The equipment truck, loaded with home white uniforms along with the usual bats, balls and gear, left midday Monday. The action photos were hung for decoration in the press box in the afternoon. Most of the players, with plush accommodations and the standard road-trip $89-a-day meal money, were going over this morning. A horde of team officials and staff, from team president Matt Silverman to the office IT guy, are expected to join them, filling more than 100 hotel rooms by tonight.
The Rays are literally moving their operations 90.63 miles east to the Orlando area for the next three days, playing games tonight, Wednesday and Thursday at Disney's Champion Stadium, the spring training home of the Braves, all in hopes of drawing a total of 30,000 fans.
And they say it couldn't be more worthwhile.
The Rays are playing a home-away-from-home series for the second straight season, and creating at least a slight inconvenience for their players, as part of the effort to increase their presence, and their share of the sports fans' interest/dollars, in Central Florida.
"Strong attendance is important, but more important than the attendance for these three games is the fan base we are building," Silverman said. "When we made this foray into Orlando two years ago, we were starting at a very low base, and we've been pleased with how quickly the Orlando area has begun to embrace the Rays. We're well on our way to being Orlando's team."
As recently as 2006, the Rays had virtually no presence east of Lakeland. According to a team study, more fans buying tickets for games at Tropicana Field that season were from New York and Boston than the Orlando area.
When team representatives started making appearances at community events across Central Florida, they encountered quite a few people who didn't know what they were pitching, including the one woman — in a story they now tell with a smile — who saw the TB logo and asked if their booth was for T-ball registration.
"We were invisible," said Tom Hoof, vice president of marketing/community relations, who joined the Rays in 2006 after 10 years with Disney.
Under Stuart Sternberg's ownership, the Rays have made a concerted effort to become visible. And make Orlando — and the 2-million or so people who live in the area — a viable part of their market.
"When you take this area and that area and combine them, it becomes something like the No. 4 or 5 market in the country, similar to Houston," Hoof said. "It's very important for us to become more of a regional player."
They've tried, stepping up the number of appearances by team reps, nearly 50 since February, and launching a heavy media blitz in the past three weeks, spending about $100,000 for a splash of radio, TV, print and billboard ads. The goal is to get fans excited about these three games, as well as interested in the remaining 140, either watching on TV or driving across I-4 to see for themselves.
They say there has already been progress: that by the end of last season there were more Orlando-area fans at the Trop than from New York and Boston; that TV ratings in the Orlando market are up more than 10 percent this season; that they're getting more calls from Central Florida nonprofit groups seeking donations; and that they finally have some name recognition.
"All of a sudden we became more relevant over there," Hoof said.
The three games, which likely wouldn't draw many more fans at the Trop, are just part of their effort, with the increased media coverage and buzz as or more important than the number of fans in the stands. Although that might be muted because the NBA Magic has a home playoff game tonight and another Thursday in Toronto that will be televised.
And they're doing what they can to simulate the experience at the Trop — without the roof — by renting a video board, bringing over their same in-game entertainment routines and mascot Raymond, trying to make it as much like home as they can.
"It's a three-day infomercial," Hoof said. "That's what it really is."
Marc Topkin can be reached at