ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.—The flashy rings, the William Harridge trophy and the American League championship banner they will raise on April 13 are all tangible residuals of the Rays’ stunning 2008 success.
But there was so much more to their remarkable season, which included their first winning record, maiden playoff appearance, a trip to the World Series, a haul of major postseason awards and—to cap it all—Baseball America’s Organization of the Year award.
For an organization steeped in failure during its first 10 seasons, with its follies on the field paired with a lack of interest in the community and an embarrassing reputation within the game, the accomplishments of 2008 were a treasured starting—or starting over—point.
“Where we have come from and where we arrived at this particular point is almost unthinkable,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “To get it done this quickly, it’s powerful what we have done this year. And I know from my perspective, it’s just the beginning.”
What happened on the field was impressive enough.
After going 10 seasons without winning more than 70 games and finishing last nine times (and fourth the other), the Rays won 97, a 31-game improvement from last season that gave them the most ever by a team that had the majors’ worst record the previous season, and finished first in the treacherous American League East, two games ahead of the mighty Red Sox.
They eliminated the White Sox in the division series, then ousted the defending champion Red Sox in a thrilling seven-game series before losing to the Phillies in a five-game weather-marred World Series.
After having a franchise-most three players named to the AL all-star team in July, they finished the year with third baseman Evan Longoria unanimously winning the AL rookie of the year award, Maddon earning AL manager of the year honors (and coming one vote shy of the first unanimous selection in history), executive vice president Andrew Friedman being named executive of the tear and three players (first baseman Carlos Pena, shortstop Jason Bartlett and Longoria) receiving votes in the AL MVP balloting.
“This has been an incredibly magical season,” Pena said, “one that no one ever thought could be possible.”
But what they did off the field was pretty impressive, too.
After first changing the team colors and uniforms and shortening its name by exorcising the Devil, they changed the image of the franchise.
“We won’t be a joke to everybody anymore,” said left fielder Carl Crawford, a Ray since July 2002. “We have established ourselves as a real franchise. It just feels good to know that we’re like a real team now.”
“I know we were the laughingstock of baseball,” said outfielder Rocco Baldelli, another long-time Ray. “We come in this year, turn it around and go to the World Series. It’s a great feeling.”
They may also have finally turned the Tampa Bay area into a baseball town, with regular season attendance increasing a major league most 30.4 percent and all eight postseason games selling out within minutes.
“These guys have created baseball in Tampa Bay, I believe,” said principal owner Stuart Sternberg, whose group took over after the 2005 season. “I know it’s a large amount to bite off and chew, but I don’t think the region’s three million-plus people knew what baseball could mean until this year. And that’s something that’s going to stick now for generations.”
The success should benefit the Rays in many ways.
Friedman said a few weeks into the offseason it was already obvious by how players—their own and others, who have their agents calling saying they want to be Rays—now viewed the organization.
“Our ultimate goal is to become a destination spot, where not only free agents want to come but that our own players want to stay,” Friedman said. “Having success certainly helps with that, and we are already starting to see it this winter.”
The Rays talk a lot about changing the culture around the team and in the clubhouse. Maddon had a lot to do with creating an improved atmosphere—increasing the level of trust among other things—and his efforts, plus some success, spread throughout the organization as well.
“Our young players often used to arrive with a sense of entitlement, or a sense that, because the team was not going to have success, their individual goals mattered most,” Friedman said. “Now that’s not the case. We saw how much it changed things this year, and expect that to continue for many years to come.”
Even before the World Series ended, Maddon was talking excitedly about the opportunity to further extend that environment, and expand the Ray Way of doing things throughout the organization, seizing on the opportunity to have the major and minor league players together in spring training for the first time as the Rays shift their training base from St. Petersburg to Port Charlotte.
Farm director Mitch Lukevics said it will be a well-received message.
“The success with our big league team had our minor leaguers buzzing,” Lukevics said. “Throughout the 2009 season, and especially down the stretch, our major league team was a topic of conversation throughout our system.
“Seeing what our major league club was doing, seeing all those homegrown players in a Tampa Bay uniform, being a part of a winning organization—now they know that someday they can be part of it, too.
“That feeling can last for years to come. There is that sense that we are not a last-place club anymore, that we can compete against the best. And they want to be a part of it.”
Even Maddon, the most optimistic of Rays, admits that they had success more quickly than he expected. He acknowledges that their loftiest goal was to make the playoffs, a theme he began focusing on during spring training when he unveiled his “new math” theory of 9 = 8, the idea being that nine players playing hard for nine innings can lead to being one of the eight teams in the postseason.
A key was their reliance on some “old-school” philosophies, specifically that they could win in the rugged AL East with an emphasis on pitching and defense. Keyed by the acquisition of Bartlett, who was voted team MVP by the Tampa Bay chapter of the BBWAA, the Rays decreased the number of runs they allowed by 273 from the 2007 season—the third greatest one-year improvement in modern baseball history.
Their team ERA went from a major league worst 5.53 in 2007 to 3.82, the fourth best one-season improvement. A huge key was the work by the bullpen, which was historically bad in 2007, with a 6.16 ERA, and improved it to 3.55, with a .220 opponents average that was best in the majors.
Once they showed they could compete, the players started to believe. And that’s where the experience the homegrown players had in winning in the minor leagues on the way up was a huge benefit.
“I think the success that our current big leaguers have had in the minor leagues helped them a great deal in the success they had this season,” Lukevics said. “The lessons they have learned along the way and different game situations they handled throughout their journey all contributed to their success. The confidence they gained by having success in the minor leagues was a huge help in adjusting to major league competition.”
Friedman said their success was the product of a concerted, organization-wide effort during their three seasons after taking control from the Vince Naimoli/Chuck LaMar regime, with the challenge now to continue it. The potential is certainly there given a young core that is primarily under team control for an extended period of time and the promise of up-and-coming stars such as Longoria and lefty David Price, who was impressive after a late-season callup, joining a roster that features B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford, Dioner Navarro, James Shields, Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza.
“In 2006 and 2007, we didn’t feel we had the requisite talent to compete in the AL East so we focused our efforts on acquiring as many talented players as we could, almost irrespective of fit,” Friedman said
“We’ve tried hard to enhance the talent that was in the system three years ago, not just in terms of adding to it through trades, the draft and our international signings, but by empowering our staff to make a difference.
“We invested heavily in our infrastructure to hopefully put us in a position to enjoy sustained success.”
Or, as Maddon said, their success can be measured in another way.
“Next season, we’re going to be a target,” he said. “That’s beautiful.”