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Rays this years Rockies? Not yet

Jon MaletzThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Florida hasnt seen a crowd this big since the last early-bird special at Dennys. Typically, the public address announcer at Tampa Bay Rays games could save time by introducing the fans instead of the players during the pre-game. Tropicana Field, the teams bloated concrete orb of a stadium, has the feel of a church on Tuesday, not a Major League ballpark. Tune into a game and youll likely hear the whirring of air conditioners, not the high school reunion-sized crowds.But times are changing. Wednesday, 36,000 (Im almost certain that was the teams total home attendance for the 2007 season) turned out to catch the third game of the Tampa Bay-Boston series. Thats no misprint. It wasnt even dollar hot dog night.Scores of fans filled the seats and spilled onto the concourse. Many looked confused and a little out of place, like a 16-year-old at a Def Leppard concert. In their defense, theres been nothing to cheer about in the last decade. This will take some getting used to.Elaborate signs dotted the stands. Its not confidential, the Rays have potential one read. Believe was written on another, as was Were here to stay. (Im not sure how borrowing your daughters Mr. Sketch markers to create an overly-elaborate sign, then sitting in section 305 while munching on your nachos grande entitles you to put yourself in the same category as the players actually doing the fielding and hitting, but Im digressing.) Cowbells chimed. People in Gabe Gross jerseys (where do you even get a Gabe Gross jersey?) clapped their Thunder Sticks. The noise usually makes we want to seek out a tall building to hurl myself off of, but it did muffle Orel Hershisers commentary. For that, I am eternally grateful.These are not your older brothers Rays. That much became clear when Tampa scored six times in the seventh to seize the lead and held on to complete the series sweep. They moved to 20 game above .500 and took a 3 1/2-game lead in the American League East. The Rays are in first place. I know youre waiting for it, but there is no punch line. Is this a changing of the guard or merely an interesting revelation? While thats up for debate, one thing is certain: No matter where your allegiances rest, Tampa Bay is the feel-good tale of the 2008 season. As far as compelling story lines go, this very well could be on par with the 2007 Rockies, who endeared themselves to a city and a nation and sold a ton of those Rocktober T-shirts.But not yet.Newspapers, commentators and fans fairweathers and diehards, alike are jumping the gun. We know better. Fortunes in this game change as quickly as A-Rods bed mates. Besides, Its only July. Im still working on my tan. And I remain convinced that Tampas chances of making the playoffs, let alone winning a World Series, are about as good as season ticket holder Dick Vitale growing hair. Think Im wrong? Why would I have any reason to believe the Rays wont wake up one day a month or two from now and realize that they are, in fact, the Rays? They did lose 96 games last year, after all.Believe. Why would I? Why would I expect this youth-laden roster, among them a confident third baseman who shares his name with a Desperate Housewives star (but thankfully not the makeup or the high heels), not to wilt under the heat of a late-summer pennant push? Should I really believe talented but untested starters Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, James Shields, Andy Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson will propel Tampa into its first playoffs? In the interest of full disclosure, I know as much about these guys as I do the Florida Atlantic basketball teams starting five. Still, their average age is 24 1/2, and they have just 111 combined big-league victories.Should I really expect Joe Maddon, a journeyman coach whose thick-brimmed glasses make him look more like Sally Jessy Raphael than Lou Piniella, to be architect of one of sports most inconceivable turnarounds? (See: 197 losses in his first two years as a Major League skipper.)Can the Rays really hold off both Boston and New York?When Evan Longoria lined a seventh-inning pitch from Craig Hansen into left center to put the Rays on top for good Wednesday, Hershiser remarked: At 10:12 [p.m. EST], the Rays franchises fortunes changed forever.Hardly.This wasnt Colorado beating Jake Peavy in the regular seasons 163rd game to clinch a Wild Card berth. The All-Star Game is more than a week away. First place wasnt even on the line. At 10:12 p.m., Longoria took advantage of Bostons woefully ineffective bullpen. At 10:12 p.m., my meatball sub started giving me heartburn.Thats it.Tampa Bay might not be the leagues laughingstock any longer, but it’s not a proven commodity, either. The Rays are merely a work in progress. They have 78 games to play.Wake me when Tropicana Field is hosting playoff games, not gun and doll expos.jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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