ST. PETERSBURG — Pete Alonso has sat in the stands at Tropicana Field watching the Rays. He has been on the field, the kid delivering the ball to the mound before a 2008 game. He even got to play there once, as a Plant High senior in the 2013 Pinellas-Hillsborough All-Star Game.
But Friday will be something different. Something special. Something the boys who grow up in the Tampa Bay area to become major-leaguers relish: the chance to play a big-league game at their local stadium. At home.
“It’s going to be awesome to go back home,” Alonso said from New York on Tuesday. “I’m really excited.”
Dozens of others have had the opportunity, one they rave about and recall in great detail even years later. Friday, when his Mets open a weekend series against the Rays, Alonso will join the group.
“Definitely something you dream of,” said Seminole native Brett Phillips, a Rays outfielder who first played at the Trop in 2018 when with the Royals. “It’s a huge deal. Growing up 20 minutes from the Trop, going to Rays games as a kid, the nostalgia of just walking up to the dome brings back so many memories.
“And then to be able to play major-league baseball in front of your hometown (fans), even though it’s as an opposing player, it’s super special.”
Not just for the player, but also his parents and other relatives, who are used to getting on flights or making hours-long drives to see their kid play.
“It’s going to be a joy,” said Peter Alonso, Pete’s father. “We’re very excited about it. Pete’s really excited as well. I’m sure it will be a special weekend for everybody. Plus, Friday is my birthday.”
At 26, Alonso — a Tampa native who attended Jesuit, then Plant High — has already accomplished a lot, earning selection to the 2019 National League All-Star team (and winning the home run derby) and election as Rookie of the Year for his 53-homer, 120-RBI performance.
There should be a sizable continent of Alonso fans at the Trop over the weekend. Peter Alonso said there’s about 25 in their group, but he’s hearing from others daily and “if you blink your eye it could multiply to 100 or 200.”
“It’s definitely surreal,” Peter Alonso said. “And it’s so rewarding as a parent to see your son or daughter live their dreams. It’s really just super fun.”
Rays manager Kevin Cash, a Tampa native, can relate, having dozens of relatives, friends and former Gaither High and Florida State teammates on hand when he played his first game at the Trop as a Blue Jays rookie catcher in 2002.
“A very cool experience,” Cash said.
So can Tampa native Lance McCullers, who had a crowd, including former coaches and Jesuit High teammates, when he made his Trop debut in 2015 as a rookie pitcher with the Astros.
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“It’s a special feeling when you come back home and you get to pitch in front of the people who have supported you from the time you were just a little kid,” McCullers said.
Nothing may match the reception Phillips got when he first played at the Trop.
“The Rays set it up online to have a section for all my fans to buy tickets,” Phillips said. “It was a weekday game against the Royals and like 800-1,000 people came to support me. I remember walking up to the plate, and that section just erupting. The umpire and the catcher are just looking at me like, “Who are you?’ ”
There is a bond, and a sense of pride, among many of the players from the Tampa Bay area, especially as some played together on youth league teams and with and against each other in high school. That also allows them to share in each other’s success and highlights, such as playing at home.
“I know for Pete it’s one of those things to just check off your dream list,” said Phillips, who played with Alonso on a travel ball team. “I know it’s something he’s been looking forward to, and I’m happy he has the opportunity to do that.”
McCullers, a 2017 All-Star, said it hit him during his April 30th outing at the Trop — his fourth, but first since his November 2018 elbow surgery — there is also a residual benefit to the homecomings.
“You see these little kids with their parents in the stands (at the Trop) and they’re saying, ‘That guy, he’s from Tampa, and he’s playing,’ ” McCullers said. “It makes it tangible. There’s lots of guys from Tampa in the big leagues, and this makes it seem realistic and achievable for kids. That’s pretty cool.”
Especially this weekend for Pete Alonso.
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