More Cowbell: Why the Rays ring those bells, and other lore of local baseball fandom

On a Thursday night in early July, a crowd of 36,970 packed the Trop for the game against the despised Boston Red Sox. There wasn't a space to be had in the official Rays parking lots. A majority of customers, young and old, male and female, were literally displaying their fandom on their sleeves. Their outfits varied: expensive white uniform tops with the names and numbers of a Rays player or of themselves in deep blue (Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria most of all); dress shirts with the blue and white Rays logo; all sorts of tee shirts bought from the Rays, and of course Rays ballcaps.

Kathy Plank, ensconced like a queen at the end of my row, was wearing a Rays uniform top, Rays workout pants, Rays socks, Rays earrings and Rays sneakers. I suspect she was wearing Rays undies, but she isn't the sort of person you ask such a question. Kathy, I must point out, filled out an astounding 72,000 All Star ballots in an attempt to unseat perennial All Stars Alex Rodriguez and Ichiro Suzuki all by herself. ("My goal was 100,000, but I finally had to quit.") I sat and watched her patiently punch out holes in the ballots only for Rays players — including the dearly departed DH Pat Burrell — one card after another after another during entire games. If any of the Rays got a pay bonus for making the All Star game, I hope he sent 10 percent of the money to Kathy.

Many attendees brought cowbells, noisemakers powerful enough in concert to silence those who dare vocalize their opposition. During the dark days of the Vince Naimoli regime, when the Sox fans would begin their obnoxious chant, "Let's go, Red Sox, let's go, Red Sox," the Devil Rays fans would sit and stew (and watch their team lose). No longer on either count. As soon as the hated chant arises, a mob of Rays fans now begin clanging their cowbells in the ears of the Red Sox fans and loudly booing. The cacophony is so great their words are drowned out. Cowed, they are forced to stop. As far as I can see, there are no more passionate baseball fans than Rays rooters. (Yeah, Yankee and Red Sox fans are passionate, but they have 100 years of tradition behind them. Rays tradition goes back just five years — beginning the day Sternberg bought the team from Naimoli. Before then the Rays were barely a major league baseball team.)

There is colorful historical background surrounding the cowbell craze. Hilda Chester, a fanatical fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers when the team played in the bandbox known as Ebbets Field, started it in the early 1940s. Hilda, an older lady dressed like a librarian, sat in the centerfield bleachers with her large metal cowbell, and she clanged it loudly and often. She came to every game, and she became a favorite of the players. During one game in her guttural patois, she called over to Pete Reiser, the centerfielder, to take a note to manager Leo Durocher. "Hey, Pete, comeovaheah!" Reiser took her note, and as he headed to the dugout, he waved to Dodger general manager Larry MacPhail, who was sitting in a box seat next to the dugout. The note said to take out the starting pitcher and bring in relief pitcher Hugh Casey. Without looking at it Reiser handed the note to Durocher, who thought it had come from MacPhail. Durocher read it and obediently took out the starter. The Dodgers won the game, but later when he learned from Reiser that the note had come from Hilda, he blew his stack.

Rays owner Stu Sternberg knew about all of this. Sternberg grew up in Canarsie in Brooklyn, and though at 51 he's too young to have seen the Brooklyn Dodgers play, he is steeped in the Brooklyn ethos, and it was Sternberg who introduced the ringing of cowbells into the Rays ambiance. Sternberg theorized that if Hilda Chester could cow the opposition with one bell, imagine what ten thousand cowbells could do. Turned out they can do a hell of a lot. Two Red Sox fans sitting near me tried to be their usual obnoxious selves at the start of the game, but after they were constantly belled down by Rays fans sitting around them, by the fifth inning they decided it would be best to sit quietly.

There's another tradition that has been passed down from the Brooklyn Dodgers. Every time a Boston batter fanned with one or two outs, a chorus of fans sitting in sections 300 and 302 began chanting "Left, right, left, right, left, right," trying to keep in cadence with the departing batter as he strode back toward the dugout. When the batter walked down the steps, the fans in unison screamed, "SIT DOWN." Even the Red Sox fans had to laugh, until it got repetitive.

In Brooklyn the chorus of "Left, right, left, right" was led by the Dodger Symphony, a group of relatively talented musicians who went to the games with their musical instruments on their own dime and entertained the fans. Their leader was a midget by the name of Shorty.

The Rays chorus is led by larger folk, Kathy and Jim Schnur, by day a meek librarian with two master's degrees at the University of South Florida, by night a frothing-at-the-mouth raving lunatic. Kathy, who is a legal assistant, holds up the sign that says "LEFT," and Jim holds up the one that says "RIGHT." The tradition started about five years ago, and I wondered whether the players even noticed, until one night when Ozzie Guillen, the manager of the Chicago White Sox, began gesticulating toward the deranged hecklers, now officially known as The Belfry.

The Rays have started a new tradition accompanying strikeouts by the opposition. If a Rays pitcher strikes out ten batters, all the ticket holders at the game get a free pizza compliments of Papa John's. You have to go to the nearest Kane's furniture store to get the coupon for the pizza, but most fans don't mind spending three bucks in gas to get the free pizza, so they go. In this game Price struck out nine, and in the seventh inning he had two strikes on the batter when the throng began chanting, "Pizza, pizza, pizza, pizza, pizza." When Price obliged with the tenth strike out, the roar blew the roof off the Trop.

But back to Ozzie Guillen. Last year Rays pitchers two games in a row struck out ten White Sox batters, and Guillen had to listen to Kathy, Jim et al and their "left, right" chant over and over. Twice he had to endure the roar of the Rays fans exulting over winning a free pizza.

The White Sox ended up winning both of those games, and so at the start of the next game when a White Sox batter struck out, Guillen grabbed an empty pizza box he had brought along for the occasion, and he held it up over his head for the Rays chorus to see, as if to say to them, You won the pizza. We won the game. So there. Or perhaps something more obscene. The Belfry has been in love with Ozzie Guillen ever since.

The Rays led 3-1 going into the ninth, and only when Eric Patterson tripled in a run to make the score close did the Sox fans get up and scream, ignoring the ringing in their ears and the taunts. When Matt Garza came into the game to make a rare relief appearance and got Kevin Youkilis to fly out to center field to end the game, the cacophony of cowbells, long horns and rhapsodic applause was great, and the joy that filled the stadium was palpable. The Rays had swept the Sox and retaken the lead for the wild card spot in the playoffs. Stu Sternberg was so happy he announced he would spend more money than is prudent to buy a player if it means a shot at winning the World Series. The next day ticket holders would trek first to Kane's and then descend on Papa John's. Somewhere Hilda Chester is smiling.

peter golenbock, tampa bay rays, baseball, tradition, left right, cowbells, brooklyn dodgers, hilda chester, ozzie guillen, chicago white sox, kathy plank, Stu Sternberg, Kathy and Jim Schnur, sports, tropicana field, st. petersburg

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