Did you happen to miss the Tampa Bay Rays 2012 Fan Fest? Well, don’t worry, baseball fans, there’s still time to see Longo and the gang before all those pesky regular-season games you’re not going to attend get here. I’m talking about spring training at Charlotte Sports Park in the sunny, if graying, baseball paradise of Port Charlotte. Be sure to try the steak and cheese sandwich on the centerfield boardwalk, and if you run into the Port Charlotte Hooters girls, tell them to call me.
The Rays recently locked down the ever-amiable Joe Maddon with a three-year contract extension. That means the Tampa Bay clubhouse will be California cool through 2015. Groovy. The reason he’s a perennial contender for manager of the year is that he manages to make this woefully under-funded team believable contenders each year. That is, until they face the Texas Rangers in the playoffs.
If weekends are your only chance to catch a Port Charlotte spring training game, check out the matinee against the hated Boston Red Sox at 1:05 p.m. on Sunday, March 18. It’s a good indicator of how the Rays will fare against the Sox in the ever-competitive A.L. East. You’re sure to get a glimpse of former Rays Carl Crawford and Kelly Shoppach (for at least an inning or two). Be sure to ask C.C. what it was like missing the playoffs last year.
Not in the mood for clam chowdah? Hit the 7:05 p.m. game on Friday, March 23, against the Toronto Blue Jays. Another good division rival, but with fans that are — slightly — less obnoxious. What’s the spread on how much bigger Jose Bautista’s head will get before he has to start custom-ordering larger hats?
If you're more interested in the underwhelming intrastate rivalry with the Florida Fish, catch a preview of the infamous interleague Citrus Series when the newly minted Miami Marlins visit the Rays at CSP on Sunday, March 26. Check out their off-season acquisitions, annoyingly good pitcher Mark Buerhle and annoying human being Ozzie Guillen.
But wait, there’s more! The public money Miami got for a new stadium enabled the team to spend more money on personnel, including reigning National League batting champ Jose Reyes at shortstop. Fiery right-hander Carlos Zambrano is another new addition; he had to be separated from then-teammate Derrek Lee when he pitched for the Chicago Cubs. Hothead pitcher and hothead manager? You might get to see a brawl that doesn’t even involve the other team!
Your last viable chance for some spring training action on the weekend comes when the Red Sox hit Port Charlotte on Saturday, March 31, which closes out Saturday games in PC. If you want to keep the party going a little while longer, check out Joe Cracker Sportsgrille, just down the road from CSP, after the game. They have an excellent selection of brews, damn fine pizzas and other foodstuffs, plus a staff that’s willing to tolerate drunken baseball fans (even Red Sox fans, though they don’t advertise it). ANNNNND Rays players have been known to show up for dinner or a drink or two. Just sayin’.
But maybe you're just not up for a drive down to Port Charlotte. Stay close to home and you can still see the Rays play against other Grapefruit League teams. They face the Blue Jays on Mar. 16 in a matinee in Dunedin, and they're the visiting team against the Pittsburgh Pirates Saturday afternoon, March 17, in Bradenton. And remember those damned Philadelphia Phillies? The Rays have a matinee in Clearwater against one of the most dangerous pitching lineups in the majors (thankfully minus Roy Oswalt) Thursday, March 29. If you’re not a fan of Philly — or their fans (and who could blame you?) — you can always see the final A.L. East game of the Rays’ spring when they take on the Baltimore Orioles Sunday April 1, at 1:05 in Sarasota.
So what are you waiting for (other than the world to end, according to the Mayans)? Get your baseball fix early, unless that means you’ll attend fewer games at Tropicana Field. Either way, you’re missing out on a good time.