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For Rays, an ‘amazing’ feeling welcoming back fans

A 9-7 spring-opening win on Tristan Gray’s homer was fun for the Rays, but having a crowd, albeit small, was better.
Socially distanced fans attend the Spring Training game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Atlanta Braves at Charlotte Sports Park Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021 in Port Charlotte. A limited amount of fans were allowed entry and were required to take a temperature check at the gate, maintain social distance and face covering at all times when possible.
Socially distanced fans attend the Spring Training game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Atlanta Braves at Charlotte Sports Park Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021 in Port Charlotte. A limited amount of fans were allowed entry and were required to take a temperature check at the gate, maintain social distance and face covering at all times when possible. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Feb. 28
Updated Mar. 1

PORT CHARLOTTE — Fans were excited Sunday — even under the distanced seating, limited capacity and other coronavirus pandemic restrictions — to see the Rays in person, and at home, spring or regular season, in nearly a year.

But they maybe were not as thrilled as the players were to have them there.

“It was amazing,” shortstop Willy Adames said. “We were talking about that during (pregame) stretch. … It’s kind of boring with them not being able to be in the stands.

“I feel like they are the energy at the stadium. They give us energy every time they’re there. Their support. That’s what we play for. We play for them, and the family. … It just felt so good to have them again, to hear them cheer for us.”

Announced attendance for the spring opener against the Braves was 1,127, pretty much the current Charlotte Sports Park capacity (with about 700-800 tickets actually sold, the rest for player and team use), down from around 6,800, due to restrictions of the league, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and others.

To the Rays, it was still plenty of fans.

“It was pretty special just to see the kids out there wearing your jersey, the other players’ jerseys and getting that vibe back, that fun feeling back,” outfielder Austin Meadows said. “It was exciting.”

Socially distanced fans attend the Spring Training game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Atlanta Braves at Charlotte Sports Park Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021 in Port Charlotte. A limited amount of fans were allowed entry and were required to take a temperature check at the gate, maintain social distance and face covering at all times when possible.
Socially distanced fans attend the Spring Training game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Atlanta Braves at Charlotte Sports Park Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021 in Port Charlotte. A limited amount of fans were allowed entry and were required to take a temperature check at the gate, maintain social distance and face covering at all times when possible. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

As a game, Sunday’s contest looked very much like a typical first exhibition, though with a dramatic ending: Rays minor-leaguer Tristan Gray hit a two-run walkoff homer in the seventh and planned final inning to give the Rays a 9-7 win.

Otherwise, the teams labored for nearly three hours on a sweltering day, combining to use 14 pitchers who allowed 19 hits and other assorted sloppiness.

But it was obviously so much more than a game for all. It was a small, tentative step forward — maybe even a step toward normalcy — as the Rays are among the teams planning to host fans, albeit in a limited number (around 7,000) and with similarly distanced seating pods, at Tropicana Field for regular-season games.

“Almost emotional,” said Elizabeth Cadicamo, a Rays fan from Clearwater Beach.

When the Rays players and coaches came out of their clubhouse in the rightfield corner for warmups, many made a point of acknowledging fans, with Adames maybe breaking with protocol by tossing balls to a few.

“It was awesome,” manager Kevin Cash said. “It was good to see (the fans). We’re so appreciative of them. The way they welcomed us back, it was nice to be able to wave at a distance and express to them … like, it’s great to have you here.”

Alyssa Chippendale and Logan Bunting of nearby North Port had gone to Arlington, Texas, for the Rays’ final World Series game last year, a game for which about 12,00 fans were allowed. But they said that seeing the Rays back at their spring home was special, though it felt a bit quiet and empty.

“Absolutely,” Bunting said. “Definitely worth it.”

It was even more worth it for Sarah and Brett Gerdes of St. Petersburg, who hadn’t seen a game in person since last March, before spring training was shut down and the abbreviated season was eventually played with no fans until the postseason.

So they were more than thrilled to pack up their 1- and 4-year-old sons, and all that entails for a ballpark outing, to make the trip.

“I was like we can’t miss it,” Brett Gerdes said. “We woke up early and were ready to go. It’s incredibly exciting.”

Players not on the roster sit in a covered seating area as they watch the game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Atlanta Braves at Charlotte Sports Park Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021 in Port Charlotte. A limited amount of fans were allowed entry and were required to take a temperature check at the gate, maintain social distance and face covering at all times when possible.
Players not on the roster sit in a covered seating area as they watch the game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Atlanta Braves at Charlotte Sports Park Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021 in Port Charlotte. A limited amount of fans were allowed entry and were required to take a temperature check at the gate, maintain social distance and face covering at all times when possible. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Cadicamo, sitting with her twin sister, Christina (the @TBRaysTwins on Twitter), and parents, Denise and Dan, all wearing Rays masks, said the entry process (free parking, electronic tickets, no temperature screening) was smooth and they felt comfortable in the stands.

“Very safe,” Christina said.

Fans were seated in groups of two or four, with surrounding seats blocked off, or given squares on the grass berm in somewhat of an alternating fashion. Masks are required except when eating or drinking at your seat, and there seemed to be general compliance.

As the gates opened at 11:50 a.m. for the 1:05 start, the stadium sound crew appropriately played Pink’s Get the Party Started. There were other familiar sounds, such as fans clanging cowbells, and not only in response to the repeated “More cowbell” prompts.

But there also was an almost eerie silence at times, given there was no pumped-in crowd noise as there was during 2020 regular-season games. Conversations between players, coaches and umpires occasionally could be heard, as could fan comments.

A couple of concession stands were open, offering the baseball essentials —– hot dogs, peanuts, popcorn and beer — plus a few other items, but the tents on the concourse offering specialty items, such as grilled-to-order burgers and kettle corn, are not allowed.

Tampa Bay Rays Wander Franco #5 waves to Candie Roll (cq) on her 56th birthday after shouting his name from the stands. Socially distanced fans attended the Spring Training game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Atlanta Braves at Charlotte Sports Park Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021 in Port Charlotte. A limited amount of fans were allowed entry and were required to take a temperature check at the gate, maintain social distance and face covering at all times when possible.
Tampa Bay Rays Wander Franco #5 waves to Candie Roll (cq) on her 56th birthday after shouting his name from the stands. Socially distanced fans attended the Spring Training game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Atlanta Braves at Charlotte Sports Park Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021 in Port Charlotte. A limited amount of fans were allowed entry and were required to take a temperature check at the gate, maintain social distance and face covering at all times when possible. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Among other things that were different:

Radio announcers Andy Freed and Dave Wills worked from separate booths to avoid what would be very close contact, given the Charlotte Sports Park setup. Tape and placards reminding of 6-foot distancing were placed in both dugouts, with tents added over the seats on the far end to accommodate reserve and nonparticipating players. There was an air-conditioned 20-by-20-foot tent to give the umpires more space than their usual cramped dressing room. The rightfield boardwalk area was closed off for players’ families. Present were scouts from other teams; they weren’t allowed at 2020 games.

Overall, it was different. It was a bit odd. And it was very welcomed.

“It’s kind of getting back to normal,” Adames said. “It was great to have that today.”

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.