ST. PETERSBURG — Virtually every night, you can see something at Tropicana Field worth capturing on your smartphone to show off to the neighbors. The trick is it usually happens between innings.
A small child will race down the aisle in Section 120 near the Rays dugout. Arms and mania elevated, they are desperate to land a baseball from somewhere off the field. First-base coach Ozzie Timmons stands on the other side of the short, stadium wall and watches. And when the moment is right, he’ll ask a child for their glove, and they will invariably hand it over. Usually without hesitation or realization.
The mitt will hardly fit over his mansized fingers and the first baseman, whoever it is, will throw a warmup ball to Timmons. The glove, with ball inside, is then handed back to the stunned child.
Welcome to the Land of Oz.
This might be the most magical piece of real estate in any major-league stadium: close to the dugout, close to the field and close to the way we imagine hometown baseball should be.
Here, you will find Timmons walking down the rail exchanging handshakes and hugs before every game. He explains strategy to fans between innings. He tosses ball after ball into waiting hands. He takes a piece of candy from a season-ticket holder’s granddaughter in the first row of Section 122.
Time doesn’t stand still here, it seems to recede every night at 7:10 p.m.
“He’s just such a treasure and a throwback,’’ said season-ticket holder David Rosenbach. “He genuinely likes people and enjoys getting everyone involved. We’re just really fortunate to have him here.’’
It’s neither contrived, nor calculated. It feels more like a byproduct of personality and perseverance. Timmons, who played at Brandon High and the University of Tampa, has spent most of his life an arm’s length away from major-league baseball.
There were a dozen seasons in the minors, with intermittent appearances with the Cubs, Mariners, Reds and Devil Rays. He later played in Japan, Mexico and some goshforsaken independent leagues. And then another 11 years coaching in the minors before the Rays promoted him in 2018.
What Tampa Bay got was a first-base coach, an assistant hitting coach, a confidante and an ambassador. He’s not just working the crowd, he’s quietly doing his job. He lingers on the field between innings to talk to Mike Brosseau about a baserunning mistake. He puts his hands on Willy Adames’ shoulders and whispers quietly in his ear. He chats up the umpires and clocks pitchers with his stopwatch.
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Mostly, he makes everyone understand they’re in a ballpark for heaven’s sake.
“I was going through a lot of stuff at Double A, and Ozzie was the one who made me feel comfortable,’’ said Rays pitcher Blake Snell. “He really taught me how to have fun while playing the game and still being focused and competing. That’s who he is. He loves being here, he loves working, he loves talking to the fans, he’s just always in a happy mood.’’
Normally, the first-base coach is the most anonymous person on the field. Third-base coaches get to wave runners home, umpires make dramatic calls, even ball boys catch hot shots down the line.
The first-base coach is practically a standing prop. They swat fannies, collect batting gloves and generally blend into the background. That’s what the fans in Section 120 were accustomed to seeing. George Hendrick? Nice enough guy, but not very interactive. Rocco Baldelli? Polite, serious, reserved.
But it was a whole new world when Timmons, 48, arrived and began chatting up fans before games. He learned names. He knew families. He wouldn’t let parents ask for balls. Instead, he made children ask for themselves. And then he made sure they asked politely.
Last year, during a teamwide hitting slump, Timmons was joking with pitcher Nate Eovaldi in Oakland. He said he would do a pushup for every run the Rays scored at the end of an inning. Timmons was doing it for two months before the TV cameras noticed, and now it’s nearly a nightly feature.
By the end of last year, a group of season-ticket holders in Section 120 were smitten. On his birthday in September, Ann Rosenbach arranged for a group of about 20 fans to buy Rays jerseys with Timmons’ name and number. They kept the jerseys hidden until about midway through the game, then everyone slipped them on and broke out cupcakes and birthday signs in front of a startled Timmons.
“When you come to a game, it’s like your spending your evening with Ozzie,’’ said Leah Arnold, who has season tickets in Section 120 with her husband, Sean Hopf. “He makes everyone around feel welcome. He really is amazing.’’
Recently, the Rays were playing one of those games where the score had ceased to matter. The outcome was nearly certain, and the home team was going to lose.
That’s when Timmons’ proteges turned on him, much to the delight of fans sitting nearby. Snell was firing darts fashioned from gum wrappers at the back of Timmons’ head. Adames and Jose Alvarado were in the corner of the dugout flicking sunflower seeds at him on the field.
Timmons never even let on that he noticed.
“It’s baseball, you’re supposed to have a good time. There’s time to work and time to be serious, but you still have to enjoy the game,’’ Timmons said a day later. “When things are going good, you can’t walk around saying, ‘Hey everybody, how’s it going?’ And then when things aren’t going well you don’t want to talk to anybody. It doesn’t work like that.
“In this game, tomorrow can always make it better.’’
Later that night, 6-year-old Lillian Dotson was at the game with her mother, Natalie, and other friends. Lillian tried a few times to catch balls Timmons was tossing to kids but never seemed to come close and had to climb the steps back to her seat, about 20 rows behind the dugout.
In between the fourth and fifth innings, Timmons popped back out of the dugout and looked directly at Lillian. Before any of the other kids noticed, he gestured for her to come down the steps.
He had a ball waiting for her.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.