Rays fans let their voices be heard on the team’s fu­ture.

Tampa Bay Times - - Sports - BY ED­UARDO A. ENCINA Times Staff Writer Con­tact Ed­uardo A. Encina at [email protected]­pabay.com. Fol­low @Ed­dieInTheYard.

ST. PETERS­BURG — Nathan White and Erynn Pearce drove nearly four hours from Val­dosta, Ga., to at­tend their first Rays Fan Fest on Satur­day, so they’re not ones to lis­ten to the in­con­ve­niences of driv­ing across the bay or deal­ing with rush-hour traf­fic in or­der to at­tend a ma­jor-league base­ball game.

“I think if you come to a Rays game, you’re al­ready a fan,” said 19-year-old Nathan, whose de­vo­tion to the Rays was born when his mother took him to a game at the Trop four years ago. “You’re com­mit­ted to it, and I don’t think any­thing like that is go­ing to get in the way. If you love it, you love it.”

White has been to four or five games a year since, and he was in­tro­duc­ing Pearce, 18, to Trop­i­cana Field for the first time.

“I wanted to come here and see the field be­fore we came to a game,” she said.

While ac­tiv­i­ties took place on the field, the two sat in the stands near the left­field foul pole and took in the spec­ta­cle.

“This is our first time com­ing to Fan Fest, so we re­ally wanted to see what it was re­ally all about,” White said. “I had seen a lot of stuff on so­cial me­dia, and it was some­thing I re­ally wanted to check out, just to get a feel for it.

“One day, it was a few years ago, my mom said, ‘Hey we don’t have any­thing to do to­day. Let’s go to a base­ball game,” he added. “We came and I just fell in love with it. From the first game I loved it, and that was four years ago. And ever since then it’s been an ev­ery-year thing.”

Fans who at­tended Satur­day’s Fan Fest event en­ter this sea­son with op­ti­mism that the Rays can build on last year’s 90-win cam­paign while re­main­ing cau­tious about the team’s long-term fu­ture in Tampa Bay.

The most-re­cent sta­dium pro­posal slated for Ybor City was squashed in De­cem­ber, leav­ing the team back at square one on find­ing a new home. This past week, base­ball com­mis­sioner Rob Man­fred said the fo­cus is back on rein­vent­ing a new ball­park in St. Peters­burg.

But years of back-and-forth make fans un­easy, fear­ing the team might leave the area.

“It’s like be­ing in a re­la­tion­ship,” said Fred Knoll of St. Peters­burg. “She’s telling you, ‘I love you, I love you, but just keep it in the back of your mind, you’re go­ing to go one day.’ I guess there goes the rose gar­den you were plan­ning. You don’t know what’s hap­pen­ing, and if we were more se­cure and knew what was hap­pen­ing, I think the fol­low­ing would be more se­cure.”

Knoll and his wife, Deb­ora, said they are ded­i­cated Rays fans and reg­u­larly at­tend games, but they have strug­gled go­ing all in on the team in re­cent years as the search for a new sta­dium con­tin­ues with­out a res­o­lu­tion.

“We want to get at­tached,” Deb­ora said. “But it’s like he said, if you’re dat­ing a guy and you don’t know whether he’s go­ing to be here to­mor­row or not, you don’t want to in­vest your heart and soul into it.”

“And then you re­ally want to jinx them, then buy a shirt,” Fred said. “And then that cer­tain guy who you bought his jersey, he’s gone.”

John and Julie Gavin of Lutz at­tended Fan Fest, bring­ing their 10-year-old son, Pa­trick, for the first time, all three decked in Rays gear.

“It’s kind of the same as it’s been,” John said of the an­tic­i­pa­tion for the up­com­ing sea­son. “Ev­ery year there’s a new ros­ter it seems, so that’s kind of a drag. But we still en­joy it. They do a good job of getting a good team to­gether, and it’s fun to watch ev­ery year. I think getting rid of the up­per deck will be kind of fun be­cause it will put ev­ery­one closer to the field be­cause we’re usu­ally up in the up­per deck.”

“It makes the sta­dium look a lit­tle fuller,” Julie added.

“Some­times with the limbo of them pos­si­bly mov­ing, it kind of puts the fans in limbo, so that’s kind of dis­cour­ag­ing,” John added. “That prob­a­bly af­fects the at­ten­dance is­sue. Won­der­ing if they’re go­ing to leave in five years is kind of a drag.”

Bran­don and Louisa Avery of Gib­son­ton watched in­tently as their 3-year-old daugh­ter, Char­lotte, her face just painted at one of the sta­tions, ran around the Trop out­field hold­ing two bal­loons.

“We come ev­ery year,” Louisa said. “I can’t re­mem­ber how many years for me, but she’s been here ev­ery year.”

Bran­don said there were pos­i­tives and neg­a­tives to the off­sea­son de­ci­sion to close the Trop’s up­per deck for this sea­son.

“I think you al­ways have to find ways to keep things af­ford­able and bal­ance that with the fan ex­pe­ri­ence, and for so long we’ve been the laugh­ing­stock of the league based on at­ten­dance and how it looks on TV,” Bran­don said. “So I think it was a great idea to shut down the up­per deck and we’ll be a bit more close-knit. But at the same time, as a flex-pack owner for the last four years, that sig­nif­i­cantly cuts down on the places where I can stay. So some of us are giv­ing up our fan ex­pe­ri­ence for the over­all fan ex­pe­ri­ence.”

On the field, he was ex­cited about the Rays im­prov­ing on last year’s mo­men­tum.

“I think it’s go­ing to be a solid sea­son, I think peo­ple are go­ing to get healthy this year,” Bran­don said. “Hav­ing (Kevin Kier­maier) back, that will help them get to full steam. But then I think a lot of the pitch­ing staff will be used to each other more and know their roles in this new pitch­ing era if they de­cide to go down that road again.”

White was ex­cited about the ad­di­tion of catcher Mike Zunino in the off­sea­son.

“I know a lot of peo­ple don’t like the ros­ter changes they made, but I think with the pickup of Mike Zunino, that’s go­ing to be a huge pickup,” White said. “(Mallex Smith) was a key player on the team, but I think (Zunino) is re­ally go­ing to bring the bat that we need. And Tommy Pham is com­ing off a hot year. All in all, I think it’s go­ing to be a re­ally good sea­son to look for­ward to.”

Pho­tos by ED­UARDO A. ENCINA

Erynn Pearce and Nathan White trav­eled from Val­dosta, Ga., to at­tend their first Rays Fan Fest on Satur­day.

Fred and Deb­ora Knoll of St. Peters­burg are Rays fans who say it’s dif­fi­cult to in­vest too much into the team with­out know­ing whether the fran­chise will re­main in the area for the long term.

John and Julie Gavin of Lutz brought their 10-month-old son, Pa­trick, for his first taste of Fan Fest.

Bran­don and Louisa Avery of Gib­son­ton are all smiles at the Trop with their 3-year-old daugh­ter, freshly face-painted Char­lotte.

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