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Rays deserve to feel they're home when they're home

Maddon justifiably unhappy that so many fans root for Yankees at Tropicana Field

This being the United States of America, Joe Maddon has the right to voice his opinion. Not only that, he almost invariably voices it very well.

This is the way the First Amendment works: You can say almost anything you want, unless you are advocating the violent overthrow of the government. And you can say things even if they make Yankees fans angry.

So the Yankees played the Rays on Saturday at Tropicana Field, and it was the first sellout there since Opening Day. Except of course, the sellout wasn't really "for" the Tampa Bay franchise.

The cheers were overwhelmingly for the Yankees. And they reached their peak when Derek Jeter hit a ninth-inning single that brought in the deciding run in a 3-2 Yanks victory.

This was not unique development. The Yankees have historically been a great road draw because they are the Yankees. But they particularly boost attendance at what are nominally Rays home games.

Florida is heavily populated with transplanted New Yorkers, visiting New Yorkers and New Yorkers of many sorts. The Yankees train in Tampa. They have a farm club in Tampa. Jeter has a home in Tampa. It is not the Bronx, but the fan reaction at the Trop typically makes the place seem like home to the Yanks.

The volume and the emotion were pumped up this time around by the fact that this is Jeter's last season. Any and all tributes to the Captain are, of course, richly deserved, fully earned, and understood by anybody who has been paying attention over the past two decades.

But you have the Rays, taking a tough loss at home against the Yankees, while the St. Petersburg crowd goes nuts on behalf of the visitors, the visiting shortstop in particular.

You could see how this might sting more than a little. And Maddon, Tampa Bay's manager, was typically honest enough to say so.

"It's great, it's great that it's sold out, I understand that people like Derek Jeter -- but you've got to come out and root for the Rays, too, you understand?" Maddon said after the game. "I mean, I totally appreciate what's going on, but I'm not gonna sit here and defend all of that noise in the Yankees' favor in our ballpark. I'm not gonna defend that. So if you're gonna come out, root for the Rays. We'd appreciate that."

It was, of course, more than one Yanks game that brought forth that comment. This was just the culmination.

The small-revenue Rays have been one of baseball's best franchises, one of the reasons that the game is enjoying an era of true competitive balance. Tampa Bay reached the postseason four times in the past six seasons. If the Rays not a probable in that category this season, they have battled back after an injury-plagued beginning to a position in which they are once again a difficult opponent for anybody.

And yet, after 62 home dates this season, they ranked last in the Major Leagues in attendance with an average of 18,237.

OK, the Rays need a new stadium. Probably with a retractable roof. In a more favorable location, closer to a better demographic mix.

But this is not about a facility. This is about an organization that has done a terrific job under difficult circumstances. And it is about human beings playing baseball.

The payoff for Tampa Bay in this regard was a Sunday at home with a full house and the fans giving their all -- for a visiting team and a great player, but a great player who played for the opposition.

Nobody begrudges one ovation that Derek Jeter receives. He's earned every one of them. It ought to be noted that the Yankees have three more games scheduled in September at Tropicana Field. Presumably, this will mean three more games of thunderous ovations for Jeter and thus, for the Yanks. Standing ovations happen everywhere Jeter goes this season. The difference everyplace else is, when the Yankees are on the road, people cheer for Jeter, but then they also pull for the home team.

You could see how this might be frustrating to the Rays. And you could see how it could move Maddon to say so. And you know what? Good for him.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for
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