© 2006 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.

07/21/06 6:34 PM ET

Rays Touch Tank opens to public

Fans have the opportunity to visit and pet rays for free

ST. PETERSBURG -- In the final hours before the Rays Touch Tank officially opened to the public Friday, a welcoming committee made its way to the cownosed rays' 10,000-gallon home in right-center field.

Some were a little uneasy about feeding the fish, others embraced the opportunity. But one thing was for certain: It was an encounter to remember.

Left fielder Carl Crawford appeared first. After short instruction from a handler on the proper feeding technique, the left fielder wedged half of a small, dead fish in between his middle and ring finger and begrudgingly lowered his outstretched hand into the water.

It didn't stay there for long: As soon as the rays began to glide toward him, down went the fish and out jerked the hand.

"Nope," Crawford laughed, shaking his head and backing away from the water.

A few false alarms later though, Crawford had befriended a large group of the 22 rays. Soon, reliever Edwin Jackson and second baseman Jorge Cantu arrived. Jackson, who'd listened to Crawford's teases of "they bite," approached with caution. Cantu looked right at home as he snatched up a piece of food and immersed his arm up to the elbow, watching in fascination as the rays swarmed his hand.

Later on, right fielder Damon Hollins caught wind of the action and trotted out to join in the fun.

"They're weird," said manager Joe Maddon, who'd climbed in a tank full of rays earlier in the month. "It's just one of those things. If you're braver than I am, you just put your hand down there with no reservation whatsoever. But they're just little cownose rays. They can't really hurt you."

Crawford said feeding the fish "tickles," and Maddon said it felt like a suction cup. Fans will be able to make their own call, as the Touch Tank is now open at all home games for the remainder of the season. Anyone attending a home game will have the opportunity to visit, feed and pet the cownose rays free of charge.

And according to Maddon, if you look close enough, you might see some familiar faces.

"There's a [bullpen coach Bobby Ramos] ray, there's one that's kind of big," Maddon said. "And I saw a Rocco [Baldelli] ray -- he's very, very smooth. And I noticed a very quick, darting Carl ray out there. And there was a very graceful left-finned ray, kind of like a [Scott Kazmir]. Very smooth."

In addition to the unique experience of a rays encounter at a Rays game, Maddon joked the fish may benefit the team by having batters aim for the tank, saying it could be one of the "better hitting instructional tools in the history of the ballpark."

The tank benefits a good cause. For every home run hit into the tank during a game, the Rays will donate $5,000 to charity -- $2,500 to the Florida Aquarium, which maintains the tank and cares for the rays, and $2,500 to a charity of the player's choice. The tank is presented by the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

According to Maddon, each of the 22 rays now gliding gracefully around their 35-foot home also provides a lesson in the life of a Ray.

"That's how Rays start," he said. "They start in little tanks like that, at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, [or the] Atlantic Ocean. They eventually swim somewhere and arrive at the pit at some point. That's how all Rays begin. That's the genesis of the Ray right there."

Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.