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a little slice of heaven

St. Petersburg finally is a major-league baseball city. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays are playing ball at Tropicana Field.

Some might argue St. Petersburg is baseball heaven. Only a few blocks from the dome is Al Lang Field, home to the St. Petersburg Devil Rays. St. Pete is the only city to have a major-league team and a minor-league affiliate in the same city.

Al Lang baseball is the basic stuff, and we must never slough it off for The Show. The man for whom the park is named brought spring training here in the early years of the century. In later years, those who longed for a major-league team went to spring training and then turned to the minor leagues for the summer. And we gained enormous affection for the Little Show. After a while it wasn't a substitute. It was the reason we went to the ballpark.

This season opened at Al Lang on April 8 with the St. Pete Devil Rays playing the Clearwater Phillies. Minor-league games are like carnivals or county fairs. Fans often get treats or posters or caps or balls as they file in. Some teams are flashier. The Miami Miracle used to offer haircuts during the fourth inning in the bleachers behind third base. Jericho the Miracle dog, a golden retriever, would trot out between innings to offer the umps a cool drink and a towel. At Al Lang there are scoreboard contests (dogs vs. cats race) and fan games such as the barrel roll. Two contestants run around a barrel _ sometimes it is a bat _ until they are dizzy-drunk and then try to race each other to first base. Trivia contests and old rock 'n' roll play between innings.

Certain fans' faces are fixtures at minor-league games, and this is true of Al Lang. The guy with the Goofy-ears cap is back. Hecklers are, too. But the ones needling "RUSS-tee, RUSS-tee, RUSS-tee," as the Phillies' Rusty McNamara stepped to the plate got the hose turned on them. (McNamara hit a home run.) Some fans have been known to travel from minor-league park to minor-league park, scoring each game.

Seats on the first-base side at Al Lang have a view of the boats in the bay and planes landing at Albert Whitted Airport. On opening night three biplanes glided in and banked right to the landing strip, followed by a fearsome-looking black helicopter and a fighter jet.

At their opener, the St. Petersburg Devil Rays drew only a fraction of the crowds that saw the major-league Devil Rays debut the week before. But the St. Pete Rays delivered the assurance baseball fans need: Things change, but the essence of the game is the same, the rhythms unaltered. Old field or new dome, major league or minor, baseball is the same.

Attending both minor-league and major-league games in St. Petersburg may give us the chance to see the next Ted Williams, who played for the Minneapolis Millers in 1938, or the likes of the three DiMaggio brothers, who were San Francisco Seals. Mike Blake wrote in his book, The Minor Leagues, A Celebration of the Little Show: "Often the Minors are the first stop on the way up, in the days before fame, and the last stop on the way down before anonymity returns. And once in a while, it is a stop in the middle and a place to regain the touch and the limelight."

If we're lucky, we will see it all in St. Petersburg, baseball heaven.

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