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Community connects with Rays at Fan Fest

Mark Parker

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Bill Walsh, chief business officer for the Tampa Bay Rays, said over 15,000 people attended the free Fan Fest event in 2023. Photo by Mark Parker.

The Tampa Bay Rays’ annual Fan Fest was once again a hit Saturday, particularly with the team’s youngest supporters, who relished a rare opportunity to interact with big league players.

Bill Walsh, chief business officer for the Rays, told the Catalyst that over 15,000 people filled Tropicana Field for the free event. In addition to meeting players, coaches and mascots, attendees could receive autographs, purchase game-used equipment and apparel, participate in a food drive and browse a popular charity “yard sale” in the concourse.

Fan Fest also featured myriad interactive games and presentations from team leadership. Walsh said there was “excitement in the air,” with the Rays home opener still over a month away.

“I think it’s just a fun reminder of what baseball is – our mission is to energize the community through the magic of baseball,” Walsh said. “And this is one of those days that reminds you that baseball really is magical. There’s so many things about the sport that can bring us together.”

A young fan sees how fast he can pitch in one of Fan Fest’s many interactive activities.

Despite rainy conditions throughout the day, Walsh noted Fan Fest attracted team supporters from around the region and “all walks of life” to St. Petersburg. He said hosting a professional sports team is a source of civic pride and identity for residents.

Walsh said it also helps communities and companies outside of Tampa Bay realize St. Pete is a prominent city in a major league region. “It means a lot,” he added. “In some ways, we can quantify it … but there’s absolutely an intangible piece that I don’t think we can discount.”

Brayden Tingwall, 11, adamantly agreed. He called meeting his favorite players a “beautiful thing.”

Second baseman Brandon Lowe, shortstop Taylor Walls and relief pitcher Jason Adam fielded questions from children sitting around a small stage near the third base concession area. Team officials allowed Brayden to introduce the players.

“They (the Rays) just love their fans and want to show their appreciation for it,” Brayden said. “They’re just the best. I would definitely recommend it (Fan Fest) to all the kids out there.”

A simulated batting practice activity allowed fans to hit balls over Tropicana Field’s outfield walls.

Opening Day is March 28 at the Trop. Walsh explained that Fan Fest allows supporters to engage with players before they begin feeling the pressures of a 162-game regular season.

Adam said those interactions build excitement to get through spring training and start the 2024 season. He said Saturday’s crowds show the team has a fervent fan base despite much-maligned game attendance numbers.

“This would have been a dream as a kid – to go and rub shoulders with the players,” Adam added. “So, I love doing that. I love that these kids come up, we can chat with them briefly and I hope it’s a great experience for the fans. And I think, because people keep showing up, it must be.”

Fan Fest also highlighted several local nonprofits. The food drive was a collaboration with Feeding Tampa Bay, and the yard sale benefitted the Rays Baseball Foundation.

Charles Castle III, president of the Burg Baseball, said his organization’s booth at the event provided much-needed exposure. The nonprofit youth league waives registration fees and provides equipment for children from low-income households, particularly those in Midtown and South St. Pete.

Charles Castle III, president of Burg Baseball, said Fan Fest allowed him to highlight the nonprofit’s work. Photo: Facebook.

Castle said the Rays have supported Burg Baseball for nearly 17 years. “They’ve helped us bring baseball to our neighborhood kids and helped me provide some of the needs that we have …,” he said.

“It’s been a great experience with these guys (the team),” Castle added. “To see the young kids come out, and their eyes just light up when they see this place.”

Walsh noted Fan Fest was the latest in a long line of offseason events at Tropicana Field. Enchant Christmas returned in December, and World Wrestling Entertainment’s Royal Rumble took over the stadium Jan. 27.

Cirque du Soleil is setting up its month-long BAZZAR event outside the facility. Walsh expressed his excitement to see the Trop in use year-round and said team leadership is looking ahead to operations at a new ballpark.

“That’s very much what we want it to be – that asset for the community and the region that we can program 365 days a year,” Walsh said. “So, it’s very intentional. There’s a lot of relationships to build.”

 

 

 

 

 

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    HAL FREEDMAN

    February 21, 2024at3:29 pm

    “Brayden Tingwall, 11, adamantly agreed. He called meeting his favorite players a “beautiful thing.”

    It’s a good thing he met them. They’re likely to be traded away within a year or two. I miss the days, before it became all business, when players stayed with the same team for most of their career.

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