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How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Tropicana Field Again Welcomes Georgia Fans on Holiday

My wife and I have established a pattern for our annual family vacation to Florida. We drive as far as my parents’ house in South Georgia on the first day, stay with my folks, awaken at a ludicrous hour in the dead of night, and drive as long as possible before the kids awaken. This leads, invariably, to my arrival at the surly early morning realization that, really, there are some hours at which no human being ought to be on I-75.

It was while in this state of mind that I misread roadside signs advertising the museum of drag racing as the museum of drug racing, snarkily considered billboards urging motorists to obtain vasectomies on the cheap and wondered just how useful such a surgical procedure would be in the land of retirees, and saw vehicles with Nebraska license plates pass by and thought, But of course; they’re in the Big Ten now, so their fans are obligated to head south on I-75 every Independence Day and every Christmas!

My mood improves, of course, when we actually reach the beach, and it continues to do so when my son and I make our annual trip to Tropicana Field to watch the Tampa Bay Rays. This year, the Rays’ schedule necessitated that we go to see them play on Sunday, early on the afternoon following our late afternoon arrival on Saturday, because Tampa Bay will be on the road the rest of the week. This meant catching the season’s final outing in interleague play, which was both a blessing and a curse.

It was a curse because I don’t care for interleague play; in fact, I railed against that abomination against baseball in the early 1990s in one of my Red and Black columns, and my opinion has not softened in the years since. If anything, my view was cemented by the preposterousness of the Florida Marlins’ 1997 season, in which the Marlins were the National League champions, despite not only not winning any of the league’s three (unevenly populated) divisions, but also finishing third in the NL East in games against National League competition (Florida was buoyed into second place in overall record by its stellar ledger in interleague play, which is, to put it delicately, rather a bizarre factor to count in determining the National League standings).

On the other hand, it was a blessing, because the Rays were playing the St. Louis Cardinals and my grandfather was a Cardinals fan. (I was born shortly following the end of the 1968 baseball season, which was, in my respects, the last season of real major league baseball in this country; following the "Year of the Pitcher," the mound was shaved to satisfy offense-crazed Philistines who lack enough appreciation for nuance to value a defensive struggle, and divisional play was introduced, leading to the New York Mets fluking their way into the World Series. When I was born, my grandfather greeted the news that he now had a grandson named Timothy Kyle by telling my father, "Good. You named him after Tim McCarver.")

This left me more than a little torn by the choice between rooting for the team my grandfather favored and cheering for the team my son has adopted, but, at the end of the day, there was no getting around the fact that my family’s major league loyalties have proven as transient as the teams themselves: my grandfather rooted for the Cardinals, my father rooted for the Brooklyn (now L.A.) Dodgers, I rooted for the Atlanta Braves (formerly of Boston and Milwaukee), and my son roots for the Rays. As long as Thomas roots for the Georgia Bulldogs first, last, and always (and he does), I’m fine with him pulling for the Tampa Bay baseball team. Yes, it does make him the first of his line to cheer for an American League team, but he’s also the only one of us whose favorite major league team has never gone on strike.

We spent a few hours at the Florida Aquarium yesterday---we had time to kill between the time we arrived in the morning and the time our room was ready in the afternoon---so today marked Thomas’s second straight day of petting live manta rays as they swam by him in the tank. We arrived early, but we failed to anticipate the length of the line, so we were still waiting to get in to the rays tank when the national anthem was sung. To the credit of the assemblage, even those dawdling in the concourses paused, removed their headgear, and stood silently until the song ended. This seemed especially appropriate on the 235th anniversary of the day John Adams wrote to Abigail that, generations hence, Americans would deliver speeches, hold parades, and shoot off fireworks in commemoration of July 2, 1776, the day Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for independence was adopted by the Continental Congress.

Thomas and I have been to the Trop twice before, but this trip was a bit different, for two reasons. First of all, we were in the outfield this time, in the hope that a home run might be hit our way. Secondly, for the first time, we saw a Rays pitcher other than David Price. Due to the latter fact, the former hope was realized, though the prize landed seven rows shy of our position.

We were seated in Row BB of Section 147---fortuitously, yet coincidentally, in close proximity to the aforementioned rays tank---along with a number of fans of both teams, and a few of neither. (As always, I remained amazed at the ear-jarringly northern bent of the overwhelming majority of the accents I overheard.) A couple or three rows behind us sat an aggravation of Mets fans, loudly led by a guy who, very early on, correctly predicted that a particular batter would fly out to a specific fielder. Thus emboldened, he proceeded to make similar (and most often wrong) forecasts of what each successive batter would do, eventually getting his fellow New Yorkers to play along, so that no one could come to the plate without three or four Big Apple accents bellowing, "Pop up to first!" and "Flyout to left-center!" and "Ground ball to second!" This was even more annoying than you think.

It was, however, a great day for hard-hit balls, so the outfield was the place to be. It was the sort of game that causes a manager to trundle out to the mound to pull his pitcher, and, upon being told by the starter that he isn’t tired, to reply, "I know, but the outfielders are." Quality fielding was all that kept the box score from, well, looking like an American League box score.

A Cards home run in the sixth inning came to rest seven rows in front of us, where a St. Louis fan snagged it barehanded. The Mets fans to our rear began chanting, "Throw it back! Throw it back!" Everyone else realized that, when a Cardinals fan catches a St. Louis home run, he keeps it, even---perhaps especially---if the long ball was launched in a road game.

The recent conclusion of the College World Series marked the end of intercollegiate athletics for the 2010-’11 academic year, and I like the fact that my vacation, falling as it does just before the Maple Street Press annual arrives at newsstands, allows me to relax and recharge before beginning to gear up for football season in earnest, but, even during this college sports hiatus, it is nice to know that still there are contests of consequence taking place in this great land of ours, and (especially) to be able to go with my son to one of them. Such moments invariably serve as valuable reminders that those who consider sports mere frivolous ephemera aren’t paying enough attention, either to sports or to much of the rest of what is good in life.

By the way, the Rays are 3-0 all-time with my son and me in attendance, and the Diamond Dogs went 3-0 in games for which I was present during the 2011 college baseball season. There are signs that a resurgence of good mojo may be in the air.

Go ‘Dawgs!