The Tampa Bay Rays returned home at 9:31 p.m. Sunday night to a heroes' welcome - and a huge party.
Surprised at the turnout of more than 1,200 fans at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "This is something we did not expect tonight. You guys make all the difference in the world to us."
Many among the crowd arrived more than an hour early and came with banners, signs, noisemakers and freshly shorn Mohawks. All brought adoration for the team that clinched the American League East division title for the first time in franchise history.
"This is unbelievable," said Gary Burgess of Palm Harbor. "It brings chills all over your body to be with a crowd like this."
Fans packed the baggage claim area and surrounded a roped-off red carpet leading to the team's buses. People stood on the baggage conveyor belts. The crowd was 20-deep in some spots.
"I never dreamed of it," Tracie Eichas said of the turnout at the airport and the Rays' winning ways this year. "It's crazy."
A DJ blasted out tunes. When he played Neil Diamond's hit "Sweet Caroline," the crowd belted out the line, "Good times never felt so good." Chants of "Tampa! Rays!" and "Let's go Rays! Let's go Rays!" rose above the music.
When the team finally arrived, a roar often heard at Tropicana Field thundered through the small airport. Signs and cameras were raised above the crowd, and so were children, propped on their parents' shoulders to get a better look at the returning champions.
Players wore new T-shirts declaring their champion status. They high-fived fans as they walked the red carpet to the buses.
Gary Burgess' son, David, said the Rays were the reason he started watching Major League Baseball six years ago.
"When I look at their record, I can't believe what I'm seeing," David Burgess, 18, said of the Rays' mark of 97-65 this season. "I'm just really happy for them. I can't wait until we start the playoffs."
Father and son said they have playoff tickets for Friday's game at the Trop. The Rays - and its fans - are waiting to see if the opponent in the first round of the playoffs will be the Chicago White Sox or the Minnesota Twins.
And if the Rays go all the way and win the World Series?
"I'll faint," Gary Burgess said.
Rays fans have been waiting for a moment like this for a long time, said Jackie Miller of St. Petersburg. Miller, 58, held up a sign that said "Shine On Rays" and wore a homemade Mohawk crafted out of tin foil and blue construction paper.
"I'm excited for the fans," she said. "I'm excited for the team. It's happened. Hallelujah, it's happened."