I’m not going to lie. I wrote off the Rays before game 7. In fact, I spent most of the afternoon penning a eulogy that will never see the light of day. I wasn’t mad or upset, just resigned to the fact that the Rays would lose and I would never be able to go to another baseball related comment board. If the annoying portion (any unfortunately the most vocal portion) of Red Sox fans had been insufferable before coming back from 3-1, 7-0 then they would be twice so after.
Luckily the Rays did what they’ve done best this year, prove everyone wrong. They ended up outplaying the seasoned veterans in game 7 and emerged victorious. Even after the early home run by Dustin Pedoria I still felt good about the game. For some reason you knew someone was going to come up big and that person was Matt Garza. The big right hander was extremely effective in holding the Sox to two hits over 7 plus innings. The win continued a theme that took place throughout the season. Three times this season they were counted out by the experts:
1. The 7 game losing streak before the All Star Break
2. The September series in Boston when the Rays were ahead by mere percentage points with two more games looming in Fenway Park.
3. Game 7
Whether they are two young, too stupid or too relaxed to care the 2008 Rays have a tendency to shine when the pressure is on the most. I’m pretty sure it starts with the man on top - Joe Maddon. Merlot Joe (as he has been crowned by other better written blogs) has managed this club with the perfect combination of discipline (yanking BJ Upton off the field) and chaos (Mohawks, beards, Jon Gomes). If Lou Pinella is still managing this club it’s still a 70 win club and there’s a good chance he’s destroyed the psyche of players like Matt Garza and Upton.
Maddon is going to be manager of the year, without a doubt. In the same token Andrew Freedman is the executive of the year. Is it fitting the two of the big three stars in game 7 weren’t with the club last year. Freedman took a chance on trading away future phenom Delmon Young and Brandon Harris for a shortstop with defensive problems (Jason Bartlett) and a former 1st round pick that had prodigious talent, but also had the cloud of emotional baggage hanging over his young career. In a slightly less heralded deal he shipped left hander Jeff Ridgeway to Atlanta for third baseman Willy Aybar a young switch hitting infielder who was coming off an injury and some legal issues. All he did in game 7 was hit a booming home run that gave the Rays a bit of breathing room.
Off the field moves like that built the future success of this year’s club. Once they won their 82nd game the season was a success. A record of .500 was all the fans and management had asked for. Yet bettering that goal and holding off the Red Sox to claim the division title suddenly wasn’t good enough. Radio hosts were saying that the season would be a disappointment if they lost in the first round.. Suddenly their unprecedented success has raised the expectations that were dangerously unreachable.
Dispatching the White Sox with relative ease and winning the first 3 of 4 against the Red Sox bumped the expectations up even more. Losing to the Red Sox wasn’t about losing to a better or worse team. It was about losing to their fans. Fans in the TBA (both new and old) have a serious identity problem. Years of less than mediocre teams and a giant influx of transplants consistently made the Trop a home away from home for powerhouses like the Red Sox and Yankees. It wasn’t until this year that the tide stated to turn and it seemed that losing to the Sox in the playoffs would have crushed the small gains made.
It’s fun to be able to laugh off the scorn and bitterness from other teams fans now. For today, and maybe just for today, the little brother won the fight against the older brother. The jabs about the Trop and it’s catwalks don’t sting as much. After all, take away the green monster in Fenway and what do you have? A 96 year old stadium with cramped seating, obstructed views and crappy plumbing. If the Rays are still playing in the Trop in 2080 I’m sure it will be regarded in the same light as Fenway is today.
The bitter residents of the pseudo-nation can whine about how cheesy the cowbells are, well so what? The clanging cowbells are still making noise while the saccharine lyrics of “Sweet Caroline” are silent. The bells are something unique in sports (well accept for downhill skiing I guess) and that’s something that’s missing in today’s sports world. A world where everyone has Thunder Stix or does the wave and is implored by the same tired onscreen graphics to cheer. They also give the stadium a unique noise. I have been going to sporting events for the better part of my 32 years on this planet and there are few arenas that I have been in that were louder than the Trop during Game 1 of the ALCS.
Of course when I sit in my seat on Wednesday, high up in the Beach I could experience a new high. I might not be banging a cowbell, but I’ll definitely be cheering as loud as I can for the team that wouldn’t go away.