I grew up a Mets fan, old enough to remember the 1969 Miracle Year and the 1973 mini-miracle of “You Gotta Believe.” I remained a Mets fan after moving to Orlando, but I became a Tampa Bay Rays fanatic after Stuart Sternberg bought the team and began transforming it into a first-class, competitive organization. Given my history as a baseball fan, there was no way I was going to miss out on the Mets’ trip to Tropicana Field, and I attended Saturday night’s 5-4 Rays win.
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I had never seen Tropicana Field so full. Having driven I-4 from Orlando to Tampa on summer weekends before, I left home at 3:00 PM for the 6:00 PM start. I thought that at worst I’d arrive early enough to get a good parking spot and check out the food options. Instead, I needed all three hours. The highways through Tampa and into St. Petersburg were jammed, but as I got closer to Tropicana Field it appeared that many cars were going to the game. Signs on the highway told us that the stadium parking lots were full and to find parking other places in downtown. Driving past the Trop I could see streets full with fans–at least half were Mets fans.
(By the way, if you decide to go to the Trop and can’t park in the Stadium Lot, I recommend parking in the lot at John Hopkins Middle School on 16th Street just past the Stadium. It’s three short blocks to Gate 5, they only charge five dollars, and the money goes to the school’s general fund.)
Inside the stadium, the hallways were full of fans. I was told by an usher that they sold lots of tickets that week, mostly to Mets fans. I saw tons of Mets jerseys, and many more classics than current players. I saw a few David Wright jerseys and one of Jacob deGrom, but also many Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Roberto Alomar, and even Tom Seaver jerseys. A baby girl sitting two rows in front of me wore a Mets headband. When Curtis Granderson led off the game with a home run, and the next batters followed with hits, chants of “Let’s Go, Mets” echoed everywhere.
Rays fans fought back. The half of us wearing Kevin Kiermaier, Chris Archer, and Evan Longoria shirts started chanting “Let’s Go Rays,” and at least in my section, 125, we drowned out the Mets fans. It helped that the Rays came back from their 3-0 deficit in the bottom of the first to take a 4-3 lead, and went on to win the game 5-4. I was stunned that the fans next to us wearing Mets jerseys left in the bottom of the 8th with the Rays ahead by just a run. I guess they had a long way to drive.
In any event, the crowd made the atmosphere electric and gave the game an importance I don’t usually see at Rays home games. While I was waiting on line for the men’s room (also a first) the Rays fans all agreed that we hadn’t ever seen the place that full. There was a downside–all of the vendors near me ran out of pretzels while other specialty food vendors like Outback also ran out of some items. The premium for the night, the Rays fedora, was long gone by the time I got inside the stadium a few minutes before 6:00. Fortunately, no one ran out of beer.
The size and electricity of the crowd made Saturday’s game one of my best baseball experiences ever. I’m happy to say that the Mets fans, at least in my section, were much more polite than the Red Sox and Yankee fans that regularly come to the Trop. They cheered for the Mets, of course, but I didn’t hear any cursing or even anything mean.
Of course, it helped that the Rays won, but it was my fellow Rays fans who made the game memorable and gave me hope for the future. Our cheering and positive energy, I’d like to think, lifted the team a little bit. It made we wonder what it would be like to fill the Trop for every game–would it help spur the Rays? The fan experience would be even more exciting and I’m sure the team could even buy more pretzels.
The experience made me think that if the Tampa Bay Rays could move into a fan-friendly stadium in a location that was easier to reach, they would increase attendance and their fan base. Mets fans have been following the team since 1962 while the Rays only launched in 1998, but with time and a better stadium, the gap between the size of the two fan bases doesn’t have to be quite as extreme. What’s more, under Vincent Naimoli’s erratic ownership, the team alienated a lot of potential fans–maybe some of them could be swayed if given the opportunity to attend games more easily and have better experiences as fans.
Until that day comes, at least the current management is putting a competitive team on the field and creating a fun atmosphere inside the stadium for fans. I look forward to the next time the Mets come to town, when the Mets fans will still turn out, but hopefully the Rays fans outnumber them.