Monday, October 20, 2008

Why I'm Fired Up About the Tampa Bay Rays (in 1,000 Words or More)

Recently I was asked to explain in 3,000 words or more why I'm cheering for the Tampa Bay Rays this postseason. Forgive me for barely topping 1,200 words, but I hope you at least enjoy my tale.

You may think it's because I'm a bitter Cleveland fan on the outside looking in at a club that bested the Yankees and Red Sox in regular season AL East competition. True, I am a virtual card-carrying member of the Cleveland chapter of the Yankee-Haters Club.

True, my scorn of the Red Sox began before the 2007 ALCS, when for four years straight my once-a-year trip to Jacobs Field happened to be when the Indians were playing the Red Sox and the cavalcade of Boston bandwaggoners filled the Jake. But my own bandwagon Rays fandom was created by love of Tampa Bay, not hate of New York or Boston.

Like Peter Gammons, I've long been a fan of up-and-coming prospects. The Rays have been "Gammonsesque" since 2003, when Carl Crawford began his first full season, joined in the outfield by rookie Rocco Baldelli.

Crawford was billed as a five-tool stud. Baldelli, playing center field and wearing number 5, was hailed as the next Joe Dimaggio. But two players do not a Gammonsesque team make. Tampa Bay had the second overall pick in the 2002 draft and the first overall pick in the 2003 draft. Both years they took talented position players - BJ Upton in 2002 and Delmon Young in 2003.

But despite this promise, the years went on and the parent club struggled. To make matters worse, the young talent wasn't living up to its hype. Baldelli couldn't stay on the field. Upton was overmatched at shortstop and struggled to find a new position. Young and fellow outfielder Elijah Dukes became liabilities with character issues, as did 1999 top pick Josh Hamilton. Other top picks, like Dewan Brazelton, simply burnt out.

One nice thing about being a perennial loser, however, is that you can give extra chances to prospects that faded out elsewhere. Dioner Navarro was the Dodger's big reward in the three-way deal that sent Randy Johnson to the Yankees and Shawn Green to the Diamondbacks. Navarro did alright in LA, but he proved to be no Russell Martin.

Carlos Pena turned a few years of mashing Indians pitching into a big deal from the Tigers, but he quickly regressed and was then shown the door. After a brief stop in Boston (and an even briefer stop with the Yankees, where he never saw the field), he ended up in Tampa Bay, where he absolutely lit the world on fire in 2007.

The Rays started to show signs of life in 2007. The offense began living up to its potential. Meanwhile, in the middle of a mediocre pitching rotation and a horrendous bullpen, two staff aces emerged. Scott Kazmir was the big name, thanks to the now infamous trade that sent him from New York to Tampa Bay and GM Steve Phillips from New York to ESPN's studios in Bristol, Connecticut. But matching Kazmir pitch for pitch was second-year starter James Shields.

Realizing that they had depth in the outfield, Tampa Bay's front office traded away the controversial Dukes and Young. For Young, they got an impressive haul from Minnesota – shortstop Jason Bartlett and talented young starting pitcher Matt Garza.

Up-the-middle defense has long been a staple of winning clubs, and Bartlett helped shore up that defense at shortstop. Anything he added with the bat would be a plus. Garza stepped in as the number three starter.

Then the Rays got gimmicky. They decided to officially drop the “Devil” and become the Tampa Bay Rays. They fined employees a dollar – payable to the team's charity – for every use of the old term “Devil Rays,” and even went as far as sending letters to media personalities requesting they comply with the fines.

While this met much eye-rolling, I do think it was a clever way to help the Rays raise money for their team charity. (As an aside, I keep thinking that the team dropped the word “Bay” as well. After all, Tampa Bay isn't a city, but Tampa is. However, the Rays play in St. Petersburg.)

Lazy sportswriters predicted another basement finish for these new-look Rays, but those in the know foresaw much greater things. Tampa Bay was going to easily finish third in the AL East and possibly challenge the Yankees for second place. Some optimists who were tired of the Yankees and Red Sox hoped the Rays could even win the division, but that seemed like it might be too much, too soon.

Then things started clicking. BJ Upton took to his new position like a gazelle, racing across center field to make terrific catches, all while hitting the lights out. Kazmir, Shields, Garza, and Barberton, OH native Andy Sonnanstine formed a very solid rotation.

The team had focused on upgrading the bullpen in the offseason, and that was paying off as well. Troy Percival was the big pickup, but he broke down by the end of the season. So the Rays went bullpen-by-committee, always riding the hot hand. It's paid off so far.

Meanwhile, two more first round picks were tearing up the minors. 2006 pick Evan Longoria was originally held back to delay his eventual salary arbitration status, but he hit so well that the team threw that idea out six games into the season – and gave him a longterm contract to boot. 2007 number one overall David Price was having trouble finding a league that could contain him.

Longoria is now the favorite for Rookie of the Year, and Price was in the majors by September. The Rays kept winning meanwhile – the division was theirs to lose.

Then the playoffs started, with Tampa Bay coming in as AL East champs, and the “old men” had come full circle. Carl Crawford battled injuries all season and Rocco Baldelli faced a career-threatening illness, but both were able to sneak onto the playoff roster.

And oh what an adventure the playoffs have been. The heroes have been many, including Matt Garza, who twice beat a Jon Lester that the media thought was unbeatable. Then their was David Price's gutsy performance in Game 7. I'm sure the boys at the Baseball America offices down in Durham was just as excited as me to see Price come in not only to strike out the hot-hitting JD Drew in the eighth, but also to close out the game and send the Tampa Bay Rays to their first World Series.

As a postlude, yes, I am cheering for the Rays in the World Series. But the opposing Phillies bring with them closer Brad Lidge. Lidge is the latest star in the storied history of Notre Dame alumni in Major League Baseball, so whether the trophy goes to him or to the Tampa Bay Rays, I'll be happy. And I'll enjoy watching every minute of what is sure to be another great Fall Classic.