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Amid stadium struggles, the faithful turn out for Rays' FanFest

ST. PETERSBURG — Deborah Aveyard remembers the days of bringing her grandson, Camren, to the Tampa Bay Rays' FanFest in a stroller.

This year, she watched as Camren, now 7, peered at the stingrays splashing in a tank on Tropicana Field's second floor.

Aveyard and her grandson were among those who flocked to the stadium Saturday afternoon for the annual FanFest.

"It gives fans the chance to get out there and meet some of their favorite players," said Jon McCormick, of Port Charlotte.

The field was crowded despite brewing tensions between St. Petersburg leaders and team officials, who have shown an interest in searching for another stadium site.

Some fans, such as Aveyard, expressed anger about the possible move.

"These are ours. They were born here," Aveyard, of St. Petersburg, said of the team. "That would be a sad day."

Jody Daubenberger drove from Fort Myers to get a baseball bat signed by several players, including Tim Beckham.

Although he understands Tropicana Field doesn't include the "bells and whistles" of other newer stadiums, Daubenberger said he has no issues with the Rays' current home.

"I like the stadium. It's indoors," he said. "I don't have a problem with it."

The move could also mean a longer drive for fans such as Christian Trine, of Sarasota.

"It's kind of cruddy because it's farther away from us," Trine said, but added that she understands a possible move because it may bolster attendance at the games.

Others said Saturday they weren't bothered by the prospect of the Rays finding another location.

"The Trop has served them well over the years," McCormick said. "It's time for something new."

Randy Buckler, of St. Petersburg, agreed.

"Whatever just brings in the fans," he said, "is fine with me."

Several fans who live outside of Pinellas, including Chad Brock, of Bartow, said any move that could place the team in Hillsborough County is a good idea.

"I would like them to be in Tampa," said Gina Nappier. "Everybody else has a new stadium, why not?"

Stadium talk aside, the anticipation of a new season was in the air. By 9:30 a.m., Brock and his 10-year-old son were already in line for Evan Longoria's autograph. He was expected to begin signing autographs after 1 p.m.

But Brock said he did it for his son. Saturday was his first time at FanFest.

"I wouldn't wait in line for hours just for me," Brock, of Bartow, said.

On Saturday, fans – many of them children – played games. Dozens waited in line for an autograph.

Tours of the team's clubhouse were available. Others wandered the stadium, taking in the scene, which included a charity yard sale and ticket sales.

Attendance for the day was 25,000, according to an estimate by Rays officials.

McCormick left the yard sale with several baseball items, including a used jersey. Then he waited in line for a player to sign it.

"I'm over the moon about it," he said.

Ray Aquino of Largo, far right, waits with other fans to get an autograph from Tampa Bay Rays infielder Sean Rodriguez during the team’s FanFest at Tropicana Field on Saturday. “I guess call me Rays Warrior,” Aquino said.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Ray Aquino of Largo, far right, waits with other fans to get an autograph from Tampa Bay Rays infielder Sean Rodriguez during the team’s FanFest at Tropicana Field on Saturday. “I guess call me Rays Warrior,” Aquino said.

Amid stadium struggles, the faithful turn out for Rays' FanFest 02/16/13 [Last modified: Sunday, February 17, 2013 3:01pm]
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