I want to thank everyone who took the time to allow me to ask them questions to build this article/blog :o).
Since the early 1900’s, baseball has been an important make-up of the Tampa Bay area. From being the spring training home to a long list of organizations throughout the years to finally seeing the inception of the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays to Major League Baseball, the territory has witnessed it all. The region has also seen many local boys mature in to gifted athletes, such as Wade Boggs, Tony LaRussa, Dwight Gooden and Tino Martinez, that have left their mark on the game and in the history books. Behind all of the milestones, championships, hoopla and pageantry, there stands a solid backbone that has helped breathe life in to the quiet beast—the fans.
At a time when the country is giving thanks for independence by barbecuing with the family and watching fireworks, baseball fans—and more specifically—Rays fans, are celebrating the game they so passionately lose their voices over and name their children and pets after by fashioning rayhawks and ringing cowbells. For some, the lure of a hometown team is what has drawn them to Tropicana Field, while the others have relocated to the area for scholastic endeavors only to end up trading in old team allegiances in order to adopt the fiery Tampa bunch.
Among the fan favorites is Matt Joyce—a 2011 American League All-Star who like Boggs, LaRussa and company, is a hometown hero. Joyce went from playing ball at Armwood High School in Seffner to attending Florida Southern College before getting drafted in the 12th round of the 2005 amateur draft. The Rays made a trade with the Detroit Tigers that sent Edwin Jackson north to acquire Joyce in December 2008. “Matt Joyce is my favorite because who doesn’t love the local guy who came to see games here himself, as a kid!” Jason Rhodes, a former University of South Florida student interjected. “It’s really cool to see someone from this area be that good and be where he is.”
Of coarse, behind every great player stands a phenomenal, and maybe sometimes un-bromidic, coaching figure. Being a fan of the Rays means throwing out the traditional composition and dynamic of a team and accepting the sometimes unorthodox ideas of the two time American League Manager of the year, Joe Maddon. Will Smith, a Valrico resident and recent college graduate admitted that he was initially drawn to the team by Maddon’s “unique management style.” Under Maddon’s reign, the Rays have become a team that sports writers and broadcasting personalities cannot stop talking about; the gladiator masks and themed trips also help. “You don’t need a lot of money, just good management and innovation,” Smith added.
As the story in Tampa Bay continues to write itself, no other chapter is more prevalent than that of game 162. As close to unanimous as a percentage can possibly be, Rays fans rank September 28, 2011 as the best day in team history based on pure excitement. In the last regular game of the 2011 season, the Tampa Bay Rays squared off against the New York Yankees in what is now chronicled as one of the most epic games in baseball history. The team’s post season fate relied heavily on beating the Bronx Bombers and having the Baltimore Orioles overtake the Boston Red Sox in order to secure the American League Wildcard. Early on in the game, the Yankees looked like they were going to snag the win and force the Rays to have a Wildcard showdown with Boston; Dan Johnson didn’t like the sound of that. In the bottom of the ninth inning, with two outs, Johnson lined a solo home run over the wall in right field to not only tie the game, but send it into extra innings. Katiecake, a native Californian who now resides in Brandon recalled, “I remember us all standing and being on the edge of our seats glancing [at the screen] every time there was a break in play to see the Red Sox score. Then my Mom calls me and I am screaming at her about Dan Johnson and the whole time she was trying to tell me that the Red Sox lost because there was a delay in the posting of scores so I am jumping up and down screaming the Red Sox lost and everyone was staring at me.” For the next few innings, fans sat on eggshells as they desperately pleaded with the baseball gods for a win. Like the ending to any good fairytale, there’s one miraculous moment that stands out above all else. For the Rays, this magic moment belonged to the face of the franchise—Evan Longoria. In the bottom of the twelfth inning Longoria slammed a ball over the left field wall off of Scott Proctor and just like that, the Tampa Bay Rays were headed to the post-season to face the Texas Rangers. “After Longo hit the walk off home run I was hugging people I didn’t even know. It was truly magical. Being there was the most amazing experience of my life,” said Will Eveland, a diehard fan who has followed the team since it’s first season in 1998.
Fans of opposing teams may not understand the bond Tampa Bay fans have with the game because of the team’s lack of history. “People try to play the history card all of the time, and I tell them they can just stop right there. If their argument as to why their team is better is because they have X years of history compared to the 14 that the Rays have, then I concede the argument. The Rays can’t compete on history; they compete on the field where it is much more important.” Scott Caruso, now a Boston, MA resident explained. The late nineties may be where the Rays started, and they may not have several retired numbers decorating the walls of the Trop, nor have they had the honor of hoisting a World Series championship pennant in the outfield, but what they do have is an immeasurable foundation that grows larger and stronger every season; they have great fans. “It is hard not to become a fan. The Rays are a truly amazing team to watch. They have fun and it’s apparent which makes you want to be a part of it.” Katiecake concluded.
As the smell of smoke escapes the summer air, the road to the 2012 MLB All Star Game becomes more clear. Tune in July 10th to watch and support Fernando Rodney and David Price as they compete in Kansas City for the right of home-field advantage for the American League in the World Series.