ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Meet Dave Marger and the long odds spring to life. Spend a few minutes with this 46-year-old local businessman and the entire Tampa Bay Rays' worst-to-first thing becomes a gleam and a grin, a phone that won't stop ringing, handshakes from acquaintances during lunch at a Central Avenue diner.
Marger, a lifelong St. Petersburg resident and a season-ticket holder since the team's inception in 1998, stands to win $25,000 on a $100 bet he placed at Bally's last November during a quick swing through Las Vegas.
"I figured they are my team, so it was worth $100," he said. "I thought about it when I got there, and the odds were 200-to-one (that the Rays would win the World Series). I dilly-dallied for a day and the odds jumped to 250-to-one, so I went for it."
The wager was in the back of his mind all season. Marger shares seats with friends directly behind home plate at Tropicana Field and also has less-pricey season tickets, enabling him to attend every game. He cheered for the expansion team's first star, Fred McGriff, and agonized through the brutal 55-106 season in 2002 when staff ace Tanyon Sturtze was 4-18 with a 5.18 ERA.
"The absolute bottom was when I was offered free tickets to employees and friends, and they'd laugh and say they didn't want them," Marger said. "That's bad when you can't give away tickets 15 rows behind home plate to a major league baseball game. I was literally throwing away tickets."
Marger never wavered, though. Absent thrills, he made do with chuckles.
"Once a Rays pitcher trying to give an intentional walk threw one behind the batter for a wild pitch and the runner on third scored," he said. "That was an 'only-the-Rays' moment. We couldn't even walk somebody on purpose without messing up."
At times it is disorienting for him to watch a Rays team that actually plays the game well.
"I've seen everything, from the Jose Canseco fiasco to getting beat up by the Yankees and Red Sox every year," he said. "We never had any pitching, and that's the difference this year. The pitching is there."
The team that finished 30 games under .500 in 2007 transformed into one that finished 32 games over .500. On the day the Rays clinched a playoff berth, Marger figured it was time to dig the Bally's ticket out of a drawer.
"I couldn't find it," he said. "I broke into a cold sweat. I went through drawer after drawer. There were only a few places I would have put it, and it was in the last place I looked."
Marger had his ticket in his pocket during Game 2 on Thursday at the quirky dome where he's spent countless agonizing nights rooting for a team that was 347 games under .500 in its first 10 years. Talk of a new venue doesn't thrill him.
"For David Marger, the Trop is perfect," he said. "When I leave my seat, I'm in my garage at home in 25 minutes. Maybe they should take a fraction of the money they'd put into a new stadium and put in a retractable roof. It's gorgeous here in October."
The Rays' Game 1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies Wednesday hardly fazed him, and the Game 2 Rays' victory sent him home three wins from a windfall.
So what if the Game 1 winner has taken the World Series 61 percent of the time, including 10 of the last 11 and 17 of the last 20? These are the Rays, not the Devil Rays.
"How can anybody count them out at this point, after all the thrills?" he said. "Even if they lose, they are my team and I've already gotten a lot more than my $100 worth."
Should the Rays bounce back yet again and finish as World Series champions, Marger doesn't plan to do anything sensible with his winnings, anyway.
"I've already told a couple friends, 'Get a flight to Vegas and the suites and dinners are on me,' " he said. "We'll have a good time in the bars and celebrate the Rays."
And if the Phillies win?
Marger has suffered as a Rays fan long enough to hedge his bets. He can't come out a loser.
"I put down a bet on the Phillies before the Series," he said. "If they win, I'll take home $3,000. Had to do it, you know?"