ST. PETERSBURG — Tropicana Field's parking lot began smelling like a BBQ joint rather early Wednesday morning, with dozens of people grilling hours before the 1:37 p.m. game.
Charlie Tash, a 33-year-old personal trainer from Brandon and Mike McClelland, 29, of Seminole were among the tailgate chefs. They were part of a group of 10 who met each other by following the Rays on Twitter.
Tash was grilling bacon burgers and chicken. Breakfast?
"Yes," said McClelland.
Cooler weather and sunny skies made for a general happy mood outside of the stadium.
Shortly after 11 a.m., doors opened at Gate 1 and a couple hundred people began streaming through the rotunda.
Traffic jams around downtown
Pretty much all roads leading to downtown St. Petersburg were prone to traffic backups. Any driver taking any street that might be used to go to Tropicana Field was likely trapped in a line of cars for several minutes in the hour leading up to the game.
In particular, southbound 4th Street N and eastbound 5th Avenue N were known trouble spots around noon Wednesday. By about 1:30 p.m., minutes before the first pitch, traffic began to ease some places, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Street and First Avenue South.
It's a buyer's market for tickets
The corner of 13th Street S and Central Avenue is a hotbed of ticket-selling activity, with dozens of folks asking for $50 to $85 per ticket. Most are selling for $20 to $50, though some sold as cheap as $15.
A lot of the people stuck selling tickets say they overbought during the lottery, or they are attending the game and holding friends' tickets who could not attend the early afternoon game.
By game time, the glut continued. Fans were able to purchase $60 club seats for $20, and $30 seats for $10.
Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker said he was excited for the city minutes before the game. He was given three tickets ($63 each) by Mayor Bill Foster, putting himself, his wife and his son in seats above the first-base dugout.
Asked how he could get time off from his new job at USF to attend the game, Baker laughed and said he had to "rearrange a few things."
"That's the only thing I would change about today," he said. "People really have to juggle things to come. But you have to be here, it's the playoffs."
And in other mayor news ...
Foster walked into the city suite with the Rays down 3-0.
"Don't get me started," he said when asked about the game.
He spent 90 minutes this morning with Bryant Gumbel, who's doing a segment for HBO's Real Sports about MLB in Miami and St. Petersburg. It will air in two weeks.
"It was a very lengthy interview," Foster said. "He had a lot of numbers. I'm not sure he's a fan of how they did it in Miami."
That city is using public financing for a new stadium.
Foster visited with council members Bill Dudley, Steve Kornell and Wengay Newton, as well as former council members Dean Staples, Virginia Littrell, Ron Mason, Bob Kirsteen and Bea Griswald.
He said he hadn't stopped by Stu Sternberg's suite yet. "No, we're both busy. I'm working today and he's got a team to run."
As he's talking with former council member Jay Lasita, Foster looks up at the field. The Rangers hit another homer off Price, Rays down 4-0.
"Not another one dangit!" he says. Then a throwing error. He scans the scoreboard.
"Holy cow, they've scored in every inning except one."
Foster says his goodbyes and leaves. Wearing a Rays jersey that says Foster on the back, there's no mistaking who he is.
"Hey Mr. Mayor," one fan shouts.
As he waits in line for a hot dog, it's the fifth inning and Rays are down 5-0.
"I'm getting nervous, but the Rays can come back," he said.
And then, his mood brightens. There up on the TV is an aerial shot of downtown St. Petersburg.
"There you go, the money shot. Isn't that beautiful. That's going out to the world."
Albeit at about 3 in the afternoon, when most of America is working.
"That's because Major League Baseball hasn't given this team the respect it deserves."
Yes, it's a school day, but ...
Charlene Siders, a 33-year-old customer service manager from Tampa, wanted to do something nice for her son Jacob, 9. The boy recently suffered a concussion in an accident, she said, but he's fine now.
She pulled him out of his 4th grade classes so they could see their first ever postseason game. It doesn't hurt that Siders is a huge fan herself.
"It's a mom thing," she said. "I love it."
Patches of plaid
It wasn't exactly a sea of blue plaid in the stands, but plenty fans streaming to their seats seemed to embrace the new Rays fashion popularized by team manager Joe Maddon.
Alison Brady of Palm Harbor and her 13-year old son Aiden love the Rays and they love the new style, she said, so they went "plaid shopping" the other day. She found a plaid top for herself at JCPenney and plaid shorts for Aiden at another store.
"My husband asked, 'What are we trying to do, give the other team seizures?'" she said.
Aaron Cichowski of Bradenton also got into the spirit, stopping in the team store and paying for a ballcap with the "TB" emblem and a plaid bill.
"I think the plaid's awesome," said Cichowski.
Change of heart
Dean Staples was one fan who has a long history with the Trop. He was one of three votes against dedicating sales tax money for its construction in the 1980s when he was a city council member (1983-1991). He's 79.
"I'm the only one who voted against it who is still alive," he said between bites of a foot-long hot dog slathered in mustard and relish.
He said he objected to the Trop then because it diverted money that could have paid for city services.
"It was a tough call," Staples said. "But we made it work."
He said his votes to establish a downtown St. Petersburg campus for USF and the restoration of the Vinoy helped the Trop to later succeed. Now he said he's a big fan of the Trop.
"I get no complaints about the stadium," he said. "I've had relatives from New Hampshire visit and they love it."
He's been following the latest round of stadium intrigue. This time he thinks a stadium is vital.
"It should stay in Pinellas," he said.
Putting his patients on hold
Count Dr. Ernie Rehnke was a critic of the daytime game.
"It's a disservice to the best team in the American League," Rehnke said. "They did this because of the Yankees."
A season ticket holder. Rehnke, a physician at Palms of Pasadena, has one of the best seats. He and his wife Linda sit behind home plate in what appear to be dark leather seats.
"I think they are pleather," he said. "But they are comfortable."
Rehnke has to go back to work after the game. Ordinarily he'd be done operating at 7, but today, because of the game, he won't be done until 10. The patient, flown in from another state, is set for abdominal surgery.
"They know about this and that I'm a big sports fan," he said. "They're fine with, especially if the Rays win."
Texas visitors pack the Vinoy
The Rangers team and associates are staying in 120 rooms at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg. The hotel was prepared for a last minute booking by the opposing team that would play the Rays in the playoffs and has been holding back rooms for these dates since August. But it still had to ask a handful of guests to move to other hotels. The Vinoy paid for their rooms to compensate for the inconvenience.
Opposing teams always stay at the Vinoy during the regular season.
"Teams normally travel with 70 to 80 rooms for players, trainers and the press corps," said Chris Adkins, Vinoy director of sales and marketing. "When they make the playoffs they seem to bring more people from head offices or sometimes family and friends. It's a little more special."
Hopeful fans of other teams in the playoffs have already booked about 100 rooms for the dates of the World Series.
"We don't really dig through to see where the bookings are coming from," Adkins said. "As we get closer and if the Rays actually make it then we start to pull those reservations and reconfirm them. I imagine if I pulled (the reservation records) there would be a lot of Phillies fans."
Waiting it out
Bethany Keen, age 12, arrived at the front porch of the Renaissance Vinoy Resort Wednesday morning ready for the playoffs. Armed with a royal blue Sharpie, her notebook of baseball cards, two fresh balls and an endearing smile, she was out to get some autographs.
But not just anybody's.
"I want Nolan Ryan on a ball," she said. "I could have asked some other players but I didn't want security to say, 'Hey you can't get autographs,' and make me leave. Then I would miss the opportunity to get the two guys I really want, (Rangers part owner) Nolan Ryan and (Rookie of the Year candidate) Neftali Feliz."
The hotel, which always hosts visiting teams, posts signs that read: "Please no autographs or photography." So Keen is discreet and particular.
Don't assume she's a Rangers fan. She's Rays all the way. But since she has all their autographs from becoming a regular at batting practices, she often stops by the Vinoy with her dad before games to enhance her lineup of visiting players.
Keen debated if she would ask Ranger Cliff Lee for his autograph if he passed by.
"He's pitching today so he has to be focused. You wouldn't want to distract him or anything," she explained.
In two years she's collected many autographed pictures and more than 200 signed balls. Who would say no to an effervescent softball player with a ponytail and sportswriter's knowledge of the game?
But sometimes the opportunity just isn't there.
"I don't know if Nolan Ryan is even here," she worried. "It's the ALDS. Why wouldn't he be here?"
Rocking the red
Rangers season ticket holder Melissa Johann wasn't going to let this moment pass by. Especially since her 13 year old son Tayler is a huge fan who would like to pitch in the majors, and who has read Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton's book, which he got signed by Hamilton.
So Johann made a snap decision on Monday to pull Tayler out of school and fly to St. Pete, using tickets they found on StubHub.
"It's pretty hard to believe," she said. "We're taking pictures to make sure it wasn't a dream."
Johann, from suburban Dallas, was wearing a bright red Michael Young Rangers jersey and her son also was decked out in Rangers red.
Rangers fan Josh Graham got four tickets behind home plate off StubHub, for $120 each. He lives in Frisco, a suburb 20 miles north of Dallas. Wearing a Josh Hamilton Rangers jersey, he said Rays fans have been nice to him.
"They say they can't believe we flew all the way from Texas to watch the game," said Graham, 27. "We heard your fans couldn't fill the stadium, so we're happy to help."
He looked around before the game and said it was okay, but "it was showing its age."