If only the Rays could draw the crowds during games that they'll likely see Saturday at Rays Fan Fest. Once again, preseason is a time for hope. Why is this event so popular? Easy. One, its admission price: free. Two: It's a really fun day for both baseball nerds and casual fans. Rays Fan Fest is Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Parking is also free. Here are some insider tips.
Pictures are easier to get than autographs: Tampa Bay Rays players, coaches and major league baseball alumni will be on hand to sign autographs. But that can take hours in line and cost a lot of money (which all goes to charity). We've found that players wandering between gigs are happy to wave for a picture, or even a selfie if you catch them at the right moment, like when they leave the broadcast tents down by home plate.
Kids get the best access: The Reading With the Rays station is just what it sounds like, Rays players and coaches reading with kids. They are also on hand in the high-fiving area when the kids run the bases, and on the call-a-friend stage, where a fan gets to have a Rays player call a friend for them. They don't sign autographs there, but it's a good chance to snap a picture. There are also clinics for kids by Rays coaches, photos with Rays mascot Raymond and DJ Kitty, and a free autograph table for kids.
Autographs require endurance: Adults seeking autographs must go online to raysbaseball.com/fanfest and purchase a ticket scheduling a time slot with a specific player. (There will be no sales during Fan Fest. ) The price of fame has gone up this year. The Rays' three biggest names — Evan Longoria, Wil Myers and David Price — will be $125 each. Players with the $25 price tag include Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce, David DeJesus, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Yunel Escobar, James Loney, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Grant Balfour. The Rays say around 20 other players and coaches will be available to sign for free.
Free stuff: One of our favorite freebies is the batting cage where you can feel like a slugger, bopping a Whiffle ball into the cheap seats. Be sure to check out the tours of the players' locker room. That line moves pretty fast. Run the bases. How many chances are you going to get to do that? Get photos with Rays mascot Raymond and DJ Kitty.
Joe Maddon's Thanksmas Dinner: This is a splurge at $125 a ticket, but it usually sells out because Maddon himself oversees the party. The VIP meal includes appetizers based on Maddon's Thanksmas dinners for the needy — homemade spaghetti, meatballs and pierogies — as well as six wine sampling stations and a private meet and greet with Rays coaches, broadcasters and MLB alumni. Get tickets at raysbaseball.com/fanfest or call toll free 1-888-326-7297.
Game time: You can buy 2014 ticket packages at Rays Fan Fest (individual tickets go on sale March 1). The first home spring training game is Feb. 28 at 1:05 p.m. vs. the Baltimore Orioles at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte. The first home game of the regular season is March 31 vs. the Blue Jays.