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Yankees enjoy home away from home when visiting Rays

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 02:13 PM
ST. PETERSBURG -

You're bound to hear the chant.

Let's Go, Yankees!

It will build from a groundswell and cascade around the ballpark. Fans of the Tampa Bay Rays will boo and try to drown it out. But it will be there. It's always there.

Let's Go, Yankees!

When the New York Yankees visit Tropicana Field Monday night to begin a four-game series, they might enjoy a sensation not generally afforded to a visiting team. They could actually feel at home.

That's nothing new. After all, what did we hear at Wrigley Field, of all places – Let's Go, Yankees! – during last month's interleague series against the Cubs?

"If you went to Mars, I think you'd find Yankees fans there,'' said Washington Nationals relief pitcher Chad Gaudin, who played for the Yankees and Rays.

Still, it's different in Tampa Bay – more specifically, Tampa – where the Yankees-as-pseudo-home-team syndrome has become a tradition. It occurs to a lesser degree for the Red Sox, who finish a three-game Trop series of their own tonight surrounded by several thousand Boston fans.

"A few years ago, I was driving around Tampa during spring training and I saw a sign that said 'Welcome Back, World Champions' and I remember thinking to myself, 'You know, something about that isn't quite right,' " said former Rays first baseman Fred McGriff, who was drafted by the Yankees but never played for New York's major-league team.

"George Steinbrenner (the late Yankees' owner) always did great things for people in Tampa. The city, in some ways, is always going to be a Yankees' town, I guess.''

Since 1996, the Yankees have held spring training in Tampa. St. Petersburg was the team's home base, with only brief interruptions, from 1924-61. Along Dale Mabry Highway, near the Yankees' minor-league complex, motorists can view a large billboard that trumpets the franchise's 27 World Series championships and 40 American League pennants.

WHBO (1040 AM), an ESPN Radio affiliate in the Tampa Bay area, carries home games on the Yankee network. Steinbrenner High opened in Lutz for the 2009-10 school year. In 2010, the Sports Club of Tampa Bay dedicated its annual banquet to the World Series champion Yankees and shortstop Derek Jeter was honored as the club's Florida Sports Personality of the Year.

"Look, I get it, the Yankees are the Yankees, they have a spring-training presence here, so many people have replanted in Florida from the Northeast sector,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "For me, it's motivating to know that this machine exists here. We're attempting to infiltrate this and get their people over to our side. It's not going away.''

* * * * *

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg, who was born in Brooklyn and has held season tickets for the New York Mets, is succinct.

"I hated the Yankees,'' Sternberg said. "If the Mets were out of it, you didn't start rooting for the Yankees. It was like a Republican and Democrat thing. There were lines you didn't cross.

"When I was a kid, I remember a board game called 'Beat the Yankees.' They've always been viewed as a juggernaut. You always wanted to challenge the Yankees or beat the Yankees. For me, that still hasn't changed. Now it's even more real.''

Sometimes, it's real good for business.

Last season, the Rays averaged 23,025 fans per home game. But during nine dates when the Yankees visited Tropicana Field, the average crowd was 32,293 – an increase of 40.3 percent over Tampa Bay's season-long mark. In fact, in 11 of Tampa Bay's 13 previous seasons, Rays-Yankees attendance was better than season-long Rays attendance by 31.7 percent or greater.

"I don't think the Rays mind one bit,'' said former big-league first baseman Tino Martinez, who played seven seasons for the Yankees and one for the Rays. "I'm sure they'd like to have 35,000 Rays fans in there. But if the stadium is packed and there's all kind of energy in the building, those guys will get fired up.

"You're just always going to have the Yankee fans. When we were winning big in the 1990s, we'd go to Baltimore and literally three-quarters of the stadium had Yankee fans. It's just something you come to expect.''

Sternberg's expectations for Rays-Yankees crowds haven't changed drastically since he purchased the team in 2005.

"There are always Yankees fans here when we play the Yankees,'' Sternberg said. "We don't see a lot of Yankees fans when we aren't playing the Yankees. I think if the adults are Yankees fans, they will continue to be. But I would like to think their 3-year-old kid, their 5-year-old kid, they're living here and growing up to be Rays fans, even though their dad or mom might be Yankees fans.''

* * * * *

Long-time Rays fan Jamie Woolwine of Land O' Lakes said he has noticed subtle changes.

"There are definitely more Rays fans now,'' Woolwine said. "It used to be like the 'Old Sombrero' (Tampa Stadium), when the Bears took over and there were about one-third Bucs fans. It has gotten better. But the Yankee fans that come to the Trop, they're still a pain in the butt.

"I understand the deal. We have more people moving here than anywhere else. People don't grow old and move to New York. So they end up here, rooting for the Yankees. I do love to see the expression on their faces when we beat them.''

The playing field has leveled.

The Rays have captured two of the past three American League East titles, nipping the Yankees last season in a riveting pennant race.

"It has to be a little weird for the Rays players, as successful as they've been, to sometimes get out-cheered in their own stadium,'' said native New Yorker Louie Taiazzo, who lives in Spring Hill. "I want to see the attendance get better. I don't want the team to move because I love coming here to see the Yankees.''

"The fact is we always have a lot of fans, no matter where we're playing, whether it's Tampa Bay, Kansas City or somewhere in California,'' Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "Yankee fans travel in packs. The Yankees do have a lot of connections in Tampa, obviously, because of the Boss (Steinbrenner), all the good he did in this community.''

In 1981, Steinbrenner helped establish the Gold Shield Foundation, which supports the college education for children of slain police officers and firefighters from the Tampa Bay area. The Yankees have raised more than $4-million for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay by holding an annual spring-training luncheon.

Meanwhile, the Steinbrenner family continues to support an annual holiday concert for at-risk children, who are entertained by the Florida Orchestra, and an annual dinner/dance for Hillsborough County high-school coaches, who receive lavish prizes.

"The Yankees do a lot here, but so do the Rays,'' Jefferson High baseball coach Pop Cuesta said. "I think we're lucky to have not just one, but two baseball organizations that give back like they do. People have definitely picked up on the Rays. But those Yankee fans, they aren't going away.''

Neither will that chant.

Let's go, Yankees!

"There's mutual respect between us and the Yankees,'' Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. "We just go out and play. But of course, you want the cheers to be for your team, especially in your building.''


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