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Rays’ opening day: No stadium drama, just baseball

Mark Parker

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From left: Josie Scannell, 1; Amanda Scannell; Saylor Scannell, 3; Kristi Wright and Cindy Caccia attend the Tampa Bay Rays 2024 home opener, a family tradition. Photo by Mark Parker.

For the past five months, discussions surrounding the Tampa Bay Rays have focused on the team and the city’s quest to build a new ballpark in St. Petersburg. That, for at least a few hours, changed Thursday.

The last time the Rays played a meaningful game at Tropicana Field was October 4, 2023, when a historically sparse crowd watched the Texas Rangers cruise to a 7-1 win in the American League Wild Card series. However, baseball is back in St. Petersburg and an enthusiastic crowd of 25,025 fans filled the much-maligned stadium to kick off the 2024 season Thursday afternoon.

Many attendees said the home opener provided a welcome respite from an offseason filled with debates over whether keeping the Rays in St. Petersburg is worth the public assistance. All were excited to hear the crack of Yandy Diaz’s bat as he smacked a ball over the leftfield wall in the team’s first at-bat.

“This is where I grew up,” said spectator Kristi Wright. “This matters to me – it’s going to be the same thing for our kids.”

Over 25,000 fans attended the first game of the 2024 season. The Rays lost to the Toronto Blue Jays 8-2.

Many residents have long-held allegiances to other teams due to the region and state’s transient nature. There were plenty of Toronto Blue Jays fans among the sold-out crowd – not including the closed upper decks – but nothing like a typical game against the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox.

Fostering a fan base requires time. The team is now in its 26th season, and Millennials who once rooted for other teams before the first home opening in 1998 are now raising children.

Those kids will grow up with Rays baseball in St. Petersburg. Thursday’s game was decidedly intergenerational, and grandparents, their children and grandchildren excitedly ate big pretzels and sipped frozen drinks in full team regalia.

“The owners have done everything from free parking to free food to free coolers to $10 games,” said Damon Pietronigro, a longtime season ticket holder. “Everybody says they’re Rays fans – come to the game.”

An elderly couple cheers on the Rays.

There were also new games and fan-favorite mainstays like the Rays Touch Tank to keep casual and young fans entertained. Zach Allee, a senior architect with design firm Populous, recently told the Catalyst that the new ballpark would feature an expanded aquarium accessible year-round.

Several fans said they see nothing wrong with the Trop. “We’re excited that there’s going to be a new stadium, but I’m fine with the one we have,” said Cindy Caccia.

“As long as they stay in St. Pete.”

Caccia, the matriarch, was there with her daughter, Amanda Scannell, and her niece, Wright. Scannell brought her two young daughters, ages 1 and 3, and said some family members have attended opening days since 1998.

Wright noted that many people in the area once rooted for the Atlanta Braves, previously the closest Major League Baseball team to Tampa Bay, and have since switched allegiances. She was 8 when the then-Devil Rays began play in St. Petersburg. “This is my team,” she said proudly.

The Rays Touch Tank remains a popular attraction for younger attendees.

Caccia believes negative publicity surrounding the Trop and getting in and out of downtown St. Petersburg causes some people to stay home. She has heard people say they will attend more games at the new ballpark.

However, she said, “They need to come out now – this is where they need to be.” Caccia also noted that the game was on a weekday afternoon.

“If you can sell out opening day all the time, you can sell out all the other days,” she said. “Bring your asses out.”

Juan Ramirez provided a unique perspective as he lives across Tampa Bay, about 20 minutes outside Riverview. He was one of the few people the Catalyst spoke to who said they thought about stadium plans while watching the game.

Ramirez believes a Tampa stadium would attract more fans from around the region and as far away as Orlando. He said it was nearly an hour’s trip when accounting for traffic and parking.

However, Ramirez said he would make the trek again Friday with his children because “they would love” to experience the pageantry, enthusiasm and optimism of the season’s first homestand. “Even if we have to drive 45 minutes,” he added.

“It’s amazing. We wait for this every year.”

 

 

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    John

    April 1, 2024at1:13 pm

    “Even if we have to drive 45 minutes”

    I love the Tampa fans who apparently have never visited another professional stadium in a larger metro market. I assume they think everyone in Boston, NY, LA, Atl, Chicago, etc… all live within a short 15-20 min drive of the stadium.

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