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Winning not the solution to Rays' attendance woes

The Tampa Bay Rays made the World Series two years ago and are fighting the Yankees and Red Sox this season. So the fans are flocking to Tropicana Field to check out one of the game's most entertaining teams, right? Not a chance. The Trop has some fan-friendly features like a pretty cool soaring atrium and the live ray tank in center field. But it's tucked away in downtown St. Petersburg and it's just too far from where most Tampa Bay folks live.12

Ownership has actually lowered ticket prices, improved concession offerings and -- get this -- provided free parking, but the Rays still languish 24th in attendance, entering the weekend at 21,896 per game. The breaking point appeared to come last week, when owner Stuart Sternberg announced the team can't possibly stay in the ballpark until its lease expires in 2027.

"The future of Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay depends on finding the optimal site for a new ballpark," Sternberg said, imploring the multi-county area interests to cooperate. "If I don't get the sense there's real cooperation, I'd sell the team."

Sternberg wants to see a regional task force formed on the ballpark issue. The Rays had initially planned for an open air site on the St. Petersburg waterfront, where Al Lang Stadium had spent many years housing spring training games. That has been nixed.

He has no deadline at this point for a new park.

"I have been patient, if nothing else," said Sternberg, who would only quantify his losses as between $10 million and $100 million. "I'm not banging on a table saying I need a new stadium tomorrow."

Sternberg insists he's committed to the Tampa Bay area, but simply wants to get out of St. Petersburg and likely wants to go into downtown Tampa, to the Florida State Fairground or to the Tampa suburbs.

Grumbled St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, "He's committed to the family but he might want to break up with us and start dating my sister. That doesn't bode well with me."

The Trop is outliving its usefulness, and not just because of those ridiculous rings around the roof that can get in the way of fly balls and home runs and create pinball baseball.

Bisons owner Bob Rich Jr. often pointed out the Trop, then known as the Florida Suncoast Dome, was not a viable candidate for expansion when Buffalo was in the thick of the major-league chase during the 1980s. St. Petersburg was used as a weapon by other teams, notably the White Sox and Giants, to get new stadiums and was bypassed along with Buffalo in the 1993 expansion.

To get to downtown St. Pete from Tampa, you have to travel over the traffic-choked Howard Frankland Bridge, a 10-mile trip across the bay. It's quite scenic to an outsider but it's the bane of your existence if you're a local (think Grand Island Bridge). During the 1999 Final Four at the Trop, the media was housed in Tampa and you should have heard the grousing from reporters on the shuttle buses.

The Rays have drawn more than 2 million fans only in their 1998 inaugural season. They averaged 22,370 during their World Series season and pushed that mark to 23,148 last year. So they're down nearly 1,500 per game this season.

Sternberg took control of the team in 2005 and said he spent the first 18 months of his tenure on a fact-finding mission about how the team could become a success at the gate. Most people said they simply had to win. It hasn't been the panacea.

"The unanimous response was that it was all about winning. Winning would change everything at Tropicana Field," he said. "And with a winning team on the field, an exciting and compelling team that comes to play each and every night, fans would fill the stands. Clearly that has not been the case. We have learned that it is not just about winning."

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>A home run for dad

It was an emotional return to the Blue Jays for ex-Bisons good guy John McDonald, who homered on Father's Day in his first at-bat back with the team after his father, Jack, passed away after battling liver cancer.

A ninth-inning home run in a 9-6 loss to the Giants would normally not cause a stir. But the guy everyone has called "Johnny Mac" since his days in the minors is so beloved in his clubhouse that Rogers Centre fans roared and his teammates mobbed him in the dugout.

"I think it brought tears to just about everyone's eyes," said manager Cito Gaston.

Jack McDonald had told his son to hit his next home run for him but John reminded his father that he only had 13 in his big-league career.

When the ball was out, McDonald said his first thought was that he wouldn't be able to call his father.

"It was for both of us," McDonald said. "The fact I got that out of the way quick was nice. I told him they're not that easy to hit."

Vernon Wells and the rest of the team had presented McDonald with a signed jersey bearing his dad's name before the game to welcome him back. After the home run, Wells said he shared an embrace in the dugout tunnel with McDonald.

"We cried on each other's shoulders for a good 30 seconds," said Wells. "When it went out it was instant goosebumps. Wins and losses don't really matter at that point. That was one of the most special moments I've gotten to see in this game."

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>Floundering Fish

Maybe prospective manager Bobby Valentine can turn the Marlins into a real big-league organization. Owner Jeffrey Loria was delusional to think they could compete in the NL East and manager Fredi Gonzalez paid the price Thursday. At this rate, the Fish will be lucky to hold off Washington, provided the Strasburgs can figure out how to score.

The capper of ridiculousness came last weekend when the Marlins -- the same organization that sold unused tickets to Roy Halladay's perfect game after the game was played -- handed out 15,000 vuvuzela-style air horns that caused quite a racket during an 11-inning loss to the Rays.

"There's cool things and there's very non-cool things. That's a non-cool thing," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "I'm always into some crazy ideas myself. I would just put that into the column that it didn't quite work."

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>Around the horn

* You have to love the way the Mets are handling things in Buffalo this year compared to last. The roster is full every day, with players pushed up from Double-A Binghamton and Class A St. Lucie, and the Mets have gone the free agent/trade route (think Jorge Padilla and Ramon Ortiz) when call-ups and injuries are hitting.

The next thing the Amazins can do is provide some weather education, especially to their Latin players. Too many crabbed last year that it was cold in Buffalo early in the season. Maybe so. But rookie pitcher Jenrry Mejia embarrassed himself last week by saying he was happier to go to Binghamton to start over Buffalo because "Triple-A was cold." In June. Major foot in mouth, kid.

It can be cold in New York. And Philadelphia. And Pittsburgh. And how about a 30-mph wind at Wrigley Field in April? Shut up, put on an extra sweatshirt and play.

* The Triple-A All-Star Game is moving from ESPN to MLB Network for its 23rd annual game July 14 at Lehigh Valley. Phillies announcer Tom McCarthy and ex-Phils closer Mitch Williams will call the action. The 2012 game, remember, is at Coca-Cola Field (next year's game is in Salt Lake City).

* Cory Brownsten of Lockport, a University of Pittsburgh catcher who made the Big East All-Tournament team, was omitted in the list of local draftees in this space last week. Brownsten, taken in the 15th round by Atlanta, is playing in the Gulf Coast League. Cheektowaga's Jeremy Nowak from Mount Olive (N.C.) College was 1 for 4 last week for Class A Aberdeen (Md.) in a New York-Penn League game at Brooklyn televised on SNY.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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