UPDATE 6:15 p.m. : Officials say all 20,000 free tickets to tonight's game are gone.
UPDATE 5:45 p.m. : Fans are still streaming into Tropicana Field to claim the free tickets for tonight's game. There's no word yet on how many of the 20,000 tickets remain.
"I know it has been a very healthy turnout so far," said Rays spokesman David Haller. "There's still a line. It's still steady."
Check tampabay.com for updates.
ST. PETERSBURG — Sam Cracchiolo loaded up on sunscreen, granola bars, water and a lawn chair. He headed to Tropicana Field around 8:30 a.m., determined to be the first in line to get a free Tampa Bay Rays ticket.
But he arrived to find two bored guys already standing around. Brothers Randy and Josh Frisco had their dad drop them off 10 minutes earlier. The three young men were alone for almost two hours before the next fan showed up.
"I wanted to be number one," Cracchiolo said. "But we're good friends now. We bonded."
The Tampa Bay Rays are giving away 20,000 free tickets to Wednesday's game against the Baltimore Orioles. By noon, fewer than a dozen fans were sitting on towels or standing around, waiting at the entrance. Two hours later, about 100 people were waiting. By 4 p.m., about 700 people were lined up at three different gates.
The free tickets will be distributed at the gates beginning at 4:45 p.m. The first pitch is scheduled for 7:10 p.m.
"We're hoping that we can generate the kind of enthusiasm in the building that we had throughout September in 2008," said Rick Vaughn, the team's vice president of communications said Wednesday. "When we've got 30,000 or more in this building we're 45-15. These games are still very important for us."
The ticket giveaway is such a new idea that team officials weren't sure when fans would start arriving, or even if all the tickets will be used.
"We're prepared for anything," Vaughn said.
The Rays play their final home game of the season Wednesday night after securing a spot in the playoffs Tuesday. Players celebrated clinching a playoff berth, showering fans with champagne. Team officials said the celebration will continue after Wednesday's game.
The free tickets will be distributed at all Tropicana Field gates — not at the ticket booths — beginning at 4:45 p.m. for seats in the press level, baseline box, loge box, outfield, upper box and upper reserved sections. Fans will receive the ticket — one per person, first-come, first-served — as they walk into the Trop.
So fans should not expect to get a ticket, go have dinner and return in time for the game.
You cans till buy tickets to tonight's game, if you don't want to wait for free tickets, but don't expect cheap seats. Those are free. The cheapest tickets you can purchase are $42.
People who have previously bought tickets in those sections can exchange them for lower box seats, based on availability. To do so, enter Tropicana Field and then go to Guest Services.
The move had been discussed before Monday night, when star players Evan Longoria and David Price called that night's 12,466 attendance figure "embarrassing,'' provoking a loud fan response Tuesday.
The team had discussed a ticket giveaway but probably would not have gone through with without the players' comments, team president Matt Silverman said.
"It's not about the two players,'' Silverman said, "it's about the sentiment expressed by the team throughout the year, the energy that they get from the fans when this place is full.
"Two years ago, when we clinched against Minnesota, the players celebrated with the fans, it was a packed house, and it's that type of celebration of this season that we're looking for. You see it in the record — the players really respond to the energy and the noise and the excitement when the fans are in this place, and we're looking to do that … with these free tickets.''
Silverman said the free tickets are an unusual offer for a professional sports team. Asked how many of the 20,000 they expect to be claimed, Silverman said: "The fact that you're asking that question speaks to the challenges that we face. We don't know, and we'll see. I'm hopeful that we'll have a packed house.''
Maria Amato, one of the first seven fans waiting for free tickets around 11 a.m. Wednesday, was surprised more people weren't in line, even that early. She wondered if fewer than 20,000 would show up and how the Rays would feel.
"That would be bad," Amato said. "They'd probably never do this again."