ST. PETERSBURG — Florida Gov. Charlie Crist arrived at the Tampa Bay Rays game about 1:30 p.m. with his wife Carole at Gate 4, creating a little pre-game buzz in the stands.
Crist chucked his tie and took a navy and white Rays jersey — No. 9 for his place on the ballot.
Before heading inside to practice his ceremonial first pitch, he thanked a dozen or so supporters who greeted him, handing out campaign business cards.
In a brief talk with reporters, he downplayed recent polls showing him trailing Marco Rubio.
"I think we're going to be fine," he said.
Crist paid $90 for the jersey -- making a point to hand a check to an aide -- and $63 for his ticket for seat along the first base side.
He made his way to the field shortly after 2 p.m.
Crist threw a couple warm-up pitches and tossed a few balls while chatting with Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and posing for pictures with the team mascot. Crist's wife, Carole Crist, watched and also posed for pictures.
The crowd surged to its feet when the governor made his way to the mound.
Seconds later, a unified "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh" rang out when Crist's wild pitch went to his right, eluding the catcher.
Busting the slump, one plaid shirt at a time
With blue plaid replacing the "rayhawk" as the hot fan fashion item of the season, plenty of it was spotted among those gathering around Tropicana Field shortly after noon Thursday.
Chris Bell, 28, said after watching Tuesdays Rays loss, he went to Wal-Mart and bought the "slumpbusters" -- the four plaid shirts for $11 each. Bell and his friends — 40-year-old Tim Capps of Tampa and 38-year-old Mark Capps and 36-year-old Brennan Guinagh of of St. Petersburg — wore their matching gear with pride.
They arrived at the Tropicana Field parking lot about noon Thursday. The mood is more subdued than 2008, Bell said, but they're hopeful the Rays will be hitting lots of shots to their left field seats.
National anthem nerves
Amanda Puyot is used to the pressure of singing the national anthem at baseball games.
The 14-year-old freshman at St. Petersburg High School has sung at about a dozen Tampa Bay Rays games since she was 9.
But Thursday was different.
"It's the first time at a playoff game," she said before warming up. "It's very special."
Fans weren't disappointed by Puyot's performance. They were cheering even before she sang the last note.
"I just do my best," Puyot said. "The best start to every good game is a hearty national anthem. Singing to me is like breathing. I'm just here to sing my heart out."
Standing out in the crowd
Phil Wegman didn't look like any of the other fans in the stadium.
He wasn't wearing plaid and didn't have blue hair. The 48-year-old Lakeland architect instead came to the game sporting a stuffed hotdog hat on his head.
"I don't have enough hair to have a mohawk," Wegman said. "So this is my wiener-hawk."
Wegman snagged the hotdog hat at a Tampa costume shop on his way to the game Thursday.
I saw it and the light bulb went off," he said.
Then there was Fran Mathews.-
Mathews isn't into cowbells. But the 85-year-old Clearwater resident, who came to the game with her daughter, kept up with everyone else.
Decked from head to toe in pink, she chanted "Lets Go Rays" throughout the fourth inning and waived a matching small pink bell.
"Every game is special," said Mathews, who admitted she didn't get to Rays games often. "We religiously watch it on TV."
City Hall shenanigans
Things got crazy at City Hall on Thursday morning when Raymond, the official mascot for the Rays, helped lead a rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
Mayor Bill Foster, City Council members and dozens of staff and residents sang along in what turned out to be one raucous chorus. Foster gave Raymond, who according to the Rays is some sort of "sea dog", a proclamation naming October "Rays Appreciation Month". Council Member Jim Kennedy, an attorney, had some advice for Raymond.
"As a lawyer," Kennedy said, "may I advise you that if you are going to be around children, you should wear pants."
The turning tide
The mood started to change about halfway through the game.
The stadium vibrated with noise when Rays manager Joe Maddon got thrown out of the game.
Away from the action, however, at least one group of people seemed oblivious. A steady line of parents and their kids streamed into the Rays Touch Tank.
Kevin Poland and his 7-year-old son James came down from their seats in the upper deck to get a look at the animals.
"He was bored. He wanted to touch the horseshoe crab," Poland, of Tampa, said. "Our neighbors bought the tickets and they had to work."
As things went on, fans got restless. Some started to leave during the last few innings, while others made their feelings well known.
"I came all the way from Chicago for this series," said Chris Macht, 34. "Maybe they'll come back and win three in a row. Stranger things have happened in baseball. The Rays have a tendency to come back."
Not giving up yet
St. Petersburg's Kelly Schonmann, 35, said she's the type of fan who always stays until the end of the game, no matter what.
But after the eighth inning of this game, she walked out.
"I'd rather listen to them come back on the radio than sit here and watch them lose," Schonmann said.
She attributed the Rays slide to "a combination of a couple bad calls" over the last two days, and particularly after the controversial ball call on a check swing that eventually resulted in Maddon getting thrown out of the game.
"That took the momentum out of everything," she said.
But she left the game hopeful.
Schonmann said she had faith the Rays would win at least one game in Texas and possibly come come to win.
Said Schonmann: "This team has come back from worse."