|The Devil Rays are going to Disney World|
|Written by Admin|
|Sunday, 13 May 2007 10:20|
KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) -Matt Silverman speaks confidently when he talks about the future of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.|
The 30-year-old Harvard-educated team president is entrusted to help principal owner Stuart Sternberg make good on a pledge to transform a struggling organization into a hit on and off the field.
He believes in his boss's vision.
New team colors and a name change are on the horizon, and the club embarks this week on a plan to try to reposition itself into a regional franchise by playing three games against the Texas Rangers at Disney World.
In addition to increasing the team's exposure in the Orlando area, the Devil Rays are hoping to bolster television ratings across Central Florida and eventually lure fans about 90 miles southwest to their regular home in St. Petersburg.
``We're fortunate to play in a region that has a great love of baseball,'' Silverman said. ``Orlando is a big part of where we hope to spread our brand. ... And what better way is there to ignite the fandom than carry the game to them?''
The 9,500-seat stadium at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex is about 20 miles southwest of downtown Orlando and will be the smallest ballpark to host a major league game since the Athletics opened the 1996 season with six ``home'' dates at 9,000-seat Cashman Field in Las Vegas while improvements were made at Oakland Coliseum.
With temporary stands and outfield berm seating, capacity can be expanded to 13,000 at Disney, which has been the spring training base for the Atlanta Braves since 1997. Although advance ticket sales have been slow, officials remain optimistic that cooperative weather will spur a strong walk-up gate.
``It would be nice to fill the stadium, but what's going to make it successful is if fans leave feeling like they had a great experience,'' Silverman said, playing down the prospect of embarrassingly low crowds.
Despite having an exciting nucleus of young talent that's making strides toward shedding the team's losing ways on the field, the Devil Rays are last in home attendance, averaging 15,725 through 17 dates at Tropicana Field.
Texas has a history of not drawing well on visits to St. Petersburg. Last season, six games against the Rangers attracted an average of 8,241, with announced crowds ranging from 7,147 to 9,701.
Silverman, however, noted the opponent had less to do with relocating this week's games than management's desire to experiment early in the season when the weather is less humid and games are less susceptible to rain delays.
That ordinarily isn't a concern because the Devil Rays play in a dome.
``I think it's a great idea,'' said Rangers outfielder Jerry Hairston, whose family will join him in Orlando.
``First trip for my son going to Disney World. He's 18 months. First time seeing Mickey Mouse. It will be good for him. I'll record it and he'll always have it.''
Not all the Rangers are planning theme-park visits and sightseeing junkets. After all, the games do count in the standings.
``It will be business as usual,'' shortstop Michael Young said. ``I don't care where we play. I want to go out and get it done.''
NASCAR legend Richard Petty will throw out the ceremonial first pitch for one of the games. The Devil Rays are hoping to entice fans to also visit Tropicana Field, where the team's new ownership group has spent millions to make a bland stadium a more interesting place to watch games.
Fans attending the games will receive a voucher for admission for select dates in St. Petersburg, where Sternberg has extended free parking for a second season and introduced other fan-friendly features such as a 10,000-gallon tank containing 30 cownose rays that can be touched and fed.
``A couple of years ago, most of the complaints we received were about the stadium. We have reversed that trend,'' said Silverman, who was appointed president when Sternberg took control after the 2005 season.
Additional image-shaping changes are on the way, beginning with a slight modification of team's nickname for 2008.
Although Silverman insisted it's ``not a done deal,'' the club faces a May 31 deadline to notify major league baseball of plans to change logos, uniforms, colors and likely drop the word ``Devil'' from a moniker many have opposed since the franchise's inception nine seasons ago.
``We don't expect a name change to sell tickets,'' Silverman said. ``At the same time, we don't want anyone to not support us because of the name.''
Another move the team is counting on to increase exposure outside the Tampa Bay area is the relocation of the club's spring training operations from St. Petersburg to Port Charlotte in 2009.
The Devil Rays are the first major league club to train in its home city since the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Athletics in 1919.
Like some of his players, Texas manager Ron Washington welcomes the change of pace this week, even if the objective of the Rangers' trip remains the same.
``You've still got to do the things that you would do if you were some place else,'' Washington said. ``You've got to hit, you've got to pitch and you've got to catch the ball.''
AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins in Dallas contributed to this report.
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