ST. PETERSBURG — By the time the Guzman-Ramos siblings got their hands stamped and walked to the edge of the Tropicana Field turf, the line had already reached the very last barrier.
At least a dozen children stood with parents in three serpentine rows ahead of Sebastian, 8, and Penelope, 6, providing ample time for them to lean against the retractable ropes and eye the other competitors.
Under bright stadium lights, shrieks and giggles and blasting pop music echoed across the ballfield, as the home of the Tampa Bay Rays transformed Saturday into a fairground for a few hours during Fan Fest. Kids in light blue jerseys and too-big hats ricocheted between carnival games, autograph stands and a dance floor. But it was here, in a small fenced-off rectangle in left centerfield, where the reverberating thwack of plastic on plastic signaled not just the start of baseball season, but all-important triumph in a test of young skill.
The Wiffle ball zone offered a chance to show, in front of parents and grandparents and friends and perhaps especially strangers, that a kid could hack it.
Some toddled up, unsure where to stand or how to grip a bat, while others stepped forward confidently in sneakers and high socks, folding into stances sharpened by years of practice on Little League diamonds.
Jokes and taunts always receded into quiet seriousness when the first hole-pocked plastic ball fluttered into the air.
Parents took out phones to record videos and squinted, shouting instructions that left no doubt how important the challenge was.
“Take your time!”
Still minutes away from his chance, Sebastian heard a thump and saw a white ball rising above the crowd in front of him.
“Was that a little kid or a big kid?” he asked.
“A little kid,” answered his grandma, Norma Gonzalez.
“Are you a little kid or a big kid?” his mom, Cynthia Ramos, prodded.
That remained to be seen.
Sebastian and Penelope live in Palm Harbor and play in Countryside Little League, he for the Tigers in the AAA division and she for the single-A Knights. He’s in the third grade and she’s in kindergarten. Sebastian wore an old baseball jersey to Fan Fest, number 21 for Roberto Clemente, a former star his grandpa told him about from his family’s homeland, Puerto Rico. Shiny sunglasses dangled from Sebastian’s collar. Penelope wore a shirt with bright lettering: “Infinite Possibilities.” Her cheeks were smeared with thick pink eyeblack.
“You need to always remember, keep your eyes open,” coached their grandpa, Greg Ramos, as they moved forward in line.
Penelope tilted her head back and stared at the Tropicana Field dome. “I’m going to hit it all the way to the roof!”
Just a couple of more children left to go, then their turn. Their mom inhaled, demonstrating what to do. “Take a deep breath,” she said. “And have fun.”
Sebastian stepped up first, tucking his chin to his shoulder, coiling his arms and clutching a thin blue bat — not a regulation yellow Wiffle stick, but his favorite color.
“Oh, he’s ready,” a Rays staffer said, preparing to throw a pitch.
The ball lofted slowly to the plate. Sebastian made easy contact, knocking a ground ball into the turf. Another grounder. Then another. Soon, a hard line drive to the wall.
Penelope was up next. She chose a fat pink bat and planted her feet next to the plate.
She waited as the ball floated toward her, then swung, hard. Thunk.
Penelope sent the ball flying in a high arc, once, twice, three times, drawing a gasped “woah” from her family — and maybe some strangers, too.
Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727)-893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.