I saw the damnedest thing Wednesday.
I was at George M. Steinbrenner Field, the stuffy Tampa spring home of the New York Yankees; where thick Long Island accents sling tickets to an exhibition game for $75 and bitch at their customers about what a great deal it is. Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter were playing long toss. Curtis Granderson was stretching. Somewhere, Alex Rodriguez was yelling at a team massage therapist for not properly concluding his rubdown. First pitch was minutes away.
Yet with a PA announcer blabbering about 20-something titles and prestige and other precocious New York kinds of bullshit, attention was not on the men in pinstripes (or navy batting practice jerseys, in this case). All eyes were pointed right outside of the visitors dugout, where Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price stood towards the bottom of a steep aisle of stairs. What looked like it had begun as a quick autograph request had turned into a massive line of people wanting ink scribbles from the 6-foot-6, 220-pound left-hander in what had become a makeshift meet-and-greet.
He didn’t flinch or walk away or ask a security guard to ask them to clear out. Instead, with a sly grin on his face, Price saw an opportunity.
For upwards of 30 minutes Price shook every hand, knelt down to speak to every child, took every picture, signed every piece of whatever was handed to him. There were good-looking girls and families and college-age dudes; elderly Rays fans and sweaty, fat, tattooed Yankees fanatics who have more than likely hurled profanities at Price during the past two years; post-2008 Tampa Bay shirts and over-sized Mariano Rivera jerseys. He stood a few steps into the stands, difficult to make out at first if for no other reason than that section 114 is not generally where you look for a staff ace.
As fans looked over and saw what was going on, they followed. Price welcomed the newcomers. He had nothing better to do. James Shields was on the mound. It was a lazy day trip to a city in which the Rays are desperate to even compete for supporters.
Maybe the kid whose parents are Yankees fans would meet Price, see a nice guy and flip to his hometown team. Maybe the blond who has probably never been across the Howard Frankland for anything other than binge drinking at the Sirata pool would stop by to see what that Tropicana Field place is all about one day. Hell, maybe the overweight guy in the Yankees tank top would buy a regular season ticket out of boredom.
Price and the Rays have nothing to lose, so they attack everything with personality and try to keep their distance from the uber professionalism of the American League East.
When the Rays scored three runs in the second inning, the stadium erupted as much as a spring training park possibly can. Outnumbered Yankees fans joked the penny pinchers get more fans at Steinbrenner Field than they do at The Trop.
That could be true, but hey, four times in five years. Not bad for the Tampa Bay Triple As.