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DEVIL RAYS HAVE THEIR INAUGURATION

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Everyone in Tropicana Field was standing and roaring just after 5 Tuesday afternoon.

Veteran Wilson Alvarez was about to deliver the first pitch in Tampa Bay Devil Rays history, one nearly 20 years in the making. It seemed all 45,369 fans wanted the offering to Detroit's Brian Hunter to be one of those Kodak moments.

Thousands of flashbulbs gave the pitch an eerie feel as Hunter took low and inside. The ball was taken out of play, destined for the Hall of Fame, and the Devil Rays were officially born.

"I'm glad Hunter didn't swing," said Rays third baseman Wade Boggs. "I would have never seen the ball. That was wild."

"It was like the first time I faced (Dodgers pitcher) Hideo Nomo with all those flashbulbs," chipped in shortstop Kevin Stocker. "It was crazy."

As it turned out, the off-target pitch was a bad omen for Alvarez. Tampa Bay's $35 million man lasted just 2 1/3 innings as the Devil Rays were drubbed by the Tigers, 11-6.

Those who stayed to the end gave the Rays a standing ovation after a four-run ninth that made things more respectable. They were also saluting a day most folks here thought would never come.

Tampa Bay, like Buffalo, was on the short list of six cities for the 1993 National League expansion, but was spurned in favor of Denver and late-charging Miami.

The Tampa-St. Petersburg area has had major-league dreams since the late '70s. When the stadium, originally named the Florida Suncoast Dome, was erected in 1985, the region quickly became the leverage capital of the baseball world.

The Chicago White Sox, San Francisco, Seattle and Texas all toyed with moving here before this expansion franchise was awarded in March of 1995.

"You can tell Tampa Bay was ready for baseball," said Boggs, a Tampa native who signed with his hometown team to continue pursuit of his 3,000th career hit. "It was a special day to everyone here. Now we're on the map."

Boggs collected hit No. 2,801 Tuesday and it was a significant one: a two-run homer to right-center in the sixth that produced Tampa Bay's first runs. By then, however, Detroit already had shelled Alvarez and built an 11-0 lead.

"I'm glad this game is over," admitted Alvarez, who signed his big deal after finishing last year in San Francisco. "I expect to do better and I failed."

Managing general partner Vincent Naimoli's group paid a $130 million franchise fee for the Rays -- $35 million more than the Marlins and Rockies shelled out in '93. Another $85 million was spent the last 17 months revamping the stadium from a concrete cavern into an entertainment center. Tickets for the opener sold out in 17 minutes last December.

On the field, there are the first dirt basepaths on an artificial turf diamond since St. Louis had that combination in the mid-1970s. Asymmetrical outfield dimensions are patterned after Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, extending to 415 feet in deep left-center. Players have had virtually no complaints except for the small visiting bullpen.

Fans bored by the numerous blowouts they might see a first-year club endure have plenty of diversions.

An upper-deck area in left field is known as "The Beach," complete with palm trees and tropical drinks. The exclusive four rows behind the plate -- $15,975 for the season -- have in-seat monitors that offer statistics, various camera angles of the action, replays and a connection to the team's Internet web site.

"Center Field Street" in the outfield contains a glass-enclosed restaurant plus a food court with various regional specialties. It also includes a rock-climbing wall, a hair salon and a cigar bar, the first in a major-league stadium.

The rout gave fans plenty of time to check out the new digs. Detroit pounded 18 hits and recorded the second-highest opening day run total in its 99-year history.

Alvarez gave up six runs on nine hits -- before the Rays had collected the first hit, a single off the first-base bag in the third by Dave Martinez.

Detroit scored four runs in the second, two in the third and five in the fifth to take its 11-run lead. Third baseman Joe Randa and catcher Joe Oliver drove in three runs apiece.

The first home run in Tropicana history was a two-run shot to right in the fifth by Tigers outfielder Luis Gonzalez, a Tampa native who had a dozen relatives sitting in the vicinity of his blast.

The fan who caught the ball was berated by neighbors to throw it back. Sensing the history involved, he refused.

"When I heard the booing, I figured my grandmother was the one holding the ball," joked Gonzalez, the former Houston Astro. "It was special for me, but kind of weird. Growing up in Tampa, I was just like a fan waiting for a team. It was strange being on the other side when it finally happened."

Detroit starter Justin Thompson, coming off a 15-win season and an All-Star Game appearance, threw five shutout innings before Boggs opened the Rays' scoring. A good chunk of the crowd left shortly thereafter.

Many of the fans, however, will always have the one image they wanted from this day: Tampa Bay finally getting to the big leagues.

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