Rays Fan Fest 2012 was a Walk-Off Grand Slam

Pulling off an event the size of Rays Fan Fest must keep some within the confines of the Tampa Bay Rays 4th floor sleepless, anxious and maybe a bit stir-crazy at times. Hundreds of emails, untold hours of planning, confirmations and re-confirmation must make it a logistical nightmare that rivals a major NCAA bowl game. All this energy, physical exertion and mental numbness accumulating with a huge bang over a 7 hour period.

If the crowd was any indication, then this year’s Fan Fest might be a precursor to another extraordinary Rays MLB run to who knows what new plateau. The building felt different when I entered on Saturday. Maybe it was the simple fact I was not in the first wave of fans for a change, or maybe it is the electricity and anticipation that was heavy in the air as I strutted into the tilted roof home of the Rays. Everything seemed bolder, more vibrant, more animated this year.

From the MLB Alumni wiffle ball contest that featured a Grand Salami by the Big O, former Marlin Orestes Destrade or the presence of former HR slugger Roger Maris’s son and grandson, the Trop just seemed more colorful and ready for exploration. With the added Internet celebrity factor and exclamation point in the wiffle ball contest of Sean Steffy (@Wiffleball28) who is better known as the world’s greatest wiffle ball pitcher. I was transfixed on the game even as Travis Phelps had an HR dashed by the big hands of Eric Knott. It was great to see kids running the bases, all smiling, giggling and giving up high-fives to the former MLB players.

As some people mumbled and grumbled about the $50 autograph wristband, it was not lost to me that the event helped build a nest egg of over $100,000 for the Rays Baseball Foundation and the ALS Association Florida Chapter. From Rays skipper Joe Maddon and his new dark brown locks to even hearing Kyle Farnsworth reading to children without any intimidation, the event truly was one for the record books. And the crowd expanded to bulging capacity more than once as travel around the Trop during this Fan Fest was very packed in, but respectful.

The event even had more than a hint of animal presence as the Rays new mascot DJ Kitty got his first moment on the AstroTurf, and Rays SP David Price brought his canine wing-man Astro to the event, which sparked photos, conversations and general smiles from people of all ages. DJ Kitty sporting his trademark huge Rays 2008 AL Championship ring has evolved a lot since his first appearance on the Rays Jumbotron. Now he will be another added fan experience at Rays game along with Raymond.

The kid’s Interactive zone was packed with excited kids, parents and Rays staff member as pint-sized future Rays dashed through obstacle courses, threw pitches or try to hit one into the LF seats in the wiffle ball field. During all of this Rays players made spot appearances at the basketball game, the High-Five Station at the end of the Run the Bases event, plus talked to friends, family or just anyone you chose at the Metro PCS Call-A-Friend table.

I still marvel at how much the Pepsi displayed have also become a spectacle ever since I erected the first one back in 2004 on the field. It has become a feature backdrop not only for the Rays/Pepsi Fan Wall of Fame inductions, but for panel discussions and fan interaction with Rays players and personnel. From my first mild-mannered 1,000 case display to the present monstrosity on caffeine, it was again a constant background for photos and memorable pictures with kids and fans. Everywhere you looked on this day you saw smiles, people exchanging greetings and awaiting the new 2012 season with enthusiasm and glee.

This event for so many signals the end of Winter and the insurgence of not only Spring, but the renewal of our favorite game. Fan Fest means so many things to so many. Some came for the great deals on collectibles and autographed items in the two selected areas of sales merchandise. From team authenticated items near the old stick ball court beyond the left field seats to the huge outlying of items in the usual Corona Beach section, there was something for every Rays fan, even an old cap commemorating the Rays 2004 trip to the Far East (I bought one).

I secluded myself in my usual post 1 pm section near the entrance point for the Rays players in Section 134 not only to say hello and greet some of the Rays long and new faithful back to the Trop, but to also see their faces as they came up the tunnel and saw that huge amassed crowd. To a t, the players all seemed to take an extra second at the top of the stairs to take in the whole spectacle and immerse themselves in this great Rays Fan Fest vibe.

I even got a chance to see the first meeting of Rays new DH Luke Scott and owner Stuart Sternberg just beyond the Rays autograph area. Sternberg who few down from New York especially for the event must have a sore face today from all of the smiling and love shown by the fans at this year’s event. Some say this season is critical to the Rays future success in the region, and if the crowd is any indication, baseball is alive and well in Tampa Bay.

I could also see from my vantage point the smiles on Rays staffers from Fan Hosts to the Rays Promotions Department as the hum of voices and energy in the Trop inhaled and exhaled throughout the day. I gazed down the Rays promotional schedule and saw more than a few “must-have” items that not only peaked my interest, but had some sentimental appeal. Who would not want a Evan Longoria mini drum set, or hold onto a Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore or DJ Kitty figurine. From the Rays Opening Day schedule magnet to their last promotion of the season, the Rays fan favorite bobblehead, this is definite another Walk-off win ( do not forget the Longo Walk-off figurine on 4/21) for this Rays Department.

This season’s Fan Fest was a monster. Both in attendance, the level of excitement and even the plucking of Rays host Rusty Kath with a wiffle ball that is sure to be a Youtube sensation (currently only 74 views, but climbing). From Sternberg down to the Rays interns, there has to be an added level of excitement and confidence heading into Tuesday’s report date for Pitchers and Catchers in Port Charlotte, Florida. If this Fan Fest is any indication, it could be a great season both on and off the field for the Rays organization. And it all started with this annual rite of Spring by the Rays. I am giddy to see what unfolds next.

 

Random Rays Fan Fest photos on my Flickr photostream

22 Comments

What a great event! Dodgers never had a fan fest. What we have is Caravans with emphasis on volunteer work as you can see in my posts. But they will have their first fan/fest on March 3rd at Camelback Ranch, their Spring Training facility. It will be a Dodgers/White Sox gangway.
Emma

http://crzblue.mlblogs.com

Emma,
Fan Fest is one of those “kick-off” events like Truck Day or Pitchers & Catchers Report Day that signal “baseball-style” that Winter is over. I wish every team had something like this, but I know some do events, other caravans and some just have such a huge fan base that such an event might be a logistical nightmare.
Personally, it is a time to renew relationships fractured by cold weather and form new ones with people at Fan Fest. Just glad teams give these options and events for the fans, it makes the bond between them tighter and provides a nice segway into Spring Training.

Great write up. Pretty much summed up the whole experience. I agree about the walking, I think o circumvented the entire Trop well over 6 times. It was definitely a fun and full day

Barbara,
Was amzing to see so many people come out for this great Spring event that helps the Rays blossom their Spring Training flower. Great to see guys like Longo and new C Jose Molina take in the crowd as they ventured down to the blue curtain area. Does it seem like so long ago this was a 2-day event? Still, was great to see the guys again as they get ready to invade Port Charlotte for the Spring.

Lots of positives on the day. Unfortunately there were some negatives. Confusion amongst season ticket holders in particular.

Turns out the blue wristbands given to many the full season ticket holders only allowed for early admittance and photo opportunties with some of the Rays players. Jeff Nieman and Sam Fuld being the most recognizable names. Only one of the group of 9 — a prospect — manned an autograph table for the commoners, and the blue banders were only allowed to stand in autograph lines if they took advantage of a special offer of 60% off he $50.00 autograph line fee. 20 additional bucks on top of their season ticket costs.

The truly valued season ticket holders (lower bowel?) received gold wristbands. They got in early, enjoyed the same perks at the blue banders AND didn’t have to pay extra to stand in the autograph lines. They also were allowed to woof down a few complimentary hot dogs and cold beers in the Whitney Bank Club. Their reward for the loss of the annual season ticket holders party once held at Game Works in Tampa.

Cliffy, I respect you promoting the positives of the Rays organization. As a long-time fan of the team I’ve learned to respect the brillliant minds behind the building of our now successful franchise. Unfortunately I don’t understand why they continue to downgrade the value of many of their season ticket packages. FanFest 2012 being a perfect example of what they’ve done.

Ever since the Rays regime moved their spring training home to Port Charlotte FanFest had been the best opportunity for fans to get near the players. What once was a free event is now a for-charge event devoid of any real opportunity to get an autograph from most of the most recognizable names. The big boys only spent 30 minutes signing, not nearly enough time for the hundreds of faithful waiting in line for hours to have any opportunity for an autograph. (Ex: Fans began lining up for Evan Longoria’s 1:15-1:45 signing when the gates opened at 9:00 a.m.) The remainder of the players signed for the hour that they’ve traditionally manned a table.

The positive out of these negatives is what is being reported as a huge contribution to charity. The bad is our brilliant group of executives doesn’t appear to have a real grasp on the pulse of the season ticket holders that don’t purchase lower bowl (higher priced) season ticket packages. Trust me when I say the chatter amongst a lot of these fans yesterdays was not positive. They’re spending whatever amount of their disposable/entertainment income they can afford but are tired of feeling like second class Rays citizens.

For an organization that’s constantly complaining about the lack of attendance the yearly downgrading of the value of of season tickets is disconcerting. As a former season ticket holder you know as well as anybody that the perks have been getting smaller by the year. Heck, the perks (FanFest in particular) have been downgraded for the fans that don’t purchase season tickets.

I found it sad that there were so many of us were complaining yesterday. It’s equally sad that I find it necessary to post my thoughts on your blog.

Unfortunatly everything I write about is true.

Jeff,
I am so glad you wrote this. I did not renew my Season Tickets yet, and would of probably gotten a Gold band and been oblivious to this factoid. One of the main reasons I did not renew quickly is the increasing downgrading of what the Rays franchise used to call “the foundations of the franchise” aka Season Ticket holders. Thank you for not only opening my blind eye, but showing me the frustration is not only felt by myself and a few others, but stems deep and wide. I used to be in those trenches myself getting the autogrpahs, but in the past 3 Fan Fests thought better of it to see and do other things.
I know of your personal mission and banner, and hope you noy only get the names you need, but they smile and acknowledge you as one of those early franchise keystones. I tried to find you on Saturday, but could not find you do to me trying to do too much in a small slice of time. Hopefully I might see you in Port Charlotte on Monday and I can get a first hand rendition of this whole burrito of intrigue.
There is a big change brewing with the Rays, I know when you read about it, you will also see it as a huge loss.

Not going to Port Charlotte because we got all of the signatures we needed at FanFest. Didn’t see you at the Pepsi Fan WOF gathering? We couldn’t believe the cheap jerseys they gave the new inductees. They weren’t anything like the ones from everts other year. Two inch black letters on the back. Ladies got what looked like kids jerseys. Absolutely clueless to what is going on.

Jeff,
I was over at the “Wall” for about 20 minutes, but went to see Farnsy read to kids. No kid screamed or cried so intimidation factor was 0. I did not see the jerseys, but I saw the names and new “Rays” names for the inductees. I have long suspected the Wall of Famers would suffer soon or later, just did not see it coming this soon.
Glad you got the names you needed. I know how much that ungoing and changing Rays banner project means to you.
I think this style of Fan Fest for its flaws and its strong points is better than a caravan or a small signing exhibit in a convention hall like some teams…..We forget some teams do not have anything like this at all…..and that is truly sad.
Going down to take a few hours of photos and shake hands with Scott (even though I saw him at Toby’s Retirement party).

There should have been a better system for autographs, I felt like a mouse in a maze looking for the cheese, every fan that showed up that day deserved an autograph from all the players that showed up, start the event earlier 7, 8 or even 9am, let season ticket holders in early that’s fine, me being a non season ticket holder, I didn’t mind that. Have all the players show up at the same time, one long table, perhaps sell tickets for groups at certain times ex: 5,000 fans come in at 8am, spend about 2-3 hours getting them their signatures from players, then the next 5,000 come in and so on until the end of the event, I’m sure fans can be civil and form a line to get an autograph, I give the security and police credit they kept things in somewhat good order, but I hated not knowing what line I was in to get an autograph, My idea would also do away with the “campers”. I’m sorry I stepped on your memorabilia, you shouldn’t have been sitting there waiting for Longoria’s autograph!

FanFest is stil fun, just expensive. I also suspected something changing with the Fan Wall of Fame tradition. It was brought to my attention by another inductee that this years invitation arrived on blank white paper (not Rays stationery) and made no mention of Pepsi. I was actually surprised to see the annual mountain of soda twelve-packs set-up behind the induction stage and a Pepsi representative take part in the ceremony. But the jerseys? Absolutely laughable.

Brian,
I sent a copy of your ideas to someone I know with the Rays. Every good events needs tweaking and cutting the edges to be smooth and concise. The regular aspect of the autograph line over the past 2 Fan Fests has changed, and with that there will be problems, issues to fix and especially people who have good suggestions. Some people loved Fan Fest more when it was a 2-day event, other thought it dragged it out too much. Hopefully it can rach a happy medium for all involved and we all cherish an event so many other MLB team’s envy because they do not celebrate the fans and player relationship the way the Rays have cultivated the process.

Jeff,
Pepsi loved that I started that extra huge display tradition back in 2004, and now they use computer simulated design software to get every case and every carton fashioned in the optimal way for display. It has become a rite of Fan Fest to have your photo taken by the display. I still remember the 50-odd cases in 2003 stretched along the Rays/Pepsi Wall of Fame old ball wall that made me shudder and embarrassed.
Alan, who used to work with me at Pepsi did the introductions this year and is stationed in the St. Petersburg branch. He has done a great job taking the displays to the next level.
I guess we should be glad we got real and embroidered lettering before the big changes. I did not see the jerseys, but if you hated them…they have to be horrific

Wish i could have attended this year, due to the long weekend, I was unable to get on a flight to Tampa..looks like it was a great turnout, and thanks for sharing your pictures! Poor Rusty, getting hit by a whiffle ball!

Thank you for taking my suggestion and giving it to someone in the orginization, it may need some tweaks to it as well. Paying money for an autograph, didn’t mind that, it was for a good cause, but the whole idea for “FanFest” is just that, making your fans happy, I’m sure the players would have stayed out longer to sign autographs, but they were forced to swap with another player at a certain time. There had to have been at least 1,000 or more fans waiting for Longoria to sign something for them, but he was only available for 30 minutes, not knocking the event as a whole, the entertainment was great, the players were great, the staff was great ( I mean having to deal with all of us, come on!) it’s just the autographing part that needs tweaks, like you said.

The rumor as to why Longoria only spent 30 minutes signing (on the field) was he is contractually obligated to someone to only sign 200 autographs during Rays functions such as FanFest. 30 minute signing period was the estimated amount of time he’d need to sign approximately that amount. Maybe the other big names that donated 1/2-hour of their time to the commoners also have similar agreements?

Vicki,
I would have been flirting with you if you hit Fan Fest….(lol).
Seriously, it was a good time, but you also have a job that gives you some awesome access to these guys away fromn the ballpark.
When you finally hang up your flight suit, maybe you can write a book on the advenbtures and special moments of doing the charter flights for professional teams. Nothing graphic or nasty, just the good old fashioned “Awwwww” moments….or the nasty, your choice…

Brian,
The Rays actually had the players more in the public than ever before, but they did kind of skim down the autograph times this season. From the MetroPCS Call-A-Friend, photo with Season Ticketholders, High-5 Station, and playing games with kids, the players were out and abvout more in 2012, but the general public was not allowed to ask for autpgraphs after the fact.
Fan Fest is not perfect, but like I have said beofre, we should feel lucky we even have one while other teams play huge amounts of money just to enter the building, and might still not get an autograph.
The best value during Fan Fest was getting the TV and radio guys autographs, plus the MLB Alumni guys who have some interesting guys in their stable this year.

Jeff,
I asked someone about that, and he was positive, but he believed the time was dictated from beyond their department, so that might have been a good guess or actual fact for the short period of time. I know the guys all signed today in Port Charlotte after their workouts, but some people were upset the guys did not sign when they first came out or went in to change out of their jerseys because of the heat to do their conditioniing drills. I have a feeling the autogrpah free-for-all we became acustom to prior to 2008 is gone with the wind.

Yes, autographs have gotten harder to come by every year. The real struggles began in 2008, the first year the team had success. That was also the first year I had to take advantage of a clubhouse insiders offer to help me get a ball signed. The kids and I had always taken great pride in our ability to get a single signature up til that point. Unfortunately I had to beg for help again in 2009 to get Pat Burrell’s scribble on a ball. (Double thanks to the gentleman we both know!)

Once guys are in uniform I don’t expect then to sign as they prepare for spring training workout. I fully understand what I assume is their thinking. They’re going to work. Focus is important.

I do think it should be MLB and union policy that players committ to signing autographs after a spring workout. 5 minutes? 10? They can always blow off the professionals that show up with a bag of items to be signed. Seriously, what’s the big deal giving a little back to the fans. A large percentage of the people seeking autographs are not looking to sell the item.

Jeff,
I honestly stopped trying to get autographs a few years ago and went for only certain people. Try to get the rookies as they come up so I can leave them alone, plus a few of the vets I think would be nice keepsake autographs. I have not gotten soured by the autograph freeze, but it has cooled me down a bit from trying to alienate myself with a player who thinks I might be a “collector” or “vendor”.
All good things have to come to an end sometime…Then again, I am getting older so the excited fan angle tends to go South (lol).

It’s unfortunate that the older we get the more frowns we receive when looking to obtain an autograph. In our cases the only people that know why we collect are friends, most of who are collectors too. We are hobbyists that have collected since we were kids. I happen to think it’s a healthy hobby that has helped instill the love of baseball in my children, who I should add still enjoy the challenge involved in keeping our memorabilia collection up-to-date. It’s all about having fun!

Jeff,
Even though my outer shell is getting older, my baseball heart is young and gets excited by the little things like the sound of the ball hitting a miit or striking a wooden bat. It is one of the perils that with age comes the possibility of being a “collector”. I understand the players want to keep people like that at arm’s length when they do sign before games or during BP, but that also shut out people who might only ask once ( like myself) for their autograph and then leave them alone until something “magical” happens.
I am in envy of your collection, and you and your family should be proud of the way you rep the Rays both at the ballpark and in the community. Your family and yourself is the type of fans this teams needs more of, and hopefully a generation of them is being groomed right now.

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