ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Tropicana Field swelled with a mosaic of more than 25,000 fans wearing different colored Rays -- and Devil Rays -- T-shirts and jerseys for the club's annual Fan Fest on Saturday.
Among the names represented on fans' apparel: McGriff, Boggs, Price, Shields, Fuld and many Longorias. The baseball celebration allowed fans and players to mingle as both begin to think about the upcoming season.
"It's a sort of an unofficial start to the season," Sam Fuld said. "Certainly from the fans' perspective, I think it's a really great experience getting a chance to meet us one on one."
Once again Fan Fest offered a cornucopia of things to do for any Rays fan, many of which were directed toward the youngest fans.
Activities for children included "Reading with the Rays," where Rays players read select stories to kids throughout the day; an interactive zone where kids could take cuts in a big league batting cage, test their arm speed in the pitch booth and swing for the fences in the Wiffle Ball Home Run Derby; the Sweetbay Supermarket High Five Station, which allowed kids to run the bases and receive high fives from players as they crossed home plate; and the Sagicor Coaches Clinic station, where Rays coaches and staff conducted free clinics.
However, the fun was not limited to kids. There were interactive baseball activities for people of all ages, in addition to appearances by Rays players and coaches at various stations throughout the day.
One of the most unique offerings was the MetroPCS Call-A-Friend Stage, which offered fans the opportunity to have a Rays player call one of their friends or family members.
"We're pretty creative in the things we do," Fuld said. "I don't know how many other organizations have their players make phone calls and play hot-shot basketball with the fans. It's really nice for them. I'm sure it gets their mindsets headed for baseball season."
The long lines of fans waiting for autographs created a striking visual of just how much Rays fans care about their team.
"It's always good to see the fans coming out and knowing that they support you," Jose Molina said. "I can't tell you how many fans we have, because the attendance at home is not always great. But those who come to the games and support us, that's huge for us, huge for the players, just because we have to play for something, and they are a reason to play. When they come to the stadium, we get excited, and when they come to Fan Fest, the more fans that come tell us the season is going to go the same way."
Added Desmond Jennings: "I love Fan Fest. The true supporters come to Fan Fest. We get to hang out and mingle around and get to know some of the people who really, really love baseball."
Fans paid for wristbands that granted them the opportunity to get autographs from Rays players and coaches. The money from those wristband sales will be re-routed in a donation to the ALS Association Florida Chapter. Rays TV and radio broadcasters and more than 25 former Major League players were also on hand signing autographs for free throughout the day.
Joe Maddon served up his traditional Thanksmas meal, in which a limited number of fans who purchased tickets were afforded the opportunity to enjoy a plate of Maddon's homemade spaghetti, meatballs, sausage and pierogies, dishes the Rays manager has served at area homeless shelters over the last seven winters as part of his Thanksmas initiative.
All proceeds from the Thanksmas meal benefitted the Rays Baseball Foundation and local Salvation Army centers.
"It's really nice to be able to incorporate it with the Fan Fest. It brings even more awareness to it, and it just keeps getting bigger on an annual basis," Maddon said. "We're coming off a great December [when Thanksmas is held], where we were able to raise a lot of money and impact a lot of lives positively. Part of the ascension with all that is the Fan Fest notoriety we've been receiving, and that's obviously a good thing."
And the Rays Charity Yard Sale returned for a third year. Fans were able to purchase unique game-used and autographed memorabilia dating back to the inaugural season. All proceeds benefit the Rays Baseball Foundation.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.