05/15/07 9:23 PM ET
Rays kick off series at Disney
Complex becomes the 246th stadium to host an MLB game
By Dawn Klemish / MLB.com
There were 8,443 fans at Tuesday's game. Nothing special, unless you consider that it was just short of a sellout crowd.
Team mascot Raymond wore Mickey Mouse ears, manager Joe Maddon wore a stylish pair of shades in lieu of the funky black-framed glasses and Carl Crawford, if he'd had the choice, a pair of shorts.
Normally, these things don't happen during Rays homestands. Then again, Tuesday's "home" game against Texas took place 90 miles from St. Petersburg.
"It looks Major League, it does," Maddon said, gazing out at the field at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex, the Rays' home away from home for the next three games. "I know it's a Minor League facility, but if you ever intended to expand this place, you could really make this into some kind of a nice ballpark based on what's existing already. It's got a nice vibe to it."
The mid-May series is the culmination of months of work and cooperation between the Rays organization and the Rangers, the Commissioner's Office and the Players Association. Tampa Bay first extended its fanbase south toward its soon-to-be Spring Training home in Port Charlotte, and now is making an effort to stretch the zone westward as well.
The three games at Disney World, principal owner Stuart Sternberg hoped, will show fans in the middle of the state what they're missing just 90 minutes down the road.
"I expect that pretty much every seat will be filled," said Sternberg during a pregame press conference. "The place will be jumping."
The crowd showed its excitement and gobbled up tickets to see the first regular-season game to be played at the complex.
The players, though all agreed the change of scenery was nice, had mixed reactions. Temperatures hovered in the mid-80s at game time, causing Crawford to lament the lack of air conditioning at outdoor venues.
"I'm not saying it's a bad idea, it's just one of those types of things," said Crawford, who played at the complex in 2001 with the Double-A Orlando Rays. "If you asked me whether I'd rather play at home or at Disney, I'm going to tell you home, [but] they're trying to build a fan base out here, so the cause is great. It's just one of those things and you have to make the best of it."
While Crawford viewed the experience as three games on the road, Carlos Pena had his own reason for being excited, as the Rays first baseman makes his home in Orlando during the offseason.
"I left [my house] 10 minutes ago and said, 'OK, I'll see you later on tonight,' to my wife and daughter," Pena said. "I'm running around doing things I've never done before during the season."
Those in the Rangers clubhouse saw things as an advantage. Second baseman Ian Kinsler was happy to play the Rays somewhere other than Tropicana Field. Kinsler noted that even though the fan numbers may be close to the same, Tropicana Field traps the noise and makes it much louder.
Shortstop Michael Young was keen to enjoy the change of pace, and said the teammates he discussed the series with were glad to "mix things up."
"It's definitely not bad for us, I've enjoyed it so far, as far as the whole setup and all," Kinsler said. "I think it draws some attention to a series that hasn't been there in the past."
Rays lefty Scott Kazmir, who'll toe the rubber in Thursday's series finale, had the advantage of resting for two games and taking in the new field, atmosphere and setup of the park.
"I got to check it out in December when [the Rays] made the announcement," Kazmir said. "This is a great new ballpark. Just being outside in the Florida weather, I think it's going to be good for us. It's hot, but we're all young guys. We're used to it, it hasn't been that long since we've been playing outside in high school and college ball."
Kazmir added with a smile that the dimensions are in a pitcher's favor.
So far, things appear to have worked according to plan.
When Jason Saucier and his father, Rick, heard during Spring Training that there'd be a Major League team in their own backyard come May, they snatched up tickets right away.
The Sauciers, who live in Orlando, hope the team will return in 2008 as well, something Sternberg hasn't ruled out as long as 2007 is a success.
"We would love to have a home team in Orlando to get season tickets for, but I don't think the area could support it," Jason said.
Instead, Jason said, he and his father are considering taking a trek to St. Petersburg to take in a little Rays action on the team's real home turf. And to make sure the Sauciers and all other fans know they're welcome in Tampa Bay, everyone who attends any part of the Tuesday-Thursday series at Disney will receive a voucher for a game at Tropicana Field on June 2, 3 (against the Royals) or 24 (Dodgers).
Sternberg said a successful "homestand" wouldn't necessarily mean a sweep of the Rangers, or three sell-out nights -- although both would be nice, he added. Instead, he said, he wants the series to spread the word of Rays baseball.
"Success would mean people leaving the ballpark tonight, tomorrow and the next day, and saying that they had a great time," Sternberg said.
Tickets for either of the two remaining games run from $15-$119, and can be purchased online at www.devilrays.com, or www.raysbeisbol.com, in person at the Tropicana Field or Disney Wide World of Sports Box Offices, or over the phone at (727) 898-RAYS or (813) 282-RAYS.
Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.