Shelton: Rays home opener feels like a fresh start

Say this about the Rays: For a team that has had so little to say over the past decade, they usually have known how to say hello.

Over the history of the Rays, there has been one night when you could count on the team to look interesting. For one night, they have been an attraction. For one night, they have looked like a ballclub.

And here's the fun part:

Tonight's the night.

Yep, for a decade, the Rays have known how to open the store. It is only afterward that the business has gone to the devil.

Ah, but home openers? That has usually been the one night you could count on for baseball in Tampa Bay to be what everyone envisioned it to be all of those Ben Grieves ago. Historically, the home opener has been the day the Rays most often looked like a big-league club. Historically, the home opener has been the one day Tropicana Field most often felt like a big-league stadium. More than any other game, it is the day when baseball most seems to matter.

Welcome to the Grand Re-Opening.

This time, maybe the Rays can make the feeling last.

In other towns, with other teams, a home opener — particularly one that comes in the second week of a season — is largely symbolic. It is a time to ponder the promise of spring and the potential of a team. It is a day of tradition and of nostalgia, of unbroken promises and undelivered bills. In some places, it is the first page of a great novel that will only get better.

Around here, however, baseball has been a one-night stand that never quite developed into a lasting relationship.

In home openers, for instance, the Rays have been a plucky little ballclub. They have won five of their past seven (after losing their first three). Included are ninth-inning comebacks to beat the Red Sox and Blue Jays.

In home openers, the Rays have captured the interest of their community. Consider this: Over the past 10 years, the Rays have drawn an average of 17,441 fans to their games. For home openers, however, that number spikes to 38,666. They have sold out four of their 10 home openers. They have also sold out four of their other 800 home games.

So why do they come? Because it's baseball.

So why don't they come back? Because it hasn't been very good baseball.

Perhaps this is the difference to the 2008 Rays. After all these years, they bear the mark of a team that will spend the next several seasons climbing the standings. Perhaps this stranger called optimism is right when he says this year will be the start of something interesting.

Finally.

Yes, it is about time. For the lifetime of a franchise, Tampa Bay baseball followers, resilient souls that they are, have searched to find a reason to believe that one year would be different from the one before. The new players? The new manager? The new owner? Something? Anything?

And so they watched Wilson Alvarez throw wide in Year One, and they squinted through the smoke of a botched fireworks show as Randy Winn dropped a fly ball in Year Two, and they watched the Hit Show swing and miss in Year Three. We watched through Juan Guzman and Dewon Brazelton and Seth McClung, through Mike Kelly and Vinny Castilla and Josh Phelps, through overpriced hitters and cheap pitchers and free parking. Despite it all, the home opener usually has been a lot of fun; it just didn't last.

So, yeah, this feels different.

Praise be, it feels better.

That's part of the ritual of a home opener, too, isn't it? It is a test of an organization's formula, and it is a test of the fans' faith. Opening day is a promise that this team will still be opening when a season closes, too.

All of which leads us to tonight, when the Rays — New colors! New nickname! A chance to talk about a new stadium! — take to the Trop for the first time to show everyone just how improved they are.

Certainly, people seem to believe. Couple the higher expectations with a couple of memorable victories on the road, and there has never been so much reason for optimism for a Rays' home opener.

No, this team isn't a playoff contender. But yes, it's better. It's good enough to win 78 or 79 games. It's good enough to climb out of the cellar. It's good enough to make you think next year will be better, and the year after will be better than that.

For a change, the Rays are good enough to watch more than once.

For openers, that's a good place to start.

>>fast facts

Opening Day

199845,369 (sellout)

199940,425

200040,329

2001 41,546

200238,142

200334,391

200441,755 (sellout)

200526,018

200640,199 (sellout)

200738,437 (sellout)

Note: The numbers of the sellouts vary because of the seating configuration of the ballpark.

Inside

Your guide to opening day, 6C

Shelton: Rays home opener feels like a fresh start 04/07/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 8, 2008 8:27pm]

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