In a season of feel-good stories, no team shined brighter than the Rays
NEW YORK - The baseball Story of the Year? The worst-to-first Rays, of course.
The team that never before exceeded 70 victories still leads the Red Sox, already has buried the Yankees and is basically guaranteed a playoff spot thanks to its young roster, an almost-as-young baseball front office and a can-do attitude that began in spring training and has carried throughout the long season.
They stand at 88-59, a reverse of their usual record at this time.
"It's crazy,'' Rays owner Stu Sternberg, a New York investment banker, agreed on Sunday at Yankee Stadium, where a sellout crowd came to say good-bye to a storied place and team, both on the way out, and generally ignored the story of the year.
Rays players quietly went about their business so as not to anger or disturb their rich fourth-place sad-sack hosts while Rays' team hierarchy beamed in the hot rays. Sternberg, a native of Canarsie in Brooklyn, who grew up a fan of the Amazin' Mets and is old enough (barely, he's 49) to recall the Impossible Dream Red Sox of 1967, was looking for the one descriptive word to characterize his Rays. "If you can think of an adjective, let me know,'' he said.
Sternberg suggested the Improbable Rays. But that doesn't quite do it, not for me anyway. They are at least as impossible as the '67 Red Sox, no?
Sternberg actually said there isn't one decision made by his baseball decision makers -- headed by president Matt Silverman, 32, and V.P. of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, 31-- that they can review and regret, which is a truly remarkable statement.
To unobservant outsiders, the biggest changes may have been the dropping of the word "Devil'' and the change to a brighter color scheme. But the Rays also subtly remade their team, and with it, their attitude. Friedman did what he could with a $44 million payroll to enhance the pitching (and especially the bullpen), the defense and the clubhouse chemistry.
No one in baseball expected the Rays to be ahead of the $150 million Red Sox or this far ahead of the $210 million Yankees. But Friedman did say in the spring that he thought his team had a chance to score more runs than it allowed, which would give it a chance to surpass .500, an hellacious goal in itself.
Manager Joe Maddon on Sunday agreed at least that the emergence was "a little bit of a surprise.'' But Maddon is the one who instilled a feeling of belief in the spring when he told the team "9 equals 8,'' a motto that became the clubhouse catchphrase. The saying suggests not only nine players working together for nine innings but also a team aiming for nine more wins via each of three categories: pitching, defense and hitting. For those scoring at home, that's 27 more wins, which is thought in most parts to be an impossibility.
Maddon admitted his mathematical Waterloo actually came in algebra three and trigonometry during Mrs. Shanno's 12th grade class at Hazelton (Pa.) High. Nonetheless, his numerical prediction is looking prescient, as the Rays appear likely to add 27 wins to the 66 that had last year, or actually a few more. (They are on pace for 97.)
"For me it, wasn't impossible,'' Maddon says. "But you're also not going to spring training looking to be an also-ran.''
The players seemed to catch on a few months into the season. Clubhouse leader Cliff Floyd said they "got that swagger'' in June and are now happily taking an "arrogant'' or even "cocky'' attitude into games for the first time in their mostly sorry history.
Floyd said, "Everbody's stoked that 'postseason' is in our vocabulary.''
The best of the rest of the baseball stories ...
2. Cubs. The rise of the star-crossed franchise in the 100th anniversary of their last title will add intrigue to the postseason. Perhaps Carlos Zambrano's no-hitter was a sign of the magic to come. Rays-Cubs World Series, anyone?
3. Cliff Lee, Indians pitcher. He's 22-2 for a losing team, not all that far off the unbelievable achievement of Steve Carlton, who won 27 games for the 59-win 1972 Phillies, as Mike Lupica pointed out in Sunday's New York Daily News. With the Giants' Tim Lincecum, we should probably have two Cy Young winners on losing teams. (Even if Brandon Webb should win in the NL, well, the Diamondbacks may have a losing record, too).
4. Manny Ramirez, Red Sox irritant, Dodgers savior. After winning his escape, he resurrected L.A.'s season -- even making cost-conscious owner Frank McCourt forget the Andruw Jones debacle, for a little while, anyway.
5. Josh Hamilton, Rangers slugger. Recovering drug addict finally showed the world his talent, including on the big stage of the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, where he put on the greatest Home Run Derby display ever.
6. K-Rod, Angels closer. Broke Bobby Thigpen's save record en route to free-agent riches.
7. Carlos Delgado, Mets slugger. Did complete about-face, going from a candidate to be released to an MVP candidate (I still think the incomparable Albert Pujols will win it, though).
8. Dustin Pedroia, little Red Sox hitter. White Sox motormouth manager Ozzie Guillen called him a jockey, but as former White Sox minor leaguer Michael Jordan can tell you, height does not a hitter make.
9. Carlos Quentin, White Sox slugger. A broken wrist in September probably opened up the AL MVP race. But even if he doesn't win the award, it was a remarkable turnaround.
10. Twins. They lost Johan Santana and Torii Hunter, among others, but remained as competitive as ever. Take a bow, Ron Gardenhire.
11. Jon Lester, Red Sox starter and cancer survivor. He followed a win in Game 4 of the World Series with a no-hitter and another tremendous season.
12. Brad Lidge, Phillies reliever. He could have the second perfect season a closer's ever had, following Eric Gagne a lifetime ago.
13. Jerry Manuel and Cito Gaston, second-chance artists. Two former managers came in and injected life into the Mets and Jays, respectively.
14. Jamie Moyer, Phillies starter. He turned in a stellar season at age 45 (14-7, 3.68 ERA) and gave hope to all us older guys.
15. CC Sabathia, Brewers pitcher. Went to Milwaukee to combine with Ben Sheets and gave Milwaukee its best postseason hope since Harvey's Wallbangers left town a generation ago.