EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified from the version originally posted online. See our note below for an explanation.
ST. PETERSBURG — It may have taken new uniforms, a new name and an American League East championship, but from thousands of fans who poured into North Straub Park on Monday evening there was no doubt that the Rays had finally achieved an elusive honor: beloved hometown team.
Fans with colorful Mohawk haircuts mingled with others still in work clothes at the city's Rays party. Television crews lined the perimeter of the waterfront park as a helicopter buzzed above.
Just after 5 p.m., all eyes were on the stage where the Rays players were called out one by one to rowdy applause and cowbells ringing.
"We stand before you as the American League East Champs!" first baseman Carlos Pena exclaimed. "This is a family right here, and we need you now more than ever!"
Like most families, the Rays and their fans have had their ups and downs over the past year. In two seasons the team went from having the worst record in baseball to champion status. The latter is what drove Tom Cushman to introduce his son to the team this year.
"It's been tough," said Cushman, 32, holding his 4-year-old son on his shoulders so he could see Pena speaking. "But my mantra has been when you start putting the product on the field, people will show up and we did."
Some went further than just showing up.
The Spa Olimpia had a booth in the middle of the park where chic stylists wearing all black doled out free Mohawk haircuts. Mark Morales eagerly took the chair and had his thick black locks shaved off.
"You gotta support the Rays," said Morales, a supervisor at CVS. "It's our home team."
The spa's management decided to offer the haircuts for free when they noticed how many of the team's players were wearing the style.
"It's to support our city and the Rays," said Lori Santos, a sales manager for the spa, which is at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront.
Team officials said the event in the park was a way of the team and fans sharing in success.
"It's an opportunity to share this moment with our fans," said Rick Vaughn, the Rays' vice president of communications. "And at the same time to let our players acknowledge that they appreciate the support they've gotten."
That support extended to celebrities. Early in the party, a song written specifically for the Rays by actor Kevin Costner's band, Modern West, was played. Later, wrestler "Nasty Boy" Brian Nobbs gave a shout-out to the team.
Fans didn't miss an opportunity to pick up postseason memorabilia, either. Among the most popular were T-shirts emblazoned with team manager Joe Maddon's theory: 9=8, which means nine players playing for nine innings equals one of the eight teams making the Major League Baseball playoffs.
Honeywell employee Joseph McMahan took it a step further. He held up a sign that read: "9=8 > $OX." His interpretation: The Rays are better than the White Sox, who the Rays might face in the playoffs.
The 24-year-old started the season out hoping the team would finish with 88 wins. Now his hopes are higher.
"Now when you're talking about the World Series, you have to talk about the Rays," he said.
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8828.
CORRECTION: Earlier versions of this story misstated the number of people gathered in North Straub Park.
It's Tampa's turn
Today, the team will head to Lykes Gaslight Park, 410 N Franklin St., Tampa, for a second party from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The event includes free food and snacks. There will be an interactive zone with the Rays' hitting and pitching machines that people can play for a chance to win Rays prizes.
Worth a try?
A $100 bid could mean tickets to the World Series. Story, 2B