Rays in the Forest: Popular vs. Good

Take it from a Cubs fan, David: even 40,000 fans can’t drown out embarrassment.

If Evan Longoria hits a 3-run homer in a forest, but no one is around to see it, did it really happen? Somewhere else in Florida there’s a guy named Steve who would answer in the absolute affirmative, but Longoria himself and his teammate David Price aren’t so sure.

Longoria told reporters that the sparse crowd of 12,446 at Tropicana Field, on a night when the Rays had a chance to clinch a spot in the postseason, was embarrassing and disheartening. As shown above, Price shared the sentiment on Twitter, where it has been publicized to exponentially more people than the number who witnessed the best team in baseball getting shutout by the Orioles.

The embarrassment of the Rays seems like some strange Prince and the Pauper allusion when compared to that of the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs have the fans, the fame, and the Fortune 500 owner*, but the Rays have something the Cubs wouldn’t mind trading places to experience: 93 wins and a magic number of 1** . . . and a little less pressure from the media and fans.

So which is more desirable: being popular or being good?
Cubs fans have made strong loud cases on both sides of that debate, even if they didn’t realize they were doing so. I’ve heard some argue that any Cubs fan who doesn’t value winning above any other priority such as the preservation of Wrigley Field is not a true fan at all. In essence, if a decision that leads to winning turns away fans, so be it. But others take pride in the ever-spinning turnstiles at Wrigley no matter the result. They’d rather cram the bleachers to watch the Cubs spiral down the drain of the trough that is the NL Central than suffer the indignity of drawing sub-20,000 crowds the way first-place pennant-chasing Reds and Rays have.

It’s an easy question, though, right? If you had the choice of the Cubs being popular and good, you’d pick good every time, and you really wouldn’t have to think about it very long. But think about it some more.

Given this fan base, it’s an impossible hypothetical to imagine the Cubs attracting such a minuscule audience for a postseason-clinching home game. Say what you want about the economy and the Trop, unemployed Cubs fans would flock to Tampa by the thousands if it meant they could see their beloved Cubbies clinch the postseason, even if all the stadium seats were replaced with inverted railroad spikes and the seventh inning stretch was conducted by Hurricane Wilma.

But let’s just imagine a Bizarro world in which the Cubs are awesome and their fans couldn’t care less. Would you trade the current situation for that one? The Cubs win the World Series, and when you show up to work the next day with a hangover, no one in your office has any idea what you’re so happy about. The victory parade on a Friday afternoon on the Dan Ryan to create the illusion of public interest. Remember in 1998 when the Chicago Fire won the MLS Cup and the US Open Cup? Yeah, me neither. Imagine the Cubs’ next championship garnering that kind of fanfare and carrying that kind of legacy.

I’m not saying the Rays have it that bad, but winning isn’t all that great when no one cares. Look at those comments. David Price and Evan freaking Longoria, two of the best players on the best team in all the land, were embarrassed to play a baseball game in front of his home crowd because it barely constituted a crowd. The line at a Wrigley ladies’ room reaches 12,000 on a bad day, so don’t tell me there’s a reasonable excuse for a team that good on a night of that importance having attendance that bad.

This isn’t an indictment of Rays fans. I don’t really care if they go to the game or not. My point is that the players do care. Maybe it has little effect on the outcome of the game or the overall direction of the season, but attendance and fan support obviously mean a great deal to gifted, good-looking athletes with several million other reasons to be happy. So it’s a mistake to disregard the significance of attendance.

I also don’t want to just assume last night’s attendance was representative of the drawing power of the Rays in general, so here’s a look at MLB teams sorted by attendance per game with payrolls thrown in there to illustrate the impact of attendance a bit further.

So the Rays draw an average of almost 23,000 fans. That sucks. Blame marketing, pricing, or whatever you want, that sucks. They’re the best team in baseball. For business it’s probably not a big deal at all, because the Rays probably break even on payroll just from revenue sharing. But for the players, and for the image of MLB in general, it is, as Longoria put it, disheartening.
All I have to say is, welcome to life. We live in a world where Taylor Swift wins Grammys, Shania Twain is the top-selling female recording artist of all time, and no one knows who Patty Griffin (unless they hear her mentioned when an American Idol contestant or a Dixie Chick covers her songs). 

We live in a world where a post filled with pictures of Erin Andrews will draw more clicks from sports fans than a post about . . . sports. Teases, scandals, baseless accusations, blog wars, cliches, speculation, and controversy—far more than content—generate the real traffic. In our culture, Leno gets a promotion while Conan packs his bags to cable. The intersection of good and popular is a slim sliver on the Venn diagram of American consumption. Whether you’re a snob or you’re slumming it, you know this is true. Some of the finest people you know are single and some of the most irritating are married and procreating. You know this.

It’s true in life, and it’s true in baseball. It will always be true. But I hope David Price and Evan Longoria also understand: if your happiness depends on what people think, you’re on the wrong planet. Focus on doing your best, appreciate the people who value that most, and don’t ever be embarrassed by empty seats. It’s an insult to truly embarrassing baseball.

*TD Ameritrade is ranked 746, but I’m an alliteration junkie, so cut me some slack.
**For the wildcard. For the division, they’re magic number is 6 heading into play today.

One Reply to “Rays in the Forest: Popular vs. Good”

  1. I actually wanted to write a post about this too. This is happening more and more around the world of sports (Tom Brady called out NE fans for leaving a game early just because they were up by several TDs). Personally….I like it. Who wants to do anything without purpose? We all like to win, but how much more enjoyable is it to win and look over to the sidelines/stands/etc see that other's saw you win? Everyone loves recognition. Even gifted, good-looking, well-paid athletes. 🙂

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