ST. PETERSBURG — It started early.
A solid five hours ahead of the Rays' first game of the season against the Toronto Blue Jays, crowds were gathering in the Tropicana Field parking lot and in front of Ferg's Sports Bar, where city officials closed off part of Central Avenue to vehicle traffic to accommodate a large street party.
The excitement was tangible among the legion of Rays fans —‑ not to mention scores of Blue Jays fans ‑ in the hours leading to the sold-out game. Most wore team gear, though some sported fake blue Mohawks, or even blue spandex body suits under their shirts. Many of those tailgating or hanging out at Ferg's took the day off for the occasion; many said they have done so for years.
“I'm supposed to be at the office,” Tampa resident Jay Peirano said.
The Port of Tampa employee and several of his friends stood around an outdoor table in front of Ferg's sharing beer buckets as the sidewalk began to fill up with fans.
“We come here every single year for Opening Day,” he said. “It's the weather, it's the camaraderie, it's Joe Maddon, it's the Rays' great atmosphere.”
Alena Shapiro-DiBenedetto, whose family owns Shapiro's Gallery on Beach Drive, said she has been to all but one of the team's home openers, and took the day off to tailgate ahead of the game's 4:10 p.m. start.
“I've been counting down for Opening Day since January,” she said.
The optimism surrounding the team's prospects also was evident. The Rays nearly made it to the World Series last year, but lost to the Boston Red Sox, who went on to win the championship. This year, fans aren't exactly jaded.
“I think that we're going to take it all this year,” said St. Petersburg resident Paul Fitzgerald, who, along with a handful of coworkers, took the day off to attend. “At least the East, and hopefully the World Series.”
Those who ventured early into Tropicana Field were among the first to experience the park's some new amenities, among them a nearly 360-degree walkway that let's attendees see the game from a host of vantage points, along which sits a new bar and grill, The Porch in Centerfield, which sits directly behind the Batter's Eye. The walkway was packed Monday with fans eager to check it out.
The changes might not be enough to sway some fans from wanting a different facility elsewhere. Debate has raged for years over where the team should play when its contract to play at Tropicana Field is up in 2027.
Brett Masser, who took the day off to make the drive from Tampa with friends and family, said he goes to about 20 Rays games a year.
“It's kind of a far drive, though, from Tampa,” he said. “It'd be a little bit easier if it was in Tampa. Just saying.”
Some fans - namely those of the Blue Jays - traveled thousands of miles to see their team play.
Wade and Susan Watson are teachers in Manitoba, Canadian. The two decided to come down for their spring break to see their team rather than go to Phoenix, where they usually spend their vacation.
“We're big Blue Jays fans, and we saw that they opened up here so we bought tickets,” Wade Watson said, as the two sat at a table in the large outdoor area behind Ferg's, where a stage was set up and where crowds would soon gather. “Couldn't think of a better place to watch the Jays open up than down here.”
The two are staying on Clearwater Beach for the week, and have tickets to see all four games in the series. The timing was excellent, his wife said.
“Some places close to where we live are expecting about a foot of snow,” she said. “So we're glad to be here.”