A big, white charter bus left downtown Tampa on Friday afternoon carrying 12 fans to Tropicana Field, a stadium that can hold nearly 44,000.
The Tampa Bay Rays fans onboard from Hillsborough County homes and hotels seemed statistically insignificant among the crowd at Friday night's game.
But they represented more.
Living across the bay, they are part of a population that the poor-drawing Rays need to stay financially viable — visitors to St. Petersburg who could help pack the city's stadium and erase doubt about whether the city can keep its baseball franchise.
The people onboard, such as the Hillsborough schoolteacher and the security guard and the University of South Florida student, were sitting in proverbial hot seats, unknowingly riding a bus that bridged some of the biggest political issues in Tampa Bay today: baseball and mass transit.
They were onboard the Tampa Bay Rays Line, a new Escot Bus Lines charter service bringing fans from Hillsborough and other counties to the Trop for about $15. It's a line the Tampa Downtown Partnership recently began promoting to encourage more Tampa fans to go to Rays games.
"This is a regional effort," Downtown Partnership spokesman Paul Ayres said. "The Rays are a regional team. The more we can get to do this, the more the merrier."
The bus line comes at a time when talk is thick about whether the Rays need a new stadium, and if Hillsborough voters should approve a tax for light rail and other transit fixes this fall.
The passengers on the journey, such as Mike Mimbs and his wife, Kathy, could have provided an informal straw poll.
They spent the ride chatting with their 9-year-old grandson, Jake, who had his Rays cap pulled low and his hands in a baseball mitt.
"You can't beat this," Mike said. "No one cutting me off. This is nice right here, and this drops you off right at the gate."
Two rows back, schoolteacher Marge Gray, 60, and her husband Bruce, 62, a security officer, saw the merits of mass transit.
"This is so nice, isn't it?" Marge asked.
"Beats driving," Bruce said.
"The driving, the parking," Marge said. "Try and find a spot and drive around, round, round."
"It's just a hassle," Bruce said.
Passengers like the tourist from Arlington, Va., and the pharmaceutical salesman from Ireland, both staying at downtown Tampa hotels, said they loved the ride.
Yet there were 22 empty seats.
Stumps Supper Club at Channelside Bay Plaza, the spot that downtown officials hoped riders would visit before their trip, had also been empty, though its wait staff was ready with $2 bus coupons and $12 buckets of beers.
Tony DiQuollo, a USF statistics and economics student on the bus, thought he knew why. Transit options like bus or rail are convenient but only a stadium closer to Tampa Bay's population center would get more Hillsborough fans to games.
"Tampa is not really a city where mass transportation is going to catch on," DiQuollo, 22, said. "I feel for St. Pete. They built the stadium and brought the team here. But when the general population's on a fixed income, you're not going to get people there."
In the back rows, Dennis Conte, a recent London transplant living in Seffner, and friend Ashish Naik, 31, disagreed. It was a boys' night out, away from their girlfriend and wife, and they chose the bus so they could enjoy a few beers and not worry about driving home, Conte said.
While Tropicana Field is just 23.7 miles and a 30-minute car ride from downtown Tampa, it's not close or convenient enough for Conte, who wants light rail to link the two cities — although there is not yet such a proposal.
"The driving, the distance, all the way from Tampa over the bridge," he muttered.
And so the bus went, over the Howard Frankland Bridge, past the long line of barely moving cars bunched up by the parking lots, right up to the stadium.
It made it in an hour's time, but no one seemed to mind.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]