- Dick Vitale, College Basketball analyst
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Editor's Note: ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale, a recent inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame, lives in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area and attends an average of 40 Rays games a year at Tropicana Field.
I have been a Tampa Bay Rays season-ticket holder since day one. After 10 straight losing seasons, it was great to attend games that meant something. It was incredible to see moments when the crowd was fired up and the team played for a postseason berth, and then a division title.
Over the 10 seasons that preceded 2008, the team finished in the cellar every time, except for 2004. That year the Rays won 70 games, a franchise-high until this season, baby!
What a turnaround and I know the Red Sox and Yankees were stunned by it. This team added a number of players who were castoffs, guys who were not wanted elsewhere. Think about names like Gabe Gross, Eric Hinske and Cliff Floyd -- all of them made contributions to the success of this club in 2008.
The front office made a good move by adding pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett in a deal with Minnesota. Garza added depth to the rotation and pitched very well this season. Bartlett solidified the infield defense and came up with a number of clutch hits.
In the past, the bullpen was an issue. J.P. Howell has come through in middle relief; he's been absolutely sensational. A number of other veterans have stepped up as well.
Behind the plate, catcher Dioner Navarro has been consistent. He has been productive at the plate and he did a good job handling this young pitching staff.
This team has come through despite injuries. Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Rocco Baldelli and Evan Longoria have all missed long periods of time. This club has responded to every challenge, and it has played as a team.
Longoria has done a great job with the bat and the glove. Remember, he didn't even start the season in the majors. He gets my vote for AL Rookie of the Year!
It is an exciting time for everyone in the Tampa area. This team set the tone early on, winning games that used to be L's. Joe Maddon has done a phenomenal job, pushing all the right buttons. Guys like Matt Silverman and Andrew Friedman have been outstanding in the front office.
The future is so bright and that should show with increased attendance next season. David Price is going to be a sensation in the future too.
To be realistic, the Yankees and Red Sox will get better and better and those two franchises will not go away.
For now, the Rays are in the hunt for a World Series title. There is excitement galore, and Tropicana Field will be packed for the team's first playoff game. I like the way that sounds -- "playoff game"! How many believed that was possible before this season, baby?
8mDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com
7hInterview by Buster Olney