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Rays fans the epitome of baseball loyalty

ST. PETERSBURG -- There are people who care deeply about the Rays and consider attendance at the team's home games to be a fundamental part of their lives.

There may not always be enough of them to pack the ballpark, but these people are as devoted to the Rays as any other baseball fans are to any other baseball team.

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We talked to some of them on Tuesday night as the Rays were taking on the Rangers in another game with major implications in the American League Wild Card race. The whole topic of the Rays' fan base had emerged again because on Monday night, with the two teams tied for the Wild Card lead, a 6-2 Rays victory had been witnessed by 10,724 people. The attendance on Tuesday night was 10,786.

Christine and Brad Weigle have been season-ticket holders from the beginning of this franchise.

"It's their loss," Brad Weigle said of anybody who wasn't here for what was a truly superior game.

You knew exactly what he meant.

The Rays rank last in the Major Leagues in home attendance this season. For the fans who regularly attend, who savor these games and applaud the success of this team, this situation is inexplicable.

Another season-ticket holder who has been here since Day 1 is retiree Steve Conn, who lives in nearby Gulfport.

"It's sad," says Conn of the low attendance. "I can't put a finger on why, who or where. I don't think it's just endemic to Tampa Bay or Florida.

"This is such a good bargain, it seems to me. It's a comfortable stadium. They put on a good show, usually, so I don't understand why someone wouldn't want to spend a few hours here.

"It's just a nice, sublime sport. It's long-lasting, 162 games. I enjoy the young people coming up."

That's all part of it. Those of us who love baseball would readily accept Conn's description of the sport as "sublime."

The atmosphere at Tropicana Field is relaxed, informal, friendly; kind of like an extended family picnic, albeit an indoor picnic. The regular customers and the ushers greet one another by name.

"We have such nice fans," one female usher said.

This isn't a typical ballpark atmosphere, but then each park is supposed to be different. Two men we spoke with said the Rays are difficult to get behind because of their lack of history and traditions. One man, who grew up going to games in New York, found the atmosphere to be "sterile."

A man who drove down from Ocala said that he would come more often but that there isn't enough parking near the ballpark. He is originally from Wisconsin and wants a ballpark ringed by acres of parking lots, like the old County Stadium in Milwaukee -- or, now, Miller Park. Ah, tailgating.

But the regulars have none of these complaints. In fact, they're taken with the whole experience. One of the common excuses for not showing up is that the park "is on the wrong side of the bridge," meaning St. Petersburg, rather than Tampa, the growth area.

Still, from their seats on the first-base side, the Weigles, for instance, could comfortably contemplate a night of baseball, while outside, a thunderstorm made its way across St. Pete.

"I love the stadium," Brad Weigle said. "Could we play [outdoors] tonight? No, there's no way. The location, you can use any excuse you want. I work 20 minutes north of here, we live 20 minutes south of here [in Manatee County], just across the Skyway Bridge. I don't know why people don't come. But we know people who come from Charlotte Harbor, from Sarasota, from Brandon."

"Until this year I lived over in Tampa, so I was going across the bridge every night for all those years," Conn said. "Even if they did pick up and move to Tampa, I'd still be going to the games. It's not that big a deal. It's a great show. A great bargain."

Brad Weigle, a project manager for a company that does high-resolution digital aerial photography, including work for the U.S. Forest Service, has a baseball memory that goes back to the 1950s in Wichita, Kans, watching the Triple-A farm club of the Milwaukee Brewers, seeing the players who eventually became the 1957 World Series champions.

"I grew up with baseball," he said. "I grew up in Wichita, and my dad started taking me to games in '55, and it was the Milwaukee Braves' farm team. So I saw the guys that were on the 1957 world champion Milwaukee Braves when I was 5 years old. Gene Conley, Billy Bruton. I was a Hank Aaron fan all my life."

Since 1998, there have been Rays memories. There were truly difficult times.

"We've been here when there were 3,500 people," Christine Weigle said.

But for the last six years, there have been winning teams, three postseason teams and one World Series team; the Rays have been the little franchise that could. There is an indomitable quality about being a Rays fan, but these folks have the results to prove it.

"We say you can't leave the game early, that's against the rules," Christine Weigle said.

The Rays are seeking a new ballpark, but there are numerous obstacles.

"I think it's important that the Rays stay in Tampa Bay," Brad Weigle said.

There are people who have supported this franchise in a way that would demand that kind of two-way loyalty. For the sake of this franchise, they should be congratulated, encouraged, rewarded and, perhaps, when it becomes feasible, cloned.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for

Tampa Bay Rays