20 October 2008

How About Them Rays!

The year was 1998. The place was Tropicana Field, right here in St. Petersburg.

I was just ready to get my second Associate in Science degree in Legal Assisting. I had all the courses completed and I was taking an extra Legal Assisting related class on a non-credit basis to round out my schedule now that I was on my way to graduation.

Meanwhile, on a sunny day in St. Petersburg, the Tampa Bay Rays – which was formerly known as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays – began their inaugural season at Tropicana Field. While it was sunny outside, it was a cool 72 degrees inside Tropicana Field, which would make for a great game of baseball. The Rays took on the Detroit Tigers on 31 March 1998 before a sellout crowd of 45,369.

The first ten years of the Rays were anything but. We were basically the laughing stock of the American League East: Finishing last in the season, practically low attendance at Tropicana Field (save for a very miniscule number of near-sellout games), and more losses than wins season after season, not to mention fan dissatisfaction when Vince Naimoli was at the ownership helm.

Ten years later. The year is 2008.

Instead of being the laughing stock of the American League East, our Rays made a complete turnaround. We were winning more games than ever this season and we have had many sellout games. In fact, more than a handful of next to sellout games than past seasons.

We made it to the American League Divisional Series and we managed to beat the Chicago White Sox. We made it to the American League Championship Series and we managed to beat the Boston Red Sox – after seven games. After all, Boston was not going to let go of their defending World Series champion title without a fight. Until the very end at the seventh game on Sunday, 19 October 2008.

Now we made it. The Tampa Bay Rays – long known as the laughing stock of the American League East – is now going to the World Series!

You got that right. The Rays going to the World Series for the first time! I can’t believe it before my own eyes: I was watching Game 7 of the American League Championship Series at home on my widescreen HDTV when – in the top of the 9th Inning – the Red Sox’s Jed Lowrie hit a ground ball to Rays Second Baseman Akinori Iwamura. Once Akinori (or “Aki” for short) stepped on 2nd Base to make that final out history was being made right in front of my eyes on TV. Believe me, here is one Rays fan that was very excited!

There are plenty of things I feel that made the World Series possible for the Tampa Bay Rays. One important item of interest was the day when the word “Devil” was dropped from our team’s name and the uniform and logo was changed. Remember when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the laughing stock of the NFL for years? They changed their uniform and got rid of that “Bucco Bruce” logo that used to be part of the Buccaneers since 1977. And the reward for the Buccaneers? The Bucs are the 2003 Super Bowl champions!

There are more things I feel too that played an important role in the Rays going from the worst to the first. First, the change in managers when Joe Maddon was named the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays back in December 2005 replacing Lou Piniella. Second, when Stuart Sternberg bought into the Rays’ ownership group in 2004 he took a faltering team and basically rebuilt it from the ground up including improvements to Tropicana Field as well as revitalizing the fan experience.

2006 was really the turnaround year for the Rays when attendance began to increase resulting in sellout crowds. 2006 also saw the introduction of the “cowbell” which we Rays fans know by heart now.

Then to 2008 and that (almost!) championship season! The Rays did anything and everything to bring in the crowds to Tropicana Field, especially on Saturdays throughout the regular 2008 Baseball season when the Rays hosted a concert series when we had a home game. The Rays brought in the hottest acts in town including Latin superstar Gilberto Santa Rosa, among other things.

Now we have a baseball team right here in St. Petersburg – a Tampa Bay Rays we can now be proud of. And with the World Series being played right here in St. Petersburg (Games 1 and 2 and possible Games 6 and 7), St. Petersburg has finally earned its place on the map. Just don’t forget, the Tampa Bay Rays play right here in St. Petersburg at Tropicana Field, on the corner of Interstate 275 and its Exit 22, Interstate 175. If any announcer on TV says that the Rays are from Tampa, that announcer did not get a lesson in geography yet.

St. Petersburg celebrates the Rays!

And one more item: Tropicana Field is a great stadium for baseball. Why move to another venue when Tropicana Field is just good enough? Downtown St. Petersburg is a great place for baseball, and Tropicana Field is the perfect place for it.

On another note: I know that tickets for the 2008 World Series at Tropicana Field are hot commodities and practically the only way is to either go on to StubHub.com and purchase tickets (but be prepared to pay a steep premium!) or be one of the lucky few to be selected to purchase tickets from the Rays if you entered your name for the postseason ticket opportunity. If you do plan on going to any game of the 2008 World Series at Tropicana Field, I would like to know if you were successful in getting tickets at a reasonable price.

I personally congratulate the Tampa Bay Rays for the best season - that championship season - ever in 2008!


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