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09/29/08 1:50 AM ET

Rays return as champs to flock of fans

Crowd packs airport to greet newly crowned AL East kings

ST. PETERSBURG -- Lauren Hefferon chose her Longoria wisely on Sunday night.

Despite the season premiere of actress Eva Longoria-Parker's ABC network drama "Desperate Housewives," 17-year-old Hefferon spent the evening watching -- and waiting -- for the arrival of Rays rookie Evan Longoria.

The show? That could be Tivo'ed. Because welcoming the newly crowned American League East champion Rays as they walked down the red carpet was a moment that couldn't be replayed.

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Sunday night, a thousand other fans felt the same way, as they crammed into the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport to welcome home the Rays for the first time since the club clinched a franchise-first division championship in Detroit early Saturday morning.

"It's a way to say thank you," Rays fan Judy McKay said, "because we can't when they are on the field."

McKay was joined by friends David Logan and Mark Prevost, who both proudly donned brand-new AL East Champion T-shirts.

"I think [the Rays] really appreciate it," McKay said, smiling as she took in the excitement from the group's front-row spot against the railing.

But in a season full of exceeded expectations, even the most loyal Rays fans had a hard time believing the frenzied scene that encompassed the area around baggage claim.

"It's so surreal," said famously energetic Cary Strukel, who is known to Rays fans as the "Cowbell Kid". Strukel said he planned on coming to the airport even before the event was planned, and was ecstatic with the turnout.

"Last year I was in the outfield [at Tropicana Field] by myself. And now look at this," he said, as chants of "Tampa Bay" broke out from both sides of the red carpet. "[The Rays] got to feel the energy -- the whole city's behind them. They just needed a spark and now Tampa Bay is hungry for a title."

The fans came in a slow trickle starting at 4 p.m. ET, and within a few hours the airport parking lot resembled a football tailgate, brimming with food, drinks and merriment.

Some came for a glimpse of a favorite player, as Hefferon proudly held a sign asking Longoria to her high school homecoming. Others came to show their support with Mohawks, face paint or Rays-blue wigs. Their signs held words of encouragement, their oft-handmade shirts a symbol of dedication.

"The enthusiasm of the community is the biggest thing," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who spent time shaking outstretched hands and signing autographs.

"We waited 20 years to get a team and 10 years to bring home a title."

Which is why Sunday's crowd wasn't fazed by the Rays' extra-inning game in Detroit that forced a delay in the team's arrival into St. Pete.

Longtime season-ticket holders like Phil Mugavero -- witness to 10 straight losing seasons -- were about to see their patience pay off.

"After all these years," Mugavero said, "it was definitely worth the wait."

And when the team-chartered Delta plane finally touched ground at 9:15 p.m. -- amid a celebratory spray of water from two fire trucks -- the crowd's chants were matched by the vocals of 36 Rays players and assorted coaches.

"Nine equals eight," they bellowed together, fans and players alike, showing their love and support for manager Joe Maddon's now-famous mantra.

It was an impressive bunch on Sunday night, bigger and better than Maddon and his Rays -- who had a running bet of the estimated total -- had dared expect.

"Believe me," Maddon said to the crowd, shortly after he was issued a key to Pinellas County, "You guys make all the difference in the world to us."

And as the Rays filed into their two team buses after a weary day of travel, Maddon's words became prophetic.

Slowly, the players came back off the already-boarded buses for another round of handshakes and hugs. There was B.J. Upton lifting a young fan into his arms, and Jeff Niemann greeting a group with outstretched hands. Fernando Perez came out to sign a hat and talk to a fan, and Carl Crawford tried his best to give an interview over the warm chants of "Welcome Back, Carl."

"Stunning," said reliever Trever Miller. "Absolutely stunning."

Several minutes later, McKay smiled as the buses pulled away to the deafening sound of honks and cheers.

"That," she said, "was worth it."

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.