'Fun time to be a Rays fan right now'
Club faithful make their presence felt at this year's Draft
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Bob Selby was wearing a dark blue Rays jersey with "LONGORIA" on the back, and next to him was 7-year-old Bobby Jr. Baseball tradition was inexorably being passed to still another generation at that exact moment, and there was young Bobby, replete with blue wig and the happiest smile, declaring that this new world as a Tampa Bay fan was "pretty awesome."
This was not just a Disney World thing.
On Thursday, the Rays were suddenly the center of attention in baseball.
They were in the process of drafting Georgia high school shortstop Tim Beckham with the top overall pick in Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft -- making it the first time that a club had back-to-back years with that top selection, following the choice of Vanderbilt pitcher David Price in 2007.
They were in the midst of a huge three-game showdown series -- surely the first time that term has been needed in club history -- up at Boston. The Rays, a woefully familiar 66-96 a year ago, are a stunning 35-24 and only a half-game behind those reigning World Series champs atop the American League East. Maybe they are this year's Rockies, and unquestionably they are this year's darlings.
The Rays were leading all of baseball just recently, and everywhere you look around the Majors and in media circles, someone of authority is declaring them "for real." They have wunderkind Evan Longoria and Scott Kazmir and many others you may still be getting to know, they have a new nickname (just Rays), new colors (no green) and they have the allure of an unprecedented new waterfront ballpark in the near future.
"I've been a season ticket holder from the inception, and now I'm starting to see a return on my investment," said Selby, a Continental Airlines pilot and an aircraft commander in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. "That's a good thing if you're familiar with investing."
The Selbys were among a dominating Rays contingent in the seats at The Milk House at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex, brought here by the club on an uncontrollably happy bus on which they watched team highlights and MLB bloopers on the drop-down screens while loving every minute of this new world. They were so loud with their cowbells and Rays chants that just before the Draft, Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, said at the podium: "I would be truly remiss if I didn't say welcome to the Tampa Bay Rays' fans."
The subsequent chant -- "Let's Go Rays! Let's Go Rays!" -- was so loud that Solomon cracked up at the microphone, trying to keep his composure as he then proceeded to give the crowd instructions on how the Draft would work.
Then came the moment that most of those Rays fans already expected. They counted down the final five seconds on the giant clock on The Milk House floor, and then Commissioner Bud Selig approached the podium and said:
"With the first selection in the first round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, the Tampa Bay Rays select Timothy Beckham ..."
The rest was inaudible because of the cowbells and cheers from the people in the bright yellow T-shirts. Then Selig continued: "Pittsburgh selects next with the second pick and they are on the clock ..."
Selby and his fellow long-sufferers were soaking up the electricity.
"It's just super excitement," he said. "In addition to a team like this that we have going this season, it's just icing on the cake."
Soon the entire section of Rays fans seemed to take interest in an MLB.com interview. Without much provocation, one by one they got involved and wanted to just speak up after so many years of being down. These were the hard-core Rays fans, too, the ones who, at this rate, will be taking some umbrage to "bandwagon fans." If the Rays keep winning, that will be inevitable. And many think they will keep winning.
If your best previous season in 10 years of club history was 70-91, then really, should you even care about "bandwagon fans?" Wouldn't you welcome them aboard?
Some said they would, albeit with a knowing wink.
"It's a lot more fun. There's a buzz in the air. A lot of high-fiving," said Bob Skolmowski of Largo, Fla. "But there are a lot of bandwagon fans.
"It just makes it tougher to park. That's OK. We know the people after 11 seasons to go to to get to the front of the line."
His row-mates laughed when he said that. They have put up with some tough, tough times. They are absolutely soaking this up.
"It's fun to go to the games," said Billie Joe Grassinger of Largo.
She was wearing a Rays jersey with the No. 8 on the back, because each year she customizes one for the particular calendar year and then she gets the whole team to sign it. James Shields' name was on the "sweet spot" right in front, she noted.
"Last year it was a chore to go to games," she said. "And we go to 79 games a year."
At 3 p.m. ET, while the Commissioner continued to announce first-round picks, the Rays fans were getting some final autographs from legends in attendance and then began boarding that happy bus back along I-4 to the Gulf Coast.
In one of the front rows, in the air conditioning on a hot and humid day, there was a contented man named David Bolen of Brandon, Fla. He is in his fourth year as a Rays season-ticket holder, having started with the partial plan and planning to expand that interest.
"It's an exciting time to be a Rays fan," Bolen said, "and even more exciting to think about the next five years, because of our previous Drafts and the players we already have. Once these guys develop further and mature, it's going to be a dynamic team."
There is every reason to think the Rays will be a force in the new AL East for the months and immediate years to come. It has been a division long dominated by a single rivalry, Yankees vs. Red Sox. A Boston fan e-mailed this MLB.com reporter and said of this weekend's series at Fenway: "Can we make those guys (Rays) go away?"
These were the people who intend to stay around.
"At home games, we're starting to drown the Red Sox and Yankees fans out," Bolen said. "It happened the last time we played the Yankees. That was a good thing to see at last. It was aggravating before, but you have to realize that's what makes America so great -- the competition."
Joe Goodwin of Palmetto, Fla., has been around for the long haul and he said he and his many best friends around him are "bubbling inside."
It felt like their turn at last. They have a team playing to avoid a sweep in an unexpectedly huge series way up the coast. They have their second straight overall No. 1 draft pick. They have so much excitement that they once dreamed about.
"I've been here since Day 1 and everything is exciting now," Goodwin said. "Management seems to be doing what they said they were going to do. They're bringing in the right players and trading for the right players.
"We went into this thing thinking if we can get to .500 and not be in last place, we've done a lot. It's a fun time to be a Rays fan right now."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.