ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - "Never get into a car with strangers."
Great advice, unless you need a Red Sox ticket at Tropicana Field and Game 3 of the ALDS has already started.
Desperate times call for desperate actions.
There I was, Monday night, outside Tropicana Field, able to hear the crowd roar as Daniel Nava ended the Red Sox threat in the first inning.
All of the dependable parking places were full and all the dependable ticket brokers [it's legal here] were tapped out. No parking, no tickets. For the Tampa Bay Rays. The same franchise that had tickets available at the gate on the day of Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS. After managing to cram my still-kick-ass 2006 Dodge Hemi Charger into a spot about six blocks from the stadium, the ticket hunt began in earnest.
Crossing Central Avenue, I heard a voice from the traffic lane: "Hey, Are you a Red Sox fan?"
"Yes, of course."
"We've got one ticket, hop in the back seat and let's go. The light's green."
It's at this point when life decisions are made. Do you remember every piece of advice you've ever gotten, or told your son when he was young?
"Never get into a car with strangers"
Or do you say: "These two guys are legit Massholes and they just want to dump a ticket? The ticket market is unbelievably tight and the Red Sox are up 1-0 in the first."
Option 2 wins.
As soon as I hopped in the back seat and saw a child's car seat [the SUV was a rental] I knew I had made the right choice. "Hey buddy, I paid $85 for this ticket, what will you give me for it?"
"Works for me. You'll be sitting with us, so maybe we can buy you a beer."
"No thanks, I don't drink"
"Great, then you can buy us beers."
Introductions and pleasantries were exchanged. Eric [he's in blue] and Steve are a pair of brothers originally from New Bedford. They temporarily escaped a mini-family vacation with their significant others and the kids in Orlando to head 90 miles west to St. Pete. "We knew we'd be down here. Once the Rays got in, we knew we had to come." The third ticket belonged to Dan, a friend in Tampa, who bailed on the brothers at the last minute. "I haven't talked to him for three years. It cost me $85 not to have to talk to him for another three years. It was worth it," Steve told me, or was it Eric?
They wrangled a parking spot directly across the street from the Trop for the "premium playoff" price of $40. That's all you need to know about the value of off-street parking at Rays games.
We walked into Game 3 and Steven, the younger of the two by three years, told me he was putting on his "wife-beater" since it was warm and humid.
"Wife-beater? What else would you expect with someone from New Bedford?" I quipped, jumping on that Clay Buchholz-like meatball. And with that classic "Masshole" wise-crack, a fast-friendship was formed. We would wind up in Section 130, along the right-field line adjacent to the Rays bullpen.
"Glad we met," Eric said. "Although I'm not sure was crazier: Us asking you to hop into the back seat or the fact that you hopped into the back seat."
By the second inning, the boys had dubbed me "Uncle Bill."
The couple seated behind us, whose photograph appears at right, won the night. She's a cowbell-wielding Tampa area native. He's from Connecticut. Clearly a match made in heaven. I had no idea why he was so happy when Evan Longoria hit his home run until I saw the back of her shirt.
The game itself was a four-hour-plus tooth extraction.
Here's all you really need to remember: Buchholz pitched to Longoria with two runners on and first base open in the fifth. Wil Myers was on deck. Then that bad call was compounded by even worse execution, as Buchholz decided to challenge him with a 92-MPH inside fastball on 3-2. Home run. 3-3.
Rest is history.
Famous last words from Eric: "Why are they pitching to Longoria right here?"
Eric, we'll never know.
The 5-4 walkoff loss was circa Aaron F. Boone 2003 in its Red Soxian trauma. But was Section 130 was raucous. We were surrounded by a mix of Red Sox and Rays fans. Cowbells were clanging and pom-pops were waving. The Rays portion of the crowd - my guess it was about 60-40 Rays fans - cheered wildly for each two-strike foul ball and yelled "balk" every time a Red Sox pitcher stepped off the mound. It must be just like this at Little League games in Oklahoma. Tuesday morning, I woke up with a cowbell hangover and mild case of "John Farrell What The Hell Were You Thinking." Those concerns were alleviated in Game 4.
Still , never had I witnessed a Red Sox loss, either in person or elsewhere, and enjoyed myself so much. You don't have to be miserable every time this team loses, even in the postseason, especially if it's Game 3 and not Game 5 or 7. And none of us decided to pitch to Longoria, either.
Steve spent the whole night reminding the Rays fans how their season was going to end and kept the faith until Jose Lobaton's home run. "Stop talking about Game 4, Uncle Bill. You don't have the right attitude." Eric was the fantasy baseball player. The conversation bounced from the Hunter Pence deal, to their kids, to marriage, to fatherhood, to Jacoby Ellsbury's future with the Red Sox, with key moments of the game interspersed.
A scantly-clad blonde nearby wearing Miley Cyrus-length shorts, a faux Rays jersey and titled cap [maybe it was here 21st birthday?] was ejected for being drunk and disorderly along with her husband/father/boyfriend/baby daddy in the fourth inning. The couple returned in the sixth to be ejected again in the seventh when the beer vendor cut them off. Before being tossed the first time, she greeted us with a volley of slurred f-bombs and anatomically impossible suggestions that caught the ear of our local usher. "The last time a woman told me to 'go [expletive] myself,' I married her," I told the brothers.
"Uncle Bill" was on a roll all night.
Rays' fever. Catch it. And don't forget the penicillin shots.
The evening ended with an unscheduled tailgate party in a lot off Central Street with a friend of the two brothers whom they knew growing up but was now living in Florida. The offerings included granola bars, spicy fried chicken wings and some recreational intoxicants.
Yes, fried chicken and weed at a Red Sox game.
Take that Josh Beckett.
The homemade chicken was otherworldly. We passed on everything else.
Each of us had a two-hour drive back to Orlando and it was close to 11:30. Remember, this game had started at 6:15.
Sometimes, you just have to say "no."
Especially when it comes to pitching to Evan Longoria.
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