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Fans fill Trop to tune of 41,546

By MIKE READLING

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Maybe it was the new high strike. Maybe it was renewed faith in a Rays team featuring new talent. Or maybe it was the chance to get out and do the Wave after a six-month layoff.

Whatever it was, Tampa Bay fans packed into Tropicana Field to watch the Rays play the Blue Jays in their season opener Tuesday night.

An announced crowd of 41,546, which cheered and waved its way through the game, surpassed the home-opening attendances from the past two seasons. Only 1998's inaugural opener has drawn more.

"We are very excited with the crowd tonight," principal owner Vince Naimoli said. "It's wonderful."

The attendance ranked Tampa Bay 10th out of 15 opening day crowds this season. In 2000 the Rays attracted 40,329 to their opener and averaged 19,368 with a game best of 42,823.

"We think if we win, and we will win, they will come," outfielder Gerald Williams said.

Said manager Larry Rothschild: "They're all invited back tomorrow."

Naimoli, a Notre Dame graduate and huge Fighting Irish supporter, was slow to put expectations on attendance for the rest of the year.

"It's like the women's basketball coach at Notre Dame said after they won the national title the other night," he said. "I'm just going to savor the moment."

CONSTANT OPENERS: Fred McGriff and John Flaherty are the only Rays to have started all of the team's opening day games. Only six players remain from the inaugural season's opening roster.

"From Day 1 the organization has pretty much told us we were going to bridge the gap until they could bring in some of the farm-system talent," Flaherty said. "Now we're starting to see that presence. You can see younger players like Toby Hall down at Triple A, and I'm sure soon Freddy and I will be phased out."

BREAKING IN: Ben Grieve made his Rays debut, going 1-for-4, including a two-run triple in the fifth. That triple, the fourth of his career, came on the heels of a groundout and apopup. "It was a little more relaxed than I thought it would be," Grieve said, "0-for-2 is nothing for me. I've gone 2-for-32 before. I've always been a slow starter."

HEATING UP: Vinny Castilla had two doubles. He entered the game 1-for-20 against Toronto.

AWARD WINNER: Before the game, Wharton High swimmer John Clewis received the Tony Saunders Courage Award, accepting the plaque and the $2,500 scholarship.

Clewis, who was born with spina bifida and has no use of his legs, is a three-year letterman and has completed every race in his career. He has to be lowered into the pool by teammates.

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