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10/02/08 2:25 PM ET

Rays owner thrilled by meteoric rise

Third year of Sternberg regime is historic for Tampa Bay

ST. PETERSBURG -- Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg stood on the turf of Tropicana Field on Thursday afternoon with an ear-to-ear grin. In just the third year of his regime, Tampa Bay was less than two hours from hosting the franchise's first American League Division series.

"This is really what baseball is in my opinion of the sport," Sternberg said, looking around as fans started to pack the dome. "And this has been everything that I would have desired it to be, for the region and for the economy with so much uncertainty and tricky times. This is what baseball is all about and this is what it does that other sports can't."

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Sternberg wasn't just talking about the sellout crowd at Tropicana Field. The Rays' rise from obscurity to AL East champions has enthusiasm in the Tampa Bay area at an all-time high, with merchandise sales as well as television and radio ratings going through the roof.

Even with having baseball's second-smallest payroll at $45 million, Sternberg said the Rays' front office was confident that if it stuck to a plan, it could have a window for success, perhaps between 2008-2012.

Still, no one expected the young Rays squad to achieve this much success in 2008 after posting the worst record in the Majors in 2007.

Of course, now that success has been achieved, Sternberg said he expects the Rays to sustain their newfound spot atop the AL East, within reason.

"Is it possible to win 97 games year in, year out? I doubt it," he said. "But we are still going to try."

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