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World Series Tampa Bay Rays: Women bonded by their Rays

PHILADELPHIA — As the Phillies scored the final run of Saturday's game, Maryanne Manning dropped her head in her hands.

Her dark-blue section of Citizens Bank Park was one of the few not celebrating. Around her, rowdy Phillies fans spilled out, shouting, "Sorry, Tampa Bay fans, not today!" and, "Where's the cowbell now?"

For Manning, the 29-year-old fiancee of Rays designated hitter Cliff Floyd and the mother of their three children, baseball is more than a game. It's a life. And during the World Series, the women who love the Rays are feeling the emotions, stress and excitement of the highest stakes in the game.

"It's total anxiety," Manning said. "There are some wives and family, they would rather watch the game at home, where they can pace and yell at the TV."

They're family

Outside the team's downtown hotel on Saturday, four buses pulled to the curb with their lights flashing. The families of the team piled in.

A security guard addressed the riders about what would happen when the game ended, or, as he phrased it, "When we win tonight." The passengers applauded.

The buses followed a police motorcade, bypassing the traffic and the sea of red Phillies fans as they trekked from the parking lot.

They pulled into a back entrance of the stadium as the sun set. Julianna Zobrist, 24, looked at her phone, then announced excitedly to her family: "Ben's starting! Ben's starting!"

She said she accepts that most people treat the game as just that — entertainment. She tries not to get frustrated by fans, because she recognizes that most would love to trade places with her husband. Instead, she tries to teach them about her life — she's expecting their first child in January.

"It's not just a player out there," Zobrist said. "These people are family, not just guys playing the game."

Zobrist said she and Ben made a pact that they wouldn't spend more than six days apart. She said it has been a sacrifice, but important in keeping their relationship strong.

Road life

In Tropicana Field, the families share a section. But in Philadelphia, they're split among at least three sections. They said it's harder to watch the game when they don't have each other for support, especially against aggressive Phillies fans.

When the Rays were introduced before Saturday's game, Section 126 stood up, ringing cowbells, yelling and clapping. The rest of the stadium booed.

The women agree that the baseball life is not what the groupies — or "Baseball Annies" — make it out to be. If they're not on the road, the players are. The schedule is especially hard for young families with kids in school. During the Series, the Rays' women act as concierges of sorts, arranging tickets and travel plans with extended family.

"We're like glorified gypsies," said Stephanie Wheeler, 30, wife of pitcher Dan Wheeler, with 4-year-old and 11-month-old sons. "It's not as glamorous as everybody thinks."

On her way to Philadelphia, Manning got stuck at the airport after her flight was delayed with their three kids (ages 4, 3 and 3 months) from 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 at night. They behaved well with the help of the playground at Tampa International.

"It's something they've been doing since they were babies," she said.

Little lessons

When Matt Garza took the mound to start Saturday's game, Serina Ortiz watched with tears in her eyes. She'd been watching him play since high school, and knew it was his dream.

"He did this all on his own, and I'm here to support him to his fullest," said Ortiz, 22.

Their family, with Matthew, 6, and Sierra, almost 3, live in California. This year, Matthew's dad hasn't been home to watch his soccer games because he's been playing in the postseason.

Ortiz tries to use baseball to teach the children about sportsmanship. She doesn't complain when the Rays don't win, teaching them that you can't win every game but you can always try your best.

In one round of the playoffs, Matthew told his mom that he wished the team would lose so Dad could come home. Ortiz explained the system to him and said that the Rays have done so well that they deserve the honor of playing in the World Series.

She didn't think he fully understood until Garza was named MVP of the ALCS. Young Matthew saw everyone celebrating and shouted: "That's my dad!"

"It's rewarding when the kids are proud of him, and they understand why Daddy's not home every night," Ortiz said.

Sharing, supporting

The Rays' women aren't all close, but they form a special sorority of unusual lives. Wheeler has been guiding the young team's families through the postseason. She has been through the playoffs and a World Series before with the Houston Astros.

"Now I'm like one of the veteran wives," Wheeler said. "I'm the old lady here."

She learned the traditions. The women from opposing teams exchange gifts for each round of the playoffs. In the Boston series, they received New England cookbooks and scarves. For the World Series, they gave and received gifts with the Phillies' women from Tiffany.

During Saturday's game, Wheeler was text-messaging with the wife of Phillies closer Brad Lidge, a close friend from when their husbands played for the Astros.

Wheeler said her phone is always ringing with questions from the younger women. She said she has been asked anything you can imagine, including when the bus is leaving.

She said she and Dan long ago agreed that they would leave the stress of the games on the field. There's always another day, another game. But in the postseason, that's not true.

"Dan and I are really trying to take in every moment," she said. "How many people can say they've been on a World Series team?"

World Series Tampa Bay Rays: Women bonded by their Rays 10/26/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 27, 2008 7:16pm]
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