The Rays moved three games to Disney's Wide World of Sports complex this week in an attempt to win over more fans in the Orlando area. But the opening night game could have been the team's best sales pitch for a new stadium in St. Petersburg.
Forget about Kevin Costner, the fancy, multicolored designs, the development deals, the transformation of downtown. The light breeze blowing across Champions Stadium chased the stress of a long day, and then the Rays chased starter Jesse Litsch with five runs in six innings.
To watch the Rays play outdoors on an absolutely enticing evening proved to be a more convincing argument for the downtown proposal than anything I've heard from Rays president Matt Silverman.
And Silverman can be pretty convincing.
Don't get me wrong. I have the same concerns I expressed when the Rays' proposal went public. I'm still not sure if a stadium should be added to an inviting and improving downtown. I still think a new ballpark might be better located in the Gateway Area. I still wonder if the Rays can make the Tropicana Field development deal work.
From a purely aesthetic perspective, however, the outdoor game I witnessed along with 8,268 other fans serves as a siren call. All the potential tax dollar worries and parking problems don't matter when I think about those three magic hours. It's easy to envision Eric Hinske's home run not going over the Geico sign at Disney, but over the fence and into the water at the new Al Lang.
The Rays should have bused over the entire St. Pete City Council. Any baseball-loving fan within a 90-minute drive who didn't have Bruce Springsteen tickets should have been there.
And I wasn't alone
"I came because it was a chance to see an outdoor game," said 31-year-old Michael McKinley, who made the hourlong drive from Brandon. "Who needs AC?"
McKinley came with friends David Macowski and Blake Cannon. Although they attend quite a few games at Tropicana Field and profess to love the Rays' current home, they also couldn't contain their enthusiasm for watching baseball as it was meant to be.
"I wanted to see the Rays in a different venue, an outdoor venue," said Cannon, 33. "This weather? This is gorgeous."
Cannon stopped short of throwing his full support behind the new stadium. He worries about the parking and the heat of an outdoor game when it's July instead of April. All good points.
For a night, however, I kept dreaming. So did Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who watched from the rightfield line, hoping to catch a foul ball. The former University of Florida baseball player relished the chance to watch an outdoor game.
The whole Orlando deal? I guess it worked. Todd Hunter, a 23-year-old North Carolina transplant, got a voucher for a free game at Tropicana and said he and his girlfriend would definitely be over. They already have picked out a May 31 game against the Chicago White Sox.
Whether or not the Rays win over Orlando folks, and whether or not they get the new stadium, I want them to play at Disney every year. I want at least one series for me and for all the other folks east of Tampa who don't mind the easy Interstate 4 drive.
I want at least one series in April because baseball under the stars on a spectacular night has a spell over me. This is why we live in Florida.
That's all I'm saying.