Whatever attendance problems the Tampa Bay Rays have encountered, whatever slings and arrows Tropicana Field has suffered, not much complaining comes from Section 301.
Perched behind home plate in the upper deck, the section filled up Monday with season ticket holders renewing connections to seat mates they last saw in September. Handshakes and high-fives greeted new arrivals.
For the regulars in the lower sections, years of common thrills and sorrows have forged bonds that a simple attendance count cannot begin to reflect.
"It's homey here,'' said Marcia Taylor, 48. "People get to singing songs and clapping during the game. And we have our cowbells.''
Taylor, director of international services at the University of South Florida, and her husband, Tim Provost, 52, live in Bartow, more than 60 miles away. His trek to the Trop can be even longer because he sells welding equipment in Orlando. Yet they have bought weekend season tickets for 10 years.
"I just love baseball,'' Provost said. "We came when the Rays were terrible. We didn't care.''
One part of the Trop's allure sits one row back — Diane and Russell Rauch of St. Petersburg. The couples met at the games, grew close and have vacationed together twice in Daytona Beach.
Taylor and Provost also dine out once a month with yet another couple who sit nearby.
At one point, Russell Rauch wanted to upgrade from weekend tickets to a full season package. That would have meant moving to another section, Dianne Rauch said, "but I didn't want to leave our friends.''
She counts among her compatriots a white-haired man in a yellow shirt who is checking tickets and directing traffic.
Usher Eddie Madden, 59, has worked this spot for eight years, adding stability to Section 301's community. He is Facebook friends with some of his charges.
Madden grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and honed his reading skills on baseball cards. Now he keeps a stash of them in his back pocket, handing them out to young kids from time to time.
"I want you to read this and look it up on Google, and when you come back I want you to tell me all about this player,'' he told one boy, who nodded assent and received a Steve Garvey card in return.
"I sometimes will see a kid and a parent talking about that card even in the fourth inning,'' Madden said. "I have had some come back with a book report.''
Madden lives in Pasco County. He worked every game last year, he said, including when his car broke down and he had to make the trek by bus. Sometimes, one of the regulars gave him a ride home.
About 70 percent to 80 percent of Section 301's first 10 rows are occupied by season ticket holders, Madden said, and turnover is slow.
"Hey Eddie, where's your hat?'' one fan yelled from five or six seats over.
"I didn't bring them today,'' Madden yelled back, explaining that he usually wears a white hat when "the good guys" are batting and a black hat for the visiting team. "If I forget to switch, (the fans) let me know.''
Fans have strong opinions about the Trop and whether the Rays should get a new stadium.
Chip and Kathie Jackson, who live in Largo, worry about getting to the game if a stadium were built in downtown Tampa.
"The bridge blocks up at 3 o'clock,'' Kathie Jackson said. "Driving would not be good.''
Jerry Baesel of St. Petersburg blames original owner Vince Naimoli for retarding progress with bad teams and bad community relations.
"It takes a generation to build a fan base,'' Baesel said.
Steven Daniel, 19, is working on that new generation idea. He has been coming to games with his grandfather, Mike Clements, since he was 9, and "I bleed Rays,'' Daniel said. He thinks he and Rays reliever Jeff Niemann are probably the only two people in the stadium wearing a Niemann jersey.
A student at Florida Gulf Coast University, Daniel wants to go into hospitality management, work for Disney and make enough money for his own season tickets.
"This is what you live for,'' Daniel said, "to go to games in the summer.''
Clement noted that corporations buy most season tickets in other major league cities, but not here. "I don't think we have an attendance problem individually,'' Clement said. "We don't have the corporate structure to support the team.''
Provost, who makes the drive from Bartow, said the stadium should be in Tampa. "That's where all the people are,'' he said, "and so many people in Tampa just don't want to drive over that bridge.''
But his wife worries that a new stadium might put an end to Section 301's camaraderie.
"I want it to stay homey, like it is now,'' Marcia Taylor said. "Because it is really, really nice here.''
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