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Beyond Tropicana Field, nine innings with the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees

Game 96 in a season of 162, and our attention begins to drift, even in the middle of a four-game series with the Yankees. So on July 20, we gave nine journalists one inning each and sent them in search of people connected to the game but not at the game.

We offer you a baseball game in which all the drama happens outside the foul lines, outside the cocked dome, where life isn't always a perfect 72 degrees.

FIRST INNING

Night out provides some early relief

ST. PETERSBURG — It did not start well. The first batter of the game, the famous Yankee Derek Jeter, singled sharply to center, and the next guy up, lanky Curtis Granderson, pulled a pitch into the rightfield seats.

Not far from Tropicana Field, over at Ferg's Sports Bar, Jane Graves, 46, sat at her table and talked to the TV: "Just get out of the inning with no more damage."

She's a St. Petersburg native. Not quite 10 years ago, in October 2001, she left her copy editing job in Tampa on a Friday, and on Saturday she delivered a son, William Lanius Graves, three and a half months early. "My walking miracle," she said of her son with cerebral palsy.

She doesn't take him to soccer or music. She takes him to therapy. She takes him to his doctor. Her husband is a consultant in the energy industry and often is out of town for work all week. She uses Twitter as an outlet to interact with many fellow Rays fans, including Donna Sweikow, for whom she organized a fundraiser last fall in the Susan G. Komen breast cancer walk. She considers herself a writer and a blogger and a tweeter. A volunteer. A mother.

But sometimes she needs a break. So she dropped off Will for the night at her parents' place downtown, put on her light-blue Rays cap and came over to Ferg's for a burger, some fish dip and a few Bud Light drafts in cold plastic pints.

In the Rays' half of the first inning, Johnny Damon flew to left, Robinson Chirinos popped to short, Casey Kotchman and Evan Longoria both singled and then Matt Joyce struck out.

Two-nothing, New Yorkers, going into the second.

"It just goes to show," Graves said. "One swing of the bat and things can change."

Michael Kruse, Times staff writer

SECOND INNING

Slowly, they get comfortable

LUTZ — Key West Bar, Paradise Lakes nudist resort, just off U.S. 41, across the railroad tracks, past the bowling alley, behind a tall, bland stucco wall, through a gate, by the pool.

Later, a former Baptist missionary named Lori, 56, her body tanned and hairless, will ask for the game's score and talk of the need for a new stadium. The bar will stay quiet as the crowd swells outside for karaoke by the pool. The DJ will wear a red cowboy hat and nothing else, his "lasso" swinging as he walks fast, thin legs pumping, working the sound equipment and disco ball. The white lights wrapped around the palm trees will begin to glow and the sky will go rosy and the DJ's girlfriend will sing You Sexy Thing in platform stiletto boots. Couples will dance and sway into twilight. Seventy-year-old Bev will take off her Rays shirt, feel the air on her breasts and appear comfortable for the first time this evening.

But all that's later.

Right now, the evening's first beers are still cold and on the television above the bar the Rays are swinging.

Erin Sullivan, Times staff writer

THIRD INNING

A dream in the rearview mirror

ST. PETERSBURG — Casey Allen was on deck. Warmed up and ready.

His uniform was pressed. He planted his Nikes shoulder-width apart. Five minutes dragged by.

No one seemed to need him.

He stood in the circular driveway of the Renaissance Vinoy hotel, next in line of that night's three valets, hoping some guest would want him to get their car.

"Yankees are up 2-0," called another valet, who had just checked the lobby TV.

"Already?" said Allen. He swatted at mosquitoes.

He wasn't supposed to be here.

He was supposed to be 2 miles away, playing in the Trop. Or up in Atlanta, batting for the Braves. Or on third base in Philadelphia, where, three years ago, he had a private tryout.

Allen, a Gibbs High graduate, had gotten so close. The college scholarship, the scouts, that 2009 season in Texas with the Rio Grande Valley White Wings. The independent league team paid him $600 a month.

But playing ball wasn't paying his bills.

Now, here he was, 25, with a degree in graphic arts and a trunk full of broken bats, living back in his boyhood house in Gulfport with his parents and three younger siblings, trying to let go of baseball.

"And figure out what this new life is."

But after sending out 200 resumes and landing five interviews, he couldn't get hired as a graphic artist. So he took this job parking cars for $4.25 an hour, plus tips — earning twice what he made on the ball field.

"I feel like I'm letting everyone down," said Allen, who once got to park Joe Maddon's truck. "I don't even really enjoy going to the games any more. It makes me wonder, should I have kept trying?"

Near the end of the third inning, Casey Kotchman singled to center. Allen had played against Kotchman in high school. There he was, sending Johnny Damon to second. Here Allen was, still on deck.

Lane DeGregory, Times staff writer

FOURTH INNING

From new seat she can still see brighter future

PINELLAS PARK — Penny Johns was planted on a blue recliner, her thin legs pulled up in front of her, feet covered in tiny white socks her son had slipped on earlier.

The late-day sun slashed through the blinds, casting bands of yellow light down her bare white wall. On the boxy Sharp TV, the picture was not nearly so bright for the Rays.

"They were favored to win tonight," she said. "I don't know who decides that."

Penny, 78, raised two boys on Little League and latched on to the Rays after her cousin, former Mayor Bob Ulrich, helped bring baseball to St. Petersburg. She watches just about every game, often with her son, Mark. She watched at home, and for the past two months she has done it in this room at Hospice House Woodside.

The glare of the Trop lights hit the glossy helmet of a player with a bat.

"Here's B.J.," she said. "He's kind of a nut."

Upton struck out. Penny yawned and crossed her legs.

If Mark were here, he would tell her to uncross them. It cuts off her circulation like when you bend a straw.

Synthetic arteries crisscross her body like subdivision roads. Across her chest and pelvis, down her sides and legs, which are lined with deep, 6-inch surgery scars.

She has a blood clot in her left leg.

But there are no veins left to fix it.

She has lung cancer.

But it's inoperable.

Someday, she insisted, she will go home to her philodendron plants. Back to her life of playing cards and going to the movies with friends made during several decades as secretary to a high school principal and at a church.

But there is no more traveling for now. For the first time, she missed one of her great-grandkids' birthdays. Bailey turned 3 on July 11. The doctor told her she couldn't make the plane trip to Virginia. The blood clot.

"Do you know anything about the train?" she asked.

On the TV, Sam Fuld hit a double, stole third. But then Sean Rodriguez struck out.

Penny sighed.

"This is bad," she said. "But we could still come back."

Leonora LaPeter Anton, Times staff writer

FIFTH INNING

Meter tells a story that the box score doesn't

ST. PETERSBURG — In his taxi parked outside the stadium, Steven "Sven" Erikson cautiously admitted that he is not a big Rays fan. He followed the game on his laptop so he'd have something to talk about with his fares afterward.

In his 60 years, Erikson said he has been a wrangler in Colorado, sold men's clothing in New York City, attended seminary in Pennsylvania and worked as a financial planner in Michigan. Tired of corporate culture, he moved to Treasure Island a couple of years ago and got a job driving a cab.

Some fans are giddy after a win, or despondent after a loss. Some drink too much and can barely remember where they live. A few offer an opinion on the Rays' stadium debate. In the first inning, a woman who forgot to lock her car hired Erikson to drive her a mile to where she parked. She didn't like the $5.80 fare and tipped him 20 cents.

Back in line, the Rays put two men on before Longoria hit it deep to center where Curtis Granderson snagged the ball at the wall.

The Yankees fans he drove home never mentioned it.

Chris Zuppa, Times staff writer

SIXTH INNING

Far from home, love and hate nourish him

SPRING HILL — The phone rang.

Frank Mangiapane glanced at his watch. He knew who was calling. As the 66-year-old pushed himself off the couch, a gold chain dangled from his neck. Two trinkets that explain Frank, in simple terms, hung at the end — a Yankees emblem and a bagel.

He shuffled into the kitchen, past a plaque honoring Mickey Mantle.

On the fourth ring, Frank answered.

"Hello, mom," he said in a thick New York accent. "What are you doing? Watching the ball game?"

He knew the answer.

"Me, too."

Frank's father, a butcher from Staten Island, first took him to baseball games in the 1950s. Now, only his disdain for the Red Sox matches his adoration for the Yankees. He's kicked people out of his bagel shop just for donning that other team's gear. Frank recently changed family physicians. He told friends, and the doctor, he switched because the guy rooted for Boston. Just a joke, he swears.

He's diabetic, and his kidneys are failing. A detached retina has blinded his right eye. Still, nearly every morning at 4, he kneads and rolls and bakes pounds of bread at New York Gourmet Bagels off Spring Hill Drive. Frank learned the trade from his uncle, who ran a shop in Brooklyn. His last name, in Italian, means "eat bread."

Frank met George Steinbrenner more than two decades ago. They stayed in touch, and Frank often sent his baked breads to the team's training camp in Tampa. Steinbrenner called him "Bagel Man."

Frank creased a smile as his phone conversation neared its end.

His mom, Helen, is 94 and has dementia. From her home in New Jersey, she'd asked him if he was coming over that night. Helen has forgotten so many things, but never the Yankees.

"I love you," Frank told his mother. "Root for the Yankees."

John Woodrow Cox, Times staff writer

SEVENTH INNING

Is God a Yankees fan? Not in his home

OLDSMAR — Ball cap pulled low, hands to heaven, Pastor Glenn Davis prayed for firepower.

"God, we are going to pray that the Rays get some runs this inning. Amen." The holy sports fan smiled, swigged Coke from a giant plastic Rays cup then sat it next to My Utmost for His Highest.

"I don't know if God gives a rip about these kinds of prayers," he said. "But in this house" — he jabs the air with a demonstrative yeehaw finger — "we pray for our sports teams!"

At Countryside Christian Center, one of the biggest faith complexes in Pinellas County, Davis' sermons often start in Philippians, but end at the Trop or the Swamp — Bible lessons mixed with locker room legend.

The Yanks put up zeroes in their half. Time for a story about divine miracles in the cheap seats.

"About six years ago, we were at a Yanks-Rays game at the Trop, up in the 300 level, in left field," said the 45-year-old pastor. "My son brought his glove and was praying, 'God, I want to catch a foul ball.' "

Rays second baseman Sean Rodriguez laid down a bunt that rolled foul . . . before rolling fair. Weird.

"I was rubbing my son's back, telling him we were too high up. God wasn't going to give him a foul ball. He's God; he's not Santa Claus."

Johnny Damon grounded out to first, moving Rodriguez to second. Hope.

"In the third inning, a left-handed hitter comes up to the plate and crack! I couldn't believe it. Here comes the ball . . ."

Rays backup catcher Robinson Chirinos reached on an error. Rays at first and third!

"Andrew reaches up for the ball, reaching, reaching and snap! My son holds out his glove and there it is. He says, 'I told you God would give me a foul ball!' "

Pastor Glenn laughed: "Sometimes God gives you a little wink and says, 'I got you, man.' "

Kotchman came to the plate. A wink would be nice right now.

"Wouldn't it be great if he hit a three-run homer right after we prayed?"

But Mighty Casey didn't even put wood on white. Whiff.

The pastor turns up his hands: "God's will must be for them to score in the ninth."

Sean Daly, Times staff writer

EIGHTH INNING

Pain and fame cannot eclipse love for game

DAVIS ISLANDS — The Rays were going nowhere in the eighth as Linda Alfonso and her husband approached the Marjorie Park Marina on a dog walk. Its surface was black glass, stagnant, still.

Like every game, earbuds gave Linda the play-by-play.

"Jeter's out," she said. "Good."

The Yankee icon casts a large shadow on Linda's block. Derek Jeter lives six houses down in a gated, gray mansion 16 times bigger than Linda's two-story 1940s home with faded wood floors and crank-out windows. Cars crawl down the street to gawk at the biggest home in Tampa. But the Alfonsos don't pay Jeter much mind.

He is a newcomer while the Alfonsos' lives run narrow and deep on Davis Islands.

Linda, 64, is a fifth-generation Tampa native who has lived on the island for 30 years. Her parents went to Plant High School. So did she. So did her husband.

Jimmy, now 63, was a baseball player. Linda, a cheerleader.

The pair rounded the marina. "3-2. Just strike him out . . .," Linda said. "Strike three! Double play! De La Rosa struck him out, and they got him at second. They threw Granderson out at second."

This was her mother's passion — a love of box scores passed down to Linda. In her mother's last days, too weak to get out of bed, Linda leaned over and whispered Rays scores into her ear.

Now she shares her fervor with her 92-year-old father, who lives with Linda and Jimmy. Sometimes Jimmy sleeps on the couch outside her dad's room in case he needs to go to the bathroom.

Each night, the couple tuck Linda's father into bed and go for a walk, but never without the Rays.

Linda updated Jimmy on the game in her ear.

Bottom of the eighth. Two men on base and two outs. B.J. Upton walked up to the plate and swung.

"Upton grounded out. Eighth is over," Linda said. "Ugh. Painful."

The pair turned and headed home. They haven't left the island to catch a game in more than a year, not since Linda's dad has been in decline.

"They left two stranded," Linda said.

Justin George, Times staff writer

NINTH INNING

The past is a marker, but the future is marketing

TAMPA — Babe Ruth leaned on one here. Made the sportswriters in the press box on April 4, 1919, hammer out phrases like "wallop stupendous" and "punch extraordinary," made the 4,200 people crammed in the stands — "the hugest baseball gathering that has ever thronged Plant Field" — explode, made a cop mark the spot where the ball dropped, made curious reporters borrow a tape measure and put numbers to that hit for the history books: 552 feet 8 inches.

BABE'S LONGEST HOMER, says the historical marker.

Now it was quiet.

Warm wind spun the Spanish moss. Students hustled to class. The river rolled black toward the sea.

The pros don't play here in the shadow of downtown anymore. They built a university atop the fairgrounds and a school of business atop the old field. Students crunch numbers where Babe walked bases.

Two numbers of the night, as the game slid into the last inning:

• 19,741 fans on average this year, almost worst in the league.

• 23 miles — 220 of Babe's record homer — from here to the Trop.

Correlation? Let's ask some business majors.

"It's that peninsula," said John Totten, 42, studying management and finance. "If you don't live in St. Pete, it's hard to get to the games."

"If they were closer to Tampa," said Carlos Acedo, 24, studying finance and accounting, "they'd draw more fans."

"Put more butts in seats," said Austin Talley, 32, studying international business, "and you can afford better players."

The portable radio by Babe's marker said the Yankees added two runs to take a 4-0 lead. Up for the Rays? Their final shots at hope? Sam Fuld, Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac.

There would be no monster home runs on this night, just more uncertainty about the future of baseball in a place that cares. A mother headed home. A party heated up. A valet worried about failure. A woman wanted healing. A cabbie got a fare. A pastor prayed for help. Three men walked to the plate and then walked to the dugout and a region connected to nine innings in a thousand ways hoped tomorrow would be different.

Ben Montgomery, Times staff writer

Beyond Tropicana Field, nine innings with the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees 07/28/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 30, 2011 2:19pm]

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