In this season filled with firsts, the Tampa Bay Rays and their fans savored yet another novelty Monday afternoon: a party in the postseason.
An estimated 8,000 people turned Straub Park in downtown St. Petersburg into a boisterous outdoor festival that celebrated the newly crowned American League East Division champs and their first playoff appearance this week.
Another Rays rally took place today at Lykes Gaslight Square in downtown Tampa. The event included interactive baseball games and free hot dogs, peanuts, Cracker Jack snacks and food from Smokey Bones barbecue. It is scheduled to go on until 1:30 p.m.
For long-suffering Rays fans, Monday's pep rally in Straub Park was uncharted territory. Fans said they are confident the team will maintain its success and make the postseason a familiar destination for many years to come.
"There will absolutely be more parties" in the future, said Judy McKay of St. Petersburg.
"All the hard work is finally paying off," fan Cindy Wingate said.
"This is a great moment for us," Jim Eckert of St. Petersburg said.
"It's contagious," McKay said of the enthusiasm for all things Rays that has infected the Tampa Bay area.
When the team was introduced on a stage flanked by giant television screens, first baseman Carlos Pena acknowledged the outpouring of support.
"This wouldn't be possible without you," Pena said. "We're going to play our hearts out for you. You better believe that."
The crowd roared its approval. Pena was as optimistic as the fans. "And just when you think it can't get any better," he said, "it can."
Rays manager Joe Maddon told the crowd that this season marks "a new era for the Rays."
Maddon said he was confident his team could make it to the World Series and the party at that point will make Monday's pep rally small and tame in comparison.
"This is just the beginning," Maddon said. "Understand that."
The optimism was evident as hundreds of T-shirts proclaimed the Rays "The New Beast of the East" and that "It's a new day in Tampa Bay."
"This is insane," Kim Merritt of St. Petersburg said of the pep rally's carnival atmosphere. "I love it."
Children dressed in Rays jerseys or cheerleader outfits ran through the park, passing by fans wearing navy blue and white and several dozen young professionals who just clocked out of work and came to the rally still dressed in shirts and ties.
People of all ages sported the latest fashion fad, the Rayhawk, or lined up to get the haircut for free, which was sponsored by a local salon. Merritt's son, Brandon, 7, got the 'do. So did Ariana Garcia, 9, who, according to the stylists, was the first girl Monday to receive a Rayhawk.
"I like it," Ariana said, the sides of her head shaved and the Rayhawk trailing down her back because she didn't want the length of her blond locks shorn. "I think it's pretty cool."
Her father, Jeff Conway of Madeira Beach, said he might persuade Ariana to dye it blue for the Rays' first playoff game Thursday. "She was begging me to get it," Conway said of his daughter's newest look.
Even dogs had the 'hawk.
"Tiki's hawkin' it," pet groomer Danielle Moyse said of her 8-year-old poodle. Tiki's Rayhawk was dyed blue and so was the puff of fur at the end of his tail. "Everybody was getting mohawks, so I gave them to the dogs."
Carmen Molina, spokeswoman for the Rays, said Monday's turnout at Straub Park was "everything we thought it would be."
"It's fantastic," she said. "We're along for the ride with the fans."
As the sun set, the throng still packed the park and crowded around the stage, which featured a concert by rock band Survivor, who gained famed for their hit "Eye of the Tiger."
McKay watched the band's performance and from time to time, she would turn her head and watch bubbles shaped into the Rays' "TB" and starburst logos float lazily into the sky.
"Like Maddon said, this is just the beginning," she said. "We'll be here celebrating in 2018. This is just the start."