If only the Tampa Bay Rays could draw crowds to their games like they will see Saturday at the hugely popular Rays Fan Fest. The difference is it's a free day for baseball nerds, mega fans and families to find a wide range of ways to get into the baseball spirit. Manager Joe Maddon's Thanksmas meal of meatballs and pierogies is already sold out, so the fans seem poised.
We asked Fan Fest veterans for their best insider tips on how to enjoy the day, depending on what you are looking for Saturday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
SEEING A PLAYER
Aside from waiting in a seriously long autograph line (count on a two- to three-hour wait for the most popular players) there are still ways to shake a hand or snap a picture with a coach or player — Carlos Peña is scheduled to be in the house, after all.
• The Reading With the Rays station is just what it sounds like, Rays players and coaches reading with kids. They are also on hand in the high-fiving area when the kids run the bases and on the call-a-friend stage, where a fan gets to have a Rays player, such as, below from left, Sean Rodriguez, David Price or Sam Fuld, call a friend for them. What a way to impress Grandpa! They don't sign autographs there, but it's a good chance to snap a picture and give your favorite players and coaches a high five.
• Radio and TV stations set up broadcast tents down by home plate, which is the best place to catch a player or coach on his way from an interview to an autograph signing. Johnny Damon was shaking hands, chatting with fans and high-fiving folks running around the bases last year.
• Joe Maddon's Thanksmas dinner has sold out already, so keep this in mind for next year. For $50 in advance, $25 for kids, you get a unique opportunity to chat with Joe over a plate of his homemade spaghetti with meatballs and pierogies.
• If you do decide to brave the autograph lines, you will have two dozen former big-leaguers to seek out who will sign for free, along with the radio and TV reporters you've come to know, not to mention current Rays players and coaches. There also is the option of buying a $50 wristband that grants the opportunity to get autographs from some of the more popular Rays players. All proceeds benefit the ALS Association. For even bigger rollers, the Exclusive Signing Opportunity is new this year. For $200-$400 you can get one of just 15 spots for the most popular players and a wristband for the other autographs. See tampabay.rays.mlb.com/tb/fan_forum/autograph.jsp for details.
• One of our favorites is the batting cage, where you can hit 'em into the stands and feel the awesomeness of a home-run hitter. Bopping one into the cheap seats (even if it's a Wiffle ball) is so satisfying.
• Be sure to check out the tours of the players' locker room. That line moves pretty fast, and the view inside is pretty cool.
• Go ahead, run the bases. How many chances are you going to get to run the bases of a Major League stadium? This used to be just for the kids, but this year anyone who wants to can round the bases.
• Get photos with Rays mascot Raymond and DJ Kitty (it was an actual kitty in that viral video but our favorite hep cat has now been turned into a mascot suit).
SUPER FAN ZONE
• There are bobbleheads, giveaway T-shirts and cowbells that are dirt cheap. But don't miss the Rays Charity Yard Sale. You'll find prices from $5 to $5,000 for memorabilia actually collected from Trop closets. (See story, Page 20).
• If you're not a season ticket holder and you want to sign up, there are plenty of Rays representatives waiting to take your info and assist you.
• See some of your old favorites at the MLB Alumni Wiffle Ball. Confirmed for the game are Kevin Maris (son of MLB legend Roger Maris) as well as veteran relief pitcher Roberto Hernandez, hometown hero Doug Waechter, a former Ray; and Orestes Destrade, a former infielder who had a second career as an ESPN commentator.
FOR BASEBALL GEEKS
• Are you one of those obsessive fans who just wants a place to hear coaches and players talk stats and strategy? Gather around the outfield stage set up to listen as Rays coaches and staff conduct inside baseball-type discussions with Rays broadcasters and other guests to be named.
•The coaches and staff will conduct clinics for kids, so you can learn how they think when coaching players.