ST. PETERSBURG — As the white dome above Tropicana Field loomed over Ferg's sports bar, legions of people clad in Tampa Bay Rays jerseys and Yankee pinstripes convened on the sidewalk below.
In the hot sun they stood, sipping bottles of water — or beer — as they awaited the start of opening day of the Rays season.
Al Piotrowski weaved his way through the crowd, a Bud Light in one hand, the other hand held high with index finger extended, a silent advertisement of his quest for a ticket.
"They're going to be very good," Piotrowski said of the Rays. "The pitching is phenomenal, the hitting is phenomenal. They're going to win the east for sure."
With the blessing of his bosses, Piotrowski left early from his job as a facilities manager at St. Lawrence Church in Tampa, donned a Rays jersey and sun visor and headed to the Trop at 1 p.m.
He had two tickets to opening day that he had received as birthday gift the day before. But when his son and daughter-in-law came to visit from Tallahassee, he gave both to them. He bought a third ticket on the street for his wife and wandered outside Ferg's an hour before the game, beer in hand, hoping for a fourth at a low enough price.
"I've been to every opening game," Piotrowski said. "It will happen."
Not far away, Enoch Nicholson stood with members of his small group of activists who spread T-shirts over a tabletop. The shirts were emblazoned with the group's logo and "Keep the Rays in St. Pete."
A native of Boston, Nicholson converted from being Red Sox fan upon moving to St. Petersburg in 1998. He has been to every opening game since. In 2007, he formed the group to spread what he says is a message vital to maintaining a robust local economy.
"If we get fans in the seats, basically it doesn't matter where the Rays play," Nicholson said. "There is more excitement today. There's more people here. People are starting to get that if we don't get butts on plastic, we can't keep the Rays here."
As the 3 o'clock hour approached, the crowd began to march across First Avenue S toward the Trop.
At an entrance gate, Rich and Sharon LeBlanc, of Holland, Mich., stood in plain clothes, holding up two fingers each. Opening day wasn't in their original plan, having come from a vacation visit with their nine grandchildren in Sarasota. They were on their way to spend the rest of their weekend with relatives in Spring Hill when they made a spur-of-the-moment stop at the Trop.
Some scalpers wanted as much as $90, but the LeBlancs waited for an offer of no more than $40.
"We had it in our minds that if it worked out we would try to get tickets," Sharon LeBlanc said. "We've been to most of the major league stadiums to watch games."
"We're just baseball fans," her husband added.
Beyond the gates, the familiar face of former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist drew curious glances from a group of fans as he slipped inside. He paused briefly to take a game program and shake hands with a vendor before placing an arm around wife Carole and heading to his seat.
It didn't take long for Rays fans to have a reason to celebrate as Carlos Peña hit a grand slam in the first inning.
Along the right field line, William Stone danced with joy while clad in a blue wig. Beside him, his wife, Sharon, also donning blue hair along with a signed Longoria jersey, raised both fists in celebration.
As season ticket holders, the Stones attended every Rays game last year and intend to do the same this year. They eagerly shared pictures of their "shrine" to Evan Longoria — containing two signed baseballs and two signed pictures — at their Spring Hill home.
"We expect them to be in the playoffs this year," William Stone said. "We didn't have any doubt that they would go far last year. Early on, a lot of people said, you've got guts to say that. But then look at all the other teams that didn't even make the playoffs."
Dan Sullivan can be reached at (727) 893-8321 or [email protected]