It wasn’t Whiskey Joes…but Tampa STILL rocks

April 18, 2007 | Nestor Aparicio

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — The game is over and there was no comeback tonight for the orange birds.

A fourth-inning, six-run pounding laid on Orioles starter Steve Trachsel and a moon shot home run by Oriole callup Jon Knott (who?) made for an entertaining last few innings.

For the record: I didn’t have any specific intentions to promote Free The Birds here in Tampa, but I did bring signs and a shirt just in case. On a lark, about an hour before the game, I strolled to the box office to see if seats were available behind home plate.

They were — in abundance –  so I bought one in the third row right behind the dish. The ticket was pricey (actually, it was embarrassing and I don’t want to admit how much I paid, but it did come with a tasty open buffet and all the drinks I could drink, which almost made it ‘worth it’.)

So if you’re wondering about the FTB home plate blitz last night, yeah, it was me.

DRaysmascot.JPG

What did you expect?

The FTB cause will live until one of two things happens (and NONE of it has anything to do with me rightfully getting credentialed by the team): 1. Angelos needs to sell the team and/or 2. The team gets fixed — and I mean FIXED!

When the franchise starts treating fans and sponsors and the city and the media with some dignity, honesty and MOST OF ALL, accountability, THEN and ONLY THEN will I stop printing signs and shirts and hats and acting like a “demagogue” (whatever that is or means?).

Every member of my family, every friend I have and every employee at WNST wants the Orioles to be better in EVERY facet of their existence. And it’s not hard to figure out what that means.

You know the feelings we all get when we think about the Ravens and football season and optimism and civic pride? When we can feel that again about the Orioles, and when we feel like we should all glue ourselves to the television six nights a week to watch them and bust out our credit cards buying season ticket books?

That’s when we’ll know Oriole Magic has returned.

Until then, FTB lives!

But, for one night in Tampa, in what is always talked about as the worst stadium with the worst team in the worst market, I really had a lot of fun. (Even if I did spend a small fortune flying down here, buying a ticket, renting a car and getting a hotel room!).

DRaysview.JPG

Good thing I have an expense account, huh?

I entered the stadium around 3:30 on my press pass and headed, as I always did, straight for the Orioles clubhouse.

I filed four reports, a couple of blogs and chatted with about dozen members of the Orioles organization, all who ranged from neutral to super cool.

As much as the owner and his front office employees seem to hate me and treat me with some strange sense of disregard (but at the same time they almost pay WAY TOO MUCH attention to WNST and me), the guys who put on the orange and black uniform apparently harbor only a very small “grudge” towards me, which was really nice and heartening to see.

Sometimes, I catch myself not rooting “for” the Orioles, but kinda against the owner. But it’s really impossible to “hate” on Brian Roberts or Jay Gibbons or John Parrish, who have all kinda been to hell and back just putting that jersey on every night playing in front of empty stadiums on cold nights on a seeming “road to nowhere” as possible October heroes or pennant race contributors.

If it sucks to be a fan — and generally it does in a big way — imagine what it must be like to be Sam Perlozzo, who has filled out lineup cards and been in that morose clubhouse for the entire ‘Fall of the Empire’? Sam remembers when it was great, just like the rest of us!

I go back far enough with Perlozzo to have pictures of us sitting at spring training in 1996 talking baseball for an hour on WLG in Fort Lauderdale.

Sam Perlozzo is a VERY good man.

As expected, he greated me with a smile and thoughtfully answered my questions about Steve Trachsel and John Parrish before the game.

Leo Mazzone also engaged me in a conversation about the makeup of a quality bullpen, and the differences between success and failure. We talked about character, fearlessness, throwing strikes and Mike Bielecki.

I also finally cornered the great Gary Thorne — the greatest hockey voice on the planet — and invited him over to my house for pizza and beer some 10:30 HD puck at my condo. I told him he wouldn’t have to call the whole game, just a few shifts. (Buck Martinez laughed at this notion). Thorne was considering it, but said that Mazzone would act as his “agent” for the negotiation.

“I’d probably would price you out,” Thorne laughed, not realizing that I was DEAD serious! I figure I have six weeks to talk him into this bizarre “fan/worship/dream scenario,” but alas, I won’t ever see him at the ballpark again because I don’t have a press pass.

I even tried convincing him that I’d be the ONLY ONE IN THE CITY to make this generous offer of puck friendship and conviviality, because I’m the last guy in Baltimore who cares about hockey.

Turns out that other than the “Frozen Four” (that’s the NCAA Final Four of hockey for the uninitiated), Thorne hasn’t called any NHL puck since Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals in Tampa in 2004, BEFORE the strike.

That’s some SERIOUS, SERIOUS waste of talent, letting Gary Thorne not call hockey.  That would be like Eric Clapton not playing guitar.  Or Michael Jordan not playing basketball.  Or that wacky cake guy over in Hampden on the Food Network not making cakes!  (Or Orioles fans not having a chance to enjoy their team and win.)  But Thorne was a great guy as well, and we had some laughs even if he’ll probably never end up on my couch, watching hockey late into the night.  But I won’t stop trying…LOL!

So, anyway, my seats behind the plate were made MUCH better than the value on the ticket by the super cool people and ushers I met and got to sit with. These were REAL baseball fans, not corporate bozos using the office tickets.

When is the last time you sat with complete strangers at a baseball game and made friends with them?

My Pop and I used to do that LITERALLY EVERY NIGHT in Sect. 10 of Memorial Stadium. If you were sitting near us in those gold, aluminum bleachers, we talked baseball with you. And if you loved baseball, we wanted to be your friend and chew the fat about strategy, players, the game, the history of the game, the stats — the whole shebang.

Turns out, even in lowly Tampa, where they are celebrating their 10th Anniversary (and they’ve finished in last place EVERY YEAR except one, 2004, when the Blue Jays moved them outta the cellar with a 67-win effort), people still love baseball!

How bad are the Devil Rays?

They’ve only won 70 games ONCE in 10 years. And they ONLY won 70 — not 71 or 74 — 70! And that was in 2004!

DRaysTrop.JPG

But the guy in the front row forks over BIG bucks to have these seats and comes most every night. Super baseball fan!

The lady next to him was from Northern Virginia, a former Oriole fan until she moved to St. Petersburg. She painfully admitted that she comes almost every night, and dies a little with the green monsters of Tampa Bay.

The two dudes next to me flew in from Atlanta because their buddy works for the Devil Rays and he hooked them up with sweet seats, two rows behind home plate.

By the third inning, they all pitched in on the fun and held up FREE THE BIRDS signs.

They were having fun, too!

I even got to meet and videotape the famous Tampa Bay heckler, a guy named Rob, who now has scaled back his heckling to only scold one player from the opposing team per game.

Last night’s victim: Nick Markakis. And ol’ Heckler Rob was in fine form, beating up Markakis mercilessly, before No. 21 managed a base hit in his final at bat.

“I usually let ‘em slide by the last at-bat,” he said. “I’m usually in their head pretty good by then.”

He, too, was a great guy and told me about his book and how it benefits the Rays’ local charities. He’s a character and seemed like a good guy and a good baseball fan, albeit VERY over the top. (And if THAT’S not the pot calling the kettle black, right!?)

One thing that was VERY apparent in being amongst Devil Rays fans and employees: Aubrey Huff is HATED and I mean, HATED, in Tampa Bay.

He was booed every bit as lustily as the Colts were back in January at the purple palace.

People STOOD UP to taunt him every time he came to the dish, and when he wiffed late in the game, he was absolutely ABUSED by the fans behind the O’s dugout.

I didn’t hear one good thing about him from anyone in the stadium. Let’s just say it didn’t end things on the best of terms in Tampa — clearly!

I always liked Huff as a player. I didn’t chat with him at all last night, but I did at his press conference a few months back, and he was cordial enough. But he really pissed a lot of people off here, for sure.

As for baseball in a tent on a perfect 72-degree evening with a CRAZY overpriced ticket, it was really a lot of fun.

DRaysMaddon.JPG

I did some good work. We had the Devil Rays manager, Joe Maddon, on the show and I got some cool insights into Kevin Millar and the Orioles bullpen. I took some fun pictures (even got one with the mascot), learned some cool baseball stuff, had some interesting conversations, and honestly had as much fun at a game as I’ve had in recent memory.

I even met some really cool new friends, who have all threatened to visit Baltimore to “cash in” on whatever I owe them for helping me hold up FREE THE BIRDS signs for nine innings.

So, was it “worth” missing the Liars Luncheon in Owings Mills for the first time in my purple fandom.

I dunno. But it WAS fun!

And you know what I really learned?

I learned, once again, just like when I wrote my book and did the rally last summer, that I really DO love baseball and I miss all the fun I used to have at baseball stadiums and all of the interesting people I used to meet and all of the fun stories and color that being near baseball brought my life.

Even the flea bag hotel I’m typing this in is still part of the “journey” of my baseball fandom, which has literally taken me all over the continent since I was kid following games and strategy and called third strikes.

And I also appreciated the fact that the Devil Rays treated me with dignity, respect and helpfulness in allowing me a sensible alternative to do what I do for a living: bring the truth and flavor of Baltimore sports to cool listeners and readers.

I’ll be home in a few hours.

But Tampa on a Tuesday evening in April 2007 will be a very good memory.

Even if the bad guys won!

Comments on Facebook

Leave a Reply