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Rays fans prepare, with caution, for shortened season

There is excitement that baseball is back, but not at the expense of player safety or health.
Even if they're watching from afar this season (far away from Tropicana Field), fans seem happy to have baseball back, even in an abbreviated form.
Even if they're watching from afar this season (far away from Tropicana Field), fans seem happy to have baseball back, even in an abbreviated form. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jul. 13, 2020

After lagging negotiations between the players and owners for weeks on end, the 2020 Major League Baseball schedule release was a sign of hope for Rays fans.

But even though fans can mark their calendars and start planning their social-distanced watch parties at home, they’re proceeding with caution.

“It’s tempered excitement is probably another way to put it,” south Tampa resident Roman Rodriguez said. “I’m so grateful that we can actually have a season and potentially have some normalcy back to our lives ... so to know that they have a season coming up, it’s super exciting.”

Related: Rays 2020 schedule is out. It presents challenges.

Rodriguez has been a fan since the team’s inception back in 1998. He was a 22-year-old military brat who moved to the Tampa Bay area after previously living overseas in Germany with his family.

Roman Rodriguez poses for a photo with his wife, Diana, and son, Gabriel at a Rays game in August 2017. Rodriguez says he is grateful there's a season, but is also tempering his excitement.
Roman Rodriguez poses for a photo with his wife, Diana, and son, Gabriel at a Rays game in August 2017. Rodriguez says he is grateful there's a season, but is also tempering his excitement. [ Roman Rodriguez ]

Rodriguez loved that he could actually root for a hometown team — having previously cheered for the Texas Rangers — and grow with the team’s history.

Rodriguez, 38, used to go to 40 games a season. Then he got married and started settling down with his wife, Diana, and 5-year-old son, Gabriel. The games started to dwindle to four or five every season.

Nevertheless, Rodriguez watches every game on television when he’s not in the stands at Tropicana Field. If he can’t watch it live, he’ll listen to the radio broadcast.

Rodriguez is still nervous about the potential risks this season. He said he’s not comfortable having his family travel on a plane, so he empathizes with players who might feel the same way.

“So thinking about going on a plane, granted, there’s a lot of procedures and everything like that, but there’s a lot of trust factors coming into it...,” Rodriguez said. “I do have some concerns about maybe the players putting themselves in harm’s risk flying to Toronto. … I do not want someone to be in harm’s way again over my greed (for baseball).”

Related: Rays’ Stuart Sternberg: Maybe this season can be even more special

Zach Moore, who has lived in Boston the past two years, normally tries to get out to a game when Tampa Bay is on the road.

The Seminole native has been cheering for the Rays since he was 2 years old. As a kid, he used to heckle the Yankees fans. It was cute back then, he said, but not so much now that he’s 24.

Zach Moore poses with his girlfriend, Kendra Copeland, at Fenway Park during a July 2019 Red Sox-Rays game. Moore, a Boston resident for two years now, is disappointed he might not get to watch the Rays play in person this season.
Zach Moore poses with his girlfriend, Kendra Copeland, at Fenway Park during a July 2019 Red Sox-Rays game. Moore, a Boston resident for two years now, is disappointed he might not get to watch the Rays play in person this season. [ Zach Moore ]
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When Moore saw the schedule, he immediately noted the 20-game stretch starting Aug. 4 where the Rays will play Boston, New York, Boston (again), Toronto, New York (again) and Toronto (again) all in 21 days, with 10 of those games on the road. He thinks it’ll be the toughest part of the season.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see only a handful of teams from the American League East and National League East making the playoffs, just because there are so many good teams in the two divisions,” Moore said. “So I think that kind of sucks.”

He thinks it’s important for the Rays to get hot early on in the season. If they do that well enough, they’re likely to make the playoffs, he said.

Charles McMillan, a Rays season-ticket-holder since 2012, said this shortened season feels like a strike season.

“That’s over-simplifying it, but a few years ago we had a strike-shortened NHL season,” said McMillan, 61. “Watching baseball is a new wrinkle, but of course (the season will) be an asterisk, but it’s live baseball and that’s what we love.”

Charles McMillan (right) poses for a photo with his wife, Kelly, and friends at a Rays-Blue Jays game from April 2019. McMillan said he's looking forward to an "outstanding" television broadcast this season if fans can't watch games in-person this season.
Charles McMillan (right) poses for a photo with his wife, Kelly, and friends at a Rays-Blue Jays game from April 2019. McMillan said he's looking forward to an "outstanding" television broadcast this season if fans can't watch games in-person this season. [ Charles McMillan ]

Lenny Fraraccio says no asterisk is needed.

Fraraccio believes this year might be the most difficult one to win a World Series title in because of the schedule format coming in a sprint instead of its typical marathon, with the added safety challenges from the pandemic.

“It’s going to be special whatever team wins it,” said Fraraccio, 51. “There’s not gonna be an asterisk (on the season) in my book.”

The Brandon resident stressed that teams who may not deserve to get into the playoffs just might because they’re playing good at the right time.

Lenny Fraraccio poses for a selfie with Rays owner Stuart Sternberg at the 2020 Rays Fan Fest. Fraraccio said he thinks the hot teams have the best chance of making the playoffs with a shortened season on the books.
Lenny Fraraccio poses for a selfie with Rays owner Stuart Sternberg at the 2020 Rays Fan Fest. Fraraccio said he thinks the hot teams have the best chance of making the playoffs with a shortened season on the books. [ Lenny Fraraccio ]

“Man, you’re gonna have to be hot, you’re going to have to be hot for three months, and in baseball you can’t be hot for three months,” he said.

Fraraccio, who normally attends 40 home games every season, is already starting to worry about the long-term repercussions of the virus. The NFL has axed jersey exchanges between players this season, but will a baseball fan who catches a game ball be able to get it autographed by a player ever again? (Assuming there are fans in the stands, of course.)

But bottom line, risking the players health and safety isn’t worth a season.

“I feel bad for these guys because I don’t want them to be fearful of what they’re doing. Our sports viewing is not anything on the meter of health,” Fraraccio said. “This is the craziest time of our life.”

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