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Last Night in St. Petersburg| The Rays' home opener

Rays' home opener: Where optimism lives

ST. PETERSBURG — Chuck Harris has never missed a Tampa Bay Rays' home opener.

But he's never seen Carl Crawford steal a base, or Scott Kazmir strike out a batter, or any Ray hit a home run.

Harris leaned against the wall of the Trop on Tuesday, munching on Cracker Jack in his new Rays T-shirt. A love of baseball brought him here, high above right field, for the Rays' 11th home opening game. The crowd cheers a play on the field.

Harris asks his friend, "What happened?"

In 1995, about three years before his team's first-ever pitch, Harris, 53, was refereeing a basketball game when he ran into a TV camera. He went blind.

Harris loves baseball because it's America's pasttime, because it's tradition, because it's family. His wife's father was a pitcher with the Yankees organization and played with Mickey Mantle. He went to school with two of George Steinbrenner's children.

It doesn't matter that he can't see what's happening on the field.

His friend, Buck Clark, 59, of Bradenton, who accompanied him to the game, had a different explanation for what brings Harris to the stadium.

"He thinks someone will hit this one fly ball and hit him in the head, and he'll get his sight back," Clark says.

"He's supposed to protect me!" Harris complains.

"I'd say 'duck,' " his friend jokes. "You can only do so much."

A few years ago, Harris gave his tickets to Clark. In the game against Cleveland, his stepson Steve caught a home run ball off an Indians batter.

"Those kinds of moments you remember for the rest of your life," Harris says.

Harris doesn't attend as many games as he once did after facing season upon season of disappointment. He thinks the Rays have tried too many gimmicks, changing colors from purple to green to blue among them. And now they want a downtown stadium, open-air, which he says is a terrible idea.

"I've lived in Florida since 1974. Who wants to come out and sit in the heat with the bugs?" he asks, gesturing across the stadium, filled with fans. "How much nicer could you have than this right here?"

Harris believes the Rays are going to win at least half their games this year. As long the team keeps putting in an effort, he'll keep listening to games on the radio, keep coming to the opening game each spring.

He wants to see a winner.

Stephanie Garry can be reached at sgarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2374.

Rays' home opener: Where optimism lives 04/08/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 9, 2008 7:03am]
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