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A major league sendoff

Published August 15, 2004

Some going-away presents are better than others.

I have lived in and around St. Petersburg for the past 43 years. Even now, despite all its growth, there is a small-town feel to this area that I find attractive.

But I'm moving away.

I worked for 25 years at the St. Petersburg Times, mostly in the sports department, and I'm spending a sizable chunk of my retirement to take a year off and write a book. My wife and three youngest daughters already are in South Carolina in our new home. I've remained here with my two oldest daughters for several weeks to sell our home in Seminole.

I've been telling myself these final days that I need to get to a Devil Rays game. When it comes to sports, baseball is not my first love, but I've grown to enjoy the Rays and their cast of young stars. Plus, I've never been one to complain about Tropicana Field: An empty stadium isn't good for an owner, but it can be pleasurable for a fan. I enjoy being able to stretch out my arms and legs.

On a recent Tuesday night, I went by myself to see Tampa Bay play the Boston Red Sox. I parked within a block of the stadium, and as I was strolling toward one of the gates, a woman walked up to me and asked if I needed a single ticket. I bought it at face value. I'm sure I could have gotten it cheaper, but I wasn't in a mood to haggle.

It turned out to be a nice seat in the leftfield bleachers. The game began at 7:15, but I was seated with peanuts and a beer at 6:30, even though I hadn't left my home in Seminole until past 6 - another reason going to a Rays game isn't half bad.

The leftfield bleachers were almost empty. I stretched out, as planned. The pregame festivities included honoring several Little League teams from around the country that were participating in a tournament in Gulfport. They tromped onto the field in long lines. There was light applause, but several rows in front of me, a husband and wife were screaming and clapping with gusto. Parents, obviously.

This became more obvious as the game began. More than 100 uniformed boys poured into the leftfield bleachers. I was engulfed. Huge swaths of empty blue seats still dominated the upper levels of Tropicana, but it was as crowded and raucous as a sellout where I was sitting.

So much for stretching out.

Curt Schilling was on the mound for the Sox. He dominated early and often. The Little League kids, though otherwise well-behaved, were rooting for every Boston hit and every Schilling strike. To make matters worse, a guy a couple of seats down would not shut up about his beloved Red Sox. "That's a base hit! What a pitch! That'll plate him." I felt adrift in a sea of enemies. Well, that's overly dramatic. But I did find it annoying.

After all, I wanted the Devil Rays to win. I've always rooted for them. They remind me of St. Petersburg: small-town, but with much to admire.

In the middle of the fifth inning, the Red Sox were winning 5-0. Just about everyone in my vicinity seemed pleased. I had had enough. I got up and left.

I stopped at the bathroom on my way out. Then I began the long walk past the beer vendors to my exit. As I passed the stairwell leading up to Section 143, I heard a roar from the crowd. It echoed in the hallway. I turned and looked up the stairs.

As gently as a Slinky, a baseball bounced down the steps. It seemed to move in slow motion. I reached out my right hand, and the ball hopped into my palm.

A guy next to me said: "You were in the right place at the right time."

At first I was puzzled. I've attended about 50 major league games in my life and have never come close to even a foul ball, much less a home run. I walked up the stairs and looked at the scoreboard. It now read 5-1. A Rays player had hit a solo homer, and it had somehow found its way to me. I asked an usher who hit it, and he said Rocco Baldelli, the Rays centerfielder.

I'm not the type that is enthralled by memorabilia. Under normal circumstances, I would have tossed the ball to some kid. But I found myself gripping it tighter and tighter as I walked out of the stadium. By the time I got to my car, I had a wide smile on my face.

I was tickled to death, as my mother used to say.

I even called a couple of my former colleagues in the sports department to brag about it as I drove home. One of them, a devout baseball fan, admonished me for having the temerity to leave a game before it was over.

The next day, I talked to Marc Topkin, the Times' lead baseball writer and a longtime colleague and acquaintance. He laughed along with me. He also said the Rays public relations staff often arranges for home run balls caught by fans to be autographed by the player.

Baldelli signed the ball for me. A young star's 21st career homer will be on display on the mantel in my new home in South Carolina.

It will remind me of the things I admire most about St. Petersburg, which had the courtesy to stop by for one last visit before saying goodbye.

- Jim Melvin, the former sports design director for the St. Petersburg Times, retired in June.

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