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Man fights charge he sold counterfeit Tampa Bay Rays shirts

ST. PETERSBURG — The World Series never really ended for Billy Castro, but he wishes it would.

Halfway though a new baseball season, Castro is still fighting a criminal charge that he was selling counterfeit merchandise during the Tampa Bay Rays' first World Series game. The merchandise: T-shirts with stars that resemble the Rays' official logo.

He denies that he was selling the shirts, and he denies the suggestion that they were ripoffs of Rays' trademarks. They didn't include the Rays' name or Major League Baseball logo, and in fact sported the name of Castro's own company.

"The intent never was anything to do with the Rays," Castro said.

His attorney, Judith St. Clair, said that should be obvious to anyone who sees the shirts.

"The shirts look nothing like the Rays would ever and have ever marketed," said St. Clair, an assistant public defender. "It doesn't even say 'Rays' on it."

But Richard Ripplinger, county court division director for the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, said the star is a copy of the Rays "starburst" image, which appears on the team's jerseys and gear. It looks like a glint of sunlight, usually on the word "Rays."

"I think that starburst is pretty well known," Ripplinger said.

Is the image on Castro's shirts the starburst or not? The answer may come down to the eye of the beholder — or in this case, the eyes of a jury. Castro, 35, whose full name is Abilio Castro Faria, has a trial set for July 15. The charge carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Castro says the whole thing started in the fall, as he and friends enthusiastically followed the Rays' progress through their first-ever postseason games.

Castro has a line of clothing, called As I Be, which he sells online and from a shop in Tampa. Much of his clothing uses his own star design, which he said he trademarked several years ago. Castro said he was playing around with his star design in the computer program Adobe Illustrator last year, and he modified it, adding a few extra points. Then he printed up 20 or 30 T-shirts and distributed them to friends.

"There was nothing there to make it a Tampa Bay Devil Ray shirt or anything like that," he said. "I would for no reason go and infringe on somebody else's trademarked logo when I have a trademarked logo."

St. Clair pointed out that the stars on Castro's shirts were blue and white, not yellow like the Rays' starburst.

St. Clair said the counterfeiting statute Castro has been charged under is designed for people who flatly deceive their customers into thinking they are buying something they're not. Such as those who sell bogus Gucci purses for a fraction of the cost. Or people who sell clothes with team names or logos that look like just like those from the team's official store.

On the night of the Rays' first-ever World Series game, Oct. 22, Castro and friends hung out in downtown St. Petersburg, enjoying the buildup to the team's big moment. He had shirts with him, but denies selling them.

A St. Petersburg police officer saw it differently.

The officer says in a report that Castro was on a bench outside Ferg's sports bar near Tropicana Field, with a dozen shirts in a duffel bag, which he offered to sell for $5 each.

The officer had patrolled the stadium area with an official from Major League Baseball, who saw the star on the T-shirts and said it was "an exact replica of the Rays' logo," according to the police report.

Major League Baseball always is on the lookout for counterfeit merchandise, especially at big events such as the All-Star Game and playoffs, said spokesman Matt Bourne. He said it's to protect fans from subpar merchandise. He also said Major League Baseball licenses its name and logos only to manufacturers who make high-quality goods, because "we want to make sure it meets our standards of quality."

Castro is hoping to be cleared of the charge. Ripplinger said his office remains open to negotiating over the case.

In the meantime, the Rays have played well enough this year to let die-hard fans hope for another postseason run. But Castro can't catch the spirit.

"All I was doing was going out, hanging out with some friends and watching some baseball," he said of that night in October. "I haven't done that since."

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

Man fights charge he sold counterfeit Tampa Bay Rays shirts 07/06/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 7, 2009 7:49am]
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