I like different baseball experiences. They don't all have to be the usual and popular tourist destinations like Camden Yards, or Jacobs Field, or Fenway or Wrigley. Whereas once the Camden Yards' of the world were the exception to the norm in baseball (and in many ways still is), parks with jagged outfield walls created to give out the feel of old time baseball are more common than unique now. The relics like Tropicana Field? They're the ones that are harder to find. "Who wants to go to watch a game in this dump", some might say.
Me ... that's who. A mid-June series in a building that Ron Darling called a garage? Count me in.
I took a real chance taking a 2PM flight into Tampa with tickets to a 7:10 start. Hell it was raining in NYC, so who knows how long I could have been delayed. I was delayed six hours going to Vegas one day when the weather was beautiful. Rain? I could have been screwed. But one smooth flight ("day of" flights are an advanced move, I don't recommend it unless you're highly skilled and highly stupid) and one $62 cab ride later (for all you kids out there, a 20 minute cab ride in New York is NOT the same as a 20 cab ride in Florida), I was in St. Petersburg in plenty of time to take a walk from my hotel down to the Trop for game one of the Mets/Rays series.
The first thing you notice about Florida is probably the heat. A close second is the lizards that scurry by your feet. They must be the rats of Florida, but smaller and quicker ... thus more jarring to you because you don't want to step on them. These are the hazards you think about when you walk down through St. Petersburg, which can only be described as "sleepy". And that's not a knock. Sleepy can be a refreshing change from the city that never sleeps in small doses. The one thing I had hoped would be awake were the Mets bats, who slumbered through a series at Yankee Stadium.
You go in through right field and it looks like you stepped into a comic book. Drawings of Wade Boggs, Fred McGriff, Tino Martinez, (no Jose Canseco), and even Johnny Bench and yes, Tom Seaver adorn the walls inside the right field gate. Always nice to have a little bit of home in a road park. But that wasn't the half of it. The Rays are extremely fair in their presentation of available memorabilia ... having auctions for signed Mets pictures as well as Rays stuff. Also featured signing autographs by the Ted Williams museum was a former Met, and if I gave you 500 guesses you wouldn't get it so I'm just going to tell you. How very random a sighting of Elliot Maddox was at the Trop. But for dyed in the wool Met fans like you and me, Elliot Maddox is a special treat, especially if he was part of the first team you ever fell for as a Met fan. Crazy enough to be thrown back to the 70's stepping into a domed ballpark with fake grass. To have Elliot Maddox signing autographs just takes the freakin' cake.
A cool thing that the Rays do is hand out "Rays Bingo" cards. It's like regular bingo, except the squares are filled with scoring plays like 3-1, F7, 4U ... single, double, triple, and so on. It almost forces you to watch the game if you want to win Bingo (the first fifty winners get prizes). But I think this thing is fixed. I had one scoring play to go to get bingo in the second inning. What was it? Catcher's Interference. Yeah, good luck with that one.
But not that these Rays fans need Bingo to pay attention. What they may lack in numbers (17,334 tonight), they make up for in being able to hold a conversation about baseball. Rays fans busting out stories about Keith Hernandez being heckled in Chicago and remembering what affliction took hold of Ike Davis in spring training. These people know their stuff. A pleasure to make their acquaintance tonight, I must say. A refreshing change from people who don't have the good sense to wait until a break in the action to move through the row ... or try to start the wave.
But yeah, indoor baseball is just f***ing weird. Five minute conversations between Terry Collins and the umpires about all the ground rules about the stadium and all the catwalks are bizarre. But hey, this is the truly different experience you get when you come to a ballgame in Tampa.
Also different, a Chris Young win. The last time I came to a ballpark expecting to see Chris Young pitch, he warmed up and never threw another pitch that season. Tonight, he went five and 2/3's to get the win while the offense built up a lead that even the bullpen couldn't fumble away (Jon Rauch got some boos but no death threats ... and he got the job done in the sixth). It looked dire early as Hideki Matsui killed the Mets for the 58th time with the longest single in the history of mankind (that must be why they call him Godzilla), but Young settled in and did just enough to get the job done for his first win in over a year.
Also different, Ike Davis! Hey, Alex Cobb was pretty good tonight. But let's face it, with David Price and Jeremy Hellickson going the rest of the series (albeit against R.A. Dickey and Johan Santana), this was a game the Mets pretty much had to have, especially after going one for their last seven. The bats were not sleepy as Jordany Valdespin (playing his best position as DH) hit a single to give the Mets the lead for good in the fifth (Valdespin had that Clubber Lang "why you ducking me Balboa" look in his eye after that hit) before the Mets broke it open in the seventh with six runs, capped off by Davis' laser beam three run home run (set up by Lucas Duda's dribbler up the third base line which I thought then and I really think after seeing the replay, hit Duda's foot.) Best part was the scene in the stands after the Davis homer.
"Yeah baby! Ike Davis! Atta way Ike! Ike is back, baby! Yeah! YEAH! YEAH!!!!"
"Stepping to the plate for the Mets, number 44, Jason Bay."
"Boo! You still stink Bay! Don't think all this kumbaya carries over to your sorry ass!"
Ah, but there was plenty of kumbaya to go around as the Mets took the first game 11-2 amidst the loud contingent of Mets fans screaming "Let's Go Mets". (My mom said I should play nice with the locals while I'm there. But I chanted "Let's Go Mets" too. Sorry Mom.) Davis' two hits (the home run and a sneaky bunt single) along with Kirk Nieuwenhuis' three hits and Valdespin's four RBI's paved the way. The good feeling even extended to the Rays' staff who were nice enough to let me plug my dead cell phone into an outlet while the lady was sweeping up in the team store so I can let civilization know I'm not dead. Very impressive display by the Rays' staff who bent over backwards to make a wayward New Yorker feel at home (you know, to go along with the Tom Seaver mural, Elliott Maddox, and the mulitude of Mets friends who also made the trip). All in all, a very good first day in a place that while some may call a dump, I see some charm and uniqueness seeping through. (11 runs also help.) Let's hope Dickey vs. Price lives up to the hype it deserves on Wednesday.
And let's hope I win Rays Bingo this time. (No catcher's interference squares this time, please.)
Ah, Elliot Maddox - yes he was one of the Mets on the team I fell in love with when I was a kid. I was a weird kid.
Please tell me you did, in fac,t get an autograph from Elliot Maddux. Did anyone else recognize him?
@Unser You bet I did. I didn't see anybody else there when I was there. They didn't advertise it too well. There was a little paper sign in another part of the park that I just happened to see by accident. That's when I raced down there before he stopped signing at the start of the game.