tampabay.com

Early bird gets the diploma

Eight graduations will be shoehorned into the Trop's busy schedule, including one at 7:30 a.m.

By DONNA WINCHESTER
Published April 3, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - For at least one Pinellas County school, the chance to hold graduation ceremonies this year at Tropicana Field came down to a simple question.

How bad do you want it?

Gibbs High School apparently wanted it badly enough to ask students and families to show up for a 7:30 a.m. graduation. On a Monday.

It will be the first of five commencement ceremonies on May 21, and the first of eight graduations shoehorned into a home- stand by the Trop's main tenants - the Tampa Bay Devil Rays - over a five-day span.

"I wanted an 8 o'clock time slot," said Gibbs principal Antelia Campbell. "We'll have to start earlier, but our kids are used to being up and on a bus by then anyway."

The Trop has been a popular site for graduations since the 2004 demolition of the Times Arena at Bayfront Center, a commencement favorite for a generation of students.

But high schools were shut out from holding ceremonies at the Trop last year because of a long Devil Rays' homestand in the middle of graduation season.

Though that was the case again this year - the Rays play nine home games in a 10-day span from May 15-24 - officials at the Trop tried to accommodate as many schools in the time that was available.

Hence, the 7:30 a.m. time slot for Gibbs.

Osceola High School had first crack at the early morning slot at the Trop. But students and parents there opted for a different venue - Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater - and a more favorable 7 p.m. time.

Countryside and East Lake high schools wanted the Trop badly enough that they were willing to push back their commencement dates until Friday, May 25 - after the Rays' long homestand.

Officials with the baseball club said they would have liked to have given all the schools what they wanted.

"We requested to be on the road during the peak graduation dates," said Rick Vaughan, vice president of public relations for the team. "But the league has to accommodate 29 other clubs. This year, it just didn't happen."

Pulling off eight ceremonies that week won't be easy.

Grounds crews will begin work immediately after the Devil Rays play the Florida Marlins on Sunday, May 20. Workers will "water the dirt and sweep the (artificial) grass" so everything will look good Monday morning, said Karen Gramley, booking agent for the Trop.

The crews will go into overdrive on Monday, taking advantage of one-hour breaks between graduations to water and sweep. While they're cleaning up from one graduation, parents will be arriving for the next one.

For participating schools, "it's going to be a tight squeeze," said Deb Fabrizio, an assistant principal at Dixie Hollins, who helps schools coordinate their graduations.

"Each school will have a two-hour window from start to finish. They'll line up, get their diplomas and leave."

Tuesday, May 22, will pose another challenge. Within hours of Dixie Hollins' 9 a.m. graduation, the Trop will have to be ready for the Rays, who will open a three-game series that evening with the Seattle Mariners.

After that series ends on Thursday, May 24, grounds crews will work through the night to be ready for the Countryside and East Lake graduations scheduled for Friday.

Gramley said she hopes no one shows up at any graduations expecting to buy peanuts from the concession stand.

"We're going to be picky about what we serve," she said. "Peanuts would be too messy to clean up."