Same old Rays? Nope, not today

The new-era Rays' home debut finds the Trop full - and fans beaming.

Published April 11, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Before she could take her seat for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays home opener, Teresa Hehemann had a message to deliver.

"Thank you, thank you for everything," said Hehemann, 45, a self-proclaimed Rays fanatic, as she grasped the hand of team owner Stuart Sternberg.

Sternberg beamed. For more than six months, the team's new ownership has been working to reverse its tarnished image. They've established new fan-friendly policies and poured $10-million into renovating Tropicana Field.

The moves seem to have paid off, at least for one night. Monday night's game against the Baltimore Orioles was only the fourth sellout in team history, and the first in two years, with official attendance of 40,199 - 54 percent higher than last year's home opener, which drew 26,018.

Not everything went smoothly. Some fans complained of insufficient parking. A traffic jam slowed cars for miles, delaying even Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who missed the opening ceremonies.

Most of fans agreed: It was a promising start.

"It's like night and day," said Ed Bartholomew, 42, of St. Petersburg. "It's such a great change to see so many people happy."

Fans began arriving at Tropicana Field up to five hours before the 7:15 p.m. game. Many were there to tailgate, which is permitted for the first time this year.

Don Graham, 54, of Sarasota, prepared hot dogs on his portable grill.

"I've been tailgating for years at Bucs games," said Graham, sipping a beer. "It's about time the Rays got on board."

The Rays also are allowing fans to bring their own food into the stadium this year. And parking in all team-owned lots is free this season.

Between parking and bringing his own bottled water and peanuts, Graham estimated he saved $20.

Inside the stadium, fans collected autographs from players and former players. Some posed for their own baseball cards or had a bat engraved with their names.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who made a short speech before the opening pitch by relatives of the late Hall of Famer Al Lopez, said he was excited by the large crowd. "It's just a whole new spirit," Baker said. "I think the community is really embracing this team."

Fans visited the relocated Ted Williams Museum on the stadium's ground floor, which boasts memorabilia from the legendary slugger.

"It's awesome to walk through and actually see a piece of history," said Largo's Todd MacCallum, who missed the opening pitch to bring his girlfriend's 6-year-old son Keith Miller to the museum.

The stadium's $10-million renovation included new paint, a new sound system and more than 200 flat-screen televisions.

Avis Friedman, 55, was most enthusiastic about the renovated bathrooms.

"No more watering hole!" she exclaimed, referring to the troughs where patrons used to wash their hands. The troughs were replaced with individual sinks.

Jack Weiss, 41, of St. Petersburg, said he was happy to see a change in the team's direction. "It looks like the new owners have really put some effort into everything," he said. "So far, they seem like they're really working to correct the sins of the past."

Others said they want to see changes on the playing field before making a decision.

"We have yet to see a significant change in the personnel," said Dan Russell, 43, of Brandon. "It's nice to be fan-friendly, but that only takes you so far."

Richard Clark, 48, of St. Petersburg, has been attending Devil Rays games since 1998.

"I like the new era. I like the new direction," Clark said. "Now, I just hope they win."

--Times staff writer Dawn Reiss contributed to this report.