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Small crowds could mean big worries for Rays

The world champs are in town to play the team they beat last October to become world champs, and when the doors swung open Tuesday afternoon for the first game of this World Series rematch, only 19,608 fans walked into Tropicana Field.

That’s almost 10,000 below the major league average and more than 3,000 fewer than what the Tampa Bay Rays are averaging this season, so yes, going by the numbers, Tuesday’s crowd was disappointing.

It’s a story that won’t go away. Even during the Rays’ drive to the division title last season, the crowds never seemed big enough on most nights.

And while attendance is up 23 percent compared to this point last season, Tuesday’s crowd caused Rays president Matt Silverman to publicly question the commitment to his team by his team’s fan base.

That’s a role normally reserved for manager Joe Maddon and the players.

But a member of the front office calling out the fans? That’s interesting.

Silverman has a point. The current ownership has done everything the last ownership couldn’t or wouldn’t do. They cleaned up the Trop, kept ticket prices reasonably priced for most seats and put a winner on the field.

For that, they expect to be rewarded by more than a few more fannies in the seats.

And it wasn’t like the Rays played the A’s on Tuesday. It was the Philadelphia Phillies, the 2008 World Series champions who have carved their own fan base in the bay area during all those years training in Clearwater.

Or course, the Rays are drawing from a region hurt by the recession.

Like baseball fans across the country, Rays fans are dealing with layoffs, foreclosures, pay cuts and furloughs or the threat of layoffs, foreclosures, pay cuts and furloughs.

Oh, and almost every home game is televised. It’s not hard to see why diehard Rays fans would want to save their money and ring their cowbells from the comfort of their living rooms.

Judging by all the Rays T-shirts, hats and bumper stickers seen around town these days, the team has grown substantially in popularity. And the crowds are bigger at the Trop, just not near the league average of 29,571, which owner Stuart Sternberg said was his hope for this season.

The team should draw well for Saturday’s game and postgame concert. There are also more New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox games on the schedule, plus the real possibility of another playoff push in September.

But it’s doubtful the attendance will increase enough to move the nightly average into the high 20,000s.

So you wonder: What becomes of the Rays if ownership grows increasingly disappointed with the attendance?

Sternberg wants a new stadium, and his first choice was met with widespread disapproval. If he can’t get a stadium built in Pinellas County, does he look toward Hillsborough County?

Or, does Sternberg conclude this area isn’t a baseball market and look outside of the state?

The Charlotte Rays. The Mexico City Rays. The San Antonio Rays.

When the doors swung open Wednesday afternoon for Game 2 of this World Series rematch, only 18,862 fans walked into the Trop.

That is a few hundred fewer than Tuesday’s disappointing crowd.