Little bit of patience takes the rising Rays a long way
There's nothing quite like a team that's stepping out of a long stretch of darkness and despair into the bright light of contention. The growing excitement in...
Seattle Times baseball reporter
A tale of two teamsThe Tampa Bay Rays are one of the best stories of the 2008 season, fighting for their first postseason berth. A look at how their record compares to the Mariners' record in the past two seasons:
Mariners in 2007 at the 114-game mark.
Mariners this season at the 114-game mark.
Tampa Bay in 2007 at the 114-game mark.
Tampa Bay this season at the 114-game mark.
There's nothing quite like a team that's stepping out of a long stretch of darkness and despair into the bright light of contention.
The growing excitement in town as fans slowly drop their skepticism and realize that it's not a mirage. The unbridled joy in the clubhouse as the yoke of constant, stultifying defeat is shed. The improbable victories-from-the-jaws-of-defeat that always seem to crop up in these circumstances.
The Braves had it in 1991, when they won 94 games and the National League pennant after going 65-97 the previous season, and averaging 94 losses the previous seven years.
The Indians had it in 1995, when they won 100 games and the American League pennant after a stretch of 19 out of 23 losing seasons (not counting the strike-shortened '94 season, when the turnaround began but wasn't allowed to finish).
The Mariners, as we all remember, had it in 1995, as well — no amplification necessary. The Rockies, after eight of nine losing seasons, experienced the wave last September and rode it all the way into the World Series.
And now a baseball awakening is occurring for Tampa Bay, which since its inception in 1998 has been just about the dreariest, losingest franchise in baseball.
Strike the "just about." The Rays, with an average of 97 losses in their first 10 seasons and the most apathetic fan base in the majors, were the dregs of the sport.
Ancient history. The new Rays are exciting, loaded to the gills with explosive young talent, and leading the rugged AL East with the second-best record in the American League.
Now even the jaded fans of Tampa Bay are beginning to catch on — slowly. Attendance is hardly through the Tropicana Field roof, up a mere 4,000 a game from last year. The average crowd of 21,516 still ranks 26th out of 30 teams.
But even as football season begins, a definite baseball buzz can be heard around town, especially after walkoff wins like Wednesday's, when the Rays scored six runs in the ninth to beat Cleveland.
The Trop — a dome the Rays would love to vacate; sound familiar? — should really be hopping through August, September and, dare we say it, October. The Rays have September series at home with both the Red Sox and Yankees that will easily be the most important — and most hyped — in club history.
"The fans are starting to get excited," said outfielder B.J. Upton on Thursday, when the Rays opened a series in Seattle. "It's getting a little tougher to go places. That's a good thing. A lot of things are changing — more media, more pub on TV. It's something that comes with the territory."
The Rays' rise surely contains a source of hope — and a few lessons — for the Mariners.
Just last year, the Rays were limping to a 96-loss season, last in the division, 30 games out of first. When the Rays arrived here Thursday, the Mariners' league-worst record was 44-70. The Rays' record after 114 games last year? Forty-four and 70.
"Believe me, man: If you were around here the two previous years, there's a lot of hope for everybody," said Joe Maddon, the ultra-hip, ultra-positive manager of the Rays.
But the two situations are obviously not completely analogous. The Rays' payroll of $43 million is paltry compared to the Mariners' $117 million. They have gone young for years, stockpiling high draft picks resulting from all those lowly finishes, and resisting the temptation to dive headlong into the free-agent market (a mistake they once made, disastrously, in 2000).
"The temptation is always there," admitted Gerry Hunsicker, the Rays' senior vice president of baseball operations. "That's why most of us, if we're in this business long enough, make bad decisions. We're all competitive; the juices get flowing, and you think, 'Boy, if I added that one big name out there, that would really put us over the hump.'
"Most of the time, just because of the nature of the business, that big trade, or the big piece you went out and acquired, doesn't get you where you wanted to go."
What does, increasingly, is an emphasis on developing talent from within, and the Rays are now seeing the fruits of their patience. Their core includes homegrown stars like Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, Upton and James Shields, with last year's No. 1 overall pick, left-handed pitcher David Price, ready to make an impact later this season.
"It's kind of unrealistic for a small-market team to even think about the shotgun approach, even if we wanted to," Hunsicker said. "But I think we all agreed we weren't trying to create an environment where we all of a sudden had that 'go-for-it' mentality, and we were going to try to win it all one year, and then maybe spend the next three or four years digging out of last place."
Showing patience with their kids in the midst of struggling seasons, Maddon said, "is imperative, but it's difficult at the same time. As long as everyone is on the same page, you can be patient.
"Fans have to understand that. Everyone has to understand that. But if you're patient, and you have good acquisitions, things can start working out. These young players start developing, and it can be something good for many years."
The Rays weren't perfect in their draft picks. Josh Hamilton, No. 1 overall in 1999, had major drug issues and didn't blossom until the Rays gave up on him. Delmon Young, No. 1 overall in 2003, wore out his welcome, but netted pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett, two key elements of their current success, in a trade with the Twins.
Other key recent acquisitions included reliever Dan Wheeler, whose arrival last July from Houston to boost a terrible bullpen is credited by Maddon as a critical moment in the Rays' revival; first baseman Carlos Pena, who signed last year as a minor-league free agent and hit 46 homers; second baseman Akinori Iwamura, signed out of Japan; and veterans Eric Hinske, Cliff Floyd, Troy Percival and Trever Miller, signed as under-the-radar free agents.
Don't forget to deflect some praise to the much-maligned inaugural GM, Chuck LaMar, who drafted Crawford and Upton, among others, and swung the lopsided 2004 trade of Victor Zambrano to the Mets for Rays ace Scott Kazmir.
The result is a Rays team on the rise, and one that seems to genuinely enjoy each other's company. Chemistry and success are a chicken-and-egg proposition, but the Rays definitely have both.
"This is truly a family," Pena said. "I've been on a bunch of teams, but this is special here. It's really beyond anything I'd consider a normal baseball atmosphere ... we blend together so well. You don't understand how powerful that is."
Can the Mariners, in the midst of a season that often seems to have sucked the life out of their clubhouse, emulate the Rays turnaround?
"Baseball is a great game," Pena said. "It lends itself to anything. It lends itself for beautiful stories, for Cinderella stories, stories of triumph, stories of victory over adversity. In baseball, anything is possible."
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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