Rays celebrate historic Pride Night while grief still lingers

The scene at Tropicana Field was unusual Friday, even to Rays employees who had been with the team when Tampa Bay was chasing pennants and a World Series nearly 10 years ago.

More than an hour before first pitch, fans were filing into all three levels of the stadium. Even the row closest to the dome’s canvas roof had a handful of spectators already settled in.

Two days before Tampa hosted its Pride Night during a series opener against the Giants, the organization announced a sellout with more than 40,000 patrons expected. The Rays haven’t sold out a game other than Opening Day since the American League Division Series against the Rangers in 2010. It hadn’t happened for a regular-season game since a July visit from the Yankees in 2004.

While the crowd of 40,135 was still trickling in, Bean held court with reporters and cameramen on the field for nearly 20 minutes before the game.

“Really, to me, each and every person that comes through the turnstiles tonight is sending just a wonderful message, and a great gesture of their time and how they feel about their community,” said Bean, the only openly gay former Major League Baseball player. “I know the LGBT community will be moved tremendously when they see images of this place full. What happened in Orlando happened to everybody. I’ve been really proud of the way baseball has responded with just wanting to be supportive. The Rays have led the charge.”

As MLB’s first ambassador for inclusion, Bean has spent LGBT Pride Month traveling to big-league ballpark Pride Nights like Tampa Bay’s. They’re all unique, celebratory atmospheres, he said. Tampa’s was tinged with sadness.

It has been less than a week since a terrorist from Fort Pierce traveled 100 miles north with a semi-automatic rifle to kill 49 people and injure 53 more inside the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando.

“We — not only Major League Baseball, but the Rays — have to find it within us to be supportive when something like this happen, especially in our backyard,” said third baseman Evan Longoria.. “It’s no surprise that there’s a ton of people coming out and being supportive of the people, the victims fund and all the proceeds going to that, and the Rays have always done a good job of supporting whatever cause it is.”

All open seats cost $5 and proceeds were donated to the Pulse Victims Fund. So were all the funds from the night’s 50-50 raffle. The club announced during the game $300,000 was raised.

The organization printed “We Are Orlando” shirts bearing a rainbow team logo for all fans in attendance. A collage with photos of the victims was shown on the big screen during a moment of silence before all 49 names were displayed. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred recorded a special message to be played on the video board before the moment of silence.

Tampa Bay wore the hats through the entire game to honor the organization’s physical tie to the city as well as its geographic proximity. For the first four years of Tampa’s existence as a Major League team, the Orlando Rays served as the organization’s Double-A affiliate.

Every single player wore the shirt and hat for at least part of warm-ups while Bean spoke just outside of the first-base line. It was unlike anything he saw during six years he spent closeted in the Majors.

“If I would have seen an image — I mean, turn around. Every single guy on that team is wearing a T-shirt tonight that is expressing love,” Bean said. “If I was a player and I was a member of the Tampa Bay Rays as their sixth outfielder, and I saw everybody rocking that shirt, I would be encouraged to talk to my own parents. I kept it a secret from everybody.”

Nearly every person in the stadium stood as victims were honored and a pair of giant rainbow flags were unfurled to flank an even larger American flag in the outfield. Some cried and even more held back tears. Bean likened it to a “splinter” of the Mets return to Shea Stadium after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“The whole country felt a sense of community,” Bean said. “People are going to watch and the images that you see on the field are going to be splashed everywhere.”

David Wilson: 941-745-7057, @DBWilson2

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