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Sold out and on national TV, Rays and Bucs light up Monday night

ST. PETERSBURG

Tonight, Evan Longoria hopes to deliver a big hit. Tonight, Josh Freeman hopes to avoid one.

Tonight, Mike Williams wants to go deep. Tonight, you can say the same about Matt Joyce.

Tonight, Johnny Damon again tries to make you forget that he is no longer 22 years old. Ronde Barber, ditto.

They are the same, you know, the Rays and the Bucs, the Bucs and the Rays. They are born of the same DNA, designed by the same blueprint, and they share the same market. As franchises go, both teams are mostly homegrown, both are payroll challenged, and both would like very much to sell a few more tickets.

Tonight, America pays attention.

Oh, so that is what a Tampa Bay athlete looks like.

In most ways, this will be one of the most exciting nights in the sporting history of Tampa Bay. Certainly, it will be the most watched. Both the Rays' playoff game against the Rangers at Tropicana Field and the Bucs' Monday Night Football game against the Colts at Raymond James Stadium will be nationally televised. Both games, amazingly, are sold out. Both teams could help themselves considerably by winning.

Roughly speaking, about 100,000 tickets have been sold in Tampa Bay. That includes 65,857 for the Bucs, the team's first official sellout in 10 games (that streak would be 15 or 16 games if the Glazers hadn't purchased tickets during the 2009 season to avoid blackouts). The Rays, meanwhile, had an 81-game nonsellout streak at work, all the way back to opening day.

All together, roughly 15 million will view tonight's games. For the Rays, the crowd should be close to that for Friday's Game 1, which drew 2.8 million viewers. Monday Night Football probably won't equal the same 17.1 million who watched the Cowboys and Redskins last week, but it should be on par with the 11.1 million who watched the Raiders and Broncos two weeks before.

In Tampa Bay, there hasn't been a day like this since Oct. 19 of 2008, when the Rays beat Boston in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series to advance to the World Series, and the Bucs beat Seattle 20-10. That day had a bigger baseball game, but it didn't have Monday Night Football.

(During the Lightning's Stanley Cup final in 2004, the Rays had one home game on the day of a hockey game. That was during Game 2. The Rays drew 9,133 that day. No, it wasn't the same excitement.)

So what is the nation going to see?

It's going to see LeGarrette Blount on the turf, where fans hope he will run more. It's going to see B.J. Upton on the basepaths, where fans hope he will run less.

It's going to see Kyle Farns­worth, the closest thing his team has to being a closer. It's going to see Mason Foster, who someday may be the same.

It's going to see the team owned by the Glazers that plays in Tampa. It's going to see the team owned by Stuart Sternberg, who would like to check out Tampa himself.

If you want to operate a professional sports team in Tampa, this is how you have to do it. You have to keep the roster young, which keeps the payroll down. You have to succeed on the strength of drafts and development. You have to tinker and tweak to try to create the best matchups. For that matter, you can include the Lightning in the conversation, too. You have to be satisfied to do things a little differently.

Take the managers, for instance. Joe Maddon is the "9=8'' guy. Raheem Morris is the "Race to 10" guy. Maddon has used the term "woof" to accent a point. Morris has declared his team to be "youngry." Neither guy exactly fits the stereotype of his job.

"Raheem is crazy," Maddon says, grinning as he talks about his buddy. "Compared to Raheem, I'm the most normal guy going."

No. No, he is not.

"I think we're both youngry. When Raheem came up with that, I thought it was outstanding. I wish I had thought of it first."

Consider the owners. The Glazers own Manchester United, a team in another nation. Sternberg's team owned the Boston Red Sox, which is why Terry Francona is no longer united with Red Sox Nation.

Consider the general managers. The Rays' Andrew Friedman, boy genius, is the guy who found pitcher Matt Moore in the eighth round. The Bucs' Mark Dominik, boy genius, is the guy who claimed Blount on waivers.

Consider the leaders. Two games ago, Freeman led his team to a comeback victory after being 17 points down. Three games ago, Longoria led his team to a comeback victory after being seven runs down.

Consider the rosters. The Rays have used a team-record 16 rookies this season. The Bucs have 10 on their active squad.

They are the same. David Price and Arrelious Benn, trying to show off their speed. Mason Foster and Desmond Jennings, trying to harness their potential. Kellen Winslow and Casey Kotchman, still trying to produce.

"Can I be the kicker?" said Rays relief pitcher J.P. Howell.

Tonight, both would like to get off to a good start. Both would like to play solid defense. Both would like to give the fans a reason to come back.

By the way, Jon Gruden is coming.

Does anyone know if Lou Piniella needs a ride to the game?

Tonight

AL Division Series Game 3: Rangers at Rays; 5:07 p.m. (TBS, 970-AM, 1040-AM)

Monday Night Football: Colts at Buccaneers; 8:30 p.m. (Ch. 28, ESPN, 620-AM, 103.5-FM)

Sold out and on national TV, Rays and Bucs light up Monday night 10/02/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 3, 2011 11:32am]
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