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09/29/08 10:45 PM ET

Rally shows how far Rays have come

Fans celebrate first playoff berth with team at Straub Park

ST. PETERSBURG -- Mark Jones stood among a throng of Rays fans on Monday night, his Mohawk wig fitting in more than any oversized red spiked hair piece rightfully should.

"I can't wait to bring my father to a game," said Jones, a United Kingdom native who moved to the area three years ago. But it wasn't because Jones hadn't brought dear old Dad to a Rays game before. He had after all, taken him to a Yankees-Rays game at Tropicana Field when he first relocated.

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"I want him to see how different it is now," Jones said, as he walked past a crowd of Rays-decorated fans, some who nodded their head in approval of Jones' oversized 'Hawk.

"It's just phenomenal," he said. "Let's be honest, no one thought we would be standing here today."

But that's exactly what a crowd of about 8,000 did on Monday night at Straub Park in downtown St. Petersburg.

They stood. They chanted. They cheered. But, most importantly, they showed their support for their hometown Tampa Bay Rays' franchise-first division title.

The postseason rally kicked off with the introduction of the American League East Champions, with each player's name barely audible over the thumping cowbells and other various noise-makers. But when Rays manager Joe Maddon took the microphone on stage, all was quiet as the skipper showered praise on veterans such as Troy Percival, Cliff Floyd and Dan Wheeler.

And after the now-popular "9=8" chants, Maddon turned his graciousness to a more unexpected source: the fans.

"Understand when you come out you make a difference," Maddon told the crowd, which promptly erupted in cheers. "All the positive reinforcement, it means everything."

To longtime Rays fans such as Shannon Donahue and her husband, Sean, celebrating the club's first playoff spot has literally become everything.

"We've been dedicating every free second to come to these events," Sean Donahue said, adding that the couple had waited to greet the team Sunday night at the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport. "The first time only comes once."

The Donahues attend around 65 games a year, and the Tampa residents marveled at the sizable crowd on hand Monday night. The pair remembers traveling to games at Yankee Stadium and being able to walk right up to Rays players during batting practice. Not only alone in their Rays attire, the Donahues were alone simply as Rays fans during the franchise's 10 previous losing seasons.

"There's been a lot of heartbreak," Shannon said.

But as Carlos Pena took the mic, the emotionally charged first baseman's words left no hint of those darker days.

"Today we stand before you as the AL East champions," Pena said above the roars of the crowd. "When you think it cannot get any better, it still can.

We're going to play our hearts out for you."

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