Rays return to site of ALDS victory
Players reminisce about organization's first playoff win
CHICAGO -- The buckets of ice have long since melted. The bottles of champagne have been sprayed. The plastic covering the visiting locker room has been stripped down and thrown away.
It's been more than nine months since the Rays last left the visiting clubhouse in Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field on Oct. 6, 2008, winners of an American League Division Series.
Now the Rays are back in town for a four-game series, the first return trip to play the White Sox since capturing the ALDS, three games to one.
And before Monday's contest, the memories still were fresh, as players in the clubhouse revisited the scene of that day -- the relief of advancing, the champagne showers and the sheer joy of it all.
"It was real crazy in here," said Rays outfielder Carl Crawford, who walked twice and scored a run in the decisive, 6-2, Game 4 victory over the White Sox. "A lot of broken bottles, a lot of stuff everywhere -- it was just a fun time."
Crawford, who made his debut with the Rays in 2002, had spent six seasons playing for Tampa Bay teams that never finished higher than fourth place in the American League East. From 2002-07, the Rays finished a combined 206 games below .500, going 382-588.
Of course, that all changed in '08, when the Rays became the surprise of baseball, finishing 97-65 and eventually capturing the American League pennant.
"You know, it kind of defined all the things we went through," Crawford said of the ALDS victory against the White Sox. "It felt good to be in that position after losing so much. To get to the playoffs and actually win just felt good, that all the hard work paid off."
For shortstop Jason Bartlett, who doubled and scored a run in the clincher in Chicago, that particular series proved a turning point for the franchise.
"A lot of guys were probably happy just to get to the playoffs, especially with this club," Bartlett said. "To win that first series, it kind of opened everybody's eyes like, 'We can do this. We can win the next one.'"
That they did, outlasting the Red Sox in seven games in the American League Championship Series before falling in five games to the Phillies in the World Series.
Gabe Gross, who started in right field for the Rays in Game 4 in Chicago, said he would not soon forget the on-field celebration that ensued after Tampa Bay reliever Grant Balfour struck out Ken Griffey Jr. swinging to clinch the series.
Rays manager Joe Maddon shared a similar memory, one he has relived on video.
"It's the celebration on the field where the camera was like overhead and Grant's face is really prominent in the middle of this amoeba, and he's kind of like smiling, or I don't even know what he's doing," Maddon said. "I always really enjoy seeing that one shot because that pretty much puts it all in perspective."
Yes, the Rays were back where their playoff run began on Monday. And while the pregame down time allowed for a moment to reflect on the past, they also had to focus on the present.
After all, at 51-41 and 4 1/2 games out of first place in the AL East, the Rays once again are in the hunt to make a trip to the postseason.
"It's amazing how, obviously it's a well-worn phrase, but time just keeps marching on," Gross said. "It just seems like yesterday we were in here jumping up and down and spraying each other with champagne. And here we are the next year, we're back here. We're not in the playoffs. We're in the middle of the season and trying to scrap and claw and maybe get back. It's very weird."
Jesse Temple is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.