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Some balk at Rays ticket giveaway

Nearly half of the seats for Saturday's baseball game at Tropicana Field will be filled by police officers, their families and friends.

But St. Petersburg and Gulfport officers won't be in the crowd.

The Devil Rays are hosting the team's first-ever Law Enforcement Appreciation Day. In memory of slain Tampa police Officer Lois Marrero, the team gave 23,000 free tickets to law enforcement officers around the Tampa Bay area.

St. Petersburg refused to bend its policy against officers accepting gifts and turned down the tickets. Gulfport police, also citing ethical issues, took tickets but gave them to their Police Explorers, teenagers interested in law enforcement.

"I think it's ridiculous, especially when it's in memory of a fallen officer," said St. Petersburg Officer Teddy Williams, a 10-year veteran. "It's not like I'm going over there and asking for tickets."

The chief in Gulfport, Curt Willocks, and assistant chief in St. Petersburg, Chuck Harmon, said they appreciate the Devil Rays' gesture. But "The only time we can accept discounted stuff or free stuff is when it's offered to all city employees," said Harmon, who is St. Petersburg's assistant chief of patrol. He made the decision to reject the tickets as acting chief while Goliath Davis III was on vacation. "We try to be above board on anything that we do."

The Devil Rays decided to host the promotion after Marrero's death on July 6. She was on duty when she was shot by a bank robber.

"We had a moment of silence here, and I think everybody in the organization wanted to do more," said Rick Vaughn, the Devil Rays' vice president of public relations in St. Petersburg.

The free tickets are not the only perk. Tampa's poet laureate, James Tokley, will recite a poem he wrote in honor of Marrero, who was 40.

And for every regular and season ticket sold to the 4:15 p.m. game against the Texas Rangers, $2 will be donated to the Gold Shield Foundation. Established more 20 years ago, the foundation provides financial and educational support to families of fallen officers.

Even the ceremonial first pitch will have special meaning.

Chris Hill, the stepson of Tampa police Detective Randy Bell, will throw to home plate. His stepfather was shot and killed in the line of duty in 1998 by Hank Earl Carr.

Harmon, the assistant chief in St. Petersburg, said the department would violate its own policy against gifts and gratuities if it accepted the tickets.

"That policy keeps us out of a lot of trouble, and that's why it's in place," Harmon said.

The Tampa Police Department accepted 4,000 tickets for its officers, said Tampa police spokeswoman Katie Hughes.

"We saw it as a good thing," Hughes said.

The police union was trying late Thursday to accept the tickets and then hand them out to St. Petersburg and Gulfport officers.

"This is different than coffee and doughnuts, don't you agree?" asked Bill LauBach, executive director of the Pinellas County Police Benevolent Association.

Others think so.

Largo, Clearwater, St. Pete Beach and the sheriff's offices in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties all accepted tickets.

"It's not that often that anybody says, "Thank you,' " said Jon Powers, Pasco sheriff's spokesman.

St. Pete Beach police Capt. Joe Cornish will be sitting in leftfield.

"I'll have a hot dog and a beer and bond with the troops," he said.

PRE-GAME LIFT: Pro wrestler "Hail" helps Amanda Cook off the mound after she threw the ceremonial first pitch Thursday at Tropicana Field. The Rays faced the Anaheim Angels on Parks and Recreation Day as thousands of kids watched. The Rays also celebrated the 4th birthday of Raymond, the team mascot.