One of my goals with this blog has been to cover the history of baseball in North America with at least a semblance of comprehensiveness. With that in mind, I’ve recently covered the opening games in 1993 for the Rockies and Marlins, two of the remaining MLB teams I hadn’t featured in a post. And now this post on the Devil Rays’ first game, on March 31, 1998, completes the tour of the 30 MLB teams. The St. Petersburg Times did a full commemorative section on the game. Its game story said:
Reliever Terrell Wade was the first to meet Wilson Alvarez at the edge of the dugout. The meeting came far sooner than expected.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays ace had just been rocked. Slammed. Hammered for six runs. His team was down, he had surrendered nine hits, and it was only the third inning. Not what you expect from your average $35-million starter.
Wade felt for him. “I just wanted to let him know that all pitchers go through those kind of days,” Wade said. “You feel like you can’t get anybody out and then you start trying to press. Baseball is a team sport. You never want to point the finger at any one person.”
But Alvarez, and the 45,369 in attendance, likely won’t take that advice.
“I dreamed about this for 12 years, and I feel like I failed, I let the team down and the fans,” he said. “I made some good pitches and made some mistakes, and they hit me. It was the Tigers’ day tonight.”
It was indeed. The Tigers, who had two days of batting practice in Tropicana Field, seemed more at home at the plate. They had 18 hits in an 11-6 win and did most of their damage against the Rays’ best.
The nightmare in Alvarez’s first Opening Day start began in the second inning when he gave up consecutive hits to Tony Clark, Damon Easley and Luis Gonzalez, and the deluge began.
Joe Randa and Joe Oliver followed with two-run hits, and the Rays were down 4-0.
Alvarez struggled again in the third. He lost control of his changeup and had problems keeping the ball down. With two on, Randa and Oliver drove in two more runs, prompting manager Larry Rothschild to turn to the bullpen.
“He threw some balls up, and there were some changeups that were left up that were hit decently,” Williams said. “His breaking ball probably was not as good as it had been; perhaps the adrenalin had something to do with that. I’m sure it was a factor.”
Added Rothschild: “He had a good fastball. His location in the strike zone wasn’t as good as I have seen. He made some good pitches, gave up some hits that were beyond his control.”
Reliever Dan Carlson, who replaced Alvarez, did not mow them down, either. In 2 2/3 innings he gave up five runs on five hits, including Gonzalez’s two-run homer.
The newspaper’s Gary Shelton noted:
There was a moment, just a moment, when they made you try to believe. When they made you push aside the obvious, when they made you think they could do things impossible.
It was in the bottom of the ninth, the miracle inning, and Fred McGriff was walking toward the plate. Already, three runs had scored in the inning, and three men were on base, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had somehow closed to within a grand-slam and-a-half of the Detroit Tigers.
There was an instant, just an instant, when you forgot everything you had seen to that point. When you pictured McGriff turning on a fastball, the way he has so many times, and of it disappearing into the bleachers as the fans celebrated. When you started to think about comebacks, when you quickly did the math to think about who would have to do what. When you thought that if Kelly got on and Paul Sorrento went yard and John Flaherty singled and. . .
But the newspaper added:
“We have 161 more games to go,” managing general partner Vince Naimoli said. “And that’s part of the fun and drama of baseball. We’re going to show up again tomorrow and we’re going to play again tomorrow.”
The day didn’t turn out like the Devil Rays, and the 45,369 fans who packed sparkling new Tropicana Field, had hoped. But maybe it was too much to expect a storybook ending when the tale has already taken this many turns.
“It would have been nice to have a victory,” Naimoli said, “but it was a great day, a day of celebration. I think we showed the whole product is great. The field, the team and everything else.”
“It worked out well for everyone concerned,” American League president Gene Budig said. “I’m especially pleased for the people of this community. They waited a long time for this moment and they are the ones who deserve the recognition.
“It’s an extraordinary day for the American League. It’s everything we hoped it would be. The Devil Rays have done a superb job in putting this franchise on-line. It’s certainly going to be a successful one, and I predict early success here. It’s great to be here.”‘
Everybody seemed to feel that way. Sure there were a few complaints about the stadium. Workers scrambled to put on the finishing touches as fans scrambled for their first look. The crowd seemed a little quiet, and perhaps a bit quick to leave. But overall, the day was a success.
A long list of quotes:
“I’ve been a part of a lot of Opening Days, and this was a good one. They’re all special. Just to be playing the game is special. We lost today 11-6, but that’s the same as losing 1-0. It’s still a loss. The good thing about baseball is you learn from your mistakes, come back at 7 o’clock tomorrow night and get another chance. It’s a long season.” – First baseman Fred McGriff
“The thing I will always have in my mind is the first pitch by Wilson (Alvarez). From leftfield, I couldn’t see. There were like 10,000 cameras going off all at once. I can’t remember being in a game where there was more attention and excitement in the air. Now it’s one down, 161 to go.” – Leftfielder Mike Kelly
“This is the first time I’ve been part of the 25-man roster for Opening Day, so it was very exciting. I got chills, believe me. It was very emotional. Being with this organization will be nice because we can grow up together. No matter what, I can always look back on this day.” – Second baseman Miguel Cairo
“The fan support was unbelievable. I expected a lot, but it still surpassed my expectations. When I was introduced, I was just concentrating on not tripping as I ran on the field. I was trying to avoid that turf toe. That would’ve been totally embarrassing.” – Pitcher Rick Gorecki
“I think we were more excited for the fans, the ones who had waited so long for this day to come. Now they have a professional baseball team. From a player perspective, it was very historic, but we’ve got a long way to go in this season.” – Centerfielder Quinton McCracken
“I loved it. The enthusiasm was fabulous, and it was still packed in the ninth inning. We started scoring some runs, and the fans were getting louder and louder. You can tell Tampa Bay’s ready for baseball.” – Third baseman Wade Boggs
“It was awesome. We went out at 2:30, 2:45 and met some of the people coming in. It just gave me chills. When they played the national anthem, all the cameras going off, when they announced, `For the first time, here are your Devil Rays,’ that was sweet.” – Pitcher Dennis Springer
David K. Rogers of the St. Petersburg Times on two of the men most responsible for Tropicana Field:
They ended their long quest exactly as they had started it. Just fans.
Bob Stewart, “Mr. Baseball” to many residents, and Rick Dodge, who pursued baseball through two decades on St. Petersburg’s behalf, were in the stands Tuesday to watch the Devil Rays’ first game.
No box seats, no invitation to a suite somewhere, never mind being asked to participate in the festivities on the field.
“I’ve had at least 150 people come up to me already,” Dodge said. “Most of them say something like `I’m a fan, and thank you. We know how much you did, and we’ll always remember.’
“A lot of them say, `You should be on the field,’ and I tell them I’m right where I want to be – in the stands with the fans.”
Dodge was sent out by the city on an exploratory mission to find out what it would take to land a Major League Baseball team here. He was an assistant city manager then, a former recreation department head with a fondness for baseball.
Stewart, as a St. Petersburg City Council member in the 1980s, was nominally Dodge’s boss. He and a handful of other local officials had begun beating the drum for baseball as an economic development tool in 1980.
In 1986, Stewart got the ultimate chance to show his support for the game: He voted with a City Council majority to build a $65-million domed stadium without having first secured a team to play in it. He got a second chance when, as a Pinellas County commissioner, he voted to approve millions more to help improve what is now Tropicana Field.
The total cost of the stadium today, as the Devil Rays begin play: about $210-million.
On a more somber and prophetic note, the Tampa Tribune editorialized:
“It is to the Devil Rays’ advantage that Tampa Bay fans are noted for their patience in nurturing teams. The Buccaneers set records for losing in the National Football League before Coach Tony Dungy finally turned things around. The Lightning – which only a few years ago generated great excitement in the region – is the worst team in the National Hockey League this season.”
And Jodie Wagner of the Palm Beach Post wrapped it up:
“On a day of firsts for the Tampa Bay community, perhaps it was the numbers that best told the story: Six, the number of existing teams that spurned the Bay Area in order to stay where they were – Minnesota, Seattle, the Chicago White Sox, Texas, San Francisco and Oakland; Two, the number of expansion franchises awarded by Major League Baseball in 1991 when Tampa Bay was excluded; 18-0, the vote of Major League Baseball’s expansion committee on March 9, 1995, to award a franchise to Tampa Bay; Four, the number of Hall of Famers who threw out the first pitch(es) – Al Lopez, Monte Irvin, Stan Musial and Ted Williams.
“As for the game, well, there figures to be plenty more like this one for Tampa Bay in its inaugural season.”