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SHE'LL ROOT FOR RAYS, UNTIL HER FINAL AT BAT

Baseball Betty says she is ready for whatever comes next.

The Rays believe they will win the divisional playoffs, the American League championship and the World Series for fame, glory and the pure pleasure of winning.

A former St. Petersburg resident who lives in North Carolina knows better.

They will win the whole enchilada not for glory, but for her, Baseball Betty Leone, my late mother's best friend and next-door neighbor. The other day, as Betty lay in her sickbed, she admired her collection of Rays caps, Rays jerseys, Rays mugs, Rays bats, Rays balls, and Rays bobblehead dolls, and spoke confidently into the telephone:

"I think they're going to do it.''

Now for the bad news:

Betty, 86, may not be around to see it happen.

- - -

It begins early, if you're lucky, when a loved one, perhaps your mom or dad or grandparent, invites you to a baseball game. You don't understand the rules, but your loved one patiently explains things until you do. One day, if you're lucky, you have become a baseball fan.

It happened that way for Betty. Her dad, William Burns, loved baseball and taught her the game, even how to keep a scorecard. In the 1950s Betty married Fred Leone after a long courtship. A minor league pitcher, he had to get his baseball dreams out of his system before saying "I do.''

They moved to St. Petersburg, partly to attend as many spring training games as possible with their children, Joann and Becky. During the regular season, it was a family tradition to watch the Saturday game of the week. Later, she found the Braves on TV and became a Dale Murphy fan. After Fred died in 1993, she rooted on her own.

Then the Rays came to town. She attended their first game in 1998. The lopsided loss to the Tigers did not discourage her. Through many losing seasons, she visited Tropicana Field regularly with family, church groups and friends until her arthritis made it impossible for Betty to climb the steps to those third-level seats. So she watched on TV, keeping a special eye on Rocco Baldelli, an Italian like her late husband. Rocco even has Fred's nose.

Two years ago, Betty's daughter, Joann Carroll, asked her mom to join the family in North Carolina.

"I have three demands,'' Betty said. "First, I need an Internet connection for my e-mail. Second, I want to watch my favorite soap opera, The Young and the Restless, every day. Third, you have to get me some kind of cable hookup so I can watch the Rays.''

Done, done and done.

- - -

In the dream season, Betty has never had so much fun watching baseball. Sometimes she telephones an old St. Petersburg friend and they watch together, 600 miles apart, chatting as if they were sitting in the cheap seats side by side. Her former Pinellas County pastor clips all the Rays stories out of the paper and mails a daily package Betty's way.

In July, Betty started feeling ill, and not just because of the awful losing streak right before the All-Star game.

It took a while for doctors to figure things out.

On Aug. 15, they diagnosed her with cancer of the liver.

On Sept. 1, she was told she had a month at best to live.

But there was baseball to watch. She is still here. She times her powerful pain pills so as not to fall asleep during games.

On the day the Rays clinched a playoff spot, she arranged to have a photograph e-mailed to friends in St. Petersburg. In the picture, Betty looks glamorous in her new do - a mohawk.

"It's a trick photograph,'' she wrote in the reluctant e-mail that followed.

Baseball Betty's career is winding down now. She has lost her appetite and can no longer walk. But her bed is pointed at the big-screen television in her daughter's house. She is still rooting for her Rays, and as she roots for them she thinks about her father and her late husband and all the games they watched together.

A Christian, Betty has told her family she is ready for what comes next.

Today's game against the White Sox - or something beyond.

Surely there must be baseball in heaven.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

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