ST. PETERSBURG -- Nathan White and Erynn Pearce drove nearly four hours from Valdosta, Ga., to attend their first Rays Fan Fest on Saturday, so they’re not ones to listen to the inconveniences of driving across the bay or dealing with rush-hour traffic in order to attend a major-league baseball game.
“I think if you come to a Rays game, you’re already a fan,” said 19-year-old Nathan, whose devotion to the Rays was born when his mother took him to a game at the Trop four years ago. “You’re committed to it, and I don’t think anything like that is going to get in the way. If you love it, you love it.”
White has been to four or five games a year since, and he was introducing Pearce, 18, to Tropicana Field for the first time.
“I wanted to come here and see the field before we came to a game,” she said.
“This is our first time coming to Fan Fest, so we really wanted to see what it was really all about,” White said. “I had seen a lot of stuff on social media, and it was something I really wanted to check out, just to get a feel for it.
“One day, it was a few years ago, my mom said, ‘Hey we don’t have anything to do today. Let’s go to a baseball game,” he added. “We came and I just fell in love with it. From the first game I loved it, and that was four years ago. And ever since then it’s been an every-year thing.”
Fans who attended Saturday’s Fan Fest event enter this season with optimism that the Rays can build on last year’s 90-win campaign while remaining cautious about the team’s long-term future in Tampa Bay.
The most-recent stadium proposal slated for Ybor City was squashed in December, leaving the team back at square one on finding a new home. This past week, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said the focus is back on reinventing a new ballpark in St. Petersburg.
But years of back-and-forth make fans uneasy, fearing the team might leave the area.
“It’s like being in a relationship,” said Fred Knoll of St. Petersburg. “She’s telling you, ‘I love you, I love you, but just keep it in the back of your mind, you’re going to go one day.’ I guess there goes the rose garden you were planning. You don’t know what’s happening, and if we were more secure and knew what was happening, I think the following would be more secure.”
Knoll and his wife, Debora, said they are dedicated Rays fans and regularly attend games, but they have struggled going all in on the team in recent years as the search for a new stadium continues without a resolution.
“We want to get attached,” Debora said. “But it’s like he said, if you’re dating a guy and you don’t know whether he’s going to be here tomorrow or not, you don’t want to invest your heart and soul into it.”
“And then you really want to jinx them, then buy a shirt,” Fred said. “And then that certain guy who you bought his jersey, he’s gone.”
John and Julie Gavin of Lutz attended Fan Fest, bringing their 10-year-old son, Patrick, for the first time, all three decked in Rays gear.
“It’s kind of the same as it’s been,” John said of the anticipation for the upcoming season. “Every year there’s a new roster it seems, so that’s kind of a drag. But we still enjoy it. They do a good job of getting a good team together, and it’s fun to watch every year. I think getting rid of the upper deck will be kind of fun because it will put everyone closer to the field because we’re usually up in the upper deck.”
“It makes the stadium look a little fuller,” Julie added.
“Sometimes with the limbo of them possibly moving, it kind of puts the fans in limbo, so that’s kind of discouraging,” John added. “That probably affects the attendance issue. Wondering if they’re going to leave in five years is kind of a drag.”
Brandon and Louisa Avery of Gibsonton watched intently as their 3-year-old daughter, Charlotte, her face just painted at one of the stations, ran around the Trop outfield holding two balloons.
“We come every year,” Louisa said. “I can’t remember how many years for me, but she’s been here every year.”
Brandon said there were positives and negatives to the offseason decision to close the Trop’s upper deck for this season.
“I think you always have to find ways to keep things affordable and balance that with the fan experience, and for so long we’ve been the laughingstock of the league based on attendance and how it looks on TV,” Brandon said. “So I think it was a great idea to shut down the upper deck and we’ll be a bit more close-knit. But at the same time, as a flex-pack owner for the last four years, that significantly cuts down on the places where I can stay. So some of us are giving up our fan experience for the overall fan experience.”
On the field, he was excited about the Rays improving on last year’s momentum.
“I think it’s going to be a solid season, I think people are going to get healthy this year,” Brandon said. “Having (Kevin Kiermaier) back, that will help them get to full steam. But then I think a lot of the pitching staff will be used to each other more and know their roles in this new pitching era if they decide to go down that road again.”
White was excited about the addition of catcher Mike Zunino in the offseason.
“I know a lot of people don’t like the roster changes they made, but I think with the pickup of Mike Zunino, that’s going to be a huge pickup,” White said. “(Mallex Smith) was a key player on the team, but I think (Zunino) is really going to bring the bat that we need. And Tommy Pham is coming off a hot year. All in all, I think it’s going to be a really good season to look forward to.”
Contact Eduardo A, Encina at [email protected] Follow @EddieInTheYard.