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Big-name fans? That's awesome, baby!10/21/2008 8:14 PM ET
By Alyson Footer / MLB.com
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Tampa Bay Rays have been around for only 11 seasons, and while they didn't exactly pack them in at "the Trop" during the lean years, they do have their share of loyal followers.
Take for example ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale, one of the most recognizable and admired sports personalities in the business today. Vitale resides in Tampa and has been a Rays season-ticket holder for years. He has four tickets in the first row, right behind the visitors' dugout. A self-described "baseball fanatic," Vitale bought 12 extra seats when the Rays' playoff run began three weeks ago and today, he's grateful he did.
"Before, I couldn't give them away," Vitale said. "Now, my phone's ringing off the hook. It's incredible in this city. I went to the store the other day and the shirts were flying off the shelves."
Vitale's vantage point has given him a top-notch view of the visiting teams, something he's enjoyed immensely over the years. He proudly calls himself a groupie, asking for autographs and snapping pictures of both Rays players and opponents, too, and most of the time, the players would reciprocate and ask for his signature as well.
Vitale, a member of nine Halls of Fame including the Basketball Hall of Fame, looks forward to sitting in some of the best seats in the house when the Rays play the franchise's first World Series game Wednesday night at Tropicana Field. Like many Tampa Bay area residents, he still can't quite believe the Rays are actually in the Fall Classic.
"What a moment this is," Vitale said. "It's great for baseball, great for Tampa, great for the Rays."
The moment the Rays clinched the American League pennant stands out as one Vitale isn't soon to forget. He remembered standing near Red Sox outfielder Jason Bay as the two watched the Rays' on-field pileup. Bay handed Vitale two of his bats and said, "Dickie V., I have no use for these anymore. Give them to your grandsons."
Vitale is one of a handful of local celebrities who pulled for the Rays long before it became en vogue. Talk-show host Bubba the Love Sponge, who has shows on both Sirius satellite radio and Cox Radio, has been a die-hard Rays fan from the start and has developed friendships with several players, many of whom listen to his show regularly. The show plays a song titled "Tampa Bay's on Fire," a takeoff of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire."
Bubba, a native of Indiana, has been a baseball fan all his life, rooting mainly for the Brewers while also paying attention to the day-to-day occurrences of the Cubs. He remembers watching Henry Aaron play in person at old Milwaukee County Stadium, a privilege that he still gushes about today.
Baseball is a passion for the radio host, but he never could have imagined the Rays, a team mired in futility each of its first 10 years of existence, could bring this much excitement to Florida's Gulf Coast. Bubba -- born Todd Clem -- said he's somewhat surprised, but not terribly considering the way the new ownership has taken the groundwork laid by the previous regime and lifted the club to a new level.
"Yes, because it happened so fast," he said. "But no, I'm not that surprised, because this team was built on good trades and great draft picks. It's a great testament to [manager Joe Maddon] and the ownership. As soon as [Maddon] took over I knew they'd be competitive."
Among the other celebs who may be spotted at the Trop on Wednesday or Thursday include two wrestlers -- Hulk Hogan and Brian Knobbs, a.k.a. "Nasty Boy," who, according to the St. Petersburg Times, skipped a party Hogan was hosting to attend Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. Knobbs' seats, according to the newspaper, were in the front row, by the Red Sox dugout. Presumably, near Vitale.
Perhaps the most famous of all Rays fans is one who has acted in more baseball movies than anyone else in Hollywood -- Kevin Costner, who took to the Rays when he and his band, Modern West, played at the Rays' uniform unveiling last October.
According to the Tampa Tribune, Costner, of "Bull Durham" and "Field of Dreams" fame, recently recorded a song dedicated to the Rays titled, "It's All Up to You."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.