ST. PETERSBURG — Rays manager Joe Maddon's parting words to television cameras as he left the field in Kansas City on Sunday afternoon were a call for fans to meet the new American League East champs at the airport back home.
"Come on out there, meet the boys," he said.
And so they did. More than a thousand of them.
Shouting. Screaming. Dancing.
The parking lot of the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport began to fill with fans' cars long before the team plane landed around 11 p.m.
For a region that has been criticized as being soft in spirit and stingy in buying tickets, the collective energy imparted on the cowbell-ringing masses by the Rays' title told a different story.
Like Bishop Caldwell, 4, from Clearwater.
A Rays balloon clutched in his fingers flailed wildly from atop the shoulders of his father, Michael Caldwell.
"He's excited to see Carl Crawford," the senior Caldwell said.
The 4-year-old yelled Rays chants along with the crowd around him. His hair, like his father's, was more spirited than most — spiked into a blue Mohawk.
"All year long, he's had the Rayhawk," said his mother, Laura Caldwell.
And not that it mattered that by the time the airplane disembarked its championship payload, it was well past many bedtimes.
Such was the case for Lauren D'Azzo, 16, a student at Countryside High School in Clearwater.
The sign she waved over her head proclaimed it: "My parents think I'm in bed."
In reality, her parents were in on it — though only after she made the sign.
"I made it and they felt bad for me. So they took me here," D'Azzo said.
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Many of the team members filed into the airport wearing their blue-and-white plaid Rays jackets. A few were handed a microphone to speak, but were at a loss as to what to say — except to express thanks.
Maddon summed it up for them.
"We do not do this without you," he told the crowd. "You are a huge part of our success."
Even after the team had walked past the crowd, slapping outstretched hands, the frenzy did not seem to let up.
Even fans of teams the Rays have vanquished this season couldn't help but be swallowed up by the boisterous celebration.
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Bryan Rhoades, a Knoxville resident originally from near Boston, walked in on it, family and luggage in tow. He wore a Red Sox cap.
He said he respected the Rays for trumping the Yankees as the AL East champs, but also felt bad that fans were being portrayed as disinterested.
Maybe a trip through the terminal would change his allegiance.
"I think it's good they're here doing this for the team," Rhoades said. "It's great."
The rest of his sentence was drowned out by a roar from the crowd.