Friday, April 20, 2007

Stiles in Tampa - Day ONE

Well, it has been quite a freeking long day. In fact, it's been two long days. I took a red eye flight out of Phoenix and lost three hours, got basically zero sleep (even though I tried to beer and margarita myself into a slumber for the flight - to NO avail) and got into Tampa at 8:30 this morning... jet lagged and hungover. It's almost midnight now and I didn't even have any caffeine today! needless to say I am buzzing off my first day at the Trop.

Arriving at the stadium
I arrived at Tropicana Field around 3:30pm (10 minutes before the media gates opened) for the first game of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays - Cleveland Indians series (gametime 7:10). Me and my Unnamed Local Source (brother that lives in Tampa) met up with the Rays' Public Relations wizard Rick Vaughn. If you didn't know, the Rays don't charge for parking. It's FREE!

"R.V." (as he's affectionately known - although I'm sure he's received a nauseating amount of "Wild Thing" references over the years) took me and U.L.S. (Unnamed Local Source) on the stadium tour; in and out, up and down, and basically every new feature, amenity and upgrade. We started out in the locker room. It was still early so only a handful of players were mulling around (hey, there's Aki! Look, it's Kaz! There's my boy Delmon Young!) And... so on! More so, it was "there's Marc Lancaster" or "hey, it's Marc Topkin" (the local Rays beat writers that did interviews with me last month)

I wasn't nervous or star struck by the players. After all, the players look SO young (maybe I'm just getting old) and many of the guys are not as big as I thought they'd be (maybe I'm just getting fat). I was a little giddy when I saw Don Zimmer! Mostly, I avoided the urge to pester every/anyone within shouting distance and just enjoyed the initial experience and took it in.

Inside Tropicana Field
Let me tell you some wise advice. Don't listen to anyone who says the Trop is a crappy stadium. It's not the Taj Mahal and it just looks a little weird with the tilted roof, but the stadium (even though it's a neccessarily evil dome) was better than several I have been to... and that was just my initial reaction.

R.V. showed myself and U.L.S. all of the new additions like the kids play zones and the (FREE) kids video game lounge (they even had RBI Baseball on huge plasma screens - very sweet). There is a baseball trivia game show set that you can go up against other competitors in a battle of useless knowledge (with real buzzers and scorekeeping podiums). You can go to a game, get a custom bat made, have baseball cards of yourself printed up and then go pet the dozen and a half or so rays swimming in the Ray Tank in centerfield (WAY cooler than the pool at Chase Field that no one uses). Yes, real, live actual, water-breathing fish, related to sharks and known as "rays" (No Mantas, a.k.a. "devil ray" though, just 'little' ones) You can even pet them!

Did I mention the Ted Williams' Hitters Hall of Fame? Yeah, it's been there for a couple of years, but it was expanded to over 10,000 square feet this past offseason (from under 3,000 sq ft). I didn't get to go in today, but I'll see it for sure (Is Pete Rose anywhere in there?). Oh yeah, it's free too.

The Tampa area has a long history in baseball. Long a Spring training site for MLB teams, there has also been several "professional" teams here through the decades as well; there is certainly a rich heritage of baseball in Western Florida. A wing of the concourse is covered in murals depicting the historical greats of the area (a 30ft painting of Joe D and Marilyn, for instance).

The Rays have embraced the history of the area (even if it IS Yankee-drenched), they have appealed to the younger fans and it seems like their promotions department has a staff of hundreds of people. The Rays have connections with seemingly everything in the area.

Every section of the stadium has it's own unique theme and feel. They even have a street stickball area made to look like your playing on the streets of new York (graffiti and all!) Another area is painted to resemble the flavor of a local historical Spanish neighborhood. There are tons of shops and a great array of food and beverages.

About the only complaint I have: The bathrooms are clean and servicable.. they aren't knock your socks off, but they work. There is an area on the concourse where three bathrooms are all within sight of each other but they're all women's bathrooms, and the Men's bathrooms are sparsely scattered enough, so that was a tad confusing (of course, with my media creds, I didn't use the public bathroom anyway)

All in all, the stadium is better than everyone says (which is exactly what I expected)

Batting Practice
So after the grand tour and intros, we ventured down to the field. They installed a new surface called FieldTurf II and it is very nice. I wish I had my whole yard covered in it.

The Rays players were taking BP and fielding fungoes and we just stood there at the dugout and watched along with the media and other onlookers.

Hey, there's Don Zimmer, there's Fred McGriff, who is that guy? Is that? It is! Carl Everett was there too, hanging with the Rays players and looking well over his old playing weight. No Jose Canseco sightings though... (darn sarcasm)

Then as BP was wrapping up, Coach Joe Maddon held his pre-game "press session" (I don't know the 'official name' of the event) and answered questions from the media members. They were grilling him about how he uses his pitchers, why he chose the lineup he did, blah blah blah, all the while crowding around him like too many piglets fighting to suck on the sow's last open teet, jamming recorders and microphones in his face (to see it happen was a tad disturbing).

I played along and followed the flock, pretending I knew what I was doing. The writers slowly got their sound bites and quotes and filtered away to the media chow hall (more on that later). Then it was just me left and Coach Maddon. So I introduced myself, you knw... that "charity blogger guy" etc... THEN, I pulled the ole' "those guys asked all the questions I wanted to ask" joke and then slammed him with the heavy hitter...

"so... um... What did you do on your day off yesterday?"

Yup, I went right for it. Damn that Manny Stiles! Asking those gritty, gutcheck questions like a heartless sniper. Coach said he "took his girlfriend's parents to the airport in the morning, rode his bike some, read a book then was in and out of naptime while West Side Story was on TV." He likes to keep his mind and body in shape - for his "young girlfriend"...

Yep, Manny goes the extra mile for this kind of insight so you can enjoy it too.

Then we chatted about nothing particular, batting pactice wrapped up and we headed up to the press box.

The Press Box
Pretty damned good seats, those press boxes. Straight behind home, up just enough to see it all. There's a counter full of stat sheets galore, media notes and more mass reproduced statistical information than you could ever possibly imagine - Did you know, that Cesar Cedeno is the only player in MLB history to have more combined HRs and SBs before age 25 than Carl Crawford's 203 combined Hrs and SBs? And so on...

Then there's the food. Get proper credentials and $6, go to the pregame spread and you can eat all you want! I had the beer-battered cod and chicken marsala (one of my favorites!) along with heaping portions of vegetable based side dishes. Honestly, it wasn't bad at all. I enjoyed it thoroughly! Of course, I am also a guy that enjoys TV dinners, institutional food and freeze dried survival foods from the bomb shelter era (basically any food that isn't completely rotten and/or feces covered)

I saw my old buddy Crime Dog in the food trough and told him "I don't want to make you feel old, but I met you at a baseball card show in 1988" etc. and so forth. We yapped and let me tell you; if there's a nicer, more down to earth person than Fred McGriff... no, it's just not possible. McGriff is always smiling and is still just as chill as he was almost 20 years ago (I AM getting old). There's a whole article on McGriff coming sometime this season. Enough segue, back to the previous train of thought:

You know the old line about sports writers all being pot-bellied, balding or messily coifed and having mustard stains on all of their shirts?

Not completely true.

They are also miserable and hate their lives as well... or at least it seemed that way to me.

So in the press box, there are writers and correspondants, about a half dozen Japanese reporters, a guy sitting next to me on the left with possibly the worst breath ever and my douche bag U.L.S on my right wearing a Rays hat (with a Joe Maddon signature he acquired in Spring training). Double D'oh! Showing team preference is a no-no (I doubt some writers even like the team they cover anyway).

In the press box, not only does no one cheer, root or express any emotion; they barely even talk with each other. It's like a library for the noiseless overlooking of a sporting arena. It's just so unnatural to watch a baseball game and not become involved with it (for me at least) Of course, I broke the "unwritten rules" several times with a uncontrolled yelp of a "yeah!" or a pleasingly muttered "nice..." and I even went into my bag of magik phrases and peppered a few "come on!"s in there too. They might have to detach my vocal chords and supress my willingness to enjoy myself before tomorrow night's game!

But I do have to say, the Rays take care of their press contingency pretty well. Not that I have much to compare it to; I was comfortable, I was given assistance at every ponderment (one of the management's mottos - R.A.Y.S. - Ready At Your Service) and I had access to enough statistical information that I can understand where the creativity goes in the journalism game. They practically do the 'work' for you, you just gotta mad-lib and paint by number it all together and WHAMMO, a column before tomorrow's deadline, it seems...

Don't get me wrong. I'm not ripping the guys (and the three or so female journalists), it's just VERY easy to stereotypicalize baseball writers. Clearly there are some who stand out above the others and it's not hard to tell who is good and who is run of the mill... yes, there are some good reporters. They ask questions that require answers deeper than "Duh!"

Then again, maybe 'the grass is greener', who am I kidding? Some of them are just worn down by the glorious past nine years that they can't enjoy the here and now turning into a bright future.

The Actual Game
Myself and U.L.S. (who oddly enough was a self-proclaimed die-hard Yankee fan until last month) sat in the press box and watched the game.

It was a good game. C.C. Sabathia was masterful. B.J. Upton mashed a solo shot off him to deep center in the third inning, but he was otherwise handling things well. He was changing speeds and painting the black but the Rays chipped away and chipped away and finally got to him in the 7th when Delmon Young stole third and Victor Martinez threw the ball into leftfield allowing Young to tie the score at 3-3. Even though there was a paying crowd just under 13,400 and half of them left by the 7th inning stretch, it was actually LOUD when the Rays were threatening. Early in the game I was unimpressed by the Friday night crowd, but when th game got exciting, they showed up big time.

Then after the end of the 8th, Mrs. Stiles called to tell me the score was tied (I had a sneaking suspicion it was, being AT the game and all) and asked "how are my boys doing?"... OK, I'll say it... it's all her fault! (They're not pinning this loss on the supposed "Manny Stiles Curse")

Here's the box score.
The Indians won on a smash hit from Pronk in the top of the 9th inning. Yeah, he had a nice 3-3, HR, 3 rbi with 2 walks kind of game. If you didn't know already... Hafner is what they call very good. Coach Madden said in his postgame remarks that he hopes "Hafner gets called up to the higher league that he belongs in" before tomorrow's game. I agreed.

So the game was over, us media folk sauntered down to the lockerroom and enjoyed the Coach Maddon post-game questioning (lasted all of maybe 4 questions) then again, the other media guys vanished and it was me and Coach again. This time I asked him some other innocuous questions as well as some good ones. We got into talking about how he is a Cardinals fan... yeah Arizona Cardinals fan! He's been a Cardinals fan since the early 60's (he played a little QB in college at Lafayette) and still is even though they moved to the desert and sucked mightily for 19 of th last 20 seasons... I'm begining to like Joe more and more...

Well, I figured I already wasted enough of the man's precious time and we waited in the clubhouse. A few reporters were asking spot questions to whoever had their junk covered and I complimented Elijah Dukes on his prolific tattoo work. He says he wants to get more (I'm familiar with that sentiment). I got the feeling he didn't enjoy not playing tonight, so I stopped wasting his precious time as well. Yes, he is a thick dude.

Delmon Young was hard at work in the batting cage just about as soon as the game ended. Coach Maddon said Delmon "has his head in the game at every moment" and from what I saw of him, he is a pretty upbeat, positive guy. I stand by my original assessment.

It was pretty sad hanging in the clubhouse after a tough loss. So I told R.V. we'd see him tomorrow and we left.

I never did meet up with my services procurer, Team President Matt Silverman. I guess he just has more important things to do... go figure!

All in all, tonight was fun... even with the tough loss. Tomorrow, I'm working! Expect a better, meatier post tomorrow night! I'm going to bed (and I'm still living on MST, not EDT)...

And don't forget! Monday, Monday, Monday! ONLY on !!!

Manny Stiles' running blog of the Rays-Yankees game (on ESPN) during 10th Anniversary Cowbell giveaway night - first 10,000 in get a cowbell - I can't wait to hear it!

MORE cowbell than ever!!!

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