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From first to arrive to last to leave, Tampa Bay Rays fans are sorry to see season end

ST. PETERSBURG — They pulled into Lot 6 just before 10 a.m. Parked in the middle of Row M, under a little live oak. The only circle of shade on that side of Tropicana Field.

From the back of the SUV, they unloaded a plastic table, five canvas camp chairs, four coolers and a Weber grill. The game wouldn't start for four hours.

Tim Capps and his buddies were Tuesday's first tailgaters.

"I hoped we wouldn't have to be here," said Capps, 41, sliding a Sam Adams into a coozie. "I hoped they'd sweep the series and we'd be done with Texas by now."

But when the Rays lost Saturday in Texas, and Capps knew there would be at least two home games, he bought tickets to Tuesday's playoff game and invited four friends.

He told his boss at Raymond James Financial that he needed a personal day.

"If you're going to take the day off, why sit around and waste it?" he said. "How many chances do you get to have the whole day — with this perfect weather — to just enjoy playoff baseball?"

He set a radio on the tailgate, but the pregame show was hours away. He watched a TV truck steer through the empty lot.

At 11:05 a.m., a white charter bus rolled past them.

"Look!" Capps shouted. "We even beat the Rangers!"

• • •

Capps brought hot dogs and a six-pack of Sam Adams. Will Price, 32, added Doritos and Miller High Life. Chris Bell, 29, had Omaha Steaks and Bud Light. Brennan Guinagh, 37, brought Yuengling.

They all work together in the IT department at Raymond James Financial.

"This could be our last chance to do this until April," Capps said, firing up the grill.

Bell opened the steaks. "Or until the next series."

By 11:30, the meat was sizzling and the Doritos were almost gone. The guys were all leaning back, their faces tipped to the sun. Suddenly Bell sat up.

"Where's Mark?" he asked, pointing to an empty blue chair.

Capps laughed and said, "He'll be here. He had to work this morning."

"Well, he better hurry up," Price said. "He's already two beers behind."

Ten minutes later, a goateed man in khakis and a plaid button-up shirt strode toward them. Mark Capps, Tim's brother, brought his own cooler and a bag of peanuts. "Did you bring a change of clothes?" Bell asked.

"Nope," Mark Capps said. "But I got a hat." He pulled on a navy Rays cap, popped open a Bud Light.

"It's a new one too," Bell said. "Looks like our slump-buster right there."

• • •

They walked through Lot 6 just after 5 p.m., just after the Rays lost to the Rangers by one run. Season over. No need to linger.

Capps and his buddies were among the first to leave. The parking lot was still full as they wove their way back into traffic, back toward home, jobs and life.

• • •

Inside, in the Brewhouse on the first level of Tropicana Field, about 50 fans leaned against the bar, refusing to let go.

"Last call!" the bartender shouted at 6 p.m. "This is it!"

A brunet in Rays-blue stilettos was slumped over a chair. A man in a Rascal scooter was wiping his eyes. "It's hard to leave tonight," said a woman who had propped a stuffed Rays monkey on her stool.

"I'll drink to that!" said her friend.

The woman, Billie Joe Grassinger, is 42. She and her fiance have had Rays season tickets since before their first game in 1998. Since he died in February of a blood clot, she has watched most of the Rays games alone.

"It's just me now," she said. "Me and the monkey."

She brought the stuffed animal to every game. For a while, she thought he was good luck. "But it must not have been enough tonight," she said.

"Come on, folks!" the bartender called. "It's time to go!"

Grassinger threw back one last shot, stuffed her monkey into her purse and walked out with her friend. When they got through Gate 7, the parking lot was empty.

"Is it really over?" her friend asked.

Grassinger squinted into the sunset. "Only for 186 days."

From first to arrive to last to leave, Tampa Bay Rays fans are sorry to see season end 10/04/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 5, 2011 7:33am]
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