How AL East rivals Rays and Yankees united to make dramatic statement on gun violence

The Tampa Bay Rays felt a "palpable" need to act after 19 students and 2 teachers were murdered in Texas. The Yankees agreed.

Gabe Lacques

It happens every so often in the Tampa Bay Rays’ offices, when the thrum and grind of a 162-game season gets overtaken by external events too large to ignore, or too devastating to turn away.

As a sports franchise, the Rays are not explicitly tasked with landing on the right side of history, and they operate in an industry that prefers the milquetoast response to bold action in the face of controversy. Yet on multiple occasions, be it a nightclub slaying or marriage equality or a statue dedicated with reprehensible rhetoric, the Rays have chosen courage over capitulation.

Thursday evening, the Rays turned over their social-media accounts from a celebration of baseball to a clinical recitation of gun violence statistics in the wake of Tuesday’s mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas that killed 19 schoolchildren and two teachers. It came after more than two days of collaborative talks that stretched from club presidents to baseball operations brass, from ownership to the clubhouse, where reliever Brooks Raley expressed his concern for his hometown of Uvalde.

It crossed franchise lines to the New York Yankees, who were in town for a key four-game series and who quickly approved of joining forces with their American League East foes.

And in the end, the heavily-workshopped thread of 10 tweets, heavy on citations to refute the inevitable vitriol to come, provided a balm of sorts to those touched by gun violence, and a sense that something could be done even as an organization carried on with the largely trivial act of playing baseball games.

“Far from us as a baseball team to say we have all the answers and the best ideas,” club president Brian Auld told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s a difficult line to walk. It can be a scary one.

“But we felt it was too important not to do so.”

A cross-section of Rays staffers collaborated to ply its audience of 655,000 Twitter followers – and 430,000 more on Instagram – with statistics conveying the effect of guns and gun violence on veterans, children, people of color and those contemplating suicide. It laid out the devastating effect assault rifles such as the AR-15 used in the Texas massacre and dozens of others.

And it backed the statistics with citations and tools to reach out, if necessary.

The thread’s reach ballooned when the Yankees joined on to share it with their 3 million followers on each platform. The result, according to metrics provided by Twitter, was the most-liked tweet in the 13-year history of the team’s account; the entire thread landed in their top 10 most-liked tweets ever, according to the Yankees' social-media department.

While aiming to prevent tragedies such as the Uvalde shooting seems non-controversial, the Rays’ message comes in a state where the Second Amendment is viewed as sacrosanct in some quarters. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has expressed his determination to pass legislation allowing residents to carry concealed weapons without a permit.

Yet it’s the same state that in 2018 birthed a student movement for gun control, after 17 students and a staffer were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. For the Rays, there’s a distinction between being divisive and being right.

“In this case, children losing their lives so tragically, we think we can put politics aside and deliver the message,” said Auld. “When you think of things over the years where we’ve been the boldest, we’re not naïve to the fact it could be politically divisive. We are well aware that (backlash) is going to come. We’ve been through it a few times.”

The Yankees' Aaron Judge steals second base ahead of the tag by the Rays' Isaac Paredes during the sixth inning of Thursday's game.

It stretches back to March 2015, when the Rays joined the New England Patriots and San Francisco Giants in filing legal briefs with the Supreme Court in support of gay marriage, which was declared legal by the court in all 50 states three months later. In July 2017, the team supported the removal of a Confederate statue from downtown Tampa, a sculpture dedicated in 1911 with words that noted “the South detests and despises all … who, in any manner, encourages social equality with an ignorant and inferior race."

In June 2016, the club dedicated its Pride Night festivities to the 49 people killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando days earlier, donning Orlando Rays caps to commemorate the occasion.

“It was bigoted violence no matter what side of the aisle you’re on,” said Auld.

While the actions seem obvious to some, they nonetheless represent a systemic organizational approval that begins with owner Stuart Sternberg, who Auld says is consulted and gives approval to statements that go far outside the lines of a baseball diamond.

The tweets from behind the club logo may come from a social media staffer, but they do, in fact, carry the stamp of the team’s highest office.

“Just about every time he supports what we want to do and how we want to do it. We’re fortunate to have that at our back,” said Auld. “It might be more difficult for other (corporations) with bigger boards.

“It’s our job to run the organization and it’s our job to think how we use our platform, but he has always been an invaluable part of that process. When we know, from him, that we have his full support, that we know we’re on the right track.

“If you don’t have an owner willing to wear those consequences, including what can happen at box office, it’s difficult to maneuver around.”

This time, the message spread to another organization.

With New York in town, Rafaela Amador Fink, the Rays’ chief public affairs officer, and communications vice president De Anna Sheffield Ward reached out to Jason Zillo, Sheffield Ward’s counterpart in the Yankees’ organization, to seek collaboration. A perfunctory series of phone calls later, and the Yankees – and their massive reach – were on board.

“There is more that can be done beyond holding moments of silence,” said Zillo. “In those times, we want to use our voice to continue the conversation in a productive way, in a thoughtful way. Because progress begins with dialogue.”

Auld said the Texas shooting, like the Pulse massacre, created a feeling that the need for action was “palpable.” The goal, he said, was to inform the team’s audience “in a way that was courageous but not throw gasoline on the fire.”

Naturally, a torrent of negative responses filled the account’s replies. Yet the team also heard from fans who lost loved ones to gun violence.

The team will take in the love and handle the vitriol as it always has, confident it is on a side that will only temporarily prove controversial.

“Navigating complex and nuanced discussions on Twitter is not easy,” said Auld. “When you see people being grateful, you know you went in the right direction.

“When we look back, we have nothing but pride about what we’ve done.”