Tampa Bay Rays fans celebrate as Opening Day finally arrives
After missing out for two years, Rays fans finally got to gather for their team’s regular season opener at Tropicana Field.
Tampa Bay Rays fans happily gathered in St. Petersburg Friday, as the team officially began its regular season after a slight delay due to a labor lockout.
Tailgaters filled the Trop’s parking lots, grilling and enjoying cold beverages while music played and children played catch. The atmosphere was one of celebration.
A group of longtime friends said they had permission from the team to set up a tent as close to the park as possible. They said that they've attended every Rays home opener with the exception of the very first one -- and the last two years, when the COVID-19 pandemic led the team to cancel the gathering.
“We’ve been here every Opening Day since 1999,” said longtime fan Billie Jo Bell.
“Thank God it’s here,” chimed in Jeff, another member of their group.
A long line of fans formed outside Gate 1 before the Trop opened at noon to loud cheers.
Many in line and around the park mentioned one specific Rays player as their favorite: 21-year-old shortstop Wander Franco, or “the eighth Wander of the world” as one fan described him.
But that optimism did come with some looming fear about the team’s future, as their lease at Tropicana Field expires in 2027.
The organization flirted with the idea of having a split-season, playing one half in St.Pete and the other half in Montreal, but the MLB turned the plan down in January.
Most fans are optimistic about the Rays staying in the region.
“Well I hope they stay in the area, whether it's over by Ybor (City) or here in St. Pete. We’ll support them,” said Malcom Edwards.
“I’m a little concerned, but not too worried. I think we’ll get it together and get a stadium,” said another fan.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch expressed optimism at keeping the team at a City Hall pep rally Thursday, while acknowledging that Tampa Mayor Jane Castor wants to bring the Rays across the bay.
“Mayor Castor and I are on the same page on a lot of things, including this, that we're both going to put our best proposal on the table and the best proposal will win," said Welch. "I believe that will be in St. Petersburg."
City and team officials met Wednesday, and Welch said St. Petersburg will “receive full consideration for the Rays’ future ballpark.”
“We're moving forward and putting our plans together,” Welch said. “We're looking at the city of St. Petersburg, and I think we've got the strongest team and the best options for the Rays.”
But even with those questions lingering, fans on Friday were focusing on this season and the potential it holds.
“I hope they make the (World) Series, we think they’ll make the playoffs, whether we make the Series or not depends on how healthy we are,” said Malcolm Edwards.
The team got off to a promising start, beating the Baltimore Orioles 2-1 Friday.
Additional reporting by WUSF's Lily Theisen.