The ballpark once known as Legends Field, now carrying the name of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, was packed for its first game of the spring last month. A few of the Yankee legends were introduced, as were the Yankees themselves, an all-star roll call that included Jeter, Posada, Damon and that third baseman, whose name was all over the news at the time.
Cheers all around.
Then something amazing happened.
The Rays were called out of the dugout
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Manager Joe Maddon and the boys jogged toward the third base line.
And the fans cheered. Not just cheered, but stood and cheered.
Rays fans wearing Evan Longoria jerseys standing next to Yankee fans wearing Mariano Rivera jerseys, each on their feet and clapping for the same reason: The American League champion Tampa Bay Rays.
Two days later, more than 150 people would be in line at 9 a.m. outside Bright House Field in Clearwater, standing and waiting for the opportunity to buy standing-room only tickets. There were Phillies fans, sure. But there were a lot of Rays fans. Lots of blue Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena jerseys mixed in among the red Ryan Howard and Chase Utley shirts worn by the Philly faithful.
They would be part of the largest crowd to ever see a ball game at the stadium.
The Rays twice have set attendance records at Dunedin Stadium this month.
They sold out McKechnie Field on a postcard-perfect March night and drew the largest crowd this spring to Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota.
“They’re acknowledging what we did last year,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
Hey, everyone loves a winner.
The Rays have never been this popular in the spring since they debuted in 1998.
For years they were met with indifference in Dunedin and Sarasota, and by Philly fans in Clearwater and Yankee fans in Tampa.
They didn’t become somewhat of an attraction in Bradenton until 2007.
That’s what happens when you train within walking distance of your regular season home in St. Petersburg.
It is also what happens when you assemble a string of last-place teams.
But the move away from Al Lang Field, while it still stings to those of us who worshipped the historic ballpark, has been the best move the Rays have made since they traded for Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza.
Training 90 minutes south in Port Charlotte this spring has made the Rays popular in Tampa Bay.
Of course, playing in the World Series last October doesn’t hurt.
You can no longer see the Rays play 20 or so times in the bay area each spring — including those dozen or so short road trips from downtown St. Pete to Dunedin, Clearwater, Bradenton and Tampa.
Now the Rays play in the bay area only seven times before their home opener at Tropicana Field.
“People are maybe thirsting for us a little more now that we’re coming in once in a while, and not playing all of our games up here,” Maddon said. “It’s a good vibe.”
Funny Maddon should say that. The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” played while the Rays took batting practice Friday in Dunedin.
The gates were open and another record-setting crowd was making its way into the ballpark.