Outfielder Rocco Baldelli remembers when the Rays would go an entire season without a game on national TV.
This weekend alone, Tampa Bay will have two nationwide audiences against the White Sox, including Saturday's Fox broadcast (the Rays' first in more than five years) and Sunday on TBS.
But being at the center of the baseball world is nothing new to these Rays (77-49), who throughout their remarkable run from worst to first have graced the covers of Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine and Sporting News. Writers from the New York Times and Yahoo.com were at Tropicana Field this week as the Rays took two of three from the Angels, who have the best record in the American League by a half game.
But what some players have noticed just as much is how they've gone from relative anonymity in bay area shops and restaurants to quasicelebrity status, drawing hundreds during appearances at schools and seeing a "sea of blue" Rays fans in ballparks from Baltimore to Seattle.
Coming tonight: Chicago.
"It's been an amazing thing — almost like a Cinderella story," pitcher James Shields said of his team's rise to first place in the AL East, 4½ games ahead of the world champion Red Sox. "When you win, they come. It's kind of like a revolution."
The "revolution" can be felt everywhere:
• Merchandise sales are up 75 percent from last year, a far cry from the Devil Rays' 10 losing seasons, when, "It was almost frowned upon to wear green," outfielder Jonny Gomes said.
• Half of the 9-million fans who voted rookie third baseman Evan Longoria into the All-Star Game were from outside Florida, according to Major League Baseball.
• Attendance is up 33 percent over last year, the largest jump in the majors.
• Broadcast ratings on Ch. 66 are up 30 percent to 3.8; FSN is up 35 percent to 3.2.
• There are 30 media inquiries per day — tripling last year's average — and requests for player appearances have doubled, according to Carmen Molina, Rays manager of communications.
"It's a lot more fun," Baldelli said. "You feel like a major-league baseball team instead of just someone that plays baseball on the side."
Veteran reliever Trever Miller enjoyed the anonymity in his first stint with the Rays (2004-05), even in his offseason home of Land O'Lakes.
"Nobody knew who I was," Miller said. "I'd go to Publix, go anywhere and just be me. I'd be a Little League parent the entire season, and people would come up to me, 'I didn't know you played for the Rays.' "
Now he smiles when they say, "I didn't know you were that Trever Miller!"
Fittingly, it was an appearance by Miller at the St. Petersburg Library for Reading with the Rays that drew the biggest crowd this year — a standing-room-only audience of more than 200.
"There's that buzz — people are talking about it at the water cooler, or in the garden," Miller said. "People want to be a part of that. It's that curiosity, like a new roller-coaster at Busch Gardens. 'Let's check it out.' "
On the road, the Rays are often approached by opposing players, who instead of busting chops are offering props. "There are guys that are shooting for us to do (well)," pitcher Scott Kazmir said. "They say, 'Keep it up.' "
Opposing fans sometimes pay their respect when they approach Rays in restaurants and on the street.
"When we're on the road, we go out to eat or something, they tell us to 'take it easy' on their team," Longoria said. "That's pretty cool."
Longoria said their road following is still far from the Yankees or Red Sox, but, at home, some players believe the potential is there.
"If we get (the younger generation) on board, all of a sudden 15-20 years from now, they start turning it over to their kids and bring them to the ball games," Miller said. "And, before you know it, you're the Boston Red Sox."