ST. PETERSBURG -- Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg smiled when asked on Friday afternoon about his expectations for attendance at Tropicana Field this season.
"I think we're going to sell out these two games," Sternberg said, referring to the announced sellouts on Friday and Saturday, "and then the next 79 after that, sure. Right? Is that unreasonable?"
Sternberg went on to say he's stopped putting any thought into attendance expectations, but he expects it to be "up a good amount from last year." That was one of the many topics he addressed before Friday's season opener, with most of the questions centered around Tampa Bay's stadium, the club's financial support and the high expectations on the field entering this season.
Regarding the Rays' past attendance issues, Sternberg said the club has been in contact with the Commissioner's Office, which he described as growing "less tolerant" of the club's current predicament as time passes. The Rays have been just about as successful as any Major League team over the past four seasons, making the playoffs three times, but the number of fans at Tropicana Field -- and the amount of revenue entering the Rays' coffers -- hasn't increased.
"The M.O. to this point in our sport and any other, as we've said before, is that winning cures the ills," Sternberg said. "We're in brave new ground: Winning hasn't cured the ills, so to speak.
"Having said that, if we can break even or lose some money and win like this every year, I'd much rather do that than be in the position of some other teams, and boost the payroll and not win. The expectation of that happening is pretty slim."
When asked about the Rays' future in St. Petersburg, Sternberg said it has always been important that business people on both sides of Tampa Bay -- not just politicians -- feel a need to get involved. That's finally beginning to happen, the principal owner said, though he added that he hasn't had any recent conversations with St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.
But it's hardly a quick fix, even as the local economy begins to show signs of life and the club continues to receive support from its current corporate partners.
"I don't think it's a major factor -- I think it's a factor," Sternberg said. "We've been in lows that were unsustainable there as well, as far as the economy goes. It has been a huge problem, but it's a bit better. It has a long ways to go to get to a level where employment needs to be where it should be, where housing prices need to be where they should be, and businesses need to know that they can open their doors and make a profit.
"But when that happens, it's not like all of a sudden an extra million people are going to show up at my door."
Sternberg was hopeful that the Rays' situation might draw more interest, now that the newly rebranded Miami Marlins are set up in their new ballpark, and the focus has shifted to the A's and Rays.
Sternberg admitted he was envious of every new stadium, including the Marlins' "beautiful" new facility in Little Havana. But he wasn't about to speak ill of Tropicana Field itself, once again defending the dome that the Rays have called home since their inception.
"We've put 30 million bucks into this place -- I love the place," Sternberg said. "I would challenge anybody, and we have, to come in here and say it's not a great experience. It's not an ideal experience, but something is keeping people from coming in. That could be any number of things. But I would challenge anyone to come in and say that it's not a fun venue to watch a ballgame."
As for his expectations on the field, Sternberg stuck to his mantra that the Rays simply want to play meaningful games in September. He added to the club's payroll in the offseason in hopes of accomplishing that goal, going over budget to sign free agents like Carlos Pena and Luke Scott. Sternberg felt encouraged to make those moves based on the Rays' dramatic late-season push into the 2011 playoffs.
That offseason activity has led to even higher expectations for the Rays this season, including predictions that they could return to the World Series. Manager Joe Maddon and his players have actively and excitedly embraced that hype. Sternberg, on the other hand, opted for a more cautious approach.
"We do better as an underdog anyway," Sternberg said, smiling.