TAMPA — Downtown at Cappuccino on the Go, the Tampa Bay Rays are an instant icebreaker.
On game days, owner Caren Varner, a die-hard Rays fan, follows the team online. Customers ask about the score. The other day a lady came in for lunch, noticed Varner's Rays T-shirt, and ran down to the Rays Pro Shop on N Tampa Street to buy her own.
"Normally at this time of year we're talking about football and other sports," said Varner, 40, who hung the front page of the St. Petersburg Times in her shop inside the Bank of America building the day after the Rays became champs.
" 'How 'bout them Rays?' are usually the first words out of customers' mouths," said Sara Ragan, 24, who works at the shop.
Since the team clinched the American League East championship last week, Rays fever has proven infectious in downtown Tampa.
About 2,000 Rays fans gathered in Lykes Gaslight Park on Tuesday for a rally celebrating the team's division championship.
The lively crowd enjoyed free food, Mohawk haircuts and a pep talk from Mayor Pam Iorio, putting to rest, at least for two hours, the idea that Tampa residents lack devotion to the team.
In Ybor City, Rock-N-Sports Bar and Grille already had about 35 televisions, but last week co-owner Dean Del Riccio installed a new 72-incher to accommodate game night crowds, including a party of 25 for Thursday. When he opened the place a few years ago, with great faith, Del Riccio installed a plaque near the bathrooms that reads "Future Champions — Tampa Bay Devil Rays."
This week at the Rays Pro Shop in downtown Tampa, there's been a steady stream of fans stopping by.
Bryan Cronin came in to pick up his tickets for Game 5 of the playoffs. The 30-year-old attended two games at Tropicana Field last year and 15 this year. Now that the Rays are winning, the trek over the Gandy Bridge doesn't seem so long.
"For a while, I was in that same boat, like, 'It's too far,' " said Cronin of Tampa. "But once you try it, it's really not that bad."
The buzz about the team seems to be building as the playoffs near.
On Monday, at restaurants and watering holes in downtown Tampa, Rays talk was less of an entree and more of a side dish. Downtown at Primo's Deli Cafe and the Hub, the Rays came up not once among lunchtime customers. The economy, yes. The elections, yes. The Buccaneers, yes. But there was no mention of baseball, not even when patrons flipped through the sports section of a newspaper.
But at Tuesday's rally, it felt like the Rays were the talk of the town.
Vilma Tamargo of Tampa said she and her husband used to attend games sporadically but now order tickets online for "as many games as possible." She credits the Rays' winning season for her newfound enthusiasm.
"I never really cared for baseball, and now I love it because of them," said Tamargo, 62, a retired teacher. "It's fun to win."
Dalia Colon can be reached at (727) 893-8717 or [email protected]