As I made my way to Al Lang Stadium Saturday, one question kept entering my thoughts.
Do I want to enter the belly of the beast?
For the uninitiated, and prior to Saturday I was among the uninitiated, the belly of the beast is the center of Section 307 at Al Lang. Behind the northern goal at the home of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, a group of fans known as Ralph’s Mob set up there.
They do not sit there.
They stand, cheer, chant, beat drums, wave flags and deliver an electric pulse that reverberates across the pitch, off the Mahaffey Theatre and into the nighttime sky above the bay. It’s not part of the game, it is the game – as integral as the stellar play of keeper John McCarthy or the defensive strategies of Coach Neill Collins.
They started immediately in Saturday’s game against Loudoun United, lighting torches that blew yellow smoke and singing a song that sounded vaguely familiar. Thanks to my knowledge of 1970s music, I detected the melody: Supertramp’s super hit The Logical Song. Thanks to Google, I learned that the Western Sydney Wanderers football club in Australia rewrote the song as a call to arms for its fans.
But you knew that, right?
This is the kind of fun that draws Palm Harbor’s Jackie June and Abigail Cilmi to the Rowdies games. June, a native of Britain, likens the constant cheering, drumming and clapping to an authentic English soccer game.
“I love baseball, but there’s no real atmosphere at a baseball game unless it’s the ninth inning and it’s the last out,” said June, who later explained that every member of Ralph’s Mob gets a songbook with lyrics. “With soccer, it’s 90 minutes of action and the fans are involved. It’s amazing.”
An amazing game on an amazing night. Downtown St. Petersburg’s vibrancy rose with the spectacularly breezy and pleasant night. Everyone seemed to be out for a good time on a Saturday. That included a 200-plus wedding party that paraded from Station House to the Dali, accompanied by a New Orleans-style jazz band playing When the Saints Go Marching In.
All of the district’s amenities — it’s bars, it’s walkability, it’s watery vistas — also bring out Rowdies fans from far and wide. But it’s the gameday atmosphere that keeps them coming back.
Sarasota’s Bill Cantrill and Jamie Aungst were among a number of fans from south of the Skyway. They found their way to the Thirsty First near the corner of First Street and First Avenue N. a typical pregame gathering spot for Ralph’s Mob. Gulfport’s Mitchell Lauster, a former Indiana high school player who now lives in Gulfport.
“This is my first year in the Mob,” Lauster said. “I had been coming to the games, but it brings more excitement to have a group of people to cheer with.”
The cheers engage, the guy dressed like a pirate with the bubble wand is cute, and the stadium – especially if you arrive early enough to see cruise ships sailing by on the horizon — is pitch perfect, pun intended.
Yet, it’s the sense of community that proved to be a theme throughout the night. Ian Linn founded the Skyway Casuals, a group of Rowdies fans who hail primarily from the Bradenton/Sarasota area and not only attend home games, but gather at Shamrocks Bar in Sarasota to watch away games.
It’s a full official 501-c7 with scarves, stickers and a flag. Linn loves the game, but he also loves the camaraderie.
“It’s the in-stadium experience,” Linn said. “It’s the singing, the chanting, the smoke bombs. We like to come and make a day of it."
At day’s end, however, the game matters to these fans. They come for the fun but to also see a winning team, and in the 2019 version of the Rowdies, they believe they have a group strong on defense and youth, with only one player over the age of 30.
It’s an approach akin to the Rays, whose ownership purchased the soccer club last year — and it may prove to be a formula that gives this burgeoning community more to chant, cheer and celebrate.
You know, the belly of the beast is actually warm, cozy and a blast.
That’s all I’m saying.
Contact Ernest Hooper at [email protected] Follow @hoop4you.