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Bob Ryan

Rays fans finally catch on: They've got a good thing

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / October 9, 2008
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As Yogi would say, nobody goes to The Trop anymore. It's too crowded.

Actually, I made that up. The word is they are going to fill the place for tomorrow night's opening game of the American League Championship Series, and, you know, it's about time, you betcha. Those fellers are pretty darn good.

So where were those folks back on May 23-30, when the Tampa Bay Rays averaged 16,000 fans a night for the first eight games of a 10-game homestand? Or Aug. 18-20, when they averaged under 14,000 a night for a three-game series with the Angels? Or Sept. 2-4, when they averaged approximately 24,000 for a three-game series with the Yankees?

They're a bit sensitive about all this down there. It's kind of embarrassing to be the last people in the galaxy to know when your own team is, like, you know, really, really, really good.

They're full of excuses, most of them centering on the fact that the team's original owner was a joke. Vince Naimoli really was a horrible owner, and a combative one to go along with it. So you cut those people a little slack and allow them to wallow in a small pool of self-pity. It is tough when a team that came into major league baseball the same time yours did is pouring world championship champagne while your miserable team is 62-100 and going backward in its fourth year of existence. That, of course, is what happened in 2001 when Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling and Luis Gonzalez, proud veterans all, led the Diamondbacks past the Yankees.

Of course, the Devil Rays, as they were known in those days, had veterans, too. They just happened to be the wrong ones. The 1998 expansion Devil Rays provided Wade Boggs a safe haven in which to hit No. 3,000 (a homer, no less). In the first four years of their existence, the Devil Rays opened their arms and, to some degree, their checkbook to such aging luminaries as Fred McGriff, Jose Canseco, Julio Franco, Vinny Castilla, and Greg Vaughn. They were supposed to hit home runs, win games, and have fans engaging in fistfights to secure the best seats at Tropicana Field, the indoor monstrosity that had been constructed in the hopes a Tampa/St. Pete group could pry the Giants away from San Francisco.

They lost an average of 99 games a year between 1999 and 2002. By the end of 2002, the team having lost 100 games two years in succession, the average attendance had slipped to 13,158, or slightly less than the number of women waiting to enter the ladies' room in the late innings of a game at Fenway Park.

All this time, Mr. Naimoli was gathering material for his autobiography entitled, "How To Lose Fans And Alienate An Entire Population." Who was he? He was, according to one publication, "a corporate turnaround artist specializing in cost-cutting." In other words, he was the worst possible type to enter sports, where championships generally go to those people who are willing to spend money to make money.

He was exposed as nothing less than a cheap, excuse-making tightwad in 2005, when it was revealed that his penurious payroll, combined with revenue sharing, no state income tax, and assorted other incomes such as the money earned from Major League Baseball's satellite radio deal, made the Devil Rays, contrary to the public assumption, a very profitable enterprise.

Anyway, he's gone now, replaced by former Goldman Sachs managing director Stuart Sternberg. There's a new management team, headed by president Matt Silverman, young executive vice president Andrew Friedman (ably assisted by the noted Gerry Hunsicker), there's a bright, modern manager in Joe Maddon, and there's a sensational collection of good baseball players, mostly young, who have put together a very entertaining, versatile, and determined ball club that will be a very formidable obstacle for the Red Sox as they seek to repeat as champions.

A year ago, the then-Devil Rays were the best 66-96 team in the history of baseball. Don't laugh. They were in the process of constructing a sound, young starting rotation. They had a proven star in fleet outfielder Carl Crawford. They had hit the jackpot with much-traveled first baseman Carlos Peña (pride of Haverhill and Northeastern), who had 46 homers and 121 runs batted in. They had a fine young catcher in Dioner Navarro (a guy you never want to see up there against the Red Sox in a meaningful situation). They had one of the great young multiskilled talents in all of baseball in B.J. Upton. And they had the makings of a very scary pitching rotation featuring the likes of Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Andy Sonnanstine, and Edwin Jackson, all waaaay on the sunny side of 30.

But Yogi also told us long ago that "if you ain't got a bullpen, you ain't got nothin'," and Maddon would second the notion after suffering through a season in which his bullpen posted a ghastly ERA of 6.16. I repeat: SIX POINT ONE SIX!

In addition, they didn't have a shortstop who could catch the ball. Oh, and third baseman Akinori Iwamura wasn't exactly Graig Nettles Jr. at the hot corner, either.

A Friedman trade that brought them shortstop Jason Bartlett and righthanded pitcher Matt Garza from Minnesota in exchange for the talented Delmon Young addressed one problem. There was a necessary bullpen overhaul. Evan Longoria emerged from what experts say is a well-stocked farm system to be the best rookie in the league. He took over third, and Iwamura moved to second. The defense is now immeasurably improved.

The team just keeps getting better and better, and here is proof. Prior to the All-Star Game, the Rays played 30 series. They won 17, lost 10, and split three. That was enough to get them in first place, enabling them to survive a seven-game losing streak and stay within a half-game of the Red Sox. (No team needed the All-Star break more than the Rays.)

Following the All-Star Game, they played 20 series. They went 15-3-2. Now check this out: Seven times they lost game one of a three-game series and won the next two, including twice against the Red Sox in those heralded September confrontations.

What more does anyone need to know?

Only this. They wiped out the White Sox in four, proving themselves to be superior in every way.

Make that 16-3-2.

Isn't it nice someone down there has finally noticed?

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

American League Championship Series
Series Overview
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FROM TODAY'S GLOBE
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