In 1999, first-year Daytona Cubs season ticket holder Pat Drosten made a joking remark to the team's mascot.
"I just love you so much," she said. "I think I'm going to have to get a Cubbie tattoo."
One year later, she did.
Drosten was one of 17 Daytona Cubs fans who, in 2000, got a team logo tattoo in exchange for lifetime season tickets. Her permanent marking is just above her right ankle, a proud display of undying loyalty to a Florida State League franchise that seems to inspire an uncommon amount of devotion.
"When they came up with that promotion, I did it in a heartbeat. It was a no-brainer," said Drosten, who, along with her husband, Ed, attends upward of 170 professional baseball games a year. "It was a great logo, and who could argue with free baseball for the rest of your life?"
Drosten was speaking from the second row of seats at Jackie Robinson Stadium, from her familiar spot behind home plate on the third-base side. As she did so, tattooed regular "Front Row Joe" recounted his first reaction to this now legendary promotion.
"Duh," said Joe, a 50-something New Jersey native whose nickname is inspired by both his seating choice and last name of 'Rowe.' "I never gave it a thought."
And it's not hard to see why. Front Row Joe has been in his titular location at Jackie Robinson Ballpark for each of the last 1,148 Daytona Cubs ballgames, listening to the radio broadcast on headphones and always prepared to shake his team-logo cowbell in recognition of a positive development for the hometown team. There is even a "Front Row Joe" billboard in left-center field that keeps track of his streak, and 20 minutes before the start of each game he and a small entourage of fellow die-hards trek out to the outfield to update the number.
"I'm aiming for Cal Ripken now," said the soft-spoken Rowe, on his long-term plans for the streak. "Why not?"
The tattoo promotion was the brainchild of former D-Cubs general manager Buck Rogers, who, when he found out that I would be visiting Daytona, sent an effusive email about how special the city and its fans really are.
"[T]he sunsets are the most beautiful looking over the river, the beach is visible over the outfield and the town is 'live and let live,'" wrote Rogers, a mile-a-minute eccentric who now serves as general manager of the Huntsville Stars. "[Daytona] is a must-stop, can't-miss, home of the most die-hard, rabid fans that you will find in baseball. You know I'm half-nuts and trying to always lose the other half. I was sane until I spent three years in Daytona Beach with their hardcore fans."
Truly, there is something a little crazy about team logo tattoos and consecutive game streaks and the myriad other forms of above-and-beyond fandom you'll see on display in Daytona (later in the ballgame, I even witnessed a brief voodoo doll ritual). But it's all good-natured and rooted in an easy camaraderie that has evolved over many years, one inning at a time.
"When I lost my mother, some of the best advice I got was from people at the games here," said Drosten. "You just spend so much time with these people, over 200 hours a season."
This point was then amply illustrated by the appearance of fellow fan Faye Harris, a jovial grandmother who gave Drosten a big hug and referred to her as "my sunshine."
"This is just a great park and a great place to bring the family," said Harris of the iconic stadium, which was renamed in honor of being the first facility to stage an integrated Spring Training game. "[The Cubs staff] just do a terrific job."
Drosten concurred. She and her husband see a lot of baseball games -- from Spring Training to Major League road trips to nearby Florida State League rivals the Brevard County Manatees -- but Daytona is No. 1 in her heart.
"I've been to old parks and I've been to new parks, but this is where it all starts," she said. "There isn't a place quite like it."
And the tattooed die-hards help to make it that way.
"I've measured fandom from casual to hardcore to stark raving mad lunatic," wrote Rogers. "These people are top-level baseball fans."