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Rays wrap up first spring in hog heaven

Bullpen catcher Scott Cursi tossed baseballs toward eager hands on the boardwalk beyond the right field fence as Brendan Harris flied out to Rays’ center fielder Ray Sadler to end the final game of the spring on Wednesday afternoon.

Manager Joe Maddon grabbed a microphone and thanked the remaining fans at Charlotte Sports Park for their support these past seven weeks.

Ben Zobrist signed autographs and tossed his cap into the crowd on the berm as he made his way toward the gate in the right field fence that leads to the clubhouse.

The fans loved it.

They filled the Rays’ new spring training digs in Port Charlotte and dug the defending American League champions.

A good vibe, Maddon would call it.

You could go as far as the say the Rays were in hog heaven.

Let me explain.

Beyond the parking lot in back of the stadium is a protected wildlife area that is home to wild boars.

Lots of boars.

They are a curious lot, these hogs, leaving reminders of themselves around the practice fields and in the players’ parking lot.

They were seen picking their way through the pile of fertilizer next to practice field five. They came out of the thicket beyond the outfield like four-legged Shoeless Joes.

Raccoons found their way into the stadium on a half dozen occasions, racing through the stands as fans jump to let them pass.

Eagles and osprey flew overhead.

Ask Maddon what he liked the most about training in Port Charlotte and he’ll list three things: the state-of-the art facility that housed the entire organization from the least minor league infielder to Pat Burrell and the support from the community.

And one more.

“The other part that really stands out is the wildlife,” Maddon said. “I mean I can understand it. This is one of the best fishing places in the world. We got wild boar running up to the clubhouse on a nightly basis. We watched an eagle chase and osprey and then the osprey chase the eagle in the same inning.”

Pigs flew last year when the Rays went from worst to first and then to the World Series.

Hogs greeted the Rays upon their arrival to Port Charlotte last month.

And they’re calling the Rays’ Class A team the Stone Crabs?

Fishing gear was just as popular among the Rays as golf clubs.

Maddon knew his players could hit and pitch and golf. He didn’t know they were equally adapt with the rod and reel.

“I thought, but I never realized how much of American Sportsman we actually are within this organization,” Maddon said. “Every day the conversation revolves around wild ife. So beyond all the wonderful things about the human qualities, there is also this animalistic attractiveness of the area, too.”

Animalistic attractiveness.

No one ever said that about Legends Field.

Or maybe they did.

Anyway, the Rays were anxious to leave their spiring home away from home because they are eager to begin the season and because this spring training ran a bit too long.

While thanking the crowd, Maddon asked them to support the Stone Crabs — Hogs? — and invited them up to Tropicana Field as often as they’d like.

The critters? They’ll have to wait until next spring to see their new favorite baseball team.

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