ST. PETERSBURG, FL -- Not that the Tampa Bay Rays can afford to give away 20,000 tickets all the time. But some argue Wednesday night's huge turn-out at the Trop proved a point.
The Rays owners have claimed their stadium's location in downtown St. Petersburg hurts attendance, because fans from across the region consider it inconvenient to get to.
But when tickets were free, fans seemed to have had no problem showing-up.
It was in June that team owner Stu Sternberg made it clear he wanted to move the team out of downtown St. Pete. The Rays were winning games, but attendance at the stadium was low.
"Baseball will not work long term in downtown St. Petersburg," said Sternberg.
But on Wednesday, the rays may have disproven their own argument. When they gave away 20,000 free tickets fans filled the stadium.
It suggests, say those who want to keep the stadium where it is, that the season's lack-luster attendance may have more to do with the region's economy than the stadium's location.
"People came from all over," said St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.
Foster has been trying to make the economy argument all along. In better times, he says, the crowds will grow. He adds the City of St. Petersburg, Tropicana Field, and Rays fans were all vindicated by the huge turnout.
"It demonstrates that this community, this region, will support major league baseball in downtown St. Petersburg. Bottom line," said Foster.
Granted, the Rays can't give tickets away every night, but Foster says in other regions with struggling economies, ball clubs have offered incentives, ticket discounts and low-price options during less popular games, giving fans a break and filling seats.
Some had even suggested the Rays might be trying to prove their point about the stadium's location with the ticket giveaway.
If tickets were free and fans still hadn't show up, surely the location and not the economy would have to have been the reason, the team might have argued at a later date.
Hours before Wednesday's game, team spokesman Rick Vaugh declined to tackle that issue directly.
"At this time the team doesn't want to comment on that. But if others want to make that assessment that's totally their right," he said.
Vaughn also acknowledged the financial factor.
"I think that the economy clearly has something to do with everybody's entertainment dollar they're spending at this time and we're not immune to it," he said.
It's almost certain the Rays will still pursue their effort to leave downtown St. Pete. But whether they can continue to keep blaming the Trop's downtown location for their attendance woes is now, perhaps, more debatable.