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Major Rays, minor woes

Lee Rogers has been coming to Al Lang Field since 1950. He was here when the St. Petersburg Saints played in the early days of the Florida State League. He has seen Stan Musial hit mammoth spring training home runs. He has had season tickets to St. Petersburg Cardinals games, and he's now a season ticket holder with the St. Petersburg Devil Rays of the Class A FSL.

Rogers and his wife, Peggy, also have season tickets for Tampa Bay Devil Rays games. But on a cool and breezy night last Wednesday, a night when Tampa Bay was playing a televised game against the Texas Rangers, Rogers was back at Al Lang, watching St. Petersburg play the Daytona Cubs.

Watching players like Eddy de los Santos, Alex Sanchez and Denis Pujals may not be as enticing as watching Fred McGriff, Quinton McCracken and Wilson Alvarez, but Rogers didn't want to be anywhere else.

"I enjoy watching these young guys play not for the money, but because they want to play ball," Rogers said. "I've got season tickets to both teams, but I'd much rather come out here. It's a beautiful park. It's nice to have a major-league team. I love it. But my heart is still with these guys."

FSL Rays crowds smaller

In all the years Rogers has been watching baseball in St. Petersburg, he never has had to deal with the choice he faces now. Virtually within a mile there are two professional baseball teams.

The Florida State League used to be the only game in town. Now it's in the shadows of the major leagues, fighting for attention like never before.

"People have been reading and hearing so much that a minor-league team can't be in the same city as a major-league team that they think we don't exist," St. Petersburg general manager Steve Cohen said. "So we have to do as much as possible to let people know we are still here. We've gone out to Little Leagues and handed out tickets and got feedback. Sometimes they think the tickets are for the Tampa Bay team, but we have to tell them it's not for the majors."

Cohen expected things to be this way. Attendance is down from last season, when the Devil Rays averaged just under 2,000 per game. Through three weeks, the average has been 804.

Other area FSL teams seem to be doing well at the gate. Tampa and Clearwater are averaging more than 1,000. Dunedin is at 851.

But there also have been unexpected problems for the minor-league Rays, the biggest of which is parking. The Al Lang lot used to be free for fans going to the game. But when Tampa Bay is playing on the same night as St. Petersburg, the city charges $5 to park. Considering an average ticket to a St. Petersburg game is $3, the high price to park has turned away some fans.

This season, 10 games coincide with Tampa Bay games. The next isn't until May 30; by then Cohen hopes to have a parking deal with the Bayfront Center.

"(Parking) hurts us a lot," Cohen said. "In addition to the baseball, we also have Shakespeare in the park going on. It used to be $2 to park, but now the city has raised it. When you have a carload of four people, and they have to pay $5 to park, it makes it difficult."

A breeze to watch

Cohen also plans to have more promotions this season. Saturday _ when Tampa Bay was playing Anaheim _ the FSL Rays drew more than 5,000 fans for their annual Optimist Club night, when children were admitted free and prizes were given away.

After the May 30 game there will be a fireworks display. The Famous Chicken also will appear this summer. And there will be plenty of ticket giveaways.

But for most fans who showed up last Wednesday, on a night when there were no promotions, watching the Class A Rays was as good as being at Tropicana Field.

"It's nice because we can come down here, watch three or four innings if we want and get home all in two hours and nobody missed their bedtime," said Tom Gaukel, who was at the game with his wife, Patty, and son Danny. "And this is one of the nicest ballparks in the country. You've got the boats and the breeze. It's better than fighting the crowds sometimes."