Few wins, but parking still free

The Rays lost 101 games in 2006. But as they rebuild, fans can save their money for souvenirs.

Published October 6, 2006

In New York, October baseball excitement is about the World Series.

In St. Petersburg, the only baseball excitement involves free parking.

Coming off the Devil Rays' ninth consecutive losing season, team officials announced Thursday that parking at Tropicana Field will again be free in 2007. The promotion extends a 2006 fan giveaway, where the Rays waived the $10 charge for all of the team's 6,882 spaces around Tropicana Field.

Call it a consolation prize for Rays fans, who weathered a more enthusiastic, but still miserable, Rays 61-101 season this year.

Team president Matt Silverman said the organization hopes to continue to build its fan base in 2007, using free parking as one of several enticements. Parking will not be free in 2008, Rays officials said.

"We believe that any revenues we lose will be made up in future years as we create lifelong fans," Silverman said. "It's a nice welcome to the ballpark not to have to open your wallets."

Team surveys and polling said the free parking paid off in 2006, Silverman said, drawing more first-time fans and more repeat traffic. Attendance figures rose about 20 percent in 2006.

Fan Patrick Kennedy, a Clearwater High School student who attended 33 games in 2006, said he wouldn't mind paying $10 to park. At the same time, "it's an added treat for the fans, which I appreciate," he said.

Jake Larsen, who runs the Rays fan blog www.draysbay.com, said the new ownership slowly is changing the baseball culture in St. Petersburg. Free parking is just one step.

Former general manager Chuck Lamar and former owner Vince Naimoli "ruled an iron fist regime," Larsen said. The new ownership, led by Stuart Sternberg, is more willing to accept ideas, Larsen said.

"They're trying to build a general foundation of a fan base," he said. "It's not going to happen overnight. But the time will come."

But what about that record?

Silverman just points to the Bronx, where the Detroit Tigers beat the New York Yankees on Thursday in Game 2 of the American League Division Series.

The Tigers lost 119 games in 2003, the eighth-worst professional season in Major League Baseball history.

Three years later, they're in the playoffs.

"When you execute a plan, it can happen," Silverman said of a Rays turnaround. "Talent can go further than what you can spend on a payroll."