ST. PETERSBURG — Dennis and Joyce Horcher rediscovered an old friend Monday.
The Horchers went to Al Lang Field in downtown St. Petersburg to watch baseball after attending their last game there 20 years ago. The pull was too much.
"We're not as much baseball fans as fans of Al Lang," said Joyce Horcher, 73, of the field's intimacy.
The couple, snowbirds the past few years from the north Georgia mountains, saw Penn State University win, 8-7, over the pro Seoul Nexen Heroes of South Korea in the opener of the St. Petersburg International Baseball series.
It marked the return of spring baseball to the field at Progress Energy Park after the Tampa Bay Rays moved their spring training to Charlotte County in 2009.
"I think it's great," said St. Petersburg resident Mary Lisan, 57, who came with her mom, Pat.
City baseball staff estimated 1,100 people attended the game, although paid attendance was announced at 3,035. Despite fans struggling to name players on either team, a blissfully sunny day helped gin up enthusiasm.
Downtown businessmen took a novel lunch break and residents propped their feet up to the sounds of pitches snapping in catchers mitts. Grandparents brought grandsons and granddaughters seeking to catch a foul ball — or to romp on the grassy outfield berm.
Mayor Bill Foster wants the slate of games to increase the city's chances of landing more games at the ballpark, including the 2013 World Baseball Championship. This spring's schedule includes 13 exhibition games with foreign, college, amateur and pro teams. The Rays play the Netherlands on March 9. (The Rays will likely send a split squad or B-squad for the matchup.)
Foster wouldn't say specifically how he'd judge success, other than doing well enough that the Seoul squad would want to return. While the crowd was short of the stadium's 7,000 capacity, Foster gave the event high marks.
"The fan experience was tremendous," said Foster, sporting a Seoul jersey and cap. "I haven't talked to a single person who didn't have a ball."
One minor glitch was 20-person deep lines at the concession stand during early innings, requiring staff to scurry to create a separate stand for beer only. Rob Rowen, 57, a Rays season ticket holder, praised most of the operations, though.
"They've done a lot for it. They just got to get the food set up," Rowen said as he waited in line.
Officials with both teams also complimented the staging of the game. It didn't hurt that Penn State — which was in town for a previous college tourney — warmed up in 76-degree sun.
It was 29 degrees and snowy at home in State College.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.