ST. PETERSBURG — There he is, a half-hour before the first pitch, leaning against the railing in the top tier of Section 120.
That thick, snowy hair. The long mouth, strong jaw. Those hipster Vogue glasses.
Gotta be Joe Maddon.
But why would the Rays manager be in the stands so close to game time? Shouldn't he be in the dugout?
"Hey, Joe!" a fan calls, waving his phone. "Joe! I saw you on ESPN. Can I get a picture with you?"
The man who looks like Joe Maddon laughs, like he always does. As a fan host for the Rays, it's Allen Dodson's job to make folks happy. So when people want him to pose, when they ask for his autograph or offer advice about the lineup, he tells them, no, he isn't Joe.
"I'm a lot more handsome than Joe."
• • •
Dodson is 66. "Ten years older than Joe," he says. Their February birthdays are one week apart.
Like his doppelganger, Dodson grew up on ballfields.
"All I ever wanted to be," he says, "was a ballplayer."
Originally from Long Island, N.Y., he played semipro for one season in Atlanta. First base. "I could hit," he says, "but I never could run."
The Air Force brought him to Tampa, where he played and coached baseball. Later, he umpired in Little League. After he left the service, he spent 34 years as a UPS driver.
When Dodson retired, he started ushering at Yankees' spring training games, then for the Lightning, then the Bucs. He watched all the Rays' games from home. But after so many years of driving trucks, he didn't want to venture across the bridge much.
The draw became too great by 2008. He had to get back to baseball. That year, he signed on to work as one of the Rays' 150 fan hosts, promising to attend at least 50 home games.
That year, the Rays started winning. And Dodson's wife of 41 years, Ernestine, bought him new glasses.
• • •
Until Dodson started working for the Rays, he swears, he never noticed the resemblance.
Until his wife bought him those glasses, she swears, she never saw much Maddon in him.
But people have mistaken him for the hoary-headed manager ever since. Sometimes they think he's lying when he insists he's not Joe. "Aww, c'mon Joe, quit kidding," they'll say.
At Winn-Dixie and Walgreens, people stare and whisper: "That's him!" Bolder ones call out: "Hey, Joe!" They tell him why the team needs a new stadium. And which pitcher should start the next game.
On the way home from one game, Dodson got stopped in traffic on the bridge. His windows were down and people started shouting at him, clanging cowbells. He smiled and waved for a while. Then he finally had to roll up the window.
When Maddon got ejected for arguing that Derek Jeter hadn't really been hit by a pitch — Maddon was right, Jeter was faking — ESPN turned its camera on Dodson in his section. An announcer said something like, "Now we know where Maddon goes when he gets ejected." Friends from Baltimore to Spokane, Wash., called to say they had seen him.
When Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton saw Dodson ushering at a hockey game, he says, "Longoria yelled, 'I thought we left you at the Trop!' "
Little boys want his autograph. Old men want to shake his hand. "Go ahead," his wife encourages them, "make their day."
Dodson never lies, never tries to pull off the hoax, always tells them, "Remember, I'm Allen. But Joe can't be everywhere. He needs a little help taking care of everyone."
• • •
As the crowd pours into Tropicana Field for Wednesday's first playoff game and the announcer calls the players' names, Dodson stands above the first-base line with his back to the big screen.
He checks fans' tickets, directs them to the bathroom.
"Go, Maddon!" calls a man walking by with a beer.
"You Joe's brother?" asks a thin, bald guy.
Four people take his picture. Three more pose with him.
Finally, David Price strides to the pitcher's mound. A boy screams into a microphone, "Let's play ball!"
Just then, a couple rushes up. The woman hurries down the stairs. But the man — a season ticket holder — stops and calls her back. "Wait!"
"I got to get my picture taken for the playoffs," says Jerry Tomberlin, 39. "With Allen. This is Allen."
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.