ST. PETERSBURG — With the delayed and abbreviated Major League Baseball season starting in less than a week, the Rays are exploring ways to create ambience without fans.
Crowd noise will be piped in. Expect more music.
And cardboard images of fans will be placed in the stands.
So while fans won’t be able to see the Rays play in person at Tropicana Field, at least at the beginning of the season, there is a way to be seen at the games.
Friday the Rays announced that fans can have an 18- by 30-inch plastic cardboard cutout photo of themselves placed on a seat at the Trop for $60 (or $40 if you’re a season-ticket holder). The offer is for a limited time.
No, it won’t be the same as being there. But given the coronavirus pandemic restrictions that have teams playing in empty stadiums, it will help offset the stark atmosphere and add some faces in the crowd.
More than a dozen other teams are doing similar projects, with the Rays pricing in the middle of the pack. The Mariners are at the low end at $30 per cutout, with a portion of the proceeds donated to COVID-19 relief, and the Dodgers are at the high end at $149 and $299.
The A’s are offering a $149 foul ball zone benefiting outfielder Stephen Piscotty’s ALS-related foundation, which includes getting an autographed ball if your doppelgänger is dented by one.
The Rays say the location of their cutouts will be “general admission” and they will be installed in waves, with the first ones in place by the Aug. 4 start of the second homestand. (Also, cutouts of some “celebrities” may be mixed in.) Fans can pick up the cutouts, made of Coroplast, after the season. Details of how to upload the photos, which are subject to team approval, are available at raysbaseball.com/fancutouts.
“We’re excited to offer this opportunity to our fans during this extraordinary point in history,” team marketing and creative services vice president Eric Weisberg said. “This is a way for our fans to feel like they are part of the action at Tropicana Field, and at the end of the season, they will get to take home a game-used souvenir.”
If the spike in coronavirus cases in the Tampa Bay area subsides in August, there is a plan to potentially allow in a limited number, around 5,000-7,000 in a socially-distanced configuration. Ticket sales would start anew, as the team has already either given refunds or credits, with a 25 percent bonus to be used on concessions or merchandise, for all previously sold tickets. (For questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org.),
Still to be decided is what to do with foul balls and home runs balls, since they won’t be caught by fans. Also missing this season are the cownose rays that usually swim in the 10,000-gallon touch tank in right-centerfield. They’ll be cared for by the Florida Aquarium.
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Watch parties for games could be an option — maybe even a drive-in style gathering in the Trop parking lot — but until the virus spread is contained there’s no plans being made. Similarly on hold: re-opening the team store for curbside pickup.
Some of the promotional giveaway items were delivered and could be distributed in more creative ways, or saved for next season. Other orders were paused or canceled. There are intriguing plans for a “digital bobblehead” giveaway, maybe two, forthcoming. And the team could arrange a Zoom-type event for fans.
The 2019 American League wild-card banner will be hung at the Trop before the July 24 opener, and a hype video about last season was made. The game presentation will be similar with walk-up music and PA announcements, and the scoreboard and video boards in use, but more tunes will be played between innings rather than sponsor promotions and more player highlights will be shown, plus possibly some fan-produced videos. Mascot Raymond will make limited appearances.
Expect to see new sponsor signage in the dugout, on tarps in the stands and in foul territory along the first- and third-base lines along the side walls. Also, a sponsor logo on the back of the mound.
The league is providing a soundtrack of ambient fan noise that will be played during the games to offset the quiet and make it sound better on television. The broadcasts will be different in many ways, most notably that the radio and TV crews won’t be traveling, calling the road games off monitors from their booths at the Trop.