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10/02/08 3:57 PM ET

'Hawk fever takes hold of Tampa Bay

Fans ecstatic to see first Rays playoff game at Tropicana Field

ST. PETERSBURG -- Rick Rutan sat in his seat along the first-base line in right field and -- like thousands of games before -- the 82-year-old St. Petersburg resident waited for the Rays to take the field.

It's a ritual Rutan has been since the Rays franchise came into existence 11 seasons ago, reserving his seat six rows from the umpire before the team had even played a game inside Tropicana Field.

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But while Rutan patiently waited for his wife to return from the concession stand, there was an undeniably different feel to his everyday routine.

He spent the morning of Oct. 2 hand crafting a Mohawk to glue atop his hat, the same cap he's worn to every game. The seemingly small sacrifice has carried big weight in the Tampa Bay community, as fans of all ages haven taken to the 'Hawk as a symbol of unity and love for the Rays.

The 'Hawk showed up on Thursday by the thousands, as a sell-out crowd witnessed a historical moment when their hometown Rays took the field for the franchise's first playoff game in the American League Division Series vs. the White Sox.

"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity," Ron Lazzarino said. The Tampa resident and season ticket holder was joined by wife Deann, and friends A.J. and Doree Vizzi and were excitedly awaiting the game -- already in their seats -- with more than two hours to spare.

"We've been following this team for years," Deann said. "This is more exciting than [Thursday's] Vice Presidential debate."

The crowd of 36,048 certainly thought so, as the sea of Mohawks and blue wigs chanted "Tampa Bay," and Tropicana Field's walls ricocheted from the clacking of cowbells, a noise usually long gone by October.

"I remember when you could talk to people in the outfield," Rutan said, pointing to the left-field stands on the other side of the dome. "We would holler back and forth at the stadium at each other. We could actually communicate with them."

Not this year.

In fact, season ticket holders like Jeannette Romero and Christin Manfredo -- whose seats are next to each other -- are having trouble communicating at all.

"These last few games, we have to scream to hear each other," Romero said. Not that the pair -- both decked out in Rays postseason garb -- is complaining.

"This is the greatest day in Rays history," Manfredo said. "They have been playing great baseball and I hope they continue in October because they've earned it."

Rutan agreed.

"My wife always said, 'Don't ever give up these seats,'" he said. "We knew it was going to happpen. We knew it since Day 1."

But there is one thing Rutan is still waiting on.

"That World Series banner," he said, pointing across to the center-field rafters. "To hang right up there."

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