Earlier this week the Rays officialy unveiled their ad campaign and slogan for the 2007 season. "More Than Just a Game" is a great slogan, simply for its honesty. But do Rays fans, and the Tampa Bay community, really want to face the honesty of what the 2007 season may hold?
Slogans and ad campaigns fascinate me. I'm always interested in the message any business is trying to make to its potential customer. In the case of sports, that customer is the current fanbase and the fringe fan who doesn't follow the team every day. By going with the "more than just a game" mantra this season, the Rays are telling fans to think of the team as more than just the nine guys on the field in Rays jersies. A Rays game is a fun, affordable, family experience. See baseball, park for free, and keep the kids busy with all sorts of activities before, during, and after the game. That's the pretty honesty of the ad campaign. The ugly honesty is, an experience is all the team can sell right now.
I'm not going to say the Rays will lose 90 or 100 games this season. I won't say they'll win 90 or 100 games. There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic, and one is that with very few exceptions this team really can't get much worse than last season. But last season is what's on the local fanbase's mind right now. No matter how you spin it, 101 losses is 101 losses. The more losses and the lower payroll compared to the last couple of years of the Namoli group are hard for people to accept as progress. In these people's minds, this team is a losing team and will be until several winning seasons are put together.
Even though the Rays have a lot to be optimistic about, the reason for optimism is a little odd. As stated in Marc Topkin's February 13th article in the St. Petersburg Times ("Rays Feel Standing Pat Could Mean Standing Up"), the five reasons why the Rays believe they will be better are:
* Young players will be improved with age and experience.
* Injuries to key players will not be a factor.
* Players who had a partial season with the team last year will play a full season this year.
* The defense will be improved, thus helping the pitching staff improve.
* Another year together means the players are more comfortable and trusting of one another.
These are all good points and beliefs by the team, but they are flawed. If these five reasons do work out for the Rays, they could be a vastly improved team over last year and possibly seasons before. But if one or more of these reasons don't play out as planned, they can become excuses as to why the Rays faltered again.
You would like to believe the young players will improve with age, but that's not guaranteed. Some players in all sports need a few years to figure out what they're capable of (if they ever do figure it out).
You would like to believe injuries won't be a factor, but how do you know? You can train in the best facilities on the best regimen, but sometimes injuries just happen. You can't tell me a key player on ANY team won't take a foul ball off the ankle or slide awkwardly into a base. Tell Ty Wigginton he shouldn't have missed a month after an inside fastball clipped his finger in July... it wasn't supposed to happen that way after all.
Like injuries, you can't guarantee any player will play a full season. Johnny Gomes had a tough 2006 season following an impressive few months in 2005. While he can work through his problems, he's a prime example of how somebody playing a full season doesn't necessarily have a better season than the partial season before. The same went for Joey Gathright last season, and it will hold true until the Rays regulars play full seasons for several seasons and not just one.
You hope the defense will be improved, but you can't guarantee it. There is no doubt an improved defense will help pitchers and the entire team. But you can't just say it will be improved, especially since you have a new third baseman, a raw shortstop, a second baseman who can't be counted on to produce 2005 numbers again, and a first baseman who is unknown because the team has so many of them. Plus with Joe Maddon's continued constant tinkering of the lineup there's no guarantee you can get consistently good defense.
As for playing together for another year, you hope that improves the team too. But if the team struggles again this season, you may have a group of players (especially the older "veteran" players who have been here a few years) who are tired of playing on a bad team.
Again this is no indication the 2007 season will go horribly awry, and I hope for the long-suffering fans and the NDRO that isn't the case. But the only thing the team can promise this season is the experience of going to a game is always a fun one even if the team doesn't win. I hope the young players improve with a full season under their belts, the injuries are few, and all aspects of the team improve to lift this team up past the .500 mark. But the team can't afford to put all of its faith in things you can't be sure of.
So the "more than just a game" rally call is accurate. The experience of going to a Rays game, and everything the team is doing for the community, is great. It has to be simply because the product on the field has yet to draw people in to the Trop. And I know attendance went up last year, but until the Trop regularly draws 25,000+ to home games any increase is nothing to get too excited about. The fact the team is playing games in Orlando should tell you how much the attendance increase from last season really matters.
It's not all bad. Again, there's plenty of good and a ton of potential in the Rays this season. But until that all turns into wins and eventually playoff appearances, all the Rays can sell is the experience and not the game itself.
In 1996 it was "a new day in Tampa Bay" for the Bucs and they went 6-10. In 1999 the Lightning told us "don't miss the future" and the team was the laughingstock of the NHL once again. Those two teams have championship trophies now. Right now, it's "more than just a game" for the Rays. Hopefully the NDRO makes the right moves to make "a game" the main reason why people come to the Trop. If they don't, all of the flashy slogans and ad campaigns will only fall on deaf ears.