Devil Rays Celebrate First Minor League Game
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) _ The final score was not nearly as important as the occasion for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and baseball starved fans who have waited two decades for a team to call their own.
Youngsters climbed over one another seeking autographs from players so new to them that they pleaded for attention by yelling out uniform numbers instead of names.
As vendors did a brisk business Wednesday, club owner Vince Naimoli mingled in the stands and no one in the crowd of 7,582 seemed to care that the first minor league game in franchise history ended with the home team on the wrong side of a 10-1 score.
``This day is about getting started, not winning a game,″ general manager Chuck LaMar said. ``From that standpoint, it couldn’t have been more productive.″
The Gulf Coast League Devil Rays are a collection of draft picks and other young prospects who probably won’t be ready for the majors when Tampa Bay begins play in 1998.
Pablo Ortega, a 19-year-old right-hander from Mexico, threw the first pitch against the GLC Yankees. Alex Sanchez got the first hit (a bunt single) and scored the first run, while Doug Johnson, a football recruit from the University of Florida, got the first-extra base hit.
``I thought the players handled themselves very well,″ manager Bill Evers said. ``Of course, they were pretty nervous. Most of them have never played in front of this many people.″
Rookie league games usually attract fewer than 100 fans. But the Devil Rays promoted the free event for weeks and the game also was carried live on local radio and cable television.
Fans filing into Al Lang Stadium were given commemorative pins, tickets and scorecards. When the game ended, many lingered in the hot sun to meet players and express their gratitude to Naimoli, who probably signed more autographs than anyone.
``At this point last year, this was just a vision,″ Naimoli said. ``Here, it’s no longer a vision. It’s something in the flesh. It’s the culmination of a dream. ... The only day that will be as exciting will be Opening Day 1998.″
The first pitch was a ball _ high and outside. Ortega walked the first batter on four pitches, didn’t throw a strike until the seventh pitch and gave up three runs on four hits in three innings.
Miguel Suriel drove in the only run of the game for the Devil Rays. Johnson, a second-round draft choice who also plans to play quarterback at Florida, went 2-for-4 with a single and double.
``We made some mistakes, but that was expected,″ Evers said. ``Overall, it was good exposure for them. History was made, and now we move ahead.″