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10/22/08 10:08 PM EST

World Series arrives at Tropicana Field

After decade of losing seasons, Rays on October's big stage

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- A World Series has begun at Tropicana Field.

Everyone here has to stop and think about that.

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"It's exciting. It's a new market, and just look at the fans," says Tim Brosnan, executive vice president of business for Major League Baseball. "What we want is for fans to be passionate about the presentation. I don't think anyone could argue that it's great for Tampa Bay. It says to you that in today's game, anyone can be here at the end of a season, and Tampa exemplifies that."

The Rays have home-field advantage in this 104th Fall Classic, because the American League again won the latest All-Star Game, and that meant it is host to Games 1 and 2, and, if necessary, Games 6 and 7. Friday will be a travel day, and then the middle portion of the World Series goes to Philadelphia.

"We've been watching them so long, to finally make it to this big moment is incredible," says Larry Simeone, 56, of Palmetto, Fla.

Simeone was in the stands next to the Rays' dugout along with his wife, Marilynn, who made him a blue Rayhawk weave out of a boa.

"We're down here all the time, and we're really glad for these guys, because they deserve it," says Simeone.

"There's a lot of bandwagon jumpers, but that's fine. It'll translate into more season tickets for next season. There are so many transplanted people here, and their allegiances are with other places -- Yankee fans, Red Sox fans. But they're pretty quiet now. When you shut down the Red Sox the way we did all season, that kind of silenced The Nation."

Donald Fehr, longtime head of the Players Association, is standing next to the batting cage while the Phillies are taking their last licks in BP. He looks around as the last empty seats gradually fill in. It's a good moment for baseball. Long, long gone are those days of labor wars and that 1994 World Series that never happened.

"Any time you have an event like this at a place like this, where the team has not had success before, it's remarkable," Fehr says. "Everyone is charged up, the place is electric, they're pleased as punch here. It's a great feeling and it really translates."

Cowbell. It is loud. They have special yellow cowbells with the World Series logo on them. Official cowbells. Very loud cowbells.

Bob DuPuy, president of MLB, is answering questions about ballparks and the economy and myriad issues, and he pauses to survey the historic significance of this game. The Rays never had a winning season in their first 10 years of existence, finished last in the American League East in nine of those years, were a 150-1 long shot in Vegas last spring to win this Fall Classic, and now they are here, shockingly here, playing a Phillies team that is trying to win its first World Series championship since 1980.

"What I think gave everyone pause is, for a young team, doing this the first time, they were absolutely fearless," DuPuy says of the Rays. "You would have thought when they lost all those games before the [All-Star] break, that would have been the start of a decline. Then they hold off the Red Sox to win the American League East.

"Then when you got down to 7-0 in Game 5 of the ALCS, being on the cusp of a World Series and then giving up eight runs, and having to come home. And then vs. Josh Beckett, reputed to have some injuries, and lose that game and have to place against their ace in Jon Lester for Game 7. And to play a phenomenal game and get here, I just think that they are truly fearless."

Over next to the Phillies' dugout just before the start of the game, there is a crush of red-clad fans. Bob LePage and his partner, Ken Lehman, own Gold's Gym franchises back in Philadelphia, and LePage is claiming that their combined cost of air, hotel, Tropicana ticket and "two rounds of golf" is less expensive than they would be paying to see a World Series game back at Citizens Bank Park.

LePage says they got their tickets off StubHub.com for $250 apiece.

"It's a great opportunity," LePage says. "We took a chance, and it was easy to get tickets here. It's a good time. To get this chance is fun, and it's against a team that we all think the Phillies can handle. You have an aggressive-hitting team in the Rays against good changeup pitchers like us, with Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer. It plays to our strength.

"We made flight arrangements when the Rays were up three games to one in the ALCS. Needless to say, we were nervous. We figured that we could always just play golf. But you have to give them credit for getting past the Red Sox."

Tony Petitti, president of The Baseball Network and former No. 2 executive at CBS Sports, is walking around the field area with Brosnan during the pregame. Petitti is champing at the bit, knowing his network will debut in January with the largest launch in the history of cable television.

"I'm excited about it," he says in front of the Rays' dugout. "I am walking around, and I keep thinking that this time next year, we'll have our own studio, and I'm thinking hard about next year and how we'll be a part of it."

Rays manager Joe Maddon is starting his pregame mass interview session, and it is now traditional for his to begin with a media question about his music.

Q: When you listen to [Bruce] Springsteen filling out your lineup cards, did you have the "Streets of Philadelphia" in your mind?

A: I have to go right through that. Excellent movie, great song. But we fast forward that."

Then the talk moves to Game 1, to the main topic at hand, an actual big game to play, the first of at least four and maybe seven that will decide the best team in 2008.

That is happening here. At Tropicana Field. In front of these fans.

It is absolutely spine-tingling when you stand down by the field and look up at the crowd and breathe it all in. It was the same way when you saw the first sign at the Tampa airport greeting the World Series visitors. The cowbells are ringing now. They are really loud. Scott Kazmir has thrown the first pitch, at 8:38 p.m. ET, flash bulbs on cameras have sparkled everywhere, and the games are under way.

Joe Buck says this to the FOX viewers worldwide:

"Can you believe, here we are, Oct. 22nd, hosting Game 1 of the World Series? In St. Petersburg."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.