For this night, revelry

Feeding off the feel-good Trop, the Rays don't disappoint (surprise!), rallying to win.

Published April 7, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - The 10th Devil Rays' opening day Friday was much like the first.

Lots of excitement. Measured expectations.

Yes, there's a new flower garden at Tropicana Field, fresh paint and a bigger right field video scoreboard.

"But they should have spent that money on a relief pitcher," said an almost grumpy Al Willis as he picked up his season tickets.

For one night, that didn't matter, as Tampa Bay came from behind to beat the Toronto Blue Jays 6-5 in the ninth inning.

The Rays' new owners oozed goodwill last year, offering perks like free parking.

But that charm has dulled a bit under the intense pressure that is the win column.

Home openings like these, at least, offer a brief respite.

For one day, the Rays sit at the same table as the Yankees and Red Sox.

And the 38,000-plus fans who filled Tropicana Field on Friday night got to have selective amnesia.

Forget that the Rays paid pitcher Juan Guzman $12-million to get exactly five outs in 2000 and that he finished his Rays career on pace to allow 43 runs a game.

Forget that slugger Jose Canseco had more strikeouts 190 than base hits (176) in his year-plus in St. Petersburg.

Remember that this year's Rays team is young and athletic, said Kevin Hug, a middle school geography teacher who took the day off to get ready for the 7 p.m. game.

Hug is a converted Chicago Cubs fan who knows a thing or two about being patient. The Cubs haven't won the World Series since 1908.

A nine-year drought, Hug said, seems almost trite.

"Anything can happen," said Hug, who predicted 108 wins. Last year, the Rays won 61 games out of 162.

"We can win it all," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind."

Forget that the Yankees might always have a homefield advantage when they come to Tropicana Field.

Forget that the Rays will get more money this year from national television contracts and big-market teams like the Yankees and Dodgers than it will spend on its entire 25-man roster.

Forget Vince Naimoli.

Remember the new owners, including Stuart Sternberg. After ponying up $12-million to make improvements to Tropicana Field last year, they spent another $8-million in 2007.

There's a new 35-foot by 64-foot video board in right field and new faux-brick facades around the outfield walls. The tropical-themed paint schemes have been replaced by a more traditional green, and the turf is new, too.

"It's a big improvement," said Jason Brown, a Little League coach in Valrico who brought a group of players to the game. "The atmosphere of the whole place has changed."

Forget that Josh Hamilton, the Rays' first draft pick in 1999 who never played a game for the team, is now the feel-good story of baseball - on the Cincinnati Reds.

Forget that Tropicana Field has a roof, and that it's not in Tampa or somewhere else.

Remember that parking is free for one more season.

Forget that they're called the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and that some people may not like that. Forget that they're called the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and that some people may not like that.

Forget that the team is leaving its springtime home at Al Lang Field, and playing three games in Orlando.

Nicholas Guido, a 10-year-old from Lithia, said to forget the bullpen.

Forget last year's record.

Remember that it was worse in 2002. And that in 103 years, the Philadelphia Phillies have exactly one more World Series title than the Rays.

Opening days are for hope.

There's not much fans can control after that.

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

Fast Facts:

What makes a sellout?

The Devil Rays said Friday's game was the fifth sellout in team history. It's true - kind of. For the 2007 season, the Rays eliminated about 2,000 upper deck seats from Tropicana Field. As a result, the stadium now has 38,437 seats. Last year's home opener drew a sellout crowd of 40,199. The all-time attendance record, set for the team's first game, is 45,369.