Friday, May 02, 2008

The devil's in the details

For years (11, to be exact), the Tampa Bay Rays (sans "Devil") were the bottom feeders of the American League East Division. Season, after season, the Red Sox padded their own post-90 win totals, as well as batting averages, against a team that considered 70 wins, a pyrrhic victory. Apparently, kicking the devil to the curve is all it takes to turn things around.

There is little to trumpet when it comes to the club’s history, since joining the AL, in 1998. Playing in a woeful indoor stadium, with ground rules that remind me of childhood WIFFLE® Ball games, rather than big league baseball, the Rays became the post-modern equivalent of the old Kansas City A’s clubs. Where else could a home run get swallowed up by a catwalk and become a harmless single, but in Tampa Bay and Tropicana Field?

[the former "evil" logo]

During most of their existence, the club regularly signed former stars, years after their best days were behind them. Names like Boggs, Canseco, Castilla, Vaughn (as in Greg), and McGriff, graced the back of their various uniform color schemes.

In 2003, the Rays began a youth movement, introducing a 21-year-old speedster, Carl Crawford, to the everyday lineup. He stole 54 bases his rookie year and has been patrolling left field in Tampa, ever since. Alongside Crawford, in center, was can’t-miss prospect, Rocco Baldelli, the former pride of Warwick, Rhode Island. Is there a better name to pronounce for PR announcers than, “Roc-co Bal-delee!”? Baldelli’s athleticism and Italian-American heritage illicited comparisons to a young Joe DiMaggio.

The summer of 2004 was the Rays high water mark, with 70 wins. The Lou Pinella-led club was in contention until just after the All-Star break, with a 42-41 record, but a late season swoon left them 21 games under .500.

The luster of young Baldelli, however, began to fade. The future upside of this young star, whom the club had built their hopes around, seemed to disappear before fan’s eyes, as he first tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee while playing baseball with his brother in the offseason. Expected back by the All-Star break, he injured his elbow during rehab and required Tommy John surgery, forcing him to miss all of 2005.

Then, as if he’d never been gone for nearly a season and a half, Baldelli returned on June 7, 2006. Playing nearly every night, Baldelli finished with a .302 average, with 16 homers and 57 RBI, in only 364 at bats.

Spring training in 2007 had him pulling a hamstring that never got better and limited him to only 35 games. Then, in 2008, Baldelli underwent extensive medical testing to determine the reasons for his muscle problems and extreme fatigue after even brief workouts. Doctors discovered some "metabolic and/or mitochondrial abnormalities" but were unable to provide an exact diagnosis. At present, Baldelli’s career is stalled and some aren’t sure that he’ll return.

[New logo=wins]

On November 8, 2007, the team unveiled new uniforms and announced they were dropping the “Devil” from their name.

In the original press release, principal owner Stuart Sternberg said "We are now the 'Rays' - a beacon that radiates throughout Tampa Bay and across the entire state of Florida."

"We Are One Team," the pitch for the 2008 season was announced February 22, 2008. The phrase, as president Matt Silverman says, refers to the idea of an improved and talented team allied with the fan base across the Tampa Bay area.

November 9 was when the Rays announced that they were in negotiations to potentially build a new $450-million, 34,000 seat, open-air baseball stadium at the site of Progress Energy Park/Al Lang Field, their current spring training facility on the St. Petersburg waterfront, to open by 2012. Stu Sternberg would provide $150 million and sign a long-term lease, and much of the remaining money would be covered by the sale of redevelopment rights to Tropicana Field and the state of Florida's 30-year, $60-million sales tax rebate for new venues. Any final plans would have to be approved by voters in St. Petersburg since all new construction on public property must be put to a referendum, regardless of whether or not the project uses taxpayer money.

The Rays ended spring training with a club record, 18 wins. They kept on winning during April and finished with their best opening month ever, posting a 15-12 mark, including a six-game winning streak and seven wins in their final eight games during the month.

Last weekend, the Rays swept the Red Sox, their first ever sweep of Boston. Their young arms of Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson, and James Shields, shut down Boston’s potent bats and bested their veteran arms, including ace, Josh Beckett.

Heading into tonight’s series, the Rays lifetime mark at fabled Fenway is a dismal 23-61. It's a long, grueling season and 29 games don't make a season. However, if the Rays keep things rolling, then we know that there might be something to sending the devil packing.

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