One of the biggest reasons so many fans came out to the Tampa Bay Rays 2010 Fan Fest on Saturday was a chance to chat and get autographs from their favorite Rays players in advance of the 2010 season. Also on hand were a few of the Rays minor league prospects invited to the Major League camp that started on Friday. The number of fans seen entering the building on Saturday definitely showed that the enthusiasm and the excitement is very much still alive within the Tampa Bay area for their team.
And there were a few big name players like Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist, new comer Sean Rodriguez sent to the Rays in the Scott Kazmir trade in 2009 and Rays 2009 scapegoat Designated Hitter Pat Burrell. The autograph day went pretty uneventful accept for some late arrivals from players, and some people grumbling about the absence of Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett and leftie Jake McGee. I still have not heard a word on Bartlett, but McGee missed the event due to his wife Morgan going to a local hospital, but she has since been released and McGee is back with the team at the Port Charlotte complex.
But there were more than whispers from a few of the Rays Season Ticket holder I spoke to on friends not renewing their seats or even people downgrading from multiple seats to singles for the 2010 season. But the reality is also there that a small bulk of that inflated number in 2009 was for people who wanted to secure 2008 Playoff tickets and bought seats in the inexpensive sections of Tropicana Field to get guaranteed seating for the Rays playoff run. But there is a anticipated hope of people getting into the flow after Fan Fest and purchasing one of the many ticket packages or options for the upcoming season.
And there were members of the Rays Sales Department all over Tropicana Field ready and willing to discuss or show seating options to people all during Fan Fest. There are options starting as low as $ 273 (Friday or Sunday plan) and rising depending on the seat location. And beginning this Friday, February 26,2010 at 9 am, individual game tickets will go on sale to the general public for the first time in 2010. Another popular option is the Saturday game package that will include every game for the Hess Express /Rays Concert Series that start at $ 331 for T.B.T. Party Deck or Upper Deck Reserved seating.
And again in 2010, the Home Plate Club prices seems to have gone down a tab, so if you should win the Florida Lotto in time for the Rays season, you could purchase a seat in the All-Inclusive area starting at $ 13,256. And even as the Rays season Ticket numbers have dropped, it had to be anticipated by the local economic struggles and also the 2009 Playoff package ticket holders not renewing their seats for 2010. You can be sure within now and the beginning of the season, the Rays will announce some additional ticket options and also attractive promotions and events to get the Tampa Bay residents to come out to the Trop. for more games in 2010.
And as usual, the autograph lines seemed to begin to get congested almost immediately as people bought their silver wristbands then stood in line almost two hours before Evan Longoria first stepped onto the first table location just after 12 pm. By the time he had stepped into his seat, the line formed around the white plastic chain links and circled out into the Rightfield Street hallway down past the Dipping Dots booth and almost to the Rays Carnival Games for the kids.
And there were all sorts of interesting items brought up to the players to sign this year. One fan, Christin Manfredo actually had new Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach sign her 1,000th autographed baseball during Fan Fest, with Rays prospect catcher Nevin Ashley becoming the 1001st autographed baseball in Manfredo’s collection. And there was the usual oversize baseball bats and small scale batting helmets for players to sign, but the one item that caught my eyes was the oversize World Series ticket that were given to several players during the day.
Everyone always asks who is sitting right there with me in my section. Well, here we see Michael, who sits in Section 138, Row C Seat 1 giving Evan Longoria one of the State Farm Home Run Derby balls from 2008 to sign. Longoria took some time looking at the ball and remarked that it looked like it was actually hit, possibly by him during the event. It is a great collectible ball for Michael’s collection. Another item that came up just after Michael to Longo was an actual gold-colored fielding glove that looked a lot like the Golden Glove model glove on the trophy that Longoria will be presented at a Rays game in 2010. One of the great things about this event is seeing some of the fantastic collectible items fans have obtained during the past season from auctions, sales and even events like Fan Fest for the guys to sign.
People were complaining all day long about players getting to the Trop. late for their signings and not staying past their times to appease fans. I know that certain players had transportation delays on their travels up from Port Charlotte, while others had logistical situation going on with their belongings and equipment getting to Port Charlotte ahead of them on Saturday. For some reason, B J Upton took a huge blunt of this backlash, but he was not the only player who was delayed and did not stay any additional time to sign for fans.
And some Rays fans were quick to notice he was texting between signatures and also checking his phone a bit not aware of his transportation logistic situation. But then again,
when you are sitting at a table above the general public, they can see you every move and action and can develop negative opinions and reaction quickly based on your overall mood and attitude to the fans. Upton is excited to begin a new chapter in 2010 and is healthy for the first time in a few years. He has reached out to new Hitting Coach Derek Shelton for advice and has seen the errors of his ways in the past with his nonchalant base running and quiet demeanor. I think he is going to have a breakout year in 2010.
Gabe Kapler to me has become one of the greatest ” at ease” fashion sense guys on this team. And I mean that as a compliment. Here we see him in a great black hat and a pair of Chuck Taylor sneakers that seems to show his laid-back attitude and approach to this team. But he is also one of the guys who get into a “zone” during game day and is a constant figure helping other players both on and off the field. Kapler is one of those guys on the edges of the Rays roster in 2010 who could be beneficial to the Rays return to the playoffs in 2010.
Most people know these two guys as one of the best First Basemen offensively and defensively in the Major Leagues, and the other is the Senior Director of Promotions for the Rays. But Carlos Pena and Brian Killingsworth also have another “Kevin Bacon 6 degrees of Separation” moment”. Both were also members of the Wartham Gatesman who won the 1997 Cape Cod Baseball League Championship. Funny story, Killingsworth actually called me on my cellphone the day we got Pena and told me about the signing. I still marvel at that moment I knew the Rays were bound for the playoffs with a guy like Pena behind the scenes.
One of the great thing I love about Rays Fan Fest is the way Rays Radio Network guru Rich Herrera gets time with the players to talk about the upcoming season, or even put an exclamation point on some issue. It was great how he started chatting about the limited edition Carlos Pena T-shirt being sold by the American Red Cross and the Save The Children Foundation.
Herrera told the crowd how the back of the T-shirt lists all the accomplishments Pena has accumulated since his arrival here in 2007. About Pena’s 2007 Comeback Player of the Year Award and Silver Slugger Award, his 2008 Gold Glove, and his 2009 selection to the All Star game. But Herrera was quick to mention the one award Pena is most proud of is his selection as the Tampa Bay recipient for the 2008 Roberto Clemente Award.
Most people know that this award is given annually to the player who combines outstanding skills on the baseball diamond with their devoted work within their team’s community. Pena was actually honored to be presented his nomination by Roberto Clemente Junior during a ceremony at Tropicana Field on September 3,2008. As part of the Roberto Clemente nomination, Major League Baseball made a donation in Pena’s name of $ 7,500 to Fundacion Lumen 2000, a Christian Foundation which provides foster care for children. Pena and his wife, Pamela, also donate school supplies, medicine and equipment to this foundation annually.
I have notice a weird pattern lately in the family units of players within the Rays roster. It is fascinating to me the number of “twos” associated with Rays players and their children. There seems to be a wild Rays parallel, especially in the Rays Bullpen where 4 players have two children. Included in that list is Dan Wheeler (2 boys),Randy Choate (2 girls), Jeff Bennett (2 girls) and Dale Thayer (see above photo).
But the duo’s do not end there as First Baseman Carlos Pena (1 boy,1 girl), Outfielder Gabe Kapler (2 boys), Starting Pitcher Matt Garza (1 boy,1 girl) and Catcher Dioner Navarro( 2 boys) all celebrate the “2’s”. But it can go one step further as First Base Coach George Hendricks, Senior Advisor Don Zimmer and Vice President of Communications Rick Vaughn also have two children in their broods.
There was also a another wild moment behind-the-scenes as several members of the Rays showed up wearing some unconventional head gear for the autograph signings. From Rays starter James Shields, who should get the nod for the 2010 Home Opener against the Baltimore Orioles rocking a white cap, to new closer Rafael Soriano coming down the aisle dressed in black and gold and listening intently to his I-pod on the way to the signing table. Some websites around the Internet did not see his ensemble in its entirety. So the above photo is what he wore into Tropicana Field before he took the stage wearing the Rays new “Sky Blue”-themed alternative jersey.
And most of the Rays were in a really giving mood during Fan Fest. At one point, before Grant Balfour went over to the Season Ticket holder Photo area, he came down from the table and signed for a few minutes with a few more fans before heading over by the Leftfield foul pole to participate in the photo op for the Season Ticket holders only. But even as they were coming and going, several Rays players,including Upton posed with fans for pictures as
they were ascending the aisle to go back into the Clubhouse area following their autograph signing times.
Fernando Perez even took a moment out to come by my seat and tell me he read a bit of my posts during the off season, which really caught me by surprise. I had forgotten I told him about my blog following his poetry article back in 2009, and he advised me he likes my “personalized” view of the game and the actions. Got to admit, when you have a graduate of Columbia University in Creative Writing tell you he likes your stuff… I was on cloud nine the rest of the day. Fernando, in advance, got to tell you, I am also a huge fan of your articles and I am still going to push you to join MLBlogs.com and submit some stuff….You can count on that!
But this was also a time for some “old Friends” to reunite as former Rangers teammates Jaoquin Benoit and Carlos Pena chatted for a bit before Benoit and Rays Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos made their way to the stage for their 4 pm autograph times. There were a lot of chuckles and writing down of information between the three of them before Ramos and Benoit descended for their time at the autograph tables. And as was custom for every Rays game since he got here, Ramos gave me a salute as he entered the blue-screened area for the signing. I am a lifetime fan of Ramos, and it is not just for the sideline Salsa displays either.
And the Rays organization has to be proud of its fan base that still had the roped off areas full and awaiting autographs at 4 pm. This is a great sign of the energy and the commitment this region has towards Major League Baseball. And it is also fitting that Maddon did not leave the signing table until everyone in the “Table 1” line had their chance to come up and get their signatures. Even as the overhead lights began to dim within Tropicana Field, Maddon and his two Coaches stood their ground until the last fan got their items signed. Maddon did the same thing in 2009, and I suspect he will do it every season he is here with the Rays. And that is another reason to love him as this team’s manager.
As you can see by this last photo, the time is quickly upon us to begin our nightly patronage of all things Rays related. And those 45 days will seem to simply fly by as the Rays begin game within the next week or so. Once the team begins their Grapefruit schedule the days will pick up steam until that last Florida Home game at Tropicana Field against the New York Mets. And then with one more trip up to Durham, North Carolina to play the Triple-A Champion Durham Bulls, it will be only a matter of hours before we again assemble for another Major League Baseball campaign, and a drive towards playoff glory again.
Even with all of the outside distractions and riff-raff going on within this Tampa Bay area, the one constant is that the Rays play a brand of baseball other teams are now adapting for their own squads. They always say that imitation is the ultimate form of flattery. If that is true, then the “Rays Sky Blue” jerseys might be a great addition as expectations rise and the sky is the limit in 2010.