Home sweet home: A history of home openers in St. Pete

Denard Span (left) had one of the most memorable home opener moments in Tampa Bay Rays history. (Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

There is truly nothing like a home-field advantage, and for the Tampa Bay Rays, Tropicana Field might be the greatest home-field advantage of them all.

The quirky stadium, built in 1990, is ridiculed for its exterior and catwalks instead of being praised for its spectacular interior amenities, fantastic gameday staff, and one-of-a-kind gameday experience.

It also was home to, before 2021, the longest active Opening Day home game streak in the American League, one that lasted from 2009-2020.

However, the Rays will be back at home on Friday to unveil its 2020 American League Champions banner, the second in franchise history. 

This might be the first game since Game 4 of the 2019 ALDS that the Trop has seen fans in the stands as current stadium capacity has been capped at 9,000 or 20%.

When it comes to home openers however, Rays have had their fair share and many, many notable home opener moments. 

Here are some of our favorites.

March 31, 1998: The first one

This was the first game in franchise history, the debut of the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays, to the baseball world. Yes, the Rays ended up losing this game, 11-6, to the Detroit Tigers, but the game was much more than just a win-loss situation. It was the start of what we now know as the Tampa Bay Rays, as Wilson Alvarez, at 5:05 PM EST, threw a ball for the first pitch in franchise history in front of 45,000+ fans.

Over the next decade, it was rather fitting that he threw a ball for pitch #1 as it would take the Rays until 2008 to record a winning season, but since 08, the Rays have recorded nine winning seasons. Two other things of note in this game: the first hit was a single from new Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez and the first home run came from who else, but the Chicken Man himself, Wade Boggs, in the sixth inning.

April 3, 2001: The first win

It took until Tampa Bay’s fourth season to record its first home opener victory, an 8-1 defeat over the Toronto Blue Jays in front of just under 27,000 people. Rays starter Albie Lopez twirled a gem that day, throwing eight innings of one-run baseball, striking out six Blue Jays batters. 

On the offensive end, Gerald Williams and Randy Winn each hit solo home runs, with Williams’ coming in a four-run sixth that put the game away for Tampa Bay. It would be the first of many home wins for the Rays moving forward.

March 31, 2003: The first walk-off and a five-run, ninth inning comeback

Talk about an exciting home opener. The Rays had exactly that against the Boston Red Sox, though it didn’t look like it for most of the game. A three-spot in the first inning of Rays starter Joe Kennedy and another run in the fourth put Boston up 4-0 after the sixth and 4-1 going into the ninth.

Things quickly changed in that ninth inning as Alan Embree hit a two-run homer to cut Boston’s lead to 4-3 before one young outfield superstar Carl Crawford came up to bat with two outs and two runners on. With a 1-2 count on the left-handed speedster, Crawford deposited a ball into the right field seats for a three-run, walk-off home run, the first walk-off on Opening Day in franchise history as the Rays won, 6-4.

April 13, 2009: The banner raising

The Rays, fresh off its first World Series appearance in franchise history, returned home to Tropicana Field after a 3-3 road trip to Boston and Baltimore. Tampa Bay welcomed the New York Yankees to town, and on this day, it was the Rays’ day, hoisting its 2008 AL Pennant banner atop the outfield seats in left field at Tropicana Field, and the game was that much more satisfying than the banner raising.

Tampa Bay would go on to demolish the Yankees, winning 15-5, with a grand slam coming from Carlos Pena in the second inning, and two solo home runs off the bats of Jason Bartlett and new signing Pat Burrell. Scott Kasmir shut down New York’s offense, allowing just three earned runs and three hits in six innings of work, improving to 2-0 on the season.

April 6, 2010: The second walk-off

A flurry of solo home runs came with this home opener for both teams, a total of four home runs hit on the day. The Baltimore Orioles used the solo shot to score all of its three runs on the day, with blasts coming from Adam Jones, Luke Scott and Matt Wieters. After an Evan Longoria solo home run cut Baltimore’s deficit to 3-2 in the sixth, the score remained the same going into the ninth inning.

Having produced some home opener and Opening Day heroics before, Carl Crawford stepped up to the plate with one out in the ninth facing Orioles reliever Mike Gonzalez, and the bases juiced with Rays. Crawford needed just two pitches to make his presence felt, hitting a line drive double to right field, scoring Sean Rodriguez and Kelly Shoppach as the Rays secured a 4-3 walk-off victory.

April 6, 2012: The Rays beat Mariano

The Rays have had immense Opening Day and home opener success against the New York Yankees, having gone 4-0 against the Bronx Bombers on Opening Day. That success looked to be in major jeopardy in 2012 despite a massive, four-run first inning thanks to first baseman Carlos Pena.

His comeback to Tampa Bay came in a big way with his second Opening Day grand slam in the first inning off Yankees starter C.C. Sabathia. The Yankees would answer with six runs in the second and third innings combined, including a three-run homer from Raul Ibanez. 

An Evan Longoria solo homer in the third would cut the lead to 6-5, but it would stay like that until the ninth, when Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera entered the game. He wouldn’t be that effective on this day as Ben Zobrist tied the game with a triple, and the comeback kid himself, Pena, would single Zobrist home for a 7-6, walk-off win over Mariano and the Yankees.

March 29, 2018: The triple

Talk about not being in a baseball game: the Rays offense was silenced by Boston Red Sox starter Chris Sale, who threw six innings of one-hit shutout baseball. A two-run homer from Eduardo Nunez and two RBI from Rafael Devers put Boston up 4-0 going into the eighth inning. The Red Sox winning percentage in the top of the eighth was 97 percent, but things quickly changed in the bottom half.

It started with Boston reliever Joe Kelly walking Daniel Robertson to start the inning. Robertson would come home on a Matt Duffy RBI double, getting the Rays on the board. Two more walks in the inning from Kelly would load the bases as he departed and Carson Kelly came in. He immediately walked Brad Miller to score Duffy from third. 

Then, came Denard Span, the Tampa-born player finally playing on his hometown team, and he delivered in just about the best way possible. Span hit a triple down the right field line, scoring all three, and giving Tampa a 5-4 lead. Span would come around to score on an Adeiny Hechavarria RBI single, and that would be enough as the Rays would win, 6-4.

2021 and beyond?

We got to witness the banner raising for the Rays of their AL East championship and second AL pennant in franchise history today before Tampa Bay’s game against the New York Yankees. The banners continue to come for the Rays, and we’ll hopefully see many, many more coming their way.

We’ll get plenty more home opener moments in the future, but it’s incredible the amount of great moments the Rays have had so far. Here’s to many, many more.