Yesterday, I attended my first spring training game at the Charlotte Sports Park, home of the Tampa Bay Rays spring training camp. Being my first spring training experience, I was determined to make the most of this day. With the sun hanging high in the clear blue sky, opportunity found me moments after walking in the ballpark gates. A Rays employee approached my relatives and I asking if any of us wanted to take part in the on-field games. Before I knew it, they talked me into participating in the Dance For Your Dinner contest, where two people dance on top of the dugouts, and the best dancer wins free Chick-Fil-A. I’m not much of a dancer, but I do love Chick-Fil-A, so why not? I would report behind the dugout at the end of the first inning to prepare for my big moment.
After agreeing to the contest, we walked into the ballpark, and there they stood: the Tampa Bay Rays. Evan Longoria, Sean Rodriguez, manager Joe Maddon, and others stood around taking in the sights of batting practice. They seemed so close to the stands in this intimate 6,000-seat ballpark. Making my way to get autographs near the Rays dugout, I looked up to see Todd Kalas, Fox Sun Sports broadcaster, heading my way. I greeted him with a simple “Hi, Todd!” as he passed me, and he responded with a quick “Hi! How are you?” He seemed as nice as he looks on television.
Finally, I secured a spot along the first base wall, and talked with two little boys who were bubbling over with excitement after getting Evan Longoria’s autograph earlier in the afternoon. Soon, Desmond Jennings is standing before me, signing my baseball. He’s quiet and says many polite “You’re welcome’s” after other fans and I thank him for his autographs. Soon, greatness emerged from the dugout as camp visitor and former Detroit Tigers player Cecil Fielder graced us with his presence and signed autographs. I just got Cecil Fielder’s autograph? Unbelievable!
Making my way to our seats, I look out over a sea of reds and blues, split down the middle of the stands, with Boston Red Sox fans seated on the visitors side, as Rays fans fill the home side. Matt Moore and the Rays starters take the field. It feels good to get to see baseball in person again.
At the bottom of the second inning, it is my time to get on top of the dugout and dance. I step on the dugout roof and look out on the crowd of Rays fans, only to turn around and see a few Rays players staring up at me. Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, and even Cecil Fielder, were the faces I first recognized. I waved and said hello to the players, who waved back. The music began, and I danced for about thirty seconds, making up moves as I went. It didn’t last long, but this is what spring training is all about: the fans’ experiences.
After four months of the offseason, spring training is a great time for fans to reconnect with their favorite team. In the smaller setting, fans get to see familiar starters, new players, or prospects, while reacquainting with the sights and sounds of baseball. The roaring cheers and cowbells ringing at the ballpark yesterday reminded me of the atmosphere at Tropicana Field. With less than a month left before Opening Day at the Trop, fans can visit Charlotte Sports Park to welcome back the Rays and baseball.