—Transplanted Marylander Dave Keith drove up to Tropicana Field from Port Charlotte with his wife and a couple of fellow former Terp types to witness something they haven't seen in a very long time — the first-place Orioles battling for the American League East title.

"I'm loving it," said Keith, who was proudly decked out in a Manny Machado T-shirt.

His friends, Tom and Rosemary Cole, who hail from Calvert County and now live in Venice, Fla. , have long since switched allegiances, as evidenced by their contrasting Tampa Bay Rays regalia.

"One more losing season," Tom Cole said, "and I'd have had him rooting for the Rays."

No such luck. The Orioles had recaptured the imagination of their fans long before they captured their first playoff berth in 15 years on Sunday. The newfound enthusiasm was heavily reflected last weekend in Boston and it was obvious again in Tampa, where Orioles fans represented a surprisingly sizable percentage of the crowd that showed up for the first game of a still-important three-game series between the Orioles and Rays.

Many of the men and women in orange traveled down to the Tampa Bay area for the final regular season series of the year. Martha Cockey of Baltimore was celebrating her birthday at the ballpark on Monday night after her boyfriend, Travis Formwalt, surprised her on Sunday night with last-minute plane tickets and good seats for Monday's game.

"It was a spur-of-the-moment decision," said Cockey, who is a registered nurse at the University of Maryland Medical Center. "Ever since I was little I've been an Orioles fan. My dad got me into it. After all these losing seasons, it's really paying off. It's been fun to watch."

Jason Gilmartin recently moved from Annapolis to St. Petersburg, so he has to get his Orioles fix wherever he can.

"I picked the wrong year to do it with the Orioles going to the playoffs," he said. "I'm 31 years old and this is the most exciting Orioles team I've ever seen…and I was at the first Opening Day at Camden Yards and the 2131 game. It's a different player every day. They're amazing."

They came from Maryland and by way of Maryland from all over South Florida. Eric Vierling used to live in Annapolis. Now he makes his home in Bonita Springs, Fla., which is a community not far from the Everglades.

"I've been watching and waiting 15 years for a year like this one," he said in an e-mail response to The Baltimore Sun's Internet shoutout to the Orioles diaspora. "It's a shame it has been so long since we had a good year. I think it is fantastic the way a bunch of retreads and kids are playing like they mean it, like baseball is fun and they are winning. Buck Showalter is amazing. He has a knack for seeing about five minutes into the future."

Not everyone, however, clamored down here because the Orioles are such a good team this year. Mike and Amber Lotocky of Parkville showed up on Monday in their Oriole jerseys, but they are no fairweather Florida-bound fans. They bought their tickets for the first game of this series against the Rays six months ago, when the playoffs were just a twinkle in Dan Duquette's eye.

"Actually, we were coming here on vacation," Amber Lotocky said. "It just kind of worked out."

Maybe it was kismet.

"I wish I had a better term for it," Mike Lotocky said. "People are calling it Orioles Magic. It's just a different hero every night – from Ryan Flaherty to Taylor Teagarden. I've been a fan all my life and to finally be relevant after 14 years…it's awesome."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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