09/28/08 7:30 PM ET
Rays' turnaround has no precedent
From worst to first: Tampa Bay having the laughs this time
Thus, when a heretofore sad-sack baseball outfit wins a division title, we politely applaud, accord them proper historical perspective, then move on."We've seen your kind of act before" seems to be the overall reaction. Aw, sorry ... but we have never seen anything like this. This isn't just magic by the Tampa Bay Rays, but sorcery. Their starting point wasn't just bad, it was worst. For 10 amusing years, the rest of baseball definitely laughed at, not with, them. Their peak was 22 games below .500. Then they go out and win a division title. In old Salem, people were brought up on witchcraft charges for a lot less. Not just any division, but the American League East, the duplex fortress of the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. How to put that into perspective ... oh, right: You walk into a room with Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana, and people hand you a guitar. And, most amazing, the Rays plotted this precise takeover. Rather than sneak up on the Yankees and the Red Sox, they called both out early. Let sleeping dogs lie? The Rays turned on the vacuum next to their ears. Early in Spring Training, Elliot Johnson leveled Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli, and New York manager Joe Girardi said sarcastically, "He was playing hard. Great. That's just not the time to do it." A few days later, after a Grapefruit League reunion turned into a rematch highlighted by Jonny Gomes' takeout of Shelly Duncan, Reggie Jackson scoffed, "I don't even know who this guy Gomes is." But the Rays had made their early point: We're going to stay in your faces all season. And they made the same point to the defending champion Red Sox during an early June fracas at Fenway Park sparked by a James Shields' pitch that hit Coco Crisp. This isn't a defense of spikes-high slides or of blind-side tackles or brush-back pitches, but an endorsement of not being intimidated -- and of confidence. "I don't know," Carl Crawford was saying in the wee hours on Saturday morning, "if people understand how big this is." They don't. They can't. They have nothing to measure it against. The nearest thing we've seen in baseball -- a team with a history for only ineptitude turning majestic -- came with a few "Yeah, buts ..." The 1969 Mets won a World Series after averaging 105 losses in their first seven seasons. ... Yeah, but they'd climbed out of the National League cellar a couple of times. ... Yeah, but in 1968, they were only the fifth-worst team in the Majors. ... Yeah, but in '69, the game split into divisions, giving them a lower hill to climb. ... Yeah, but it was an expansion season, and the Mets fattened up at a 24-6 rate against the new kids (the Padres and the Expos). In 1999, the second-year Arizona Diamondbacks improved by 35 games to win the National League West. ... Yeah, but only after an offseason shopping spree for, among others, Randy Johnson, Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez. The Rays' biggest get? A 37-year-old relief pitcher who had formally retired two years earlier. Whoop-de-doo. Troy Percival and his words of encouragement -- words that had the backing of his rich experience -- had an early effect on burying the old mind-set. That new attitude, in turn, enabled a series of early-season wins over tough foes and in difficult circumstances which fed the faith. Trial by fire? The Rays played 22 games against teams that were leading their respective division, and Tampa Bay won 17 of them. Soon, they exceeded the guarded expectations of those who had recognized the talent entering the season, but felt this would be the wrong place for it. Approaching Opening Day, whenever I was asked about the Rays' prospects -- which was often -- I had a standard reply: "They will be vastly improved, perhaps more so than any other team in the Majors. Too bad no one will notice, because the AL East crowd is so tough." As the title-clinching celebration raged in the visitors clubhouse under Comerica Park, Shields tried to summon the spirit of all underdogs when he said, "There are a lot of people who doubted us this year." What was there not to doubt? When the Rays reached a record of 14-11 on April 27, it represented a franchise high-water mark that "deep" into the season. At 21-16 on May 11, they found themselves five games above .500 for the first time in history. It went on from there, through tribulations and obstacles, physical as well as emotional. The Rays had plenty of convenient excuses to fold, and rejected every one of them. None was as opportune as a seventh consecutive loss that dropped Tampa Bay into second place on July 13 -- the final day of the pre-All-Star-break schedule, which gave people a four-day license to riff on the Rays' coming fade. The Rays climbed back on top with a 2-1 win over Toronto out of the second-half gate and never slipped again. When they were one misstep from doing so, Dan Johnson took Jonathan Papelbon into the dark Boston night. Six months after Elliot Johnson had inadvertently set the tone. The baseball gods, too, work in mysterious ways.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.