Once again, I found myself at Tropicana Field on Tuesday afternoon, blinking away the memories. I thought it might get easier the more often I went, the more time and space I put between myself and my former self. But no. It’s not easier. It’s the same. Mostly.
This time, I didn’t gaze quite so often down toward the press box, trying to discern with my weakening eyes who was sitting in my seat. No. It’s not mine. Not anymore.
I found myself more engaged in conversation with those around me in the Bobby Doerr Suite than enraptured by the action on the field. Make no mistake – I watched David Price pitch against the Orioles Tuesday, and I saw Evan Longoria make Gold Glove play after Gold Glove play. I saw, too, Jake McGee’s agony in a five-run Orioles seventh. When I did watch, my mind clicked back into the old habit of looking for every minute detail of every play, seeking the differentiator, the true turning point, looking beyond the obvious for the interesting and the eternal. When I wrote about baseball, I used to watch for those moments like a cat watches a bouncing feather tied to a stick – not mesmerized, exactly, but poised to snatch it and make that moment my own.
We left, my fellow parent blogger and I, in the eighth inning. We left bearing gifts after an enjoyable Opening Day afternoon. I was accompanied by Scotty Schrier, writer and publisher of DadsWhoChangeDiapers.com, and we were there as guests of the Tampa Bay Rays. Which also was … odd … for me. Odd, but pretty cool, too. And we left before the game was done, because we could, and because it was time for us to go. We came, we saw, we enjoyed, and we tried to beat the rush hour traffic across the Howard Frankland Bridge and home to our families.
We come to it, the reason why it HAS to be different now for me, why my old way of thinking about this ball club and this stadium no longer applies. I used to cover this team for a newspaper. Now, thanks to an out-of-the-blue email from the Rays’ marketing department, I am one of several Tampa Bay area bloggers who are part of something entirely new in Major League Baseball – a local blogger outreach program with an eye toward telling stories about the fan experience at Tropicana Field, as well as the emotional connection the fans share with the team.
It starts with this year’s theme: Welcome Home. I understood the idea behind it the minute I saw the campaign reported in the Tampa Bay Times. Remember, this was a team that finished last in attendance in 2012, but finished eighth in MLB in terms of TV viewership. There is an obvious connection between the Rays and their fans, a connection that never has been reflected in the average attendance. The Rays, beginning their 16th season, now feel like the home team. A generation of kids have grown up with them. To those kids, no matter where life takes them, the Rays will always mean home.
It has taken a while for that to happen. I was there in the bad old days, when a “crowd” of 4,000 people was announced as 8,500 routinely. When 100-loss seasons were routine. When you could sit on press row and distinctly make out spoken conversations between fans sitting behind either dugout. When the Devil was in details of the organization, as well as in the name.
I also was there for the early days of the Stu Sternberg-Matt Silverman-Andrew Friedman-Joe Maddon transition. I had a lot of conversations with all four of them back then about how they intended to fix what they had inherited. I didn’t always share their vision. But then … I’m me – a laid-off baseball scribe working now in Internet marketing – and they are the Fantastic Four who shaped what has become the most respected organization in baseball.
And … this: I guess some might call me a shill. I did accept the team’s invitation, after all, to spend the afternoon in the Bobby Doerr Suite. To partake of their chicken fingers and diet soda. To grab the bag of April giveaways on my way out.
Doesn’t matter. I know where I stand now. It might always be weird for me to go back to the Trop. But I wonder. When is it not a little weird going back to the old places? When are the ghosts ever exorcised?
I’m pretty sure now that’ll never happen for me, not completely. I can never be a fan, really, because I spent too many years zealously honing and guarding my objectivity. It’s ingrained now. I could no more root for the Rays than I could hit Price’s fastball. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what the Rays have become. In fact, it might even strengthen any argument I might make in favor of the experience of being a Rays fan — if I say it or write it, you know I mean it. I never pulled punches when I covered the team, and I don’t intend to start now.
Yet, I’m still learning how to do this. This is a different role for me. It’s enough for me to know now that I can look at this organization through a fresh set of eyes, the eyes of a father of two sons who already have begun to form an allegiance with this team that I’ll never enjoy, but will encourage in them with all of my might.
One day, maybe my sons will focus in on the game situation in a given moment, try to guess along with the batter, anticipate the hit-and-run, appreciate a well-executed sacrifice bunt, attempt to interpret the intricacies of the unwritten rules that govern player behavior on and off the field. Maybe they will love the game like I do.
Only, they’ll do so through the prism of Rays fanhood. That’s something I can absolutely get behind, and if they invite me back, I’ll surely go. It might feel weird, but then, isn’t it always when you go home again?