Raucous Rays fans rejoice
Tampa Bay faithful take the Trop by storm before ALCS opener
ST. PETERSBURG -- The 11 honorees stood on the floor level of section 128, patiently awaiting their turn to ascend on Tropicana Field. Side by side they stood, holding a baseball in their hand and an uncontainable sense of pride in their hearts.
"This is our house," Pedro Morales said.
Friday night there was no arguing with that statement, as Raysmania took the Trop by storm for a highly anticipated Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox.
Morales was joined by 10 other original season ticket holders representing the Rays' 11 seasons chosen to throw out the Rays ceremonial first pitch in the ALCS opener.
"It's been 10 years of waiting," fellow ticket-holder Jack Critchfield said. "We always thought it could come, but there some days we wondered if it would ever come."
The celebrations have been few and far between for the Rays faithful, but Friday night was one that would not be forgotten.
The Mohawk-wearing, cowbell-clanking crowd came in droves, with blue faces and a full set of lungs, fit for encompassing the Red Sox players in a rowdy set of boos.
"I don't know why people don't like playing here," Rays first baseman Carlos Pena said. "We love it."
And rightfully so. The Rays posted a Major League-best 57-24 regular-season home record this season, with 54 of those home wins coming inside the cozy confines of the Trop (the other three were wins in home games at Disney), to become just the seventh team since 1980 to post a .700 winning percentage or higher at home.
|Rays' home record includes a 3-0 series win over the Blue Jays played at Disney's Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., in April|
Tropicana Field's charm has worked particularly well for the Rays against the Red Sox. Boston went just 1-8 inside Tampa Bay's home dome this year, a fact that wasn't lost on the rowdy crowd. T-shirts with the Red Sox logo crossed-out were about the only printable form of Boston bashing, as Rays fans drowned out any hint of opposing cheers with chants of "Tampa Bay."
And roughly half of the sellout crowd of 35,257 ringing cowbells didn't hurt, either.
Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg has always been a fan of the famous "Saturday Night Live" skit featuring Will Ferrell, Christopher Walken and a noisy cowbell, and the team partnered with T.G. Lee to distribute 10,000 cowbells twice last season and again this year.
But the cowbells were given only to fans wearing Rays gear, a point that helped band together the faithful and elicit a sense of pride.
"People kind of get mad -- they are wearing either Yankees or Red Sox gear, and we turn them down at the gate," said Rays director of marketing and promotions Brian Killingsworth. "We've actually had people go to the team store and buy something just to come back and get a cowbell. It's been pretty crazy."
Crazy, in fact, aptly describes the electricity shooting through the Rays' home.
From the moment each Rays player was announced -- amid two blasts of shooting fire -- to the time saxophonist B.K. Jackson put the finishing touches on the national anthem, the crowd was on their feet, welcoming history with thunderous applause.
It was a party 11 years in the making, with ESPN analyst Dick Vitale and "American Idol" runner-up David Archuleta among the notable attendees.
A season ticket holder, Vitale was on hand with his family and will throw out the ceremonial pitch in Game 2 on Saturday. Archuleta, meanwhile, sat with his brother and father, clutching the words to "God Bless America," which he was set to sing during the seventh-inning stretch.
The young singer sat several rows behind home plate, eyes wide and grin even wider.
"This is my second baseball game, and the best seat I've ever had," said Archuleta, a first-timer to the Trop. "This is so exciting."
To those like Morales, who sat and patiently waited through 10 consecutive losing seasons, it was more than that.
"This is a dream season," Morales said. "Let's hope the dream can just continue."
It will if history has anything to do with it.
Tampa Bay sold out and won both of its games in the ALDS, and it went 23-2 this season in front of a home audience of more than 30,000. The first two home ALCS games sold out in just 25 minutes, a fact not lost on the players.
"The numbers don't lie -- when we pack the house, we win, flat-out," Rays outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "So these guys are all excited to play in front of people -- they really are. And is that 10th man going to make you win? I don't know, but it's sure not going to hurt."
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.