Rays pay tribute to Orlando on Pride Night

Rays pay tribute to Orlando on Pride Night

ST. PETERSBURG -- Early Friday evening, Kenny Cuevas stood outside Tropicana Field in a Rays jersey and felt the urge to help in a time of need. Two large red bloodmobiles sat idle before him. Other fans mingled nearby at Gate 4 as the pregame buzz before the Rays faced the Giants gained momentum.

Five days after the horrific mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Cuevas viewed baseball as a way to help neighbors heal. He prepared to give blood and offer strength.

"Orlando is our neighbor, so we're here to support," said Cuevas, a 22-year-old Tampa resident. "We're here to show that we care. Any possible way that we come to help out, come to the Rays game, show support for the team as well at the same time, it's a win-win situation."

The Rays' annual Pride Night took on a theme of resilience Friday when Tampa Bay hosted San Francisco about 105 miles from Pulse, a popular LGBT nightclub. The event was dedicated to the 49 victims of the tragedy Sunday. The game was sold out with an announced attendance of 40,135, the largest regular-season crowd at Tropicana Field since April 10, 2006. On Tuesday, the Rays made all remaining tickets available for $5 with the proceeds benefiting the Pulse Victims Fund. The upper-deck tarps were removed to meet the demand.

photo Rays Pride Night photo gallery

The club offered other subtle touches as well. Rays players wore caps worn by the Orlando Rays, Tampa Bay's Double-A Southern League affiliate from 1999 to 2003; signed caps will be auctioned starting at noon ET on Monday until 8 p.m. ET on June 26 with all proceeds benefiting Pulse victims. Images on the video board displayed the Orlando Rays logo and "WE ARE ORLANDO" in large block letters. All fans received black T-shirts dedicated to the city, and proceeds from the 50/50 raffle were set aside for Pulse victims. Other donation centers were located throughout the ballpark, and the Rays announced more than $300,000 will be donated to the Pulse Victims Fund.

Manfred's Orlando message

"We are grateful for and proud of the region's response to our Pride Night dedication," Rays president Brian Auld said earlier in the week. "In the wake of a terrible tragedy, and in a matter of hours, 40,000 people have chosen to come together, to stand side by side in a show of support for the victims, their families, the city of Orlando and the greater LGBT community."

On Friday afternoon, Rays shortstop Brad Miller prepared for a night that held special symbolism for him and many others. The Orlando-area native understood life is precious, but the news Sunday cut close to his heart.

"It's surreal, I think," Miller said. "Obviously, we're an hour, an hour and a half, an hour and 45 minutes away. But still, it doesn't feel real that something like that would happen. Obviously, it has happened in the past but never in a place that I'm so familiar with and cared so much about. That part, I think, is real. You know horrible stuff happens, and no matter where it is, it's not good at all. But the fact that it's my hometown really makes it sink in."

Billy Bean, Major League Baseball's vice president of social responsibility and inclusion, saw Pride Night as a gesture that transcended baseball. He envisioned a day when tolerance trumped all.

"Orlando is a huge part of baseball's heart," Bean said. "The beauty is that I think this type of support on this level ... it's just really a broader hug to the center of this state. Someday, we won't have to worry about how we identify ourselves."

Bean's first pitch

"I know the LGBT community will be moved tremendously when they see the images of this place full," Bean added. "What happened in Orlando happened to everybody, and I've been very proud of the way baseball has responded with wanting to be supportive."

Added Rays manager Kevin Cash: "We are honoring Orlando, who has had obviously a very rough week. It's great for the organization, the Tampa Bay Rays, to be able to ... try to help some families."

Pregame ceremonies captured the feeling. Bean threw out the first pitch to Rays third baseman Evan Longoria while wearing a black "WE ARE ORLANDO" T-shirt. A tribute played on the video board with Rays and Giants players and managers saying, "We are Orlando." Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred offered words of support and sympathy in a recorded message. A moment of silence was held before the national anthem.

"We have your back," Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said on the video board.

Back outside Tropicana Field, Cuevas recognized the night's meaning went well beyond baseball. This was a time to show care and compassion for his fellow man.

"A tragedy like this," Cuevas said, "the whole nation comes together."

Andrew Astleford is a contributor to MLB.com based in St. Petersburg. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.