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Here's to you, Devil Rays fan, faithful beyond the call

By GARY SHELTON
Published April 3, 2005


The greatest performer in the history of the Devil Rays is a resilient cuss.

He doesn't run as fast as he used to, and he doesn't hit a lot. His fastball left him a long time ago, and his faith is wearing thin. He has stared at a lot of defeat, and he has ridden a lot of disappointment. In other words, he is a man of his team.

The greatest performer in the history of the Rays? It's the fan who still cares.

And may God bless his lonely heart.

We have been looking at this all wrong. All of these years, all of these games, and all anyone notices are the empty seats. We discuss the deafening echoes of a foul ball bouncing around Tropicana Field. We debate the reasons for the absences as if it is mystifying that people can find something to do other than watch a baseball team founder.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the amazing thing is not the fans who are staying away.

Perhaps the amazing thing are those enduring, inexorable, unshakeable fans who still find a reason to watch a franchise that has worked to drive them away.

Spread over seven years of suffering, the Rays have drawn more than 10-million. Ten million. Say what you wish about how the attendance hasn't measured up to expectations, or how the market has been a disappointment, but when a team has had two keeper moments in its history (the inaugural game and Wade Boggs' 3,000th hit), 10-million tickets sold seems like a decent exchange.

Take the opening day of spring training this year. A couple of hundred fans showed up. A friend of mine turned to me and said, "Here's a question. Where is everyone?"

"Here's a question," I answered. "Why would anyone show up at all?"

The answer, of course, is baseball. It's a marvelous game, even with the recent chemical wars, even with the increasing distance between player and fan, even with the flaws in the economic and competitive structures. Yes, even with the way the Rays play it.

Look, it's easy to be a Yankees fan. It's easy to claim a piece of all those World Series titles and Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio and Reggie Jackson and Derek Jeter and the Hall of Fame's master boardroom. It's easy to make believe all those post-season appearances are really about superior character instead of a team buying trophies. Let the Yankees spend time at the bottom of the league year after year and average 97 losses. We'll see how many people are singing New York, New York at the end.

It's easy to be a fan of the Red Sox, too. Curse? Don't make me giggle. The Red Sox have been in four World Series since 1967. They have had Yaz and Pedro and Nomar and Curt's bloody sock. A real curse is what comes out of a Rays fan's mouth when he has read about Vince Naimoli's latest ticket price hike.

The long-suffering Cubs fans? They've had five playoff series since 84. They had a share of the 98 Steroid Derby. Sure, Cubs fans can blame billy goats and Steve Bartman all they want. Before long, Bartman might be starting for the Rays. Maybe the goat, too.

That's the point. Other teams' fans have moments to sustain them in the dark. Twins fans can talk about Black Jack Morris and Royals fans can talk about George Brett and Pirates fans can talk about the summer of 79. Tigers fans can talk about Mickey Lolich and Padres fans can talk about Tony Gwynn and Braves fans can talk about close-but-one-cigar. The Diamondbacks won a World Series. The Marlins won two. Even the Mets had a miracle.

But if the Mets are Moses' team, then the Rays are Job's.

Following the Rays is a full day's work. They have finished out of last place once. Just once. They have averaged 97 defeats, and they have finished an average of 35 games out of first place. In a division where manager Lou Piniella says you have to score six times a gamea to win, the Rays have averaged 4.3.

If being a Rays fan was any tougher, it would involve locusts. Devil Rays season tickets should come with their own beatitudes.

Being a Rays fan is an eternal quest for a pirate's chest even though you suspect that, if you ever find it, it may be empty. It is searching for Ben Grieve's passion and Greg Vaughn's durability and Vinny Castilla's desire and Jose Canseco's humility and Kevin Stocker's trade value and Wilson Alvarez's belt buckle. It is paying major-league prices for minor-league results. It is a watching a team five years behind in its payroll and five years away from its prospects. Sigh, it is Vince.

There are fans who have withstood it all. Maybe you know one of them. They are the hollow-eyed lot daring to wear their caps in public. They e-mail critical columnists. They exhale quietly and tell you that, really, the stadium isn't that close to their house, either.

This part should be repeated. No, there haven't been as many fans as most of us expected. No, they haven't created the revenue streams to underwrite the franchise.

Eight years in, and you can say this about the Rays fans: They aren't extinct.

Given the circumstances, that's worth a salute.#