Back home from the war in Afghanistan and headed to the unemployment line, Chris McMahon was happy to stand in another line Wednesday: the long one looping around Tropicana Field.
McMahon, 29, arrived early so he and his mom could get two of the 20,000 free tickets offered by the team. He didn't care where they sat. He and his mom love the Rays, but otherwise would not have been able to attend the last regular-season home game. The cost of gas from South Tampa and the $15 to park near the stadium were enough. Once inside, they planned to skip beer and hot dogs.
"As long as they give us a free ticket, I am happy to support the Rays," said Deborah McMahon, 57, who also is unemployed after losing her human resources job in May.
Behind them, the line of fans snaked up 10th Street and down First Avenue S, a socioeconomic snapshot of Rays fans. There were cigar-chomping men, mothers with strollers, grandmothers, college students with blue Mohawks and baseball gloves.
Within 90 minutes, all the free tickets were gone.
The give-away came after Rays players — most vocally Evan Longoria — complained about low attendance Monday night, when 12,446 people attended a game in which the Rays could have clinched a playoff spot.
Nearly 18,000 people showed up to see the team clinch Tuesday night. The Rays also announced that day they would give away 20,000 free tickets to Wednesday's game.
Some wondered if the Rays could even give away that many tickets, but people began lining up by the hundreds well before the box offices opened at 4:45 p.m. Wednesday's announced attendance of 36,973 was a "capacity crowd." Fans said that should be an indicator that the community supports the Rays, but that people are hurting financially and can't always afford to attend.
"A free ticket is a free ticket," said Dan Johnson, not the Rays player but a 44-year-old St. Petersburg man who works in health insurance. "It's kind of sad that they have to give away tickets to fill up the place for possibly the best team in baseball, but what the heck."
Once the free tickets were gone, the cheapest tickets left for sale were $45.
"That's crazy! I ain't paying that!" said Dave McNally, 51, of Seminole, as he walked away from the ticket box.
Trailing him with sunken shoulders were his son, Tyler, 11, and Tyler's friend Matt Letzkus, 11. It would have been Matt's first game at the Trop. They had missed the free tickets because they ducked into a pizzeria to avoid rain and get a bite.
McNally said he couldn't afford anything more than $15 a ticket, so he and the kids went home to watch the game on TV.
Though hundreds missed out on tickets, the give-away was a clear crowd-pleaser. The only other team to give away tickets to a regular season game is the Milwaukee Brewers, which did it for the last game of the 2005 season.
The Rays made sure to tell season ticket holders that give-aways would not become common.
"This is not the start of a trend," team president Matt Silverman said in an e-mail to season ticket holders. "We place enormous value on the purchase of a ticket and hold in the highest regard those who commit to supporting the Rays through such purchases — especially those people who do so on a season ticket basis."
Under a pelting rain, Rays fans dissected the controversy over Longoria's comments.
"He's right!" said Paul Mazzo, 55, of Seminole. "It's a shame."
"No, no, no," said his girlfriend, Dianne Gay, 50, of Seminole. "There are many fans who sit in their houses, watching night after night.... We can't pay $20 to park, $20 to get in, then $20 for two beers. But we are here."
They finished their beers and headed into the Trop, free tickets in hand, intent on maybe buying just one more beer.
Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or [email protected]