Rays celebrate AL titles

Updated: April 14, 2009, 2:16 AM ET
Associated Press

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Rays celebrated one of the biggest turnarounds in major league history Monday night, raising the franchise's first division and AL championship banners before their home opener against the New York Yankees.

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AP Photo/Steve NesiusRay players carried the banners from their dugout along the first base line to left field, where stadium workers slowly raised them to a spot above one of the catwalks.

"It's a validation, the beginning of a tradition, the beginning of the Rays in a sense," said manager Joe Maddon, who guided the Rays to 97 victories -- they had never won more than 70 games in a season -- an AL East title and an improbable berth in the World Series.

"This is who we want to be. We want to be a successful organization that participates in the postseason on an annual basis. We want to hang many banners from the rafters," Maddon added before the pregame ceremony at Tropicana Field.

"It's just a beginning. I really believe that. It means we're doing the right things, moving in the right direction," Maddon said. "We've got a good plan in place. We've got the right players. It means all of that."

After talking all spring about the need to put 2008 behind them and focus on the challenge of getting back to the postseason, the Rays will spend much of the seven-game homestand that began against Yankees reflecting on last year's accomplishments.

Players will be presented with their AL championship rings on Tuesday and opening-week promotions include nights when fans will receive replicas of the rings, as well as the league championship trophy.

The sellout crowd of more than 36,000 roared as the team, led by injured outfielder Fernando Perez, carried the banners -- which are 22 feet by 9 feet -- from the Rays dugout along the first base line to left field, where stadium workers slowly raised them to a spot above one of the catwalks that help support the roof on the domed stadium.

"They deserve it. They played great," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "It's exactly what we want to do this year."

None of the Rays waited longer for such a ceremony more than left fielder Carl Crawford, who despite being only 27 has played more games for Tampa Bay than any player in team history. After years of being dominated in the AL East by the big spending Yankees and Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay won the pennant despite having one of the least experienced rosters in baseball.

"I'm not really an emotional guy ... but it's definitely a proud moment," Crawford said, adding that it wasn't any more special to hold the ceremony on a night with the Yankees in the opposing dugout.

"It's nice just to have it. I don't want to say it's sweeter because they're in town," Crawford said. "But it is nice to raise that banner and show that you accomplished something, and something that's not easy to do."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press