For an afternoon, it's a dog's life at Tropicana Field

ST. PETERSBURG — Bowden, a 6-month-old Labrador retriever, must have wondered exactly what the humans were thinking when they invited him to a ball game where he couldn't chase the ball.

His green eyes scanned Tropicana Field, then settled back on the scene before him: about 500 dogs and their owners eating hot dogs, chatting and barking, and occasionally relieving themselves.

Taking after other teams that have allowed dogs into their stadiums and ball fields, on Sunday the Tampa Bay Rays opened the tbt* Party Deck to dogs and their owners for the first time. Both species were practically wiggling with excitement.

The elderly and the petite dogs arrived in handbags and strollers. Larger, more even-keeled ones strolled around, making perfunctory and olfactory introductions.

Harley, a 7-year-old chihuahua-and-Pekingese mix, posed for pictures wearing a Rays jersey purchased from Build-A-Bear, the company that lets customers assemble and dress their own teddy bears. His helmet was accessorized with biker spikes and in one tiny paw, he held a baseball mitt and ball.

"He loves it. He loves the crowd," said Harley's owner, Richard Nordstrom of Tampa. Hours later, the dog underwent a costume change and reappeared wearing a wig of curly blue hair.

At least one celebrity dog made an appearance. Friends of Rays pitcher David Price brought along his dog, Astro, a 3-year-old French bulldog, who wore a custom-made jersey with the number 14 sewn onto the back.

"Astro is very outgoing and has a lot of swag," said Price friend Blake Glaskox. He explained: "He walks with confidence."

The "dog package," which came to $20 for one person and one dog, included a Rays dog bowl and a few rules. Owners had to keep their dogs on a leash and come prepared to clean up in the event of an accident.

Still, there were a few small pools of unidentifiable liquid — beer? drool? — that a handful of Rays staff armed with pooper-scoopers and wipes dutifully mopped up.

Relief stations were set up on the outdoor patios, where rectangles of green plastic grass sat with red plastic fire hydrants. A pair of Newfoundlands sniffed the hydrants skeptically. One went for it, the other decided to hold it in.

On the whole, man and beast behaved themselves.

Bowden, a recent puppy school graduate, sat on command and held up his paw for a handshake, which owner Ann McNeal of Tampa rewarded with treats. She and her family typically go to five or six games a year, but since acquiring a puppy, she has had to stay home. The chance to see the Rays and take the dog along was too good to pass up, she said.

"He's definitely the reason we came today," said James Vestal, 32, of St. Petersburg, referring to a 2-year-old bulldog, Lobo, who was at his feet trying to watch the game through a sea of legs and sneakers.

Around them, dogs snacked on popcorn (no butter) and one or two wolfed down a cheeseburger.

"If you're the hot dog guy, you're crazy," Vestal said. "All these sad eyes going: 'Can I have one?' "

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or 727-893-8779.

For an afternoon, it's a dog's life at Tropicana Field 08/05/12 [Last modified: Monday, August 6, 2012 12:42am]

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