ST. PETERSBURG — Clad in a giant pandemic mask, DJ Kitty hopped in a golf cart to go mingle with Tampa Bay Rays fans in the parking lot outside Tropicana Field.
Raymond, the Rays’ other, fuzzier mascot, also wore a mask. Those were just were just some of the new looks that greeted Rays fans at Saturday’s Fan Fest, which was reimagined as a drive-through event so fans could safely celebrate the start of a new season amidst the year-long pandemic.
Even though it was only a mascot-filled drive-through event, it still gave fans their best chance to actually be fans for a while after missing the remarkable 2020 season.
Few got to witness last year’s historic run to the World Series. No fans were permitted during the shortened 60-game season. They weren’t allowed in the Trop when the Rays swept the Blue Jays in the Wild Card series. The Rays beat the Yankees and Astros far from Tampa Bay, in the fan-less playoff bubble in San Diego.
Only a few thousand were allowed to watch the Rays lose the World Series in six games to the Dodgers in Arlington, Texas — so most Rays fans missed witnessing one of the greatest moments in team history, Game 4′s wild, bottom-of-the-ninth walkoff win.
Umar Albaari, 34, said the last time he got to see the Rays in person was on Oct. 8, 2019.
“I haven’t been to a Rays’ home game since they played the Astros in the division series the year before,” he said, wearing a Rays’ jersey at the celebration. “It was good just to get back here and see the atmosphere and see the unity in the city.”
The Wesley Chapel resident attended Fan Fest with his girlfriend, Deja Meeks, 32, making the roughly 40 minute drive through the Trop lot, past restaurant booths and Rays’ employees handing out promotional coupons and merchandise.
Both said they’re looking forward to the return of in-person games. There will be limited attendance at the Trop and all visitors will be required to wear masks, save when they’re eating and drinking in seating pods stationed around the dome.
Albaari and Meeks said they have no problem wearing masks during games.
“I got vaccinated,” said Meeks, who received the Pfizer vaccine in February. “I’m ready to be around people again.”
Fan Fest normally takes place around February inside the Trop, where fans were once allowed to actually stand next to players and get autographs. That’s not possible because of the coronavirus, but the Trop was also booked by WWE to serve as its virtual ThunderDome wrestling studio. So Fan Fest had to be redesigned.
This year, no coaches or players took part. But fans still got to take photos with the 2020 American League championship trophy, collect snacks and Rays’ merchandise and do some mascot-mingling.
Rays’ vice president of of marketing and creative services Eric Weisberg said rising vaccination rates and the return of fans marks “the light at the end of the tunnel.”
“Not being able to celebrate with our fans is just hard,” he said. “The players feed off of it. We as an organization feed off the fans.”
By the time the event started at 10 a.m., a line of cars was already snaked alongside Lot 7. The team did not release attendance figures, but said the event was sold out.
Along with Rays’ mascots DJ Kitty and Raymond, local soccer team Rowdies’ mascots Pete and Pinnie also roamed the scene. In front of an Outback Steakhouse stand, a Bloomin’ Onion mascot danced. And there were the customary Hooters Girls.
At one point, DJ Fresh aka Doug Hensel blasted “Cake By the Ocean” while the Rays Team dancers performed alongside ZooTampa’s Manny T mascot. Cars drove by with paint celebrating the team on their windows. Across the parking, an inflatable Raymond watched over the festivities.
After making it through the line, Carmen and Ralph Montero of Riverview stopped by the Rays’ gift shop with their 14-year-old son, Andrew.
“Sports just stopped completely, right when we were ready to come out and enjoy every game we could,” Carmen Montero, 50, said. “And now that we’re semi-back, we love it. We’re excited to be back.”