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Tampa Bay learned a lot from Rays' wild ride

It ended in cold disappointment, after the longest and dreariest World Series game in history — two days and two hours of sideways rain and plunging mercury and about six minutes of Please God Not Brad Lidge.

But, oh, what a trip! Not the miserable stop in Philadelphia; the whole month. The Tampa Bay Rays roared through the playoffs like high school kids packed into a convertible, and we all climbed in beside them, vampiring their energy and clanging our cowbells like maniacs.

Yes, the Rays gave us something to believe in while Ben Bernanke searched our couch cushions for change. But they did even more. Unlike New York (brash overconfidence) and Los Angeles (polished cool), the Tampa Bay area has always lacked a unifying idea, a defining characteristic.

For years we've been asking ourselves: Who are we, anyway?

Now we know: We're scrappy overachievers.

• • •

It started with the White Sox series.

Remember a few years ago, when Cirque du Soleil pitched a tent in the parking lot at the Trop? We went in and gaped at the acrobats contorting themselves into illustrations from the Boy Scout Handbook.

The first playoff games felt like that. We had never seen anything like the playoffs before, God knows, but we had heard that they were cool. Some of us didn't know how many wins it took to get to the next round, but so what? Look — acrobats!

Lorne and Becky Palmer took in a game at a Beef O'Brady's restaurant in St. Petersburg. In 41 years of marriage they had never watched a sporting event on TV together. Not their thing.

But now here they were, huddled over a pitcher of Bud, trying to get up to speed. When the Rays' centerfielder came up to bat, Lorne shouted, "Go, Upman!"

Yes, Upman, go! And go, Longorino and Crawfield and Iramaku!

The Rays won the series three games to one. Kids at St. Petersburg Catholic High School defied the dress code and wore their TB caps to school. At Bayfront Medical Center, nurses welcomed new babies with cowbells instead of nursery chimes. At the Press Box in Tampa, you could still order a Devil Ray melt; it's expensive to update menus.

Peggy Turek of Tarpon Springs got a crown on her molar — with the Rays logo embossed on it.

"I had to do something different," she said.

In a place where nine equals eight, it made sense.

• • •

It was now Oct. 10. A front-page headline shouted MARKET ROUT WIDENS, and the Red Sox were in town to start a best-of-seven series, with the winner going to … did we dare even say it?

In Gulfport, Little League coach Kelly Allen ended practice early so that the kids could go home and see the game on TV. "Watch and learn," he told them. "That could be you out there one day."

Then the Rays got shutout, 2-0, and all the Little Leaguers must have been thinking: Dude, I hope that's not me.

The next day was Saturday, and we had to win. You remember — this was the Night of the Zombies game, which lumbered on into the DUI hours of Sunday.

It was in extra innings when a man in a clerical collar left his seat behind the Rays' dugout and headed for the exit.

"Some of us," said Bishop Robert Lynch of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, "have to work tomorrow."

Fortunately, Lynch's boss hung around, and B.J. Upman — Upton — drove in the winning run in the 11th. Rays 9, Red Sox 8.

• • •

The Rays won two straight in Boston, and we got cocky. This was new for us. It felt weird.

We signed up online for a special code that would allow us to buy World Series tickets. Everywhere you went you saw shout-outs to the team: on liquor stores, pet stores, mortgage companies, schools. A garage offered a free oil change to anyone wearing a team shirt. A homeless guy held a cardboard sign saying, "Anything helps. God Bless. GO RAYS!"

Mike McCarthy, 27, a Red Sox fan, watched Game 4 at Courtside Grille in St. Petersburg. His girlfriend, Kayla Brady, 24, sat next to him — in a Rays jersey. And the Rays were winning big.

"I can't stand the Rays' scrappiness," McCarthy said to his appetizer sampler. "They're young and tough, and they don't take no for an answer."

Thank you, Mr. McCarthy, for helping with our little article.

The Rays won the American League pennant at 11:39 p.m. on Oct. 19. The next day, at the Pier, three 15-year-old girls stood shoulder-to-shoulder, their bodies covered in Rays blue. Their names were Kelsey Al, Michelle Sieber and Jessica Shepherd.

Where did they get the body paint?

"It's not body paint," Kelsey said. "It's wall paint from Jessica's room."

• • •

Debra Wright, 50, watched the final game of the World Series at El Cap in St. Petersburg. She was tense, jittery, saying everything in fours:

You can do it. You can do it. You can do it. You can do it.

Catch it. Catch it. Catch it. Catch it.

When Eric Hinske struck out to end the game, she said simply: "Oh, it's over."

We felt the same way.

But let's not dwell on the loss, shall we? Congratulations, Phillies. Well done.

And let's not linger on the misfortune of Dave Marger, who, on a trip to Las Vegas last year, somehow got it into his head to bet $100 on the Rays' winning the World Series and who came this close to a 250-to-1 payoff.

Let's consider, instead, what we did accomplish.

We got to know Upman and the gang.

We shared in Baseball Betty Leone's delight in seeing her beloved Rays in the World Series. Betty, 86, a longtime St. Petersburg resident, had only that wish as she was dying of liver cancer. When the Rays won the pennant, she told the nurses she was satisfied, and then she died. Clang a cowbell for her.

And we came together — not all of us, and not over anything that really matters. But still.

Wasn't it something?

Mike Wilson can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2924. Leonora LaPeter Anton contributed to this story.

Tampa Bay learned a lot from Rays' wild ride 10/30/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 6:34pm]
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