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Al Lang closes with 6,759 fans, but many more memories

ST. PETERSBURG — The record books will show that Friday's final spring training game at Al Lang Field drew a paid attendance of 6,759. Not listed: the thousands of memories that poured out of the fans.

Mike Foster, 47, of St. Pete Beach stood atop the left field berm, reminiscing about when he was a boy and ran onto the field to catch a popup. He not only missed it, but he got kicked out of the game.

When he found out that his girlfriend's kids had never been to Al Lang, "I said, 'We gotta go,' " he recalled. He didn't mind settling Friday for the $7 seats that were just spaces on the grass.

"Going to the game is still going to the game," he said.

He went home with a painful souvenir. In the fifth, a foul smacked him in the torso, leaving a red blotch. He joked about getting it autographed.

Bob Schmidt, 44, of Wesley Chapel and Michael Myer, 41, of Tampa sprawled on the grassy slope and peered at the letter-box view visible between the fence and the visitors' bullpen bench.

They squinted at Carl Crawford stealing second. They sweated in the 76-degree heat and wondered who would fill the Rays' proposed new ballpark in, say, July. They chortled when Reds reliever Sean Watson sat down on one end of the bench, popping a slat at the other end that toppled a Gatorade jug.

"And I thought WE had bad seats," Schmidt yelled. Watson laughed.

Al Lang always offered fans a sense of closeness with the players, along with the occasional busted seat and a nice view across the waterfront. It was a throwback park with an old-fashioned scoreboard and hot dogs cooked on a smoky grill.

A nostalgic Rob Gray, 52, enlisted friends to help him hold up posters spelling out, "We'll drink a cup of kindness yet to days of Al Lang signs." Gray had just attended the last Los Angeles Dodger game in Vero Beach and the last Cleveland Indians game in Winter Haven.

"It's the end of the world as we know it," he said.

Debbie Walker, 42, of Redington Beach said she brought her sons, J.T., 4, and Jacob, 2, because "when they grow up I want them to remember when we used to go to spring training games."

Between innings, Rays senior adviser Dick Crippen recounted Al Lang's history for the crowd. When he reminded everyone that the Rays are moving to Port Charlotte, he was roundly booed.

To end the Yankees' last Al Lang game in 1961, Roger Maris hit a homer. The Rays went more quietly, losing 6-3. Afterward, as kids ran the bases one last time, nobody tore up the sod or ripped out the railing. David Kennedy, 35, of Brandon stood near first base, smiling. He had brought his son, Braxton, 11.

His favorite Al Lang memory? "Probably this one, watching this game with my son."

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.

Al Lang closes with 6,759 fans, but many more memories 03/28/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 31, 2008 3:25pm]
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