In an effort to keep content flowing in the off-season that isn’t all stats and analysis, I am going to insert some personal anecdotes that I have compiled from my time as a Rays fan. For a moment to make this list, I had to be in person at the game which narrows the list considerably for me. While I love the Rays, I also live 2 hours from Tropicana Field if there is absolutely no traffic on the road for me to run into and have worked two jobs most of my adult life either teaching online classes or writing fantasy sports so when you tie that into being a husband and father of two young kids, free time is slim. The first such anecdote is “The Next Ted Williams” game that was played between the Reds and the Rays on June 11th, 2003.
As far as the specifics of that game, I remember very little of it outside of how wild Dewon Brazelton was (shocker) and the grand slam Kelly Stinnett hit in the third inning, but the game itself is not the highlight of this story. Rewind five days earlier when my then new bride was driving my car back to the house quickly to get something before we went on a road trip to Jacksonville to see my dad and ended up rear-ending a Yukon while getting onto I-4. It was enough to screw up the hood of my Chrysler Sebring (piece of crap) to put it into the shop. My insurance company gave me a Ford Excursion as a replacement for a week at $10 a day. At the time, I was teaching summer school in East Orlando on a staff where at 31, I was one of the oldest teachers on the summer school staff. Since I was driving that landshark of a vehicle, I decided it would be fun to grab a bunch of guys and head over to catch a game. I rounded up five teachers from my school and my best friend, who was an elementary teacher. Now, understand, my best friend George also happens to be my ex brother-in-law but he refused to give me up in the divorce and vice-versa so we’ve been friends now since 1989. I have gone to hundreds of sporting events with this guy, but when his lovely wife is not with us, he turns into Robin Fickler.
If you are too young to know who Fickler was, he was the original sports heckler who would wreak havoc at Washington Bullets games but ten times worse than anything Mark Szasz did in his heyday in The Trop. I’ve always maintained that George is somehow related to Fickler because the two are cut from the same mold. The two of us were at an Orlando Rays game when John Rocker was on the team and my friend’s heckling had Rocker so irate he kept yelling at him and pointing at the parking lot. In another Orlando Rays game, George saw that Steve Balboni was the hitting coach for the AA Cardinals; the same Balboni that hit .229 for his career and struck out 27% of the time. The heckling was a blast that night as the AA Cardinals struck out 16 times and we earned a middle finger from Balboni for our efforts. His best effort came in a Spring Training game when Storm Davis was pitching for the Royals and the Tigers sent 11 men to the plate in the first. George yelled, “Storm Davis you suck!” to the shock of all the silver hairs in the crowd. The next inning, Davis came out and struck out Cecil Fielder, Pete Incaviglia, and Mickey Tettleton on nine pitches and walked right up toward the seats and pointed out George before going into the dugout to the laughter of the entire crowd.
Fast forward to our road trip that June night. I told none of my friends about George and his love for heckling. George tends to be a bit reserved around new company so he was not too chatty on the drive over as we all just talked shop and such. The other bit of information that I failed to share with the group was just how much George hated Ben Grieve. Back when Grieve was first coming up, he got a lot of “the next Ted Williams” comps because of his swing but he never came close to showing that potential in the big leagues. George never bought into the hype and for some reason, could never let it go that people could even compare someone to Ted Williams who he maintains is a once in a lifetime hitter.
What the rest of the car did not know was that George had made a banner for the game adorned with “The Next Ted Williams???!!!!” because our seats were in the 2nd row of the right field bleachers for the night. We get situated in our seats and find that Aubrey Huff is starting in right that night – much to George’s dismay. Once Grieve came up for his first at bat, the banner came out in full display as it took four of us to hold it out and George kept reading it out to all that wanted to hear at the top of his lungs. Mind you, this was your typical June Devil Rays’ crowd on a Thursday night so the official 10,105 attendance number was pretty generous. The heckling later turned to Aubrey Huff when George was asking him if he was jealous he was not considered the next Ted Williams but the stoic and disinterested Huff would not give us the time of day. The fans in right field were enjoying the show and some came down to take pictures with the banner but I’m sad to report I’ve lost my copies of my pictures in one of my three moves since 2003. It was only fitting that Grieve went 0-3 in the game and only reached base when he was hit by a pitch.
The ride home from that game might have been the baseball gods striking down on our motley crew for our behavior at the game because despite leaving the stadium at 10:30, we did not not arrive home to my house in downtown Orlando until 4:30 in the morning thanks to I-4 being shut down right near Lakeland and all exits being blocked off by cops as they pursued a fugitive. After 90 minutes of not moving, the cops then turned it into a rolling roadblock and we inched along I-4 at idle speed until just near the old exit for Boardwalk and Baseball where the Royals had Spring Training. Mind you, all of us had to be at school at 7am to teach the next morning and we were the front car in this roadblock so we had to stare at the flashing sirens for over four hours as if we were at some kind of all-night rave.
When you’ve been a fan of a club that, until recently, had such a wretched history of losing, you have to find ways to make the games memorable. The Next Ted Williams game remains one of my all-time favorite moments at The Trop because as Dewayne Staats reminds us after every loss, “I hope you enjoyed the game if not the outcome.” I most certainly enjoyed the game.