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07/02/08 9:34 PM ET

Raysmania taking hold at the Trop

Fans embracing Tampa Bay and shaking their cowbells

ST. PETERSBURG -- When Rays manager Joe Maddon first spoke of turning Tropicana Field into "The Pit" this season, it was nearly laughable.

Years of being baseball's worst team had parlayed into a half-filled stadium littered with chants for the opposing team.

But the third-year skipper's dream has finally come into fruition, as Wednesday night's sellout crowd vs. the Red Sox provided just the latest example of Raysmania, which is quickly sweeping Tampa Bay with the Rays in first place in the American League East.

Part of the prescription for Rays fever is, of course, more cowbell.

Owner Stu Sternberg has always been a fan of the famous "Saturday Night Live" skit featuring Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken, and the team partnered with T.G. Lee to distribute 10,000 cowbells twice last season and again this year.

But the cowbells were only given to fans wearing Rays gear, a point that helped band together the faithful and elicit a sense of pride.

"People kind of get mad. They are wearing either Yankees or Red Sox gear, and we turn them down at the gate," said Brian Killingsworth, director of marketing and promotions. "We've actually had people go to the team store and buy something just to come back and get a cowbell. It's been pretty crazy."

Yes, participation in Raysmania requires donning some of the team's apparel.

But this year's fans -- who arrived on Wednesday night, brooms in one hand, cowbells in another -- have added another level of awareness.

"There's cowbell etiquette this season. Only when there's two strikes on the opposing team," fan Cary Strukel said.

The 38-year-old season-ticket holder, "The Cowbell Kid," is one of the Rays' loudest proponents.

"We don't want to be just shaking them for no reason," he said. "We want them to be a positive reinforcement for the Rays."

Donning a wig and Rays jersey, and wielding a homemade cowbell, Strukel admits he has seen a lot of losing within the Rays' home dome.

But perhaps that is what makes series wins over the Angels, Yankees, Cubs and, most recently, the Red Sox, even better.

"I come into every game this year expecting us to win, I get mad when we don't," he said. "The atmosphere, the support this year has been unreal."

So is this the pinnacle of what Maddon was talking about?

"Close to Pit status," Maddon said, smiling.

And he's not the only one pleased with the phenomenon.

"Last year all those stands out there [in the outfield] would be empty," St. Petersburg resident Lorie Fernandez said. "It's just been incredible this season. We bought our tickets [on Wednesday] morning, and they only had two sections left."

With wins in 10 of their last 11 home series, the Rays are keeping their half of the bargain. And the fans are increasingly living up to the challenge of cheering on baseball's best.

"I think they really are going to be America's sweetheart," newly christened season-ticket holder Susan McCarthy said. "Rays fans can outchant the other fans. Even like last week, with the Cubs, just the different activities. The music, the waves, the participation by the fans is really going far."

It is also making the confines of Tropicana Field much cozier.

"It's a unique spot," reliever J.P. Howell said. "It's way, way louder. It sounds rowdy now. It's not just cheering loud now -- in between pitches, you can hear it.

"I was with the Royals -- it was the same, it was just bad crowds," he added. "They would try every year, but it was always for the other team. Now it's just the key. The Rays fans are actually coming, it's rewarding to see that."

Entering Wednesday night's game, the Rays are 13-2 in front of crowds of 25,000 or more and have seen a 41 percent increase in ticket sales.

"It's just unbelievable," McCarthy said. "They need to fill this place no matter what teams are here. Everyone's talking the Rays right now.

"Could you just imagine what this place would be like for a playoff game?" she said.

She stopped and quickly corrected herself: "I mean, what it will be like for a playoff game."

And in that one statement, she exemplified the foundation of the new Raysmania: belief.

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.