ST. PETERSBURG — Hazel Van Denburg's journey to Game 6 of the ALCS began at 10 a.m., when she left her Brooksville home.
It ended with 94 steps into the highest section of Tropicana Field, to seats so bad that the Rays management wouldn't even sell them when the team made the playoffs for the first time.
Van Denburg, 77, who walks with a cane, said she had to stop every other step to catch her breath: "It's not for older people, I'll tell you."
But she's not complaining, and neither were the fans in the 5,762 seats that were covered with tarps all season until Friday. People were glad to be present for history instead of watching it on TV.
"I was so glad when they got in this," Van Denburg said of the team. "If it wasn't for them, I'd never be here."
High in the dome, the seats provide an almost aerial view of the game. The D-ring, the lowest catwalk in Tropicana Field, juts through the middle of the field and blocks the scoreboard.
Binoculars in hand, Candace Carrarini tried to peer around the ring to see the number of outs. Carrarini, Van Denburg's daughter, paid $79 each on StubHub to buy the $25 face-value tickets and considered it well worth it.
"When you first get up here, you kind of have the heebie-jeebies," said Heidi Tyre, 43, of Miami, who attended the game with her husband and son since the Marlins didn't make the postseason. "But then you get used to it."
Originally, the Rays said they would open the seats only for the World Series. The seats don't provide the quality experience fans should expect, they said. But the public demanded access.
"Rays fans have made it very clear that they want us to make every possible seating opportunity available," Rays president Matt Silverman said.
He said cleaning crews spent all day prepping the seats. They didn't find anything too strange. "I asked," Silverman said.
A few brave vendors made their way to the top, where crowded stairwells made it even harder to get around.
Darrell Murphy, 47, from Indianapolis, sold Budweiser tall boys from a blue bin. He said business was good in the nose-bleed section. People are more likely to buy because getting to the concession stands is such a hike. They tip well for his effort, too.
"They really do appreciate it," said Murphy, who travels around the country to sell at games. "You have to be very careful."
Fan host Chuck Mathews, 79, of Largo, also had to trek the endless staircases to check on fans. He proceeded slowly and called it "tiresome." But he wasn't complaining. He's worked at the Trop for a decade, through good and mostly bad.
"I've been here when we had eight, nine, 10,000 people," he said. "It's good to see this place filled."
Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report.
Ferg's flowing with optimism
The crowd inside and outside of Ferg's sports bar across the street from the Trop was hopping four hours before game-time Saturday. Some 600 patrons were on hand, tipping beers and talking Rays. Owner Mark Ferguson surveyed the jammed sidewalk and looked up at the gray storm clouds. "I just hope it doesn't rain," he said. "People are coming early — we'll have a couple of thousand in another hour."
Ferguson said he ordered 800 cases of beer and 150 kegs, and expected to sell 2,000 hamburgers and two tons of chicken wings.
The weather was doing little to dampen spirits. "Everybody here is optimistic," he said. "Thursday's game was very draining on everybody, but after you woke up the next morning, you realized we were only hoping to win one game, maybe two, in Boston. And we almost won three. We have two games at home, two great starting pitchers and we're going to get the job done."
Dave Scheiber, Times staff writer