Fan-tastic Rays Fan Fest
I seriously did not expect to see over 4 ,000 people standing in line outside waiting for the 9a.m. Season Ticket holder opening when I pulled into Lot 6 off of 1st Avenue South in St. Petersburg. I also did not expect that most would be as excited as me to the possibilities of the coming year, and wondering who might sign, or not sign inside today. From the moment they left us in early to be able to a few circles around the field and check out the sights, it was by far the best Fan Fest that the Rays have put on in their short history.
Kudos go out to Mark Fernandez and Brian Killingsworth for the awesome display booth and sights that greeted your eyes when you first walked into the stadium in center field. Some people just love to be able to walk on the Field Turf, but if you have been a Rays fans for years, you know the turf can be a bit hard on your legs after a few hours. The sights that first hit your eyes is the grouping to the left that featured several of the Rays big time sponsors who gave away free items for fans in attendance. There were the free Rays 2009 TV schedule poster by Florida Sports Network ( FSN ) that also featured several members of the Rays Television crew signing for the fans.
A few hours later, former greats like, Wayne Garrett, Gary Peters, Jim Archer, Darold Knowles, and Mark Whiten also came out in support of the MLBPA event. The place was already a buzz with excitement and it was only 10 am. The autograph lines quickly filled up with Table 1 being the place to be today. At one point today, the line stretched out the right field gate and swirled into the tunnel under the stands twice to form a line of about 1,000 fans seeking autographs from the players ib just that first table. The first table got the first bit of bad news at about 12 noon when it was announced that Rookie of the Year winner Evan Longoria would not be signing at the event. Rays pitcher James Shields jumped in and rescued the hour by staying and signing for fans in place of Longoria.
Rumors quickly spread about the missing Longoria from a family emergency to missing the event because of an autograph contract with a company. I do not know the correct answer, but I will give Longoria the benefit of the doubt unless something else hits the fan. During the signings you could see the Cow from Cick-fil-A and Stewie from family guy going around and chatting with kids and fans waiting in line for autographs.
If you left the autograph area and moved down the first baseline, you were met by the Metro PCS table, where from 1-3 pm today, a Rays player could phone someone you knew and chat for a minute or two. I got new Rays Pat Burrell to leave my new voice mail message on my cellphone for my website. But other players like 2008 first round pick Tim Beckham and David Price were over at the tables during the day. If you kept going to the first baseline, you saw that Chevrolet was out giving Rays fans free gifts and presenting the 2009 models close up and personal. Then you would come up on the Baseball America table where you could sign up to win a special prize from them throughout the day and receive the newest copy of the magazine. the MLB Network also had a small table set up giving away more goodies for the fans and giving them an opportunity to check out the new network that started on January 1, 2009.
The Rays Golden Rays club, which caters to its fans 55 and older was stationed right next to them and was taking applications and giving out the 2009 edition of the Golden Rays shirt, which was a striking gold shirt with royal blue lettering. After that it was a smattering of Rays booth featuring the Charlotte Sports Park, where the Rays will be playing their 2009 Spring Training games and hold all training session before the Spring games begin in 2009. On the opposite side were the Clear Channel radio stations lining the fencing for the “Kids Run the Bases” event that is so popular after Sunday’s Rays games. Then you would come upon the Rays Radio Network, which had both their Spanish and English radio teams signing for the fans.
Right next to them near the entrance for the Clubhouse tour was WDAE 620, the Sports Animal booth that was broadcasting throughout the Rays Fan Fest event. To their right was the Rays Maddon’s Maniac booth that was already taking applications and giving out collectibles for the 2009 season. I am going to write a blog in the coming week on the events and the new procedures for this great Rays booster club. After that you had the Rays season Ticket folks and Raysbaseball.com situated right behind home plate to help you with your seat selection, or to view the website on a laptop set up on the table for you to browse the website.
Then you had two very special groups, the Rays Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities ( RBI ) program. This is a fantastic program, and the Rays All-Star left fielder Carl Crawford once participating in a Houston area branch of this organization before being drafted by the Rays. Next to them is the Rays Wheelchair Softball team, which is currently ranked 7th in the nation, and is the reigning National Champion in Division II. Then you wander on down to the SABRE table, which asked Rays fans to find Rays players listed in a word search puzzle today for a prize.
Then you come upon one of my favorite Rays collectible displays, the McKenney family Collection. This is a very unique collection because it hold a baseball signed by every coach and player who ever put on a Rays uniform. It is also the pride and joy of Jeff McKenney, who fans at the Trop know affectionately as “The Sign Guy”. McKenney also has an amazing banner that he started that he has also gotten almost every Rays player to sign. The banner and the collection are a great look into the history of the Rays, and some date even before the first game in 1998.
To the right of them beyond the left field tunnel was the Rays Season Ticket opportunity where fans got to take their picture with two Rays players at the same time. Players like James Shields, Fernando Perez got things started at noon today and were followed by B J Upton and Matt Garza, Dioner Navarro and Andy Sonnanstine, Jason Bartlett and J P Howell, and Jeff Niemann and Troy Percival closed out the event at 5 pm. But it was the areas lining the left field walls towards center field that had the most action today. That was the location of the kid’s game area where speed pitching and hitting rules the day. But if that was too much for you right now, there was a three-story little sluggers zone with wiffle balls, and a few of them even made it over the big white monster wall today. You then would stroll down to the big league batting cages and the wiffle ball home run derby event, where the little one were fed balls from a machine and aimed for the wall that resembled old Ebbet’s Field in Brooklyn, New York.
One of the most popular photo opportunities was at either of the Rays enlarged baseball side displays, or the cutout where you could put yourself in the Rays home plate celebration. It has two cut out points to put yourself into the action. All in all the Fan Fest had its ups and downs. The autograph areas were saturated as usual by fans and some did not get to the front before the signing time was over for the players. That has happened in the past, but with the increased attendance today, you had to be in the right place at the right time today to get everyone you wanted. That is one of the sad points of the day. Some players like Carlos Pena did not arrive on time, but he stayed beyond his time and signed for the fans.
All in all, the event was a huge success for the team. Some people grumbled about the autograph lines, and others did not understand that the $ 10 autograph donation for a wristband to stand in line for an autograph was to go to the Rays Baseball Foundation which provides money and scholarships throughout the Tampa Bay area. The group also renovated local Little League fields and donates their time and efforts in Habitat for Humanity and the local homeless shelters in the area. But he crowd was here in force, eating, drinking and enjoying themselves as the filed in and out of the stadium.
Even with all the pressure on the Rays to continue their winning ways, the players and the Rays management teams can grow in confidence by the display of the fans turnout for this event. I have a few suggestions for 2010, but I will leave that for another time. It is time to rejoice and also relax and take in all the positives of the 2009 Fan Fest and show some real deep love to the Rays on this Valentines Day.