At this point, I am prepared to go on the record and declare that my son and I are good luck for the Tampa Bay Rays. Since I finally forgave major league baseball for the 1994 strike and the steroid era, I have taken my son, Thomas, to Atlanta Braves games at Turner Field and to Diamond Dogs games in Athens and on the road, but we have no track record of success with our hometown major league team or our college baseball squad.
However, we spend several days each summer at the beach in Sarasota, and, last year, Thomas and I made the trek to Tropicana Field for a Rays game. We attended another Tampa Bay outing this year, taking in a game against the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday night. The Rays won, making Tampa Bay 2-0 in games attended by my son and me.
We also have a habit of catching quality pitching matchups. We have seen David Price twice, once against Roy Halladay and, more recently, against Tim Wakefield. I like Wakefield---having grown up a Braves fan in the 1970s, I have a fondness for Phil Niekro that frequently finds expression in a favorable view of knuckleballers generally---but I don’t like his team. My brother-in-law said it best when he learned that Thomas and I would be going to this particular game: Bill Simmons and a pair of recent World Series victories for the Red Sox have made Boston sports fans so insufferable that it is now not only possible but downright reasonable to root against the Red Sox even when they are playing the Yankees.
That is harsh, I know, but not overly so, and, although the exchanges I heard between Boston fans and the northern transplants among the Rays faithful contained accents that made my ears bleed (I’ll make a deal with y’all: we’ll pronounce the G’s at the ends of our gerunds if you’ll pronounce the R’s at the ends of your nouns), it was nice to hear the sort of batter-by-batter trash talk that helps make baseball such a conversational game; after the Tampa Bay fan behind us referred to David Ortiz as "Big Sloppy" and characterized Kevin Youkilis as "Kevin Useless," Thomas opted to get in on the act by calling Bill Hall "Bill Fall." Hey, he’s seven and he’s used to century-old recycled SEC insults, so give the kid a break.
Following several consecutive rainy days earlier in the week, the Sunshine State finally lived up to its name on Wednesday, as Thomas and I drove to the ballpark beneath clear blue skies. We wore our matching Georgia baseball jerseys; I am happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of smart remarks our fashion choice provoked, although I have noted on both of my visits to Tropicana Field the dearth of Gator attire among baseball fans in St. Petersburg. We bought matching Rays caps at the stadium; my grandfather was a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan, my father grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and I grew up a fan of the baseball team that arrived in Atlanta from Boston by way of Milwaukee a mere two years before I was born in the City Too Busy to Hate, so my family’s major league allegiances are as transient as the franchises themselves.
We arrived in time for me to take Thomas by the rays touch tank. (As a Georgia fan, I strongly approve of live animal mascots.) Evidently, I got better seats than I intended; we were in Row C of Section 212, within sight of the press box and just in front of the Johnny Bench Suite on the first base side. When you’re a seven-year-old boy attending your first major league night game with your father, nachos and cotton candy will suffice for supper.
As an SEC football fan first and foremost, I don’t find Tropicana Field particularly fearsome as a sports venue; a Mississippi State fan would hear the tinkling of cowbells in the Tampa Bay arena and scoff. However, it remains a kid-friendly venue, as the Rays go out of their way to provide every imaginable opportunity for youngsters to step onto the field and appear on the scoreboard. Aside from the forthcoming Vanilla Ice concert (Vanilla Ice? really?), the franchise appears to do everything it can to bring fans to the ballpark, which is why I find it so baffling that a community that worked so hard for so long to attract a team to the area cannot get more fans in the stands.
I freely admit that the father-son nature of these outings accounts for a large portion of my enjoyment of Rays games, but, as I drove down I-275 across the illuminated span of the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge with my son nodding off in the back seat after watching Evan Longoria break up a scoreless pitchers’ duel with a home run, I couldn’t help but wonder why more folks didn’t make more of an effort to make it to Tropicana Field to watch a successful team with good players at a venue located right off the interstate. I make it there once a year, and I plan to continue to do so, and my ties to Tampa exist at more than one remove. (My wife’s father’s family is from the area originally.) The Rays are a fun team to watch and Tropicana Field is a fun place at which to watch them. If you find yourself within an hour’s drive of St. Petersburg in the spring or summer, I highly recommend devoting an afternoon or evening to taking in a Tampa Bay game. If you happen to have a parent or a child who might like to accompany you, that’d be a good call, too.