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While attending the Red Sox-Rays series last week, BLS contributor Nick Friedell ran into Dick Vitale, who is quickly becoming the Rays' version of the Lakers' Jack Nicholson. Since Vitale was besieged by photo-hunters, autograph-seekers and various well-wishers, Nick took down Mr. Vitale's number and called him later. No surprises, here — Dickie V. was only too happy to talk about his surging team.

Dick Vitale is the voice of college basketball, but he also holds another sport close to heart.

"I love baseball," Vitale told me last week. "I absolutely love baseball."

As a young kid growing up in New Jersey he tried to catch a game whenever he could. He claims he used to hitchhike to Yankee Stadium begging people for nickels and dimes to gain entry. "

The love affair with the national pastime has only grown stronger over the years, but there's a new team that has captured Dickie V's imagination.

The Tampa Bay Rays.

Vitale, who resides in the Tampa Bay area, has been a season ticket holder from the beginning. He has seen his team struggle for years which makes their surge to the top that much sweeter.

"We've finally got a team where every pitch and every at-bat has so much meaning as opposed to the past ten years where you were just hoping maybe to shock somebody or get a win," Vitale said. "But now this is really, really special."

Vitale believes that Rays manager Joe Maddon deserves a large amount of credit for getting the team on track.

"Number one you got to start with the leadership," Vitale said. "Joe Maddon since he came here has really done a phenomenal job ... really getting the players to understand how you build a winning environment."

The respect that both men have for one another is evident considering Maddon asked Vitale to speak to his team a couple weeks ago in Boston.

"I told them you don't win championships by being a bunch of individual all-stars, you win by being a team — doing all the intangibles and playing together and really trying to help one another in chasing your goals, and that's really what they're about," Vitale said.

The energetic 69-year-old also had a direct message for his beloved Rays that went beyond simply beating the Red Sox that night.

"If you've been number one for 142 games there is no reason with 20 more to play that you can't be uno number one," Vitale told the team. "You gotta attack the last 20 like you did the (first) 142."

* * *

To say that Vitale has had a front-row seat to see the Rays transformation would not be an overstatement. He has four seats that sit right next to the visitor's dugout. He is recognized by visiting players all the time and routinely holds court with them.

"I get a kick and people get a laugh before the games, players are asking me for pictures and autographs," Vitale said. "And I'm saying they don't get it man, I said I want to get their picture and an autograph."

The freshly minted Basketball Hall of Famer was extremely touched a few months ago when the Yankees came over to congratulate him after it was announced that he would be inducted.

"When I came to the ballpark that night all the players coming over ... from Johnny Damon to Derek Jeter to Giambi to Alex (Rodriguez) all those guys coming over and saying, "Dickie V, congratulations —Hall of Fame — wow!."

It seems that everybody at the Trop loves being around Dickie V. The team puts him on the JumboTron sometimes to get the crowd revved up, as his famous tag line, "It's Awesome Baby!" pops up on the scoreboard. He spends most of his time before, during and after games taking pictures and signing autographs for fans. Being the Rays' most famous fan is an experience he enjoys.

"It's very difficult for me to get from my seat to anywhere in the ballpark," Vitale admits "And I appreciate that because I love the fans, I love being with people."

So if Vitale can continue to show up after years of futility, why can't more fans in the Tampa/St. Pete area do the same? It's a question that many people have pondered recently.

"People get on them and I even got on them a little bit about you know. I can't understand why we're not sold out now, here we're battling for a divisional title, but you gotta understand there's been 10 years of major, major losing," Vitale said. "We're not talking about losing 70-80 games, we're talking about losing 100 games a year, finishing in last 9 out of 10 years prior."

Vitale, who estimates that he has spent almost $250,000 on tickets alone during his tenure as a Rays' season ticket holder, acknowledges that he is fortunate to be able to afford the luxury, and believes the economy has played a role in the lack of attendance.

"Sometimes it's easy for me to say "Oh the fans should come out," Vitale said. "But you know in today's economic woes that are out there a lot of people just can't write those checks out."

* * *

If the Rays keep winning, though, you can bet that Vitale will be there. In fact, he's already purchased 12 seats for the playoffs. When I asked Vitale if he could compare Maddon's bunch to a team from his other favorite sport, he had a quick and very astute answer.

"Just a couple years ago (I) was shocked beyond belief I never thought it would happen that a George Mason could step out and beat Connecticut, North Carolina, Michigan State, and go to the Final Four," Vitale said. "I would say this is a Cinderella like George Mason."

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