Devil Rays may play name game
The Devil Rays have until May 31 to pick a new name to use starting next season. What will it be?
By CHRIS TISCH, CARRIE WEIMAR and LOUIS HAU
Published April 5, 2006
ST. PETERSBURG - The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have told Major League Baseball they are considering a name change.
So what should it be?
The Tarpons? That would pay homage to the former Tampa minor league team, named after the silvery fish that swims in local waters.
The Saints? That would recall the St. Petersburg minor league team from the early and mid-1900s.
Or the just plain Rays? The double entendre would honor the stingrays that glide off our beaches as well as the area's famous sunshine, while the shortened name would avoid bedeviling some Christians.
"If it was up to me I would probably drop the devil," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker. "But it's up to them and I'm going to support the team no matter what."
If the Devil Rays adopt a new name, it will mark the first time a Major League Baseball team changed its name without moving to another city since the Houston Colt .45s became the Astros in 1965. That change was made to honor Houston's space program.
Devil Rays president Matt Silverman said the team met a March 31 deadline to inform Major League Baseball it was considering the change. The Devil Rays have until May 31 to commit to a name change, which would take effect next season. After the home opener next week, the team will begin studying a potential name change and begin asking fans for ideas.
"Our minds are open to many possibilities," Silverman said. "We'll go through an exhaustive study of it and also engage our fans in the process before we make any final decisions."
Some St. Petersburg city officials also have urged the team to dump the Tampa Bay in the name in favor of St. Petersburg.
"St. Pete anything," said City Council Chairman Bill Foster. "I just think it's time to recognize where the team plays and the commitment of the community that built the stadium."
But it's what comes after "Tampa Bay" that has some fans annoyed. Some have questioned naming the team for a marine animal not widely known in these waters. Others disliked the devil reference and predicted God would doom the team because of it.
After eight years of losing, one must wonder if they were right.
"There are some that don't have a positive reaction to the word devil," Silverman said. "There are some who don't have a positive reaction to a devil ray. What is a devil ray? If we make a change, it will be something that will be more accessible and appeal to everyone . . . or at least not drive people away."
Of course, there are worse possible ways to reflect the area's character: The Snowbirds? The Blue Hairs? The Red Tide? The Strip Malls?
Don't think any of those names are possible? Well, consider some team names from years ago.
The Atlanta Braves, when they were in Boston, were called the Beaneaters. The Chicago Cubs at one point were called the Orphans. The Brooklyn Dodgers were once known as the Superbas and the Bridegrooms.
And the baseball team most steeped in history and tradition, the New York Yankees, once were the New York Highlanders, because their stadium was on a hill.
Baseball historian John Thorn said teams often changed names in the early 1900s. Teams initially were called simply the New Yorks or the Bostons, but sportswriters began giving them catchy names that could be shortened to fit in headlines.
Thus the Cubs. The Yanks. The Sox.
"Desperate scribes and headline writers were trying to save character counts," Thorn said.
The name-switching slowed down around 1920.
"They acquire a kind of patina with age," Thorn said.
Soon, no one dreamed of changing names like Yankees, Red Sox or Cubs. Teams began to trademark and market the names.
"Because of all the marketing, it's getting more cemented and isn't as fluid as it was," said John Odell, curator of history and research at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. "There is a feeling that once you have your name and nickname, then that is a commodity that may be tough to generate again."
The Devil Rays may be the exception. The team is trying to turn its back on eight years of losing since it entered the league as an expansion team in 1998.
"It's probably a good idea in this case, primarily because there hasn't been effective branding of that name," said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "Probably within baseball, there's a stronger case for the Devil Rays to change their name than for any other team."
However, the Boston Braves tried it in 1936. To generate excitement, they called themselves the Bees; the stadium became the Beehive.
"The result was very predictable: Nothing," Thorn said. "They went back to the Braves."
Thorn said he thinks a name change for the Devil Rays also could backfire.
"It could only inject ridicule and scorn because it's a substitute for injecting talent," he said. "If you want to inject talent and then change the name, great."
Foster thinks otherwise.
"They're an 8-year-old team and they're kind of starting over," said Foster, a big Devil Rays fan. "I'm okay with that. We are all enthused at what we've seen so far with the "Under construction' banner. And they needed to do that. They needed to gain the respect of the community and the baseball community."
Sports marketing experts agree.
"Now that you have a new owner and effectively a whole new philosophy behind the team, this could be a way to adopt a new identity," said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd., a sports business consulting firm in Chicago.
While getting league permission for a name change is a pretty straightforward process, rolling out the new name isn't quite so simple, he said.
"You have uniforms, you have licensing partners," Ganis said. "It takes a good year and a half or so to implement something like that."