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Fans Put Out Welcome Mat For New Teams

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 1998



LAKELAND, FLA.

This year at spring training, it wasn't just the players who spent long hours honing their craft in the hot southern sun.

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The fans were working hard, too.

With two new teams joining the major-league ranks, people in Arizona and northern Florida are toiling to pick up the finer points of fan-hood.

And they've chosen a great time to do it: Today's expansion teams are succeeding like few before them.

Lowell Hires and Brigette Baird are a soon-to-be-married couple perched in the bleachers as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays take on the Detroit Tigers. They've dubbed themselves "fans in training."

Their rigorous routine includes belting out "Go Tampa Bay" at appropriate moments. Mr. Hires is working on his pump-fist-and-holler routine. But he says his best trick is a special wiggle during "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

Arizona Diamondbacks' fans, meanwhile, are quickly learning the art of securing hard-to-get tickets. The team has already sold 35,000 season tickets.

Says one Chicago native who'll be in town for the opening game next Tuesday and is still searching for a ticket: "Getting in the door will be harder than getting into Michael Jordan's last game."

It's a sign of the baseball times that there's such hype and excitement over the two new teams - especially the Diamondbacks.

Both teams have spent millions to secure top-quality players. Arizona, for instance, signed shortstop Jay Bell with an astonishing five-year $34 million deal. The Diamondbacks - with veteran manager Buck Showalter - are a promising expansion club.

Compare that with the debut of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1976. The team was banned from signing free agents and could only draft players from the American League. They finished in last place for their first five years.

But not everyone is so thrilled with the big-spending habits of startup teams. Critics say they take unfair advantage of the league's free-agency free-for-all and, in the process, dilute the quality of players elsewhere.

But that doesn't faze the happy couple in the Florida stands. While they're still learning the names of their soon-to-be heroes, there's one name they won't have to work too hard to remember. "Go Wade!" Ms. Baird belts out.

That's Wade Boggs, the Devil Rays' most-famous slugger. He's hoping to rack up the 200 hits he needs to break the 3,000 barrier, which would put him on par with Ted Williams and Babe Ruth.

Baird and Hires say they'll be with him all the way as he tries to break the record - and as the Rays try to succeed in the major leagues. "We're not going to be fairweather fans," Hires says. "We're in this for the long haul."