BOSTON — They have you at hello, answering their phones, "Thank you for calling the 2008 American League champion Tampa Bay Rays." The championship trophy is on display in the team's Tropicana Field offices. Division and league championship banners soon will hang over leftfield, much like the unprecedented expectations to get back to the postseason again.
Last year's stunning run to the World Series changed everything about the Rays' world, and they open the next season today realizing just how different, in reality and perception, things are.
"It's a different world," reliever J.P. Howell said. "There's winners and losers, man. And whoever said winning isn't important was lying. It's definitely a different world."
There are tangible signs of the transformation, from an obvious increase in Rays merchandise and apparel (or at least in people no longer embarrassed to wear it) to the amount of (positive) attention from the national media and recognition level of their personnel.
"There is a Rays World now," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. "Maybe not a Rays World, but certainly a Rays region with national recognition."
The conversations are different, too. Among the Rays — discussing playoff shares, details of the rings they'll get next week, B.J. Upton's latest TV commercial — and about them.
"There's a lot of teams around the league that have a little more respect for us right now," opening day starter James Shields said. "Teams aren't coming in thinking they're going to beat us every time."
Definitely not, said outfielder Rocco Baldelli, whose six years with the Rays hasn't (yet, anyway) been offset by six weeks with the Red Sox.
"I think no one's going to take the Tampa Bay Rays for granted anymore," he said. "No one in the league is going to go in and think of them as they were, even two years ago."
There is more relevance to what they do, what moves they make, what players are injured, what changes they might make. Simply, they matter.
With that enhanced reputation comes increased expectations and, unless you count trying to top 2004's then-record 70 wins, the first official Rays introduction of the P word: pressure.
And in what might be the most dramatic sign of their evolution, they don't shirk it.
Manager Joe Maddon says to bring it on, all of it, that these Rays know what it's like and what it takes to win, and he has made sure they're confident they can keep doing so.
"It's that feeling of belonging, that you belong in this race, that you're worthy of what's being said of you right now and you're going to channel that all in the right direction," Maddon said. "Whereas I think sometimes pressure and expectations, those words can absolutely get in the way if you don't utilize them properly. I've already spoken to our guys about that: I really want us to embrace those words. It's great that people are attaching pressure and expectations to us. It should bring out the best in all of us."
The difference, team president Matt Silverman said, "is that we begin this year's battle with not just the belief but the knowledge that we can succeed. We will not dwell on the magic of last year, but our successes, the lessons learned, and especially the three games we weren't able to win in October, can fuel us all season long."
It's different around the Tampa Bay area, too, as players are getting recognized more, and for the right reasons.
Carl Crawford, the longest-tenured Ray, said he used to be uncomfortable going out, feeling that people saw him as a loser. "People know who you are now, they're talking to you more," he said. "And they're in a little more friendly mood. Now you just feel comfortable."
Shields, who moved to Clearwater in the offseason, said he gets approached regularly, even when pumping gas. Dioner Navarro, who lives in Riverview, said he has had to pick his spots when going out with his family.
As much as everything has changed, the Rays are working very hard to keep their end of things unchanged. Management is determined to keep the processes the same, and the players say the work ethic and motivation won't be diminished.
"The world around us has changed, the Rays haven't changed," Carlos Peña said. "The world's perspective on us has changed, but the Rays are the same."
That's one way of looking at it.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.