Carlos Peña had the stage that afternoon. Really. It was a stage constructed along the St. Petersburg waterfront, where thousands of fans gathered to wish the Tampa Bay Rays well in the playoffs that were to start later that week.
“We need you more than ever,” Peña said.
This after fans inside Tropicana Field during the final homestand were treated to a video tribute from the players, thanking them for their support.
The Trop, when filled or nearly filled, became in 2008 what manager Joe Maddon openly campaigned for since his arrival in Tampa Bay — a pit for opposing teams.
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The players made sure, after clinching a playoff berth against the Minnesota Twins and the American League championship against the Boston Red Sox, to spray a little champagne into the stands.
From Peña to Maddon to owner Stuart Sternberg, the organization maintained it couldn’t have reached the World Series last October without the support of the fan base, which grew by the week. Of course, pitching and defense had something to do with it, too, but you get the idea.
It’s nice to be loved.
So the Rays turned the first homestand of this season into what Maddon called “Dig Me Week,” where the players raised the American League pennant before the home opener and received their American League championship rings the following night.
And just so the fans knew someone dug them, too, the Rays awarded everyone inside the Trop last Tuesday a replica of the championship rings the players received. On Saturday, everyone under the Trop received miniature 2008 American League championship trophies.
Both were first-class giveaways. Those rings can be resized so fans can wear them along with their Evan Longoria jerseys or one of the gazillion Rays T-shirts now available.
The trophy is a sturdy piece of hardware, too. And what’s really neat is both come without a sponsor’s logo, which means they truly are a gift from the organization to the fans.
Now, it would have been nice if the 2009 Rays played a little like the 2008 Rays during those first seven home games.
They pounded the Yankees the night they raised the pennant and pulled off some late-inning magic to win Friday night’s game. Ben Zobrist came off the bench to club a grand slam for the winning runs, and Troy Percival picked up the save.
A bench player comes up big and a shutdown job by the bullpen. Ah, memories.
But the way the Rays hit with runners in scoring position and the way the bullpen leaked runs those other five nights reminded everyone of another time when the building was empty and the Rays had a devil of a time winning.
Too early to be concerned, though it wouldn’t hurt to correct some of those problems while the team is out west.
The highlight of the first week was the American League pennant, hanging proudly above left field.
Rings. Trophies. How about replica AL pennants?
Wouldn’t those make a fine giveaway?