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Sternberg shouldn't blame Tampa for fans not embracing Rays

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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The Rays finished behind every team but Oakland (concidence?) in average attendance. (Getty Images)  
The Rays finished behind every team but Oakland (concidence?) in average attendance. (Getty Images)  

With the first round of the baseball playoffs reaching three separate crescendos, to the great delight of Allen Huber Selig, we spend one last moment reflecting upon the defiant and slow-motion surrender of Stuart Sternberg and the Tampa Bay Rays he owns.

As in, "Really? Now you call uncle? Is there a movie in this for you, too?"

Well, that's a bit strident, but it is the equivalent of Billy Beane's remark to Michael Lewis in That Book, My s--- doesn't work in the playoffs.

It is even closer to his 2002 dissertation, "I'm under contract here and I'm very proud to be general manager of this team," he said. "But when you share a stadium with a football team and you have 32,146 for Game 5 of the Division Series on a Sunday afternoon after an incredible season, it starts wearing on you."

Or the best of all, his postseason oration in the middle of the Athletics clubhouse after the A's got knocked out of the 2003 playoffs by Boston: "Give me $50 million and we won't lose after being up 2-0."

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That was when $50 million was $200 million, as opposed to what it is now. It was Beane talking about the limitations of squeezing the lemon dry, and it sounded a lot like Sternberg after his team was ejected by the Texas Rangers.

In short, he read his team's obituary.

"It won't be my decision, or solely my decision. But eventually, major-league baseball is going to vaporize this team. It could go on nine, 10, 12 more years. But between now and then, it's going to vaporize this team. Maybe a check gets written locally, maybe someone writes me a check [to buy the team]. But it's going to get vaporized."

And:

"If I had $80 million to put out there, we'd be moving along in life. We just don't have $12 million to put into a hitter."

And:

"When I came here, I was confident we could put a winning team on the field, and that would do it. We won, and we won, and we won and we won. ... and it didn't do it. Whatever it is, there are 29 other teams passing us like we're going in reverse now. Except on the field, and at some point, that changes."

And:

"As the owner, I could have affected things today. Today, and a couple of games where a thumper would thump. I could decide to mortgage the future and trade all the young guys, but the truth is that we would only get $9.82 extra at the gate. So what's the sense?"

And:

"I'm not going to say I let them down, but what's been done over the last few years has dramatically affected our ability to compete this year. We lost this game in '08, when our attendance didn't move, and in '09, and in '10, and this year when it went down. If we won the World Series this year, I wouldn't think my attendance would get higher. It didn't go up in '09 when we got to the World Series [in '08]."

In other words, he raged against the law of gravity. He took a gamble that good baseball would save him from the market he inhabited, and he lost. Not the town. Him.

And he might have tried all he could, but as Bill Veeck explained long ago, it isn't the customer's fault if he doesn't buy what you're selling -- it's yours. Maybe because you're short-bankrolled, or because you haven't figured out your market, or because your marketing didn't touch the regular folks where they lived, or maybe the economy was just too lousy for too long, but whatever Sternberg has done or hasn't, it hasn't made Tampa embrace the Rays.

And that inability is no more a tragedy than the situation in Oakland. It's what happens when you buy a team on the come, and then pay for the real estate at one of those times in American history when real estate isn't a solution.

It's just what happens from time to time in sports, and not just baseball. Owners like to compete too, and Stuart Sternberg said he needed more money to compete. It's the age-old story, and Billy Beane was the last one to tell it.

He tried to fake it as best he could with the Moneyball principles, but even though he may get blamed for giving away the store, the truth is his methods of market efficiency would have been adopted anyway. Either way, he is left playing pinochle with a regulation deck, with fewer face cards than everyone else.

By his own choice.

And so it is with Stuart Sternberg, only without Brad Pitt to paint the edges for him. He will sell his team at some point, and almost surely for more than he paid for it. It's the reason it is hard to feel fully sympathetic to his plight. He says he can't run with the Yankees, but he will have had his laughs, and he will make a tidy profit on his investment.

And that's just the way it is.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com

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