ST. PETERSBURG — When the moment finally arrived, Roy and Nancy Casto were ready.
The minute Evan Longoria caught the final out, the Castos pulled out a blue-and-gold banner signed by the team.
When an announcer told the crowd how to get postseason tickets, Nancy said to herself, "Already done it."
When Longoria hopped on the dugout, spraying champagne, Nancy held up a banner that read: "Longo: Rookie of the Year."
From their seats padded with cushions from the inaugural game, the couple were prepared for their team's biggest victory yet. Nancy lifted a homemade sign that captured their faithful journey through 11 seasons: "WE BELIEVE"
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For truly die-hard fans, Saturday's win was dreamlike and joyous. Rays fans screamed into the night. They skipped down the sidewalk, fired up the grill and grinned behind cigars. They gulped tall boys at Ferg's, sat in traffic and honked their horns.
And, of course, they clanged their cowbells.
After a solid decade of "wait until next year," they finally saw proof that this is next year. The Rays are going to the playoffs, after beating the Minnesota Twins 7-2. And it only took 1,770 games to get there.
Fans celebrated on both sides of the bay. In Tampa, Jeremy Lett, 32, watched the Rays clinch with friends at the Press Box on Dale Mabry Highway.
"I've been a fan for seven years, and I've watched terrible baseball for seven years, so now that they're winning, it's great to see it."
Back at the Trop, 25-year-old Brad Robison wore a green-and-purple Baldelli jersey as he walked out of the Trop blowing a horn. "This is amazing," he said.
He's been a fan since the first draft in 1996 and has put up with all the ridicule from the Red Sox fans, the Yankees fans. It's coming, he kept telling himself.
"It's not coming anymore," he said breathlessly Saturday. "It's here."
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The Castos bought season tickets for the inaugural 1998 season, and then learned Roy's position with the Coast Guard would move them to Washington, D.C.
No matter. Roy and his son flew to St. Petersburg for the first game, and Nancy came down for a game shortly afterward. They caught 12 to 15 games that year.
Even when Roy became a Coast Guard admiral and the couple moved to New Orleans, they traveled to St. Petersburg for more Rays games. After retiring, they moved back to St. Petersburg and saw virtually every home game.
Nancy, 58, is a cup-half-full fan. Every time the Rays lose, she focuses on positives. Her husband, 60, is a little different. He grew up in Connecticut rooting for the Boston Red Sox. He was so thrilled that St. Petersburg got a team that he shifted loyalties from Red Sox to Rays. A realist, he settled in and waited for the new team to get good.
Friends stopped going to games. At times, the Castos had too few neighbors to do the wave.
"The worst time for me was probably in the year before Mr. (Stuart) Sternberg got involved. Because it was like, this is never going to turn around."
Even after Sternberg replaced Vince Naimoli as the team's managing partner and instituted a more fan-friendly attitude, the Rays still lost.
A different feel
But this year, he said, things felt different. This year, the Rays kept fighting back. Like when the Red Sox beat the Rays 13-5 during the opening game of a series Monday. Just when the Rays seemed poised to slip back into their historic mediocrity, they took the next two games, which gave them a two-game division lead over Boston.
"They'd come right back," Roy said. "That was the thing that made it different."
The Rays' first winning season has sometimes been hard to believe. "I turned around the other night to the guy who sits behind us and said, 'Are we going to wake up and find out that it's all been a dream?' " Nancy Casto said.
(Pinch yourself. It's real.)
"The best part," Nancy said, "is we have more baseball to watch this year."
As the crowd screamed and the team jumped and hugged and sprayed champagne, Roy leaned over to a fellow fan.
"I thought I'd be happy if they got 80 wins. I thought I'd be happy if they made the playoffs," he screamed over the ruckus. "I lied!"
The next time they sit on those inaugural season cushions, Roy Casto hopes to see a pennant hanging in the dome.
Times staff writer Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this story.