Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Sea of Happy Fans Festing it up.

Saturday was Valentine’s Day. It was also the Rays Fan Fest. Oh decisions, decisions. Whatever should I do? Why not celebrate both? With some planning I was able to book a room at the Vinoy in downtown St Pete which was only about 10 minutes from Tropicana Field. My better half had zero interest in Fan Fest so she went off shopping and I went downtown. We would meet up later for a nice dinner and a night in St Pete overlooking the harbor.

The doors opened at 10.00am, but no one was signing until noon, so I wasn‘t in a big hurry to get inside.. I decided to get breakfast at the Dome Restaurant. Two eggs, bacon and home fries for $6.00 - not a bad deal. Sufficiently fed I headed for the trop.

It was crowded, like playoff game crowded.

My hopes of getting multiple autographs were quickly plummeting. With a self imposed deadline of 3.00 pm I didn’t think I would get more than 3 or 4. The $10 “donation” for autographs hadn’t deterred a soul. Perhaps the best part were the guys chugging beers at 10.30 in the morning.

After studying the autograph the night before I figured Carl Crawford would be worth waiting in line for. Then I rolled in and saw the line for CC. It was insane.
As in it wrapped through it’s Disney-like rows and then out the emergency exit. I would find out later that people ran to the line as soon as the doors opened. Even at 10.45 in the morning I knew I wouldn’t get his autograph. With spring training down in Port Charolette this year I guess I’m going to have to try and get his signature through the mail.

Checking the rest of the lines I decided that Gabe Kapler would be my best bet for the first hour. After all there were only about 10 people in his line . Figuring I had some time to kill I wandered about. Fan Fest has the typical kid friendly activities - whiffle ball batting practice, a speed gun to see how hard you can throw, etc. There was a vendor selling some cards for way more than they worth to the suckers who wanted to get something signed.

Fan Fest was for the Fans and also a chance for thei Rays business partners to advertise and hand out worthless trinkets. I browsed the booths to see if anyone had anything worth while - they didn’t. No free cards that I could find and the baseball grab bags had sold out already.

There was one attraction I knew I had to hit. Luckily the line wasn’t long and it moved fairly quickly. More details on that later in the post. It would be my favorite autograph of the day.

After killing about 30 minutes wandering around and weaving through people I headed back to Kapler’s line. Another 10 people or so had joined it while I was gone. I got into my place and plugged in my ear buds. Five years of Fan Fests had prepared me. Along with the cards in a binder I had an Ipod, a notepad, A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemmingway and my digital camera.

Not long after I got in line a couple of guys that I play softball with stopped by. They had been there since 9.00 (season ticket holders were allowed in an hour early) and had seen everything that there was to offer. They tipped me off to the free photo session with the American League Championship trophy.

Shortly after 12.00 the line started moving. One thing I noticed this year is that the players were on time. In the past they had come straight from practice over at the Huggins-Stengel Complex about 20 minutes away and were notorious for running late. This year it seemed everyone was on time except for Evan Longoria who had to cancel his appearance due to “emergency circumstances”. It’ll be interesting to see what those details are.

Gabe Kapler was extremely nice and signed a Topps Heritage card I had showing him in a Brewers uniform. I had toyed with the idea of printing out one of his promotional photos that show him topless and having him sign it, but decided that might be a little awkward for him so I stuck with the card.

Signing with him was Matt Spring, a light hitting catcher the Rays drafted in the 4th round in 2004. A quick search on line revealed him to be an offensively challenged hard working catcher who probably doesn’t have a great chance of making the roster anytime soon. I had him sign a blank card (it was either that or my copy of a Movable Feast).

After getting the signatures I headed off to get my picture taken with the William Harridge Trophy. Harridge was the American League president from 1931-58. According to Wikepedia he was a driving force behind convincing the owners to start the All-Star game. It was out by the left field foul pole and had a small line. It seemed not too many people had found out about it. So after about a 10 minute wait I added that to my pictures of me with a trophy collection (if you’re keeping a list at home it now stands at: The Stanley Cup, The Lombardi Trophy and the AL Champion Trophy).

After that it was time to get back in line. The lucky winners Matt Joyce and Grant Balfor. The other lines were way to long. Crawford was followed by James Shields (filling in for Longoria). Pat Burrell’s line was way too long as was rookie shortstop Tim Beckham. The Joyce line took about hour to get through. By that time the crowds were starting to get restless. A lady behind me was getting a little upset at the line cutters, not understanding that some of us were standing to the side because we didn’t want to get Chad Bradford’s autograph .

Balfour signed a Heritage Team card, for some reason I neglected to put one of his cards in the binder. That guy is in tremendous shape. It’s no joke that he could be an Iron Man if he didn’t want to play baseball.

I found him to be nice and easy going, definitely a 180 degree turn from his on field persona.

Joyce was nice as well. I had him sign a 2009 Topps and he mentioned that he hadn’t seen that card yet. I almost gave him a second copy that I had on me but realized he could probably afford one. By now it was a bout 2.30 and I was done with lines, with people and with standing in the outfield grass. I collected my belongings and headed out.

This was by far the most crowded Fan Fest the Rays had put on in their history. There were at least twice as many people wandering about, some with a purpose and others with a beer. I recognized some of the dealers that I had seen before - stocking up on their autographs that were going to overcharge people for.

It’s always interesting to see what people get signed. I choose to get cards signed, easy to store and light to carry. One person had an oversized world series ticket that he was getting signed. A lot of people were getting the Carl Crawford Sports Illustrated cover signed. I didn’t see the guy with the big bat, a TBA regular who has a six foot baseball bat that has more than 2000 signatures on it, but I heard he was in the house.

Next year’s Fest will be interesting, not sure if I’ll be attending. It’s gotten to the point where it’s too crowded to be worth it for the autographs. Other than the autographs there’s not much else to do that I haven’t done already. Of course, if they struggle this year I’m sure the attendance will drop to a more reasonable amount. This town isn’t anything if not a front runner.

Oh year I almost forgot - the first autograph I picked up in the morning. The one and only World Champion Food Eater himself - Joey Chestnut.

I had him sign an Allen & Ginter base card. He chuckled as he signed it and was genuinely happy to see it. He said he was just a regular guy and it blew his mind that he was on a baseball card - all because he ate stuff.

Later on he would pull off the milk challenge. He drank a gallon of milk in about a minute.

By far the most amazing thing I’ve seen in that building since October.

1 comment:

Dave - Fielder's Choice said...

Wow - the huge crowd is hopefully a good sign that the attendance will increase significantly this season. Maybe they should change the fan fest into a two-day event or something to meet the increased demand. I'll be going to at least one spring training game in Port Charlotte - hopefully I'll have an easier time getting autographs there.