ST. PETERSBURG — He is only 8, but Bobby Selby Jr. has been to more than 300 Tampa Bay Rays games. He comes in a blue Evan Longoria T-shirt under a white Rays jersey, often wearing a glove signed by B.J. Upton and a ball cap signed by more players, ready to cheer the only home team he has ever known.
"I like when they hit a home run or pitch really good, that shows that the Rays are really with it," said Bobby, a Holiday third-grader.
Bobby is part of the Rays Generation — the first group of fans to grow up with the team.
To many adult baseball fans, the Rays will always be new, always be an expansion team, always be a team whose baseball cards they never had the chance to collect. Sure, grownup fans cheer for the Rays by ringing their cowbells and wearing Rays gear, but their most cherished baseball memories often carry names like Mantle, Aaron, Mays or Bench, and images of Wrigley or Fenway.
But now that the Rays have been here 11 years, a generation of children has grown up with them. For these kids, the Rays have always been the home team. For them, the Trop is Yankee Stadium and Evan Longoria is Joe DiMaggio.
"It's like we're coming home every time we go to the Trop," said Bob Selby, a corporate pilot and Bobby's father.
Consider the story of Roslynn Smith. Like so many thousands of New York Yankees fans who live in the Tampa Bay area, she loved going to Tropicana Field to root, root, root for the away team. She was part of the reason the Trop has sometimes sounded like it was in the Bronx.
But every time she yelled "Go, Yankees," her daughter Maya, now 9, yelled "Go, Rays." Maya, like the other kids she knew, cheered for the home team.
Her cheers must have been persuasive.
Now mom is a Rays fan, too. The family attended a Rays rally last week, all decked out in Rays gear.
John Abbott was 13 when his grandfather decided to drive him from Lakeland to Tropicana Field to take in a game, plus a hot dog, Pepsi and free baseball cards they were giving out that day. "Just being there and seeing it in person opened my eyes to how beautiful the game was," Abbot said.
He became a die-hard fan after that 2003 game (Devil Rays 15, Rangers 4) and never stopped rooting for the Rays. Now a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Florida, he often gets comments from other fans as he walks across campus in his Evan Longoria shirt, his Carl Crawford jersey, his old Devil Rays hat or his new Rays hat. And it barely seems real.
"I'm speechless. It's kind of surreal that this day is really here. I don't want to wake up because I think I'm dreaming. … It's a really great feeling."
And this year, more and more kids are catching a baseball fever they may never shake.
Nine-year-old William Brumback, sporting a fresh Rays Mohawk, listened attentively to Carlos Pena, Joe Maddon and other Rays at the rally last week.
"He's a big football fan, but this year he lives for baseball," said his mother, Elizabeth Brumback, 43, who works in customer service for the St. Petersburg Times.
Bob Selby traces his own love of baseball to his mother, who rooted for the Boston Red Sox. Selby also has fond memories of growing up in Connecticut, and piling into the family car to go to Shea Stadium to watch New York Mets such as Tom Seaver and Cleon Jones.
Now, he says, "I'm passing this baseball nostalgic torch to Bobby."
Bobby is 8 now, but he was only 3 months when he came to his first game. He's even younger than the Rays. Over time, he has learned certain nuances of the game, like watching to see when the starting pitcher is losing control, and checking whether anyone is warming up in the bullpen.
Sometimes Bobby will call out: "Come on, ump, open your eyes, you're missing a good game." When someone hits a pop fly, he'll yell out to the Rays: "Come on Carlos, can of corn, eat it up!"
Bob Selby takes his son to games so often that the ushers, vendors and some of the team's management know them. Somehow the team selected Bobby to sing Take me out to the ball game during the seventh inning stretch of the Rays' first playoff game on Thursday.
As a young boy who has rooted for this one team his whole life, it's hard for Bobby to imagine the future, and what baseball traditions he might pass on to his own children.
But he tried.
Question: Will you tell your kids about how you went to the first Tampa Bay Rays playoff game ever?
"Of course," Bobby said.
Then he explained where this future conversation with his children would take place:
"They'll be in the stadium watching me play for the Rays."
Staff writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8232.