After watching my beloved Devil Rays drop their first name and get rid of the puke-green sleeves that I had grown to love over the last few years, I, along with the other 50-some-odd “Rays” fans, expected another long season in which we would find a way to finish last, even though we had what seemed like an improved roster chuck full of young talent like Matt Garza and Evan Longoria.
After growing up watching the Bucs and Lightning dwell at the bottom of their respective leagues while building through the draft, I felt that the Rays had a chance to be something special…four years from now! In fact I was offered 300-1 odds that they would win the division by a fan of the Dark Empire (yeah you know what team I’m talking about), and I wouldn’t even risk a dollar on the young guns (after all, that dollar could almost buy me Rays season tickets).
Before a game last summer, as I walked through the parking lot of Tropicana Field wearing my retro Fred McGriff jersey, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of cars. The date was June 14, and the opponent was the cross-state “rival” Florida Marlins. Usually, at this point in the season, I root for the Rays or Blue Jays because they are the only teams who can unseat the Bronx Bombers. But this year it seemed that the only thing bombing in the Bronx was A-Rod’s marriage; all the real damage was being done at the “Trop”.
When I got inside the stadium to watch Garza attempting to maintain a 1 1?2 game division lead, I couldn’t help but notice that most of the 11,000 “fans” clinking their cowbells were wearing nice new Longoria and Shields jerseys unstained by the tears that my McGriff jersey had been showered with over the years. The Rays went on to win that game along with many more during the regular season, winning the always tough AL East.
Then came the real fun — the Rays first ever foray into the post season — where champions are born. In the first round, I watched my boys in grey defeat the South Side Sox in 4 quick games, leading to an ALCS that featured Tampa’s perennial disappointers against the 80-some-odd year loser Boston Red Sox, who had recently hit their stride this decade.
The first game was heartbreaking. Dice-K dominated the Rays and the Sox won handily. The next three games however were a breeze, highlighted by the Rays going into Boston and taking Games 3 and 4. Then in Game 5, Tampa built up a seemingly insurmountable 7-0 lead with only nine outs to go. Even my dad, a die-hard Sox fan who cried after the “Buckner Incident” and kept the faith when the Sox were down 3-0 to the Yankees and 3-1 to the Indians, called to congratulate me and ask when I was booking my tickets to go back to the sunny snow-free wonderland called Tampa. As I watched Pedroia single and Papi homer, I stopped looking for flights, which turned out to be a smart move after J.D. Drew singled home Kevin Youkilis for the game-winning run, completing an 8-7, 10-inning thriller. But after the Rays blew Game 5 and lost Game 6, the Rays were able to squeak out a win on the arms of Matt Garza and the phenom David Price to take the series.
On to the World Series went the previously last-place Rays to take on what is historically the worst team in professional sports history (more than 10,000 losses) in the Philadelphia Phillies. After losing Game 1 to the superb Cole Hamels, the Rays were able to take Game 2 at home. But then came the trek to the un-hospitable Citizens Bank Park.
Game 3 of the series was nasty, and the start was delayed over an hour and a half. The Rays hoped to add some sunshine to the atmosphere, but it was the Phillies who kept the storm, winning the game 5-4. If the first game was a storm, the second was like a hurricane, with the Phils scoring 10 runs easily and winning the game 10-2. Game 5 came again with the threat of rain and the seemingly bigger threat of Cole Hamels. After five innings the Phills led 2-1, and the rain began. In the top of the sixth the Rays were able to get a run through great base sliding (the rain was coming down hard) and a huge double by Carlos Pena. After the top of the inning, Commissioner Bud Selig decided to postpone the game, the first such action in major league history. After the game was resumed on Wednesday, some no-name Phillies(Jayson Werth, Pedro Ruiz) got themselves into the record books by getting crucial RBI singles, which gave the Phillies the Series and broke my heart in the process.
Despite the loss, it is good to be able to still care about baseball in October, and the Rays still did better than the most expensive team in baseball even though that unnamed team had voodoo porn-staches and lucky golden thongs on their side. And in my book, that makes the Rays winners.