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Rays vs. Rangers: the scene in St. Pete

Even the upper deck filled fast. Despite views that were obstructed in some places, fans didn't seem to mind.

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"We're so excited," said Donna Phillips, 51, of Bradenton. "We're just so fortunate and excited."

Phillips and her partner Carlos Mendez didn't mind their seats in section 307, where they have season tickets.. They said the view is actually better from above.

"We were really depressed after Thursday," Mendez said. "We were watching the games over the weekend and just going crazy. It took us hours to recover."

• • •

The sellout crowd in Tropicana Field went wild — not for the first great play, but for the national anthem.

It was sung by Julianna Zobrist, wife of Rays player Ben Zobrist.

• • •

So why would a guy drive all the way from Gainesville to watch this game in a Boston Red Sox cap?

Dave Fields, 32, was happy to explain: "I'm here to root for the team that I think has the best chance to beat the Yankees."

• • •

Hillsborough Community College student Jean-Luc Valdes said his mom woke him up Tuesday morning with a question:

"Hey, do you want to go to a Rays game?"

Best. Mom. Ever.

Valdes, 20, was so excited to get tickets to Game 5 that he had his sister dye his long hair blue. Then she parted his hair into two sides, twisted them and tied them together in the back to form one blue ponytail — or rather, a manta ray tail.

Valdes calls it a reverse Ray-Hawk.

"Twice the power," he said. "Twice the strength."

He said he would use his new hairstyle to lead his section down by home plate during Game 5.

"The Rays are going to be the champions," he said. "This is our game."

• • •

A group of people working their way up to Section 309 around 7:30 p.m. were all wearing a particular piece of Rays gear: striped Tampa Bay Rays socks.

Yes it's unusual. But this group of about a dozen says the Rays just seem to platy better when they all wear their striped socks.

"That's our thing," said Gay McMahon, 53, of Port Richey. "We show our stripes."

And not only that. Somehow, they also have learned the Rays play better if the group eats twinkies -- in the 4th inning.

So they came prepared.

• • •

Gov. Charlie Crist, who threw a lousy first pitch to open Game 2, arrived at the sports bar Ferg's to a group of about 50 fervent supporters and hundreds of others who wanted to shake his hand shortly before 7 p.m.

Crist predicted a Rays win — he always does — then tried to explain away that awful first pitch, which was mocked on Comedy Central's The Daily Show.

"Sweet?" Crist asked mockingly. "It was way to the right — just like my opponent (Republican Marco Rubio)."

Across the street, the Democratic candidate for Senate, Kendrick Meek, parked his Ford to attend a Rays tailgate event. He stood on the main walkway leading to Tropicana Field's main gate, shaking hands and taking pictures with fans walking into the game.

Meek also was offering free hot dogs.

"I love it," Meek said of the tailgate. "Most people only get to see us on TV, so it's fun to get to interact with them and look them in the eyes."

• • •

Who says Rays fans aren't dedicated?

Rays fan Laura Riley wanted to see Tuesday night's game, but the problem was, she was supposed to teach an online Kaplan University statistics class from 6 to 8 p.m. — ending just before first pitch. And her husband Robert had scored nice tickets behind home plate.

Her solution: Teach the class anyway. That's why she and her husband were holed up in the back of Cafe Bohemia, she in her J.P. Howell jersey and he in his Rays practice jersey, with laptop open.

After the online class finished, they planned to zip over to the Trop.

• • •

About an hour before game time, Jose Vicenti, 38 and two friends were walking into Tropicana Field with brand-new modified Rayhawks — close-cropped hair with one strip died blue, front to back.

The trio of pals game to Game 2 on Thursday, only to see the Rays get stomped by the Rangers. They made a pact: If the Rays somehow made it back to the Trop for a decisive Game 5, they would try something they'd never tried before.

So after the Rays won two games in Texas, they bought tickets to this game and agreed to go under the razor.

"It was pretty unbelievable," said Vicente.

• • •

More than two hours before game time, two couples from St. Pete Beach and Apollo Beach were enjoying their traditional pre-game potluck in the parking lot outside Tropicana Field. They met at the Trop two years ago and they've been coming ever since.

Jim and Chris Bickel, both 62, joined Barry and Pat Lea, 64 and 69, for a dinner of shrimp, potato salad, homemade key lime pie and wine. They were hoping for more Rays wins and more good potlucks.

Next time, "we get the parking pass they get the stone crabs," said Barry Lea.

• • •

You could call this a pre-game warm-up — with heat provided by pico de gallo sauce.

At about 2 p.m. Tuesday, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon stopped in Rojo Taco and bought his usual order of 30 tacos topped with cheese, lettuce, pico de gallo and other ingredients.

"He says they're for 'us' — him and the players," said employee Eric Bowman. 36.

Maddon gave his own explanation to the media: "I brought in some tacos for the boys … hitting tacos. I'm good with their pitching and defense, I just thought we could use a little bit of help with the "hitting tacos" tonight. They're really good. The California guys, the guys that are from the west coast, really dig them because they're more in tune with the west coast Mexican food.''

The downtown Tampa restaurant has only been open four months and owners feel fortunate to have such a high-profile customer who comes in about every other week, Bowman said.

• • •

Jack Mower took a day off from his job as a chef and went to Tropicana Field with his wife Gina, confident the team that showed so much grit on the road could beat Texas Rangers in the final battle of the series.

But after the Rangers scored a fifth run in the 9th inning, they left the Trop and settled on a bench outside the stadium, looking dejected.

"I thought we were going to win. I thought for sure we'd win the fifth game," Jack Mower said. But, he added, "after that fifth run it was kind of a hope and a dream that they'd come back from that."

Jack Mower took a day off from his job as a chef and went to Tropicana Field with his wife Gina, confident the team that showed so much grit on the road could beat Texas Rangers in the final battle of the series.

But after the Rangers scored a fifth run in the 9th inning, they left the Trop and settled on a bench outside the stadium, looking dejected.

"I thought we were going to win. I thought for sure we'd win the fifth game," Jack Mower said. But, he added, "after that fifth run it was kind of a hope and a dream that they'd come back from that."

Rays vs. Rangers: the scene in St. Pete 10/12/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 13, 2010 8:44am]
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