In ‘08 the Tampa Bay Rays miraculously rose from MLB abyss to first-place in baseball’s deadliest division and made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Their success inspired three, young St. Petersburg rappers to come up with a song entitled It’s Our Season, which was immediately embraced by fans, Rays management and bumped continuously at the Trop. That year the Rays drew a little over $1.8 million fans, their highest total in 11 years.
While Tampa Bay couldn’t fulfill the cut’s prophecy and fell to the Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins-led Philadelphia Phillies 4-1 in the World Series, it marked the beginning of “The Golden Era” for Tampa baseball fans.
Every team has history, some more extensive and celebrated than others. Anything a team has accomplished lately has probably been done at some prior point in franchise history. Rays fans, however, are in the midst of their greatest moment. They exist in a baseball utopia, a paradise island at 64-43 and in sole possession of first-place in the AL East.
From the team’s inception as The Devil Rays in ‘98 through ‘07, Tampa averaged a pathetic 64.5 wins and finished last every season except ‘04, when they finished in fourth-place, 30.5 games out.
Attending Tropicana Field was like watching a baseball game at church. The dome did little to enhance the atmosphere, and the fans were quieter than the crowd on the 18th hole at The Masters. The press box was like a sound–proof spaceship to reporters covering those early Devil Rays games. It was all about self amusement, but Ray’s brass couldn’t shoot enough T-shirts into the second level seats and run enough toddler races to hide the fact that Rays baseball was…a disgrace.
Then, in one year it all changed.
The methodology and magic of manager Joe Maddon, who arrived in ’05, and the eventual development of players from a stacked farm system blended like the perfect chemical reaction. The Rays went from “least in the east” to “beasts of the east,” leaping from 66 wins in ’07 to 97 wins in historic fashion.
Tampa has averaged 91.6 wins per season, and made two more playoff appearances (‘10, ‘11) since then. Led by burgeoning stars – such as third baseman Evan Longoria, outfielders B.J. Upton (Atlanta) and Carl Crawford (Dodgers) and a bevy of golden arms like the diminutive Scott Kazmir,“Big Game” James Shields, Matt Garza and ‘12 Cy Young winner David Price – over the last half decade the Rays have become perennial noise-makers on the MLB scene.
Maddon is an intelligent skipper with a unique managerial style. His thick-rimmed glasses and the way he rocks his hoody on brisk nights, gives him a memorable exterior to match his masterfully-tactical baseball brain. He inspires with a combination of grit, calm, quirkiness and fearlessness. Traits that have helped his team grind out some nail-biting victories in situations that required extreme mental fortitude.
Who can forget Longoria’s epic walk-off homer in the 12th-inning of an 8-7 win against the Yankees, that catapulted The Rays into the ‘11 playoffs. Longoria also blasted a three-run joint during a six-run 8th-inning flurry in that game.
The three-time all-star continues to be the glue and big bopper for Tampa, leading them in homers (21) and RBI (58) and flashing tough leather. The 27-year-old Longoria is the cornerstone of Tampa’s existence and when he’s at full throttle, the instigative bullet of Maddon’s relentless, rapid-fire philosophy.
Maddon has been known for applying slogans to just about everything. His inspirational quotations cover the Rays' clubhouse and his lineup card. He’s as in command and in tune with his players as any manager in the game.
Skipper Joe has turned a stale atmosphere into a free-spirited, jolly place to work. In setting the mood, Maddon has tried everything from bringing magicians, penguins and a meringue band into the clubhouse.
With his arrival, the entire attitude of the franchise changed, the fun times began and now the Rays are a shining example of what many purists, who are against the capitalistic domination of big-market ball clubs, call “doing it the right way.”
The Rays are the anti-Yankees. A small market club that lives at the bottom of the payroll chain, but used a combination of economical thinking, shrewd personnel moves, developing young talent, timely hitting, strategic conquests and aggressive play , to slowly flip the balance of power in their division.
Tampa didn’t go H.A.M. and start throwing money around to grab a WS title like the LA teams and Toronto. It has the third-lowest payroll in baseball at $57,030,272. Only the lowly Marlins and cellar-dweller Astros spend less chips. With those teams, it’s safe to say they are getting what they pay for—not much. But the Rays seem to get “everything” out of what they pay for and this year’s no different.
The pitching is tight as usual. Tampa is tied for 10th in MLB in team ERA and they are led by All-Star Matt Moore who is 14-3, and last year’s Cy Young winner David Price, who has battled injuries and is just 6-5 this season, but he has been rounding into shape of late.
The latest pitcher to step his game up for Tampa has been Jeremy Hellickson, who has picked up the slack when needed. Tampa’s ‘05, 4th-round pick is 10-3 and has won his last seven decisions entering Wednesday’s game against Arizona. His pitching has sparked the 28 of 36 games Tampa’s recently won. The Rays are also getting contributions from a seemingly endless flow of consummate pros like first baseman James Loney (.316 BA), Kelly Johnson (15 homers) and emerging studs like rookie masher Wil Myers. Players, who will keep the Rays in contention for years to come.
"It's been a lot of fun” said Myers, who is batting .465 (20 for 43) during an 11-game hitting streak. "We're doing everything we need to do. We're pitching well, we're getting timely hits, and our bullpen's coming in and shutting the door.''
Tampa’s holding the key to its first WS title this season. Maybe the hip-hop song that had Tropicana Field rocking for rings in ‘08 was just a little premature. No one really thought they’d rip the White Sox and then trim Boston in a Game 7 ALCS.
Now it’s expected.