ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The success of the Tampa Bay Rays this season has taken just about everyone by surprise--everyone, perhaps, except the man whose name adorns their uniforms.
Last September when the little-known Tampa Bay franchise--then known as the Devil Rays--announced that they would change the team nickname and uniforms, St. Petersburg bar owner Ray Feinman jumped at the chance to sponsor the team and name it after his bar, Ray's. The sponsorship--overlooked by most at the time--is now paying huge dividends, with the recently-crowned American League champions representing Feinman's small watering hole.
"I knew those kids would do big things from the first time I met them over the winter," says Feinman. "What they're doing doesn't surprise me at all. If I didn't think they could win, I wouldn't have put up the $150 to have our name on the jersey."
Back in April, Ray's patrons would routinely laugh off Feinman's bold optimism about the team's prospects, but now the only laughs are for sheer jubilation.
"When old Ray told me in March that we could go all the way, I told him he was bonkers," says Ray's regular Arty Bird. "I laughed and said, 'Yeah, sure, Ray. I'll go to Vegas right now and put a hundred bucks on them to win the Series.' If I'd listened, I could've had a chance to be rich. Instead, my retirement savings are going down the toilet, and I can barely afford to drink here anymore. But hey--Go Rays!"
Feinman was initially miffed by the franchise for mispunctuating the jersey by excluding the apostrophe in "Ray's," but now, he says, it no longer bothers him. "I think by now, everyone makes the connection between the team and our bar. And I can't complain too much, with all the business they've brought."
Indeed, Ray's has not only seen a boost in business from Rays fans throughout the season but from the players as well.
"The boys come in here a lot after games, sometimes still in their jocks and cleats," says bartender Louie Bataglia. "I comp their drinks, and usually one of the girls will bring them out a few platters of wings. We do whatever we can to encourage the kids."
Back in April, Bataglia had some special words of wisdom for Rays rookie phenom Evan Longoria. Before his first game with the Rays after being called up from the minors, Longoria dropped by Ray's with teammate Jason Bartlett for some MGD 64s and good cheer.
"I said, 'Evan--That's a woman's name, huh?'" recalls Bataglia. "He says, 'Nah.' I says, 'Oh. Well, you'll do fine, kid. Keep doing what you do, and you'll be a good one.'"
Thanks in large part to Bataglia's advice, Longoria earned a trip to the All-Star Game and is a front-runner for the American Leauge Rookie of the Year award.
Says Longoria's mentor, "Yeah, I'm real proud of him. Like a son."
While the World Series appearance has brought plenty of excitement to the bar, the Rays are not the only team to do the Ray's name proud in recent years.
"We had a 14 year-old Colt League team go to the sectional finals last year, and two years ago, our 40-and-over fast-pitch team won the league championship," recounts Feinman. "But this year might be the most special of all."
The Tampa Bay Rays will open the World Series Wednesday night against the Philadelphia Phillies.