The greatest day in the short history of the Tampa Bay Rays began before sunrise.
Ferg's, the sports bar that has stood by Tropicana Field through thick and thin, opened at 5 a.m. to a handful of loyal fans. Drafts and bloody Marys started flowing three hours later.
By midmorning, fans crammed the bar inside and out. Tailgaters flooded the Trop parking lot when it opened at 11 a.m. Hundreds of fans waited by the stadium doors, then surged inside when they swung open at noon.
Traffic on Interstate 275 backed up to the Gandy exit. The mayors of Tampa Bay's three major cities made a bet with Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley. Gov. Charlie Crist coolly strolled into the Trop with his gorgeous wife-to-be and boasted that he predicted the Rays would make the playoffs back on opening day.
Playoff baseball had arrived in Tampa Bay.
• • •
Holding red aluminum bottles of Budweiser in each hand, John Swartout, 59, of St. Petersburg shook his head and worried he'd be fired from his job at Intrepid Boats. A Vietnam vet, he told his boss he had to go to the VA hospital to get an MRI.
But at Ferg's, he was on Channel 13 with Charley Belcher. His boss called and asked if that was him he saw on TV.
"He said, 'You're at the game, aren't you?' " Swartout said. "I said, 'Yeah, sorta.' "
To make matters worse, Evan Longoria's first home run landed in his section. He showed up on the Jumbotron wearing a custom Rays jersey with his last name on the back.
He said he probably won't be fired — just written up. A "nastygram," he called it.
"I don't regret a thing. I would do it tomorrow," he said. "I wouldn't miss it for a million dollars."
• • •
If the Rays lose the series, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, Tampa Mayor Pamo Iorio and Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard proclaimed that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley will be in for a treat.
He'll get cigars from J.C. Newman Cigar Co. in Ybor City, orange juice from Tropicana, the Vinoy's key lime pie, Cha Cha Coconut's coconut shrimp, edible orchids from Green Bench Flowers, grouper sandwiches from Mid-Peninsula Seafood in St. Petersburg, stone crab claws from Frenchy's in Clearwater, conch fritters from the Palm Pavilion and Cuban sandwiches from the Columbia Restaurant .
"I think we have an ample meal for Mayor Daley that he will not have,'' Baker quipped.
Daley's counteroffer: Polish sausages, potato chips, Lemonheads, Pepsi and peanuts.
That's not why Chicago's called second city.
• • •
Ticket takers opened Tropicana Field at noon for hundreds of fans waiting to get inside. Fans in blue Mohawks and all manner of Rays gear swarmed in and let out an enormous cheer.
One of the first inside was Travis Polovich, 20, who has been rooting for the Rays since the first season. Polovich drove from Brooksville and waited for two hours before getting inside.
He said he has suffered through a lot of bad years, but added: "Once they started this season and got halfway through it, (I) knew it. Yankees and Red Sox couldn't handle us this year."
Ten minutes before the gates opened, lead ticket taker Marsha Eubank gathered her staff for a picture in the Gate 1 rotunda, her personal souvenir of this day.
"This is one of the most exciting days I've ever experienced," she said.
• • •
While hot dogs and cold brews were the snacks of choice through much of the stadium, the invited guests of the Rays' corporate sponsors dined on much more refined cuisine.
The scene at the Batter's Eye Restaurant would be enough to prompt that rolly-polly guy from the Miller High Life commercials to declare this Section La-Di-Da.
Guests ate seared ahi tuna with sesame crust, crab cakes, grouper nuggets and antipasto on a stick (whatever that is).
Still, manager Carol Turner said: "It's electric. It's fun."
• • •
Much has been made about the Rays' decision not to remove the blue tarps from about 6,000 upper deck seats.
John Beatty, 41 of Palmetto and Mark James, 48 of St. Petersburg took matters into their own hands. They pried free the blue tarp from a handful of seats in Section 317. They reported enjoying the view.
"When I get in an airplane, I like the aisle," Beatty said. "Same thing for a baseball stadium. I don't want to be crowded and sweaty."
The two, whose views were partly blocked by the D ring, said they actually wished they were higher.
"We'd love to be dangling our feet off the catwalk," James said. "Now, that would be fun."
• • •
After the game, fans streamed out of stadium chanting "Let's Go Rays" and clanging cow bells.
Thousands streamed into downtown to get to their parked cars and head out to eat or continue their celebration at local bars.
Ferg's — where the celebration had begun more than 12 hours earlier — was again jammed with bodies. Outside the bar, Central Avenue was impassable.
"Playoff atmosphere. Like a Final Four, a Super Bowl," said Joe Gabriel, 44. "It's a Thursday afternoon. It feels like a weekend party."
Just months ago, some questioned whether Tampa Bay could muster enough fan support for the Rays as anemic crowds dotted the Trop's blue seats while the team scorched toward the postseason.
But if Thursday's fan reaction was any indication, Tampa Bay baseball fans have been thirsting for games in October, even if they were reluctant to believe in July or August.
In the cooling fall air after the game, the city felt as alive and vibrant as ever.
It felt like playoff baseball a long time coming.
Contributing: Stephanie Garry, Curtis Krueger, Waveney Ann Moore, Aaron Sharockman, Cristina Silva, Jamal Thalji and Chris Tisch.