On Friday evening, under the stadium lights of Tropicana Field, the Tampa Bay Rays paid tribute to the victims and survivors of the Pulse Massacre, a horrific event that left 49 LGBTQ+ people dead and 53 injured a year ago this weekend. The majority of victims were of Latino descent.
Families of survivors held each other as they encircled home plate in “We Are Orlando” t-shirts during the game’s opening ceremony. Some smiled and others shed tears as the National Anthem filled the stadium. Both the American flag and Pride flag were stretched across the outfield in honor of the evening’s tribute event.
After the families were ushered off the field, Amanda Grau walked to the pitcher’s mound donning an Orlando shirt and a Tampa Bay Rays baseball cap, its brim flipped to the back. Grau survived multiple gunshot wounds from the June attack. A year later, beaming with pride in front of 13,000 fans, friends, and family members, she threw out the game’s first pitch and then posed for photos along the baseline.
This year, fans received Rays tumblers with a rainbow logo etched on the front and light blue PRIDE t-shirts. The back of the shirts read “#honorthemwithaction,” the new hashtag slogan created in partnership with Equality Florida.
The purpose of the slogan is to encourage fans to honor Pulse victims with action by attending LGBTQ supportive events, volunteering with an LGBTQ organization, giving blood to One Blood, donating money to an LGBTQ cause, and/or amplifying voices of Pulse victims and their families.
The Rays’ Organization has placed temporary plaques on the #HonorThemWithAction wall through Pride Month in honor of the victims, highlighting key LGBTQ organizations to support.
Last year, the Rays hosted 40,135 people for Pride night, five days after the Pulse shooting, a record number of game attendees since the Rays’ opening night in 2006.
“We were wrecked like everyone else across the country and world,” said Brian Auld, President of the Tampa Bay Rays. “The next morning we were e-mailing each other asking ‘What do we do?’ I remember forwarding an email to the owner [of the Rays] saying that we have to do something and it has to be big.”
According to Auld, owner Stuart Sternberg replied with his full support. “Do everything. Do it big. Most importantly, do it right.”
Within hours the Rays had a “blank check” to get things done. They donated 100% of the proceeds of the evening’s game to the victims and their families and created a space for the entire community to gather. They even rolled up the tarp to make sure everyone in the community could unite in one space. “We had more people in this building than at the World Series [in 2008],” recalls Auld.
When asked about the steps taken to plan the event, Auld replied, “We reached out to people within the community, including Equality Florida. Between sobs, we started to lay it out. We even created a video with Equality Florida. Once we had a rough outline, we planned a moment of silence.”
The message to the community was, “We stand with you and aren’t tolerating this kind of intolerance.”
The organization had a different focus for this year’s Pride Night, according to Auld. “We want to respectfully remember what happened. It’s not a night for people to lose their hearts again. Hopefully, it instills a great sense of positivity that the community has overcome.”
The Tampa Bay Rays have been pioneers among MLB teams to progress LGBTQ rights. They provided same-sex protections to couples before marriage was legal and in 2015, they were one of only three teams to sign onto the Amicus Brief in support of marriage equality. The other two teams were the San Francisco Giants and New England Patriots.
The Rays have been hosting Pride Night for over a decade, according to Rays’ Senior Director of Public Affairs, Rafaela Amador Fink.
Although this year’s event saw a smaller crowd than last year’s, the positive energy and colors of pride flew throughout the stadium with several local LGBTQ leaders in attendance.
In a 3rd Floor Club Box, local LGBT advocate and owner of the popular Punky’s Bar and Grill, Brian Longstreth, teamed up with PepsiCo’s Art Lawrence to host a fundraiser for Come OUT St. Pete.
According to the organization’s Facebook page, “Come Out St Pete is a Grand Central District Association event in collaboration with neighboring districts and other non-profit organizations. This event coincides with National Coming Out Day and is a celebration of St. Petersburg’s rich LGBTQ history. “
Longstreth and Lawrence sponsored the evening event and sold tickets to 40 attendees, netting $4,000 for the new organization. Tickets included a dinner buffet, fantastic seats, and community connection.
Thursday night’s game was a win for the LGBTQ community as well as for all fans, as the Tampa Bay Rays hit five home runs against the Oakland Athletics for a final score of 13-4.
Pride Night at the Rays kicks off a month-long celebration of equality and love. To check out upcoming events during Pride Month, click here.
To purchase tickets to an upcoming Rays, click here.
To learn about Come OUT St. Pete, click here.