A new era begins at Tropicana Field

A new era begins at Tropicana Field

ST. PETERSBURG -- Players greeted fans walking through the rotunda in center field to enter the ballpark, Tropicana Field smiled through a makeover and, most important, it felt like a new era of Devil Rays baseball.

And kicking off the new era on Monday night: the fourth sellout in team history, with attendance reported at 40,199.

Throwing out the first pitches were Al Lopez II, Al Lopez III and Al Lopez IV, the son, grandson and great-grandson, respectively, of the late Hall of Famer Al Lopez, who hailed from Tampa and died last fall.

Lopez "would have liked the fact that the whole community was out here supporting the club," said the son, Al II. "He would have thought it was great."

Added the grandson, Al III: "He would be proud. He always wanted baseball in the area."

A tribute to Lopez was shown on the scoreboard, then the three Lopezes threw the first pitches to former Rays Tino Martinez and Fred McGriff, who also hail from Tampa; and current Rays pitcher Doug Waechter, who hails from St. Petersburg.

If the Rays are selling tradition, the pregame ceremony managed to touch a warm spot.

"Obviously, things are working," said former Rays player Davey Martinez, who served as a special instructor this spring, teaching as well as helping build tradition. "New ownership. Fixed the stadium. They're doing the right things. This is great. All the hard work they've put into the thing. The first day, this shows them a lot that the fans really care. You treat the fans well, and they'll come."

Tropicana Field's new look includes improvements to bathrooms on the 100 and 200 levels, a new sound system, the addition of more than 200 flat-screen TVs, the painting of the exterior, new outdoor awnings, directional banners in the parking lot, the scrubbing and repainting of approximately 35,000 seats, stucco or drywall covering cinder-block walls on the 100 and 200 levels, and upgrades to the premium Kane's Club seating area behind home plate. In addition, a new "club" along the first base line on the 200 level underwent a major overhaul.

Having fans in the stands didn't go unnoticed in the Rays' clubhouse.

"It's really cool," said Jorge Cantu. "Hopefully, we can win. ... Hopefully, we'll start getting that type of crowd every day. And if we can just continue playing hard, that's what we're going to get."

Jonny Gomes said that the players always get jazzed up when they play in front of large crowds, even on the road.

"It's a big crowd, and even though they're cheering against you, it gives you an edge," said Gomes. "Forty thousand, it's going to be a big deal."

Gomes likes the idea that the fans have bought into the energy of the Rays' new ownership.

"I mean, everyone's excited around town," he said. "About tailgating and stuff. It's back to baseball -- it's the American pastime."

Since taking over, the new ownership group, led by principal owner Stuart Sternberg, has given the fans free parking and lowered ticket prices, and are allowing tailgating and the bringing of food into the stadium.

"All the free parking paid off," joked Aubrey Huff. "Having Baltimore come in and [with the game] a sellout, most everybody will be cheering for us. I've never seen this place packed."

Sternberg, with a glow on his face, said that he appreciates the faith of the fans in selling out the opener after the organization had worked so hard in the offseason to make improvements to the product.

"We'll just keep building up on what we're doing here and make sure when they come back they have equally as good a time as they're having tonight," said Sternberg. "I'm overjoyed [with] what the organization has done. I'm just really proud of everybody."

Joe Maddon managed his first game as Rays skipper at Tropicana Field on Monday night.

"I think [the sellout is] great," said Maddon. "I think the people have responded. They like what we're doing. We want them to come out here as often as possible, as it's a plus to have them do that. It's always going to be about how we play. There's a lot of excitement now. It is the beginning. The front office and the administration, everyone has done such a good job up to this point. Now it's up to us to make people want to come back."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.