ST. PETERSBURG — When Judy Wheatley made the 80-mile drive from her Bushnell home to Tropicana Field on Friday — entering the stadium for the first time since the 2019 postseason — she looked around and declared, “Honey, I’m home!”
For the 9,000 masked-up fans at the Rays’ home opener against the New York Yankees, the Trop felt a lot like home. After enduring a fan-less 2020 regular season due to COVID-19 restrictions, Rays players welcomed the familiar noise, chatter and cheers.
“Everybody is so glad to be here,” said Rays FanHost Suzanne Galvin, working along the third-base line. “Everybody is happy today. I’ve done this for four years, and last season I wasn’t in this ballpark, not once. This is more like it.”
St. Petersburg’s Chris Wilson, wearing a vintage Wade Boggs Devil Rays jersey, said Friday continued his streak of attending every Rays’ home opener (except 2004, when the team opened in Tokyo).
“When you come here as often as I have, you get to know everyone around you, the fans and the ushers,” Wilson said. “This is the first place I turned my kids loose. They knew where the bathroom was, so they could go there by themselves. The ushers knew them. Security knew them.
“It’s great to be back. I feel like I know every inch of this place.”
Wilson brought his 13-year-old son, Nicholas, who said he has been attending Rays games “since I was a baby.’'
“I missed it last season,” Nicholas Wilson said. “I feels weird to see it again. It feels really big out here. It was weird not seeing them play in person last season, so I’m going to enjoy today a lot.”
Seminole’s Chicky Desmarais attended the Rays’ first opener in 1998 and has been a loyal fan ever since. She claimed to be all smiles (beneath her mask).
“Last season was pretty depressing,” Desmarais said. “I had to ride my bicycle a lot more than I usually do to keep my mood up. This is so exciting. And nothing is better than to see those banners (American League East and AL champions) unveiled with the Yankees in the house.”
“Last season was not only strange, it was heartbreaking,” Seminole’s Marla Spruill said. “To be back here … it almost makes me want to cry. We see so many familiar faces … at least from here (above the mask) on up. There are a lot of greetings, a lot of high-fives. It gives your life some sense of normalcy or at least a good first step.”
Normalcy has been in short supply for Wheatley and her lifelong friend, Margaret Mercado, who has been diagnosed with brain cancer. They raised their children together since elementary school (both are now 35 years old). They have relished the back-and-forth trips to Rays games from Bushnell over the years.
Friday was a time to cherish.
“Moffitt (Cancer Center) is my new favorite place,’' Mercado said. “I need to look at the schedule and make sure my radiation treatments are around the games. I don’t know how many we’ll be able to get to, but we’re going to enjoy every time we make it. Being here today, it’s just where we need to be. It’s a thrill.”
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