Rays' opener signifies 'new beginning'

'New beginning' for Rays starts with opener

ST. PETERSBURG -- Tropicana Field had the pulse of a big-time Major League event Tuesday night prior to the Rays' home opener against the Mariners.

Approximately 700 fans jammed close to the rotunda entrance in center field prior to the gates being opened at 4:30 p.m. As the first surge of fans for the sold-out contest pushed through the doors they were greeted by Rays players Andy Sonnanstine, Trever Miller, Scott Dohmann, Gary Glover, Troy Percival, Edwin Jackson, Al Reyes, and Dan Wheeler.

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg stood back from the approaching crowd and marveled at how many fans had already adapted to the team's new colors.

"It's amazing," he said.

Seconds later, the first of many fans went up to Sternberg to offer thanks for the organization's efforts to bring a quality Major League product to the fans of the Tampa Bay area.

In the clubhouse the excitement of the coming evening could be felt as well.

"This is awesome," Carlos Pena said. "I'm pretty excited. This is the first homestand of the year, Opening Day here in St. Petersburg. This kind of signifies this new beginning.

"I think we're going to have a great turnout in general this year. I try not to put too much pressure on the fans. I just know we're going to get great support. If we keep on winning they're going to keep on coming. I know the Rays fans that are here are here constantly. When we didn't win as much as we wanted, they were there. The more we start winning, the more they're going to start coming."

Rays manager Joe Maddon stressed how the team wants to win the local fan base "over to our side."

"We want them to show up on Wednesdays for teams they haven't shown up for in the past," Maddon said. "And that's incumbent upon us to do our part."

Among the more interesting pregame sights were four buggies that shot flames in the air prior to and after the player introductions.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers' standout Mike Alstott threw out first pitches to Carlos Pena and Jonny Gomes, respectively. But no amount of pageantry could have substituted for what the raucous crowd wanted to see most: Rays baseball.

Loud cheers erupted when Ichiro Suzuki grounded out to Rays third baseman Willy Aybar to start the game. And the place exploded when Shawn Riggans connected for a solo home run off Mariners starter Erik Bedard in the second.

Clearly the 3-3 road trip that saw the team stand up to the Yankees and Orioles had everyone excited.

"Team looks great," said Crist, who wore one of the new Rays jerseys. "Nice start. Nice team. I hope they win."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.