Bella Erwin hopped, anxiously, from one foot to the other. With both hands, she pressed to her chest a photograph attached to a lanyard around her neck. She held it gently, careful not to fray its edges.
She and her father, Kevin, stood near the back of a slow-moving line at Tropicana Field during their first trip to Rays Fan Fest. Lost in thought, her brown eyes stared off into nothing. Bella, who is 8, considered what she would say when she reached the front, where her favorite player, Wil Myers, was signing autographs. She already had the general idea. But the phrasing. The phrasing was important.
Kevin looked down at his girl, still holding the photograph of Myers that represented their pass to see him.
"She's star struck right now," he said. "La-la land."
They were two of the more than 20,000 people Rays officials expected at Saturday's annual event. For hours, fans poured in, their sneakers squeaking against the rain-slicked tile sidewalk as they shuffled toward the stadium.
Inside, it felt like a state fair, just baseball-themed and air-conditioned. Stilt-walkers. Balloon artists. Face painting. Hot dogs. Light beer. In deep left field, kids just taller than their bats walloped Wiffle Balls tossed by little-known players like Brad Boxberger and Santiago Garrido. Closer to the infield, other kids Hula-Hooped to the thud of Macklemore's Can't Hold Us. The festivities even offered a carnival race that, instead of plastic horses, included the figurines of famous Rays. Unrealistically, Joe Maddon seemed to be the fastest.
The day's longest line, stretching into the hundreds, was for the "Rays Charity Yard Sale." Among the items: shedding sections of field turf the size of pizza pies ($5 each), broken bats ($15) and empty post-game bottles of champagne ($20). One sign advertised "Rays Replica World Series Rings" for $20. The ad drew curious looks from several fans because the team has never actually won a World Series. The rings, in fact, honored the 2008 pennant win.
But all those activities were really just sideshows, for this was a day for kids (and some adults) to meet their heroes. Still, that cherished memory-making endeavor was not without controversy. Rays management decided this year that some heroes should cost a lot to meet.
The team's three biggest names — Myers, Evan Longoria and David Price — cost $125 each for a brief meeting and one signed item. Other players cost $25 each.
The team sold just 60 passes per player and donated the proceeds to charity. Even so, the decision drew criticism on blogs and radio shows and from some Fan Fest visitors.
Begrudgingly, Jerry Scott, 45, of Spring Hill bought a Price pass so the ace pitcher could sign a game-worn jersey for Scott's son, now 20, who started going to Rays games at age 4.
"I think $125 is too much," he said. "I wouldn't pay that for a Hall of Famer's autograph."
Online, signed balls for all three of the priciest players can be found for less than half of what they cost Saturday, but to plenty of attendees, the cost didn't matter.
It especially didn't matter to Kevin and Bella because, of course, an eBay auction wouldn't afford the chance to ask your favorite player a most important question. When her time came, Bella slowly approached the 23-year-old outfielder, his hair a familiar mess of tangles. She handed him a rookie card attached to a miniature clipboard adorned in black marker with his name and a pair of hearts. She rested her elbows on the table and peered up from beneath a navy blue baseball cap.
"One question," she asked.
"What's up?" he said.
"Are you available?"
He looked confused.
"No," he said, chuckling. "Sorry."
He pushed the clipboard back over to her. She let out a lengthy "Awwwww" and walked away. As father and daughter headed toward the back of Price's line, Bella realized she'd forgotten to say something. Their family planned to attend a spring training game near their home in Dunedin. She thought Myers needed to know that. Bella looked concerned.
Then a smile.
"Maybe," she said, "I can tell David."
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]