ST. PETERSBURG — Want a litmus test on how the fans' craze for the Rays has been recently?
Utilityman Ben Zobrist chose to go "undercover."
Zobrist recalled a moment last week when he and his wife, Julianna, strolled through Tampa's International Plaza. After the two were noticed a few times, Zobrist decided to hide his Mohawk and put on a hat that read, "Manhattan Construction."
"I can't imagine what those guys in New York or Boston go through — they can't go anywhere," Zobrist said. "Right now, it's a great time for us. It's not bad, it's just enough where you enjoy it and are happy and just excited about what's going on."
With the Rays following their AL East title with their first-ever trip to the American League Championship Series this weekend, players are reaping the rewards of fan excitement.
Manager Joe Maddon, who said he had never been recognized at an airport before, was stopped on a couple of occasions last week on the eve of the ALDS.
Leftfielder Carl Crawford returned home to find congratulatory letters on his car in the driveway. Pitcher Matt Garza said of the fans' response: "You've got to strike when the stove's hot, 'cause you don't know when it's going to cool off."
Several players said their favorite highlight was the red-carpet treatment they received Sept. 28, when about 1,200 fans greeted them at the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport.
"It was rock-star-ish," reliever Trever Miller said. "It's what it'd be like to be the Beatles on the world tour — for five minutes."
Said pitcher James Shields: "Everywhere we go, people are congratulating us. I picked up a buddy from the airport today and you see the signs at the airport, 'Congratulations Rays.' It's good to see the city starting to get recognized for being not only a football town or a hockey town, but a baseball town."
But as All-Star rookie third baseman Evan Longoria said, with greater attention comes greater responsibility.
"Obviously it's a different style now; you got to kind of watch what you do, where you go, and things you say," he said. "Especially to the media and people out on the street. …
"But it's changed for the better, I'd say. You know, there are a lot more benefits when you go out. Get reservations at places and stuff like that."
Though Zobrist may go undercover a time or two, he said the Rays hope there will be a day when the following mirrors a New York or Boston.
"Hopefully we'll get to that place someday," Zobrist said. "For right now, it's in the baby stages."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.