Mitch Stacy | USA Today | http://usat.ly/29VmA9y
Tampa Bay may be in the team's name, but the home of the Rays is Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg - and a place that rarely gets wound up about anything is suddenly energized.
Mark Ferguson dreamed this would happen when he converted an old gas station/used car lot across from the Trop into a quirky sports pub way back in 1992. He figured that with a stadium in place the city would get a baseball team. It took a few years, but he was right.
The former middle-school teacher also banked on sleepy St. Pete becoming a real baseball town. He envisioned thousands of fans coming to Ferg's Sports Bar to eat and drink, spilling out into Central Avenue in joyous celebration of something. That took a while, too.
But after a decade of futility, the Rays are American League champs, set to play the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night.
Now Ferg's is stocking up on beer, a couple thousand burgers and tons - literally - of chicken wings for a World Series crowd, roping off a 3/4-acre parking area to keep the overflow out of the brick-paved street.
"We've been losers for 10 years, and now everyone is jumping on the bandwagon," the 51-year-old Ferguson said Monday, shortly after being interviewed on ESPN sporting a horrible, blue "Rayhawk" hairpiece. Saturday - ALCS Game 6 - was the best day ever for Ferg's, when around 15,000 people stopped into the sprawling establishment at some point during the day, guzzling 800 cases and 110 kegs of suds.
Whether Rays fever will be an epidemic or a passing fancy here remains to be seen. Despite the team's worst-to-first success this year, attendance at its dreary dome was among the lowest in baseball. The team is counting on the postseason run to significantly boost season ticket sales for '09.
But something definitely is stirring here in this laid-back, picture-postcard city of around 250,000 people, most of whom moved here from someplace else and have been slow to embrace their team.
"It's been indescribable," said 52-year Dave Rosenberger, who was among a crowd of 4,500 that came to a raucous Rays pep rally on a balmy night at the city pier Monday. He stood in a long line waiting to get a free "Rayhawk," a modified mohawk haircut that has become the signature 'do of the Tampa Bay players this year.
"The spirit is almost like going back to high school, before homecoming," Rosenberger said. "It's just incredible how it's brought this community together."
St. Petersburg has always been the "stepchild" to more metropolitan Tampa, he said. "We don't feel like we get the respect. Now we're getting the respect."
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist thinks the Rays' success has benefited the entire state.
"The have the second-smallest payroll in major league baseball, and they just keep swinging, and keep fighting and keep scrapping," said Crist, who grew up in St. Petersburg. "It's a metaphor for America. Even when you may not have as much money as the other guy, you can still win. They're a great inspiration for all of us."
Mark Cram has been going to Rays games - and watching them on the big screens at Ferg's - since the beginning.
"If we had a home game and we were playing the Yankees or Boston, sometimes there would be more of their fans here before the game than our fans," said Cram, a 51-year-old St. Pete native. "Now that's changed, and it's really exciting to see more people rooting on the Rays."
Cram brought his family down to Ferg's to join in the pandemonium after the Rays clinched the pennant Sunday night.
"I've never seen the city so crazy," said Cram's 23-year-old daughter, Kristin. "Everyone was out in the street, honking and screaming. A lot of camaraderie."