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Rays' success puts their sorta-fans on the spot

In a town without a home team, diehards bring their baseball allegiances from elsewhere — their Phillies or Cubs, their Yankees or Sox.

But now it is 2008, and the improbable, wonderful, who-would-have-thought-it playoffs, and a dilemma sits in the stands at the Trop.

It is a fan, wearing a proudly weathered Boston Red Sox cap you can bet has seen the inside of Fenway.

And also a Tampa Bay Rays jersey so new you can still see the fold marks.

Forgive a newcomer to baseball, but I made a gaffe. After a Rays-Red Sox game, I asked my friend Mike whom he rooted for, knowing he's a Boston fan who has cheered for Tampa Bay in the past.

"That's like asking me if I changed my sexual orientation overnight," he said. (Well, huffed.) "Sports loyalty is not something you choose. I'm born this way."

But, um … didn't you liked the Rays before?

I'm pretty sure I heard him sigh. "It's like rooting for other people's children when they get a good grade," he explained. "It's nice for them. But I'm not rooting for them to get into Harvard."

I know a happily married couple of sports fans, all go Gators and, more important, go Rays. Until now. Now, they must choose.

Wife's Red Sox roots run so deep her brother is named for Ted Williams. But to her, it's incontrovertible. You live here, you root for the home team that has done you proud.

Husband, also a diehard Sox fan, cheered the Rays from the start, before they were dating, even. He proposed at a Rays game. Raymond brought flowers.

But suddenly, the Rays are rocketing to the top, taking on the team that has had his heart since boyhood. "I thought I'd have years before I'd have to worry about this," he said miserably.

So tonight, she will watch the game on their big-screen TV. He will be in the study with a more modest set. Such is the politics of marriage, and, apparently, baseball.

My friend Barry speaks of epiphany.

He fell in love with baseball and the Red Sox when his dad let him stay home from school to watch a 1967 World Series game. He was with them through the Carlton Fisk home run, the grounder through Bill Buckner's legs, the heartbreak. At last they won it in 2004. Maybe that was enough.

He started watching the Rays because, well, they were on and it was baseball. He watched with his son as his father watched with him.

And ever-so-subtly, he shifted.

The Rays were playing Boston, but he found himself pulling for the Rays. The young, likable, underdog Rays. "It's something that just happens," he said. "You wake up one day and realize it."

Father Mike Conway, president of St. Petersburg Catholic High, bleeds Red Sox. In his office you can find, among other memorabilia, a Red Sox lunch pail, Red Sox Mr. Potato Head and a Boston Baked Beans candy jar. He loves to razz the kids and talk about how the Sox will surely win.

"I always tell the Rays fans if they want to know what a World Series ticket looks like, I can show them," he said merrily.

But here's a secret: Father Mike has a Rays hat. Which he will put on if the Sox lose.

Sunday, after he finished giving a Mass at St. Paul's, he added, "Go, Rays." Pause. And, "Go, Red Sox."

And can you blame him? No sense in taking chances with the Big Fan Upstairs.

Rays' success puts their sorta-fans on the spot 10/09/08 [Last modified: Sunday, October 12, 2008 7:14pm]
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