s the only logical move. Second, I was born and raised in Tampa Bay and am not threatened in the least by trading Tampa Bay for Florida, especially if its better for the team.

    • StPeteDave says:

      Carey,

      I know what your trying to say about south FL being a different country, Ive lived right on Calle Ocho and in most of Miami that’s true more than most even know.

      Then there comes a distinction between the “real FL” that you say is part of the south and South FL. However TB is really allot more like South FL then your “real FL”, now yes there is a part of FL that is somewhat southern, only that that part of Florida occurs from well north of Orlando and up through the panhandle, and it would much better be described as south Georgia.

      • Carey says:

        Take a drive through Brandon, Plant City, Dade City, Riverview, Lakeland, etc and call me.

        Not part of the south? What’s the most popular radio station in Tampa? Last time I checked (and it’s been this way for a long time) it was a Country station.

        Again, revisit the area you live in (and actually get out of the car and talk to people) and call me in the morning. I will say with full conviction (having lived in both places) that Tampa Bay has far more in common culturally with Atlanta than Miami.

    • Gus says:

      13 years in, “Florida” Rays would be counter-productive. Just as the Braves didn’t have to adopt a regional moniker to be regional, neither do the Rays. But your point is a good one, and they should draw a map from Naples to Jax and determine that to be their territory. No family from Daytona or Ft. Myers should want to expose their kids to the new Marlins stadium site (in a nasty part of Miami that is neither downtown nor safe and suburban).

      The Rays are the perfect weekend regional draw — beach during the day (or arts downtown if you are that way), game at night. Plus the AL is a better draw and the Rays the better franchise. The Marlins have gone all in to be Latin America’s team (an okay strategy for them), leaving 62 counties in Florida to the Rays should they try and grab them.

      I am also tired of people surmising that it is the “logical” or the “inevitable” thing that the Rays are going to Tampa. There is NO money to build them a new stadium anywhere in the region. There is NO political will to impose a new tax. Sternberg has shown NO willingness to pay for it privately. Unless they play at Steinbrenner Field, they are not playing in Tampa until the RayJay Stadium Bonds pay off in 2026 (and you are assuming that the Bucs won’t want a new stadium/major renovation by then either). These are the ugly political realities of the moment. If you live in Hillsborough, you have Jim Norman, Tom McEwen and George Steinbrenner to blame for tapping out the City and County funds for projects that tied them up for so long. But those guys were never regional thinkers. Sorry you have to drive a little bit to see MLB, but at least you don’t have the pay the taxes for it.

      • Carey says:

        What you’re really saying, Gus, is that they are not long for the area.

        Oh well, there’s always Orlando. Since they don’t have the 12year old mentality and actually work together as a region (and will surpass Tampa Bay as a business center soon as a result of this “adult” thinking) they may be our last hope to keep them in-state.

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