Optimism high as Rays fans pack Trop for season opener
ST. PETERSBURG -
Finding a table at Ferg’s Bar and Grill on Tuesday afternoon was a challenge because of the sheer number of Rays fans packed into the restaurant across the street from Tropicana Field.
Fans jammed the street outside Ferg’s as the city shut down part of Central Avenue for a street party ahead of the game. There were fans in Rays blue and white, live bands, free-flowing beer and the smell of barbecue wafting over from tailgate parties in the stadium parking lot.
Nearly as tangible as those opening-day staples was a sense of optimism, buffeted by an augmented roster led by three-time All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria and the potential that comes with any new season.
“I think they’re going to the World Series,” retiree Jack Van Gieson said.
Sports Illustrated recently predicted the Rays would do just that this year, though ultimately fall to the Washington Nationals.
“I hope that’s not a Sports Illustrated kiss of death,” the Tampa retiree said. “I’m looking forward to some of our new players,” such as first baseman James Loney and second baseman Kelly Johnson. “Looking forward to having Longoria not get hurt and have a great year.”
With Longoria on the disabled list early last year with an injured hamstring, the Rays played most of last season without the All Star.
Donning a “Rayhawk” wig, Steve Antonell of Madeira Beach said he was happy Longoria’s back onboard and that the pitchers look strong. Like many fans, Antonell is hoping the Rays’ offense doesn’t struggle like last year.
“I hope they hit,” he said.
Sean Moore of Tarpon Springs wore Matt Moore’s jersey as he waited for the new season to officially start, but mostly because he and the pitcher share a last name.
“This is our year,” he said. “We’ve got (American League Cy Young winner) Price. … We’ve got a great lineup, as far as I can tell, so I know we’ll do well. Yankees are down, Red Sox are down.”
The optimism may be apparent among fans, but much of the talk about the Rays this offseason centered on the possibility the team would leave St. Petersburg, or the Tampa Bay region, because of continued attendance problems, often blamed on the aging Trop.
Many fans hanging out before the first pitch Tuesday seemed attached to the stadium, though.
“I’ve always been a fan of the Trop,” Moore said. “Everyone beats it up, but I like the air conditioning. And we love Ferg’s. The whole experience is what we want to be part of.”
Antonell is also a fan of the stadium.
“We never get a game rained out,” he said.
Despite a sometimes contentious public debate between St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and Rays executives over the team’s contract to play at Tropicana Field, Foster was, not surprisingly, upbeat about the team Tuesday.
“I don’t think you’ll miss [B.J.] Upton or [Carlos] Peña, and they’ve got some great kids, some great talent,” he said. “Pitching is deep. If they stay healthy, I think Sports Illustrated is right.”
Much like the wait for a table at Ferg’s, the wait to get into the sold-out game was also long. Foster said he hoped that bodes well for attendance this year. Last year, the Rays ranked last in attendance among Major League Baseball teams.
“It’s the eighth consecutive year of selling out Game 1,” he said. “Now we just have to sell out Game 2, Game 3, Game 22, Game 82.”
Fans need to show more support for the Rays if they want the team to stay in St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg resident John Peterson said.
“If everyone would just go to one [game] a month, I think it would make a huge impact on their attendance numbers,” he said.
Despite the hordes of people who came from across the Tampa Bay area to cheer on the new lineup, the Rays lost to the Baltimore Orioles 7-4.
But don’t expect one loss to dampen enthusiasm.
Long after most fans had left, as the grounds crew was raking the diamond, a single fan bellowed “Go Rays! Whoo!” And the sentiments of a hopeful fan base echoed through the nearly empty stadium.