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Rays' fans come together to sell out Pride Night game honoring Orlando

San Francisco players and fans watch the video board tribute to Pulse nightclub shooting victims Friday before the sold-out Rays-Giants game at the Trop.
Published Jun. 18, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG

An hour before they left for Tropicana Field, Josh Whitman sat his 10-year-old son down for an uncomfortable conversation.

He had to tell his son that last weekend 49 people died in a mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, and more were injured. Buying tickets to watch the Tampa Bay Rays play the San Francisco Giants was a small way they could help.

The words didn't come easily.

"It's just sad," said son Jayden Whitman.

Rays officials spent months planning their annual celebration of LGBT Pride month, but when the worst mass shooting in U.S. history occurred about 105 miles away from the baseball stadium, they knew the game needed to be a somber requiem for those who lost their lives.

Before the game, images of chaos from the Sunday morning shooting gave way to those of solidarity rallies held around the world. Only one crying infant could be heard among the approximately 40,000 in attendance during the 41 seconds it took for five slides to show the names of every life lost in the shooting. Fans in rainbow colored tutus, suspenders and socks stood teary eyed as the names scrolled past.

But the deafening silence gave way to cheers that sent vibrations through the stands as the Una Voce Florida Men's Chorus sang the national anthem and a massive American flag and LGBT Pride flag covered the ballfield.

From that moment on it was the full festivity of a baseball game in a packed arena. Hot dog and cotton candy vendors yelling, fans cheering and jeering, kids running up and down the steps.

Kimmy and Barbara Denny of Palm Harbor aren't baseball fans, but when they got a call Monday morning from Alt Women's Events, a women's event organizer, to see if they would like to help hold the rainbow flag on the field they jumped at the opportunity. They came decked out in rainbow sweatbands and with their own rainbow flag to wave from the stands.

"We've been arrested at equality protests, we've traveled all over for equality events, we've fought for this, and we feel so humbled to help carry the flag," said Kimmy Denny, 47, who wore a peace sign T-shirt that read Peace, Love, Pride. "I think this is going to bring enlightenment to a lot of people and more people will see the suffering we have to deal with."

About 15,000 tickets had been sold before Tuesday, when the team began selling tickets for $5 with all proceeds going to Equality Florida's Pulse Victim's Fund, which has raised more than $5 million since Sunday.

Between 20,000 and 25,000 tickets were sold after that announcement. In addition, donations were accepted throughout the Trop, and fans were encouraged to participate in a raffle to raise more. Together, ticket sales and donations raised about $300,000.

Eighty-five people donated blood and 100 more set up appointments to donate later.

The 40,135 people in attendance was the largest regular season crowd since opening day of 2006. It was the first time the Rays had to take the tarps off the upper deck of the Trop since an Aug. 8 game against the Mets in which military veterans were admitted for free.

Major League Baseball's Vice President of Social Responsibility and Inclusion Billy Bean said Major League Baseball is donating another $100,000 to the victim's fund. Bean, the only openly gay MLB player past or present alive today, was somber before the game. He had been booked for months to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, but recent events threw the significance of the moment into stark perspective.

"So many people have stepped forward, and it didn't matter that it was the LGBT community, and I feel like that's a really interesting signal of the work that's been done to blur those lines and focus on the things we have in common," Bean said.

Although Pride nights have become commonplace, few baseball teams have "led by example" to the extent of the Rays, Bean said.

Even though the Rays have received some complaints for Pride Night in the past, team president Brian Auld said holding the event each year, and going "all out" for Friday's game, was never in question.

"We consider Pride (Night) an equality issue, a civil rights issue, and for us it's very clearly the right thing to do," Auld said.

Rays players wore "We Are Orlando" T-shirts during batting practice, and both the Rays and Giants wore an Orlando patch on their chest. The T-shirts were given out for free to fans.

The Rays also ordered baseball caps emblazoned with the logo of the Orlando Rays, one of the team's minor league affiliates from 1999 to 2003. Those hats will be signed and auctioned at raysbaseball.com/auction, with all proceeds donated to the victim's fund.

Joe White-Hill and Virgil White-Hill arrived at the game in matching Rays jerseys, worn unbuttoned over matching T-shirts that read "I (image of heart) my husband." The St. Petersburg couple have many friends in Orlando who lost loved ones at Pulse. At a gay bar last night, and even the game, Virgil White-Hill said they couldn't help but look over their shoulders and feel a tinge of worry.

"As sad as it is, I hope it's a wakeup call for people to get along more and be there for each other," Virgil White-Hill, 45, said.

For Ray's third baseman Evan Longoria, who caught Bean's ceremonial first pitch, it was an opportunity for the team to give support back to their fans.

"I think our shirt says it all — 'We Are Orlando'," Longoria said.

Josh Whitman, of Land O' Lakes explained to his son that the shootings were why they were bringing a banner the neighborhood kids had painted with rainbow hearts, hand prints and peace signs under the word "Orlando."

It's why they changed into their new free T-shirts and received rainbow flags from the ticket-takers.

"We've always been disconnected when something like this has happened, but this hit close to home," Whitman said. "I told him that these kinds of events are important because of the terrorists' motives. They want us to be scared to go out to events like this, and it's important not to be afraid to come together."

Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report. Contact Anastasia Dawson at (813) 226-3339 or adawson@tampatrib.com. Follow @adawsonwrites.

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