ST. PETERSBURG — One day after the hoopla of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the city has another reason to party: Opening Day.
Monday's 4:10 p.m. game against the Toronto Blue Jays in a sellout, the ninth straight season the team has sold out its home opener. The city also plans to mark the return of baseball with its traditional lunchtime block party outside Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill on Central Avenue with music, dancing, games for children and an appearance by Rays mascot Raymond.
“I am looking forward to another great season of baseball with the Tampa Bay Rays,” said Mayor Rick Kriseman. “Our Rays are the best team around, and I hope everyone joins me in cheering them on to the World Series.”
An annual rite that for many marks the end of winter, Opening Day unites baseball aficionados across the country in a sometimes irrational optimism that this could be their team's year.
“Everyone starts at 0-0; everyone's expectations are through the roof,” said Melanie Lenz, Rays vice president of development. “We just can't wait to get it started.”
Enthusiasm for Opening Day has led to renewed calls to make it a national holiday. Leading the way has been brewing giant Budweiser, which submitted an online petition signed by more than 100,000 people to the White House.
Holiday or not, Ferg's is bracing for an estimated 10,000 revelers and will have 40 bartenders on duty throughout the 15,000-square-foot bar where the game will be televised on 40 TVs. Sports Radio 98.7 The Fan plan to broadcast from the bar from early morning.
“It's the greatest day of the year,” said Mark Ferguson, the bar's founder.
St. Petersburg carpenter and long-time Rays fan Gary Rose said Opening Day has become more of an event since the team became competitive in the last few years.
“Now, they're a good team, we get excited,” Rose said.
The opener will be the first look for most fans at the new 360-degree walkway around Tropicana Field and The Porch in Centerfield, a new patio area behind batter's eye that includes a 46-foot long bar and concessions.
The team will also raise the 2013 American League Wild Card banner during Monday's pre-game ceremony.
Just how long the Rays remain at the Trop, though, is still questionable.
Major League Baseball officials and owners have expressed frustration at the team's paltry 18,000 average attendance in 2013, the league's lowest.
Team owners say staying at the stadium through the end of its contract with the city in 2027 is not an option. But concerned that the team intends to move to Tampa, the city has refused to allow the Rays to explore alternative stadium sites.
Kriseman and Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg are expected to resume negotiations after a first formal meeting in February.
The small crowds are despite several winning seasons in recent years. This year, pundits are again saying the Rays are going to make the post season with some picking the team as World Series contenders.
Baseball superstitions hold that teams shy away from bold predictions but that does not hold for fans.
“We have high hopes,” said Ferguson. “It's going to be a great ride this year.”