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With rise of Rays, Sox fans no longer at home in Fla.

Red Sox fan Ted Haggis of New Bedford sat in front of Rays fans Jim Freeman and his wife, Carla Jimenez, last night. Red Sox fan Ted Haggis of New Bedford sat in front of Rays fans Jim Freeman and his wife, Carla Jimenez, last night. (Zach Boyden-Holmes/WpN for the Boston Globe)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / September 17, 2008
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Penciling in a scorecard as he sat in Row X near the left field foul pole, Mike Van Hoven of Bradenton, Fla., watched the ballgame play out at Tropicana Field as he listened to a whole different contest: a deafening vocal battle between Red Sox and Rays fans.

A year ago at the Trop, Boston enjoyed a de facto home field advantage, with an overwhelming majority of fans in Red Sox caps, jerseys, and T-shirts. When the Globe visited the dome in August 2007, Rays fans were a meek sidelight. It was like Fenway South without the charm, and when the crowd roared, it was for Boston.

But this year, the Rays are chasing a division title, and that seems to be what it took to finally awaken Tampa to its own team. Some now say that, like the Red Sox' Impossible Dream of 1967, the Rays' pennant chase has ignited a new kind of fan in this part of Florida. Attendance has soared, as have merchandise sales and talk show chatter. The stands are a sea of Rays blue and black, and a cacophony of cowbells.

"When the Boston fans start yelling 'Let's go, Red Sox,' they get shouted down pretty fast," said Van Hoven, wearing a Rays jersey and cap at Monday's game.

"We actually have a rivalry now," said Ryan Williams of Daytona, Fla., a Rays fan sitting nearby with his friend Rob Leary, a Red Sox fan who moved several years ago from Dorchester to Daytona.

Shoulder to shoulder, each friend sported his team's colors in a rivalry that was as tight in the stands as it was on the field, where the Rays and Red Sox battled for first place in the American League East.

"I think it's a good thing - not technically for us," Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell said of the surge in Rays fans at Tropicana Field. "For me, when you see teams that aren't expected to do well do well, they deserve to be rewarded."

"We love the fans and we love them to come out," Rays designated hitter Cliff Floyd said down the hall from Lowell in the Tampa Bay locker room. "I like to think good baseball brings them out, and if we keep going, we'll bring them to the playoffs."

Boston fans have grown accustomed to dominating the proceedings at Tropicana Field, as they do to a lesser extent in Baltimore, Toronto, and in some other American League parks. But the spike in local interest has altered the experience at the St. Petersburg dome. The Red Sox faithful have to shout louder, and good seats are harder to find.

Before Tampa Bay was a contender, a Sox fan could buy a ticket for much less than at Fenway Park and often could slide into a more expensive seat once the game started. The price disparity made road trips to Florida financially attractive to legions who fly south for a Sox series, and it made it fun for Boston's fan base in Florida.

"Last year, you could sit anywhere you want for $10," said Stacy Leary of Daytona, who sat with her husband, Rob, and Williams. "This year it's ridiculous. Now that they're in first place, it's packed."

It has recalled visions of the Red Sox of 1967, who clawed their way to the World Series after years near the cellar and began to fill Fenway with fans. The season forged intense loyalties in Boston and, some say, laid the cornerstones of Red Sox Nation.

"I think our fans have been waiting to embrace us," said Dave Wills, a radio broadcaster for the Rays. "For the previous few years, we've been as embraceable as a cactus. This year we've given them something to love."

Tampa Bay merchandise sales at Tropicana Field are up 75 percent this season, said Mark Fernandez, senior vice president for the Rays, who projected that the number of season ticket holders will grow by 30 percent as a result of Tampa Bay's success in 2008.

"People are wearing the colors with pride," he said. "They want to wear it."

Monday night, when a road closure on a major artery may have kept some fans away, 29,772 people attended the game. That's below this year's 32,825 average when the Rays host the Sox, a figure that has climbed steadily from 24,690 two years ago.

Even though Rays fans believe their team is headed for the playoffs, Tropicana Field has sold out only five times this year, one more than last season. Average home attendance jumped from 17,148 to 21,663 to date, Fernandez said, who added that success in the stands sometimes begets success on the field, and vice versa.

"We're 18 and 1 this year when we have 30,000 or more in the building," he said.

While ticket sales seem lackluster by the standards of modern day Fenway Park, even the Red Sox were not much of a draw before 1967. That year, the Sox averaged slightly more than 21,000 for home games, according to redsoxconnection.com.

A season like the current one, Fernandez said, tends to build interest for years to come, rather than immediately fill seats. Not that the increase in fans, and enthusiasm, has gone unnoticed by those in the stands.

"The fans actually cheer this year," said Nicole Deleon of Port Richey, Fla., wearing a Rays jersey as she sat six rows behind her team's dugout. "They're excited to be here."

A few seats over, Dawn Tucker of Lakeville, Mass., laughed and said, "We're almost outnumbered," as she and her Boston contingent held up Red Sox signs that, for a change, seemed out of place.

Still, even with the uptick in fans when Boston comes to town, no one disputes that the Rays still have a way to go to catch the Red Sox in the popularity standings. The five sellouts this year at Tropicana Field can't touch the years-long string at Fenway Park.

Then there's the matter of Red Sox mystique, which reaches into the ranks of future fans.

"My dad, when he played Little League, he always liked Carl Yastrzemski," said Ryan Glenn, an 11-year-old from New Port Richey, Fla., who wore a Red Sox shirt. "Basically, my dad got us to be Red Sox fans."

"We were born that way," said his 14-year-old brother, Derek, who nonetheless wore a Tampa Bay jersey Monday night. His Red Sox colors, he noted, were in the wash, and besides, "I've got to have a shirt for when the Red Sox aren't here."

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