Major League Baseball launched a campaign last week “2014 will be the #MLBYEAROF _________” with a request for fans to fill in the blank. Of course, I approached this from a snarky, aggressive perspective: “2014 Will be the #MLBYEAROF Yankee destruction.” Though my comment was lost in the jumble of thousands of similar Tweets, my claim was made, and I plan to submit a similar statement about the Red Sox.
I’m a Rays fan, by the way. It’s a pride issue. Sure, the Rays are battling with teams founded in 1901 and 1903 that hold a combined 35 World Series championships, but at what point is the “underdog” no longer the weak link in the division?
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The Rays played 10 losing seasons before making the playoffs in 2008, and they went all the way to the World Series. And lost. But, they got there. Keep in mind, they had a different identity in 2007, and those Devil Rays won only 66 games. A year later, they won 97 as the Rays.
What about the years that followed? In 2010, the Rays won the American League East before losing to the Rangers in the division series. In 2011, it was “déjà vu all over again” as they lost to the Rangers in the division series. And in 2013, the Rays snagged the wild-card spot but lost to the Red Sox.
To the average non-Rays fan, the theme of the last five seasons sounds something like “loss.” But, in reality, it’s the evolution of an improving franchise.
I attended a Rays-Red Sox spring training game last month and found myself almost envious of the culture surrounding Red Sox “nation.” It’s the culture portrayed in the movie Fever Pitch – fans come from all over, befriending one another along the way, and they all rise together, like a congregation being called to prayer, at the first sound of “Sweet Caroline.” And then they sing and sway. I wanted to hate this harmonious chorus, but I couldn’t help but love their unspoken bond. My first thought: Why don’t the Rays have this?
And then I thought about it. We do. It’s called a “comeback culture.” The Tampa Bay Rays are working diligently to erase the memory of their first 10 seasons as the Devil Rays, where each season ended with more losses than wins. Since 2008, the Rays have posted more wins than losses. That tells me one thing: They’re developing a culture around winning with a small-market budget.
The franchise has held onto cornerstone players like David Price, James Loney and Yunel Escobar. They’ve pulled the trigger to acquire face of the franchise Wil Myers. And they continue to develop no-name players who eventually turn into Evan Longorias. And what about Ben Zobrist? Is there anyone who can play seven positions on the field as well as he can?
The team is built around defense and pitching. In 2013, the Rays had the second highest fielding percentage at .9902, trailing only the Baltimore Orioles. And they continue to produce quality arms from the minors, including Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Chris Archer, who inked a six-year extension earlier today.
Sure, you can be a Yankees fan or even a Red Sox fan, but keep one thing in mind, the Rays aren’t an underdog. They’re competition. So, why don’t more MLB fans see that? They will this year.
This season will be the #MLBYEAROF the comeback culture.