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Tampa Bay Rays

A professional baseball team in the American League

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Rays with Yet to Truly Shine

  • Dec 5, 2012
Rating:
-5
When you mention the Tampa Bay Rays to a baseball fan, it usually only evokes one response: The question, why? Given a few moments to think up a different reaction, the baseball fan will usually follow that up with the questions of how, when, and who.

Baseball in the greater Tampa Bay area is like baseball in Arizona in that, when you first consider it, it doesn't make the least amount of sense. Then when you think about it in a bit mre detail, some sense begins to emerge: New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner lived in Tampa, and the Yankees' Spring Training camp is there. Hell, there's a whole Spring Training league, the Grapefruit League, in Florida, and a handful of teams call Tampa their winter home. The Tampa Bay area had actually been shooting for a baseball team for some time; they already had a football team with the Buccaneers and even an NHL team with the Lightning. They also had several high-profile college baseball programs, and the Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers, and Seattle Mariners had all tried to relocate to Tampa Bay at one time or another. Eventually, though, in 1995, MLB awarded a team to the area for a group led by Vince Naimoli. They were scheduled to start playing in the 1998 season.

Now, you would think that would give a newly-founded team planty of time to create a competitor, right? The newly created team, which was named the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, started things off on what was supposedly its good foot by naming Chuch LeMar the senior vice president of baseball operations and the general manager. It wasn't a bad idea; LeMar had, after all, been the assistant general manager to that mighty Atlanta Braves team that was running roughshod all over the National League in the 90's. In 1997, they found the right guy to manage the team, Larry Rothschild, a player who had never managed before. In the 1997 expansion draft, their first pick was Tony Saunders of the Florida Marlins. Saunders wasn't what you would call a decorated player; he was grabbed because he was in the right place at the right time, and that right place and time was with the Florida Marlins during their 1997 World Series run. Saunders would prove to be a dud. After Tampa Bay's inaugural season, he was ninth in strikeouts in the American League, but also first in walks. He won six games, and at the beginning of the 1999 season, he broke his arm during a pitch, broke it again while rehabbing it in 2000, and retired at 26. In that same expansion draft, the Devil Rays still managed to steal Bobby Abreu, who went on to become a star and an All-Star with a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger.... For the Philadelphia Phillies. The Devil Rays traded him to Philadelphia for Kevin Stocker, a player so bad that in certain jokes, his last name might also be his official job title.

Before the 1998 season, the Rays did get veteran leadership with Wade Boggs, Fred McGriff, and Wilson Alvarez. Those three managed to get the Devil Rays off to a good start. After 19 games, they were 11-8. Then they went on a six-game losing streak, fell below .500, and lost 99 games on the season. They next season, the Devil Rays finally gave their few fans something positive when Wade Boggs hit number 3000 that August. Boggs retired after the season, and is currently the only player in team history with his number retired.

Through 1999 and 2000, the Devil Rays tried to slug it out with other teams using the likes of Vinny Castilla, Jose Canseco, and Greg Vaughn. They didn't do very well, so before the 2001 season, Larry Rothschild was canned and replaced by Hal McRae. McGriff was sent to the Chicago Cubs. That didn't work. In the 2002 season, the Devil Rays decided to shift gears, start building with younger players, and reduce the team's payroll. Randy Winn, Aubrey Huff, Toby Hall, and Carl Crawford came up with the Devil Rays, and started showing signs of life. The team, on the other had, did the opposite and turned to shit. Their 2002 showing of 55-106 is still their worst ever.

2003 brought another silver bullet move: The Devil Rays traded Randy Winn to the Mariners for the right to negotiate with Seattle manager Lou Piniella. Piniella not only managed winners everywhere he went, but he was also a Tampa native and a World Series Champion manager with the 1990 Cincinnati Reds. Piniella, believe it or not, WANTED the Tampa Bay Devil Rays job. He liked the idea of being close to his family, who lived in Tampa during the ofseason, and embraced the challenge of taking a really bad loser and turning it around until it was a really good winner. Well, he didn't do very well either. However, Piniella did manage to do one thing, which was usher in an era of raised expectations in the team's 2004 season. That year, the Devil Rays had managed to make a fight out of the year. Halfway through the season, they were 42-41 and a factor in the wild card race. They managed to sock it out with the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, and at one point they were even close to overtaking Boston's griplock on second place. Even though the Devil Rays finished 21 games below .500, it was seen as a sign of real improvement, and hey, the Rays had made the real division race a lot more interesting. They won 70 games. The 2005 season went kind of the opposite route: The Rays were terrible at the half but pulled together for a winning second half, and Carl Crawford, Jorge Cantu, and Jonny Gomes provided an offense which eventually finished third in batting average.

The Devil Rays just weren't committed to winning! At least that's how things looked to Piniella, and how can you blame him? This was a team, after all, which changed managers more often than shoes so far and made a lot of dumb decisions. Piniella had himself released after the 2005 season, and replaced with Joe Maddon. They also picked up a new owner with Stuart Sternberg, who immediately fired Chuck LaMar. Sternberg also decided to go without a general manager, since he thought the GM was an outdated position. In 2006, the Devil Rays were eleven games away from the .500 mark at the All-Star break when their management became convinced the team wouldn't be able to contend. So they had a lot of team veterans traded, and finished at 61-101, worst in MLB. Their only real distinction that year? Involvement in two triple plays.

Naturally, no one was optimistic about 2007, but there was an early sign: The Devil Rays were selected to play a series at Champion Stadium in the Disney Sports World Complex, or whatever the hell it's called. They swept the Texas Rangers in this series. It helped that they also won the rights to Japanese infielder Akinori Iwamura, and that they were now armed with one of the youngest pitching staffs in history. Their inexperience showed, though, which is why they went 66-96, finishing last in the AL East again. By now, the Rays had been around for ten years, and they had finished last in nine of them, and in fourth place for the tenth. It was now that Sternberg did the one remaining thing he could possibly do to help out the Devil Rays: He decided it was time to change the team name, colors, and distance themselves from their sucky history. Some options were considered: Aces, Bandits, Cannons, Dukes, stripes, and Sternberg decided his personal favorite was the Nine. Yeah, the Tampa Bay Nine. However, after what I imagine to be deliberation featuring interns chatting about it over pizza, the team's name change was simpler and more subtle. They merely axed the word "devil" from it. And so, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were now just the Tampa Bay Rays, in the hopes that they would be a shining beacon. There were new colors: Navy, columbia blue, and gold, and a new sunburst logo to symbolize Florida, the Sunshine State. The front ofice also increased the payroll, but the team from the previous year was largely left intact. A few moves were made, like promoting a new third baseman named Evan Longoria, and signing closer Troy Percival.

The problem with a new look is that a team with a new look can't be expected to win, but the Rays bolted out in 2008 and showed they had grown from the year before. By Memorial Day, the Rays were eleven games over .500 for the first time in their history. By July, they had a fie and a half game division lead, but then they started to look like those old Devil Rays when they dropped seven in a row, letting the Red Sox take the lead by half a game. In August, the Rays showed everyone they had fortitude, resolve, and more importantly, depth when they lost Longoria, Percival, and Crawford to injuries and still going 21-7 for the month. On September 20, the Rays clinched their first postseason spot. Shortly after, they won the division, and beat the surging Chicago White Sox in four games in the ALDS. In the ALCS, they beat the Boston Red Sox in a series that went the distance, winning their first Pennant. They had home field advantage in the World Series, which was pertinent because they also had the best home record in the league that season. It didn't do them a whole lot of good, though, because they were playing against an ultra-talented Philadelphia Phillies team which had been pretty much the Team of Destiny all year long. The Phillies killed the Rays in five games in the World Series.

The Rays have been legitimately dangerous and competitive since then, and they've added a whole new dimension to the usual arms race in the AL East which periodically takes place between the Yankees and Red Sox.

As far as Hall of Famers and retired numbers go, the Rays have Wade Boggs for each and that's it. But they have managed to sign a number of well-known players, including Jose Canseco, one of the sport's truly gentlemanly figures and one who's name deserves to be written across the moon for all eternity, right? Okay, seriously, the Rays are just starting out, and their team faces so far are probably Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford, who was later signed by the Red Sox.

Speaking of the Red Sox, the Tampa Bay Rays play in the AL East, which means they're caught in the middle of the annual firefight between the Yankees and Red Sox. This normally isn't much of a problem; usually the division fight is between the Yankees and Red Sox with the Rays, Baltimore Orioles, and Toronto Blue Jays just in the way. But the Rays have inserted themselves right in the middle of that war. There was always a sense of a rivalry between the Rays and Yankees because the Rays are new, and the Yankees have been using Tampa for Spring Training for a long time. That's a real loyalty divider. The rivalry between the Rays and the Red Sox is a lot more vicious, which makes sense because both teams are basically fighting for the same second place spot. (Sorry, I'm a Yankees fan, so I couldn't resist.) They also compete for Florida's affections with the Miami Marlins.

Outside the Pennant and their willingness to insert themselves into baseball's bloodiest bath, the Rays aren'tknown for very much. They're known for playing in an ass-ugly dome called Tropicana Field, universally considered one of the worst venues for baseball-watching on the planet. They were also known for wearing ugly rainbow logos on their uniforms. It's no wonder the team made a tradition of nights called Turn Back the Clock Nights, on which the Rays wear the unifroms of a baseball team from the Tampa Bay area's past. Their fans also have Jose Canseco to celebrate and cheer about, and a sappy Disney movie called The Rookie was based on the story of Rays pitcher Jim Morris, a 35-year-old high school teacher and baseball coach who tried out for the Rays because he threw a fastball that could go 98 MPH. He was called up to the Rays, and spent parts of two seasons playing for them.

Widespread support for the Tampa Bay Rays is basically nonexistant. The team is taking promotional cues from the Yankees and Red Sox, both excellent teams to emulate when it comes to promotions. The team has also made a tradition of cowbell nights.

The Rays are starting to find themselves, and I give them credit for that. Unfortunately, I currently can't see them being much more than that domed team in Florida. The things that make them what they are include bad uniforms, Jose Canseco, a 35-year-old rookie, and a bunch of other things which really make them the butt of jokes. People in Tampa would have to be serious masochists to choose the Rays, especially if they believe the Yankees' Spring Training gives them a legitimate claim to the Yankees.

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Nicholas Croston ()
Ranked #19
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