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Brendan Harris (So You’re Thinking of Jumping on the Tampa Bandwagon)

October 10, 2008
 Untitled 

Dear Cardboard Gods,

I am a baseball fan of a team whose season has come to an end. I am considering transferring my rooting interests for the duration of the 2008 playoffs to the Tampa Bay Rays. They seem to be a scrappy low-budget band of likable underdogs who only a bitter societal misfit with crackpot ideas and a psychotically narrow agenda could dislike. Are they not every bit as strong a testament to the human spirit as the team that is held up as the sporting world equivalent to the first moon landing that occurred during that earlier team’s miraculous push toward a championship, the 1969 Miracle Mets? If the Tampa Bay Rays can go from nowhere to a championship in a single season with a team of nobodies who collectively earn as much as one or two of the celebrity superstars from the domineering money-laden title-hogging franchise they are facing in the American League Championship Series, then couldn’t you begin to argue that anything is possible? We will walk on Mars! We will have world peace! We will all get laid by swimsuit models constantly! Why, I ask you, should I not root for that?

Sincerely,

About To Leap Onto The Tampa Bay Bandwagon

Dear About To Leap,

I am probably the wrong person to ask this question, since I would root against any team opposing the Boston Red Sox, the team I have rooted for my whole life, even if that opposing team included Gandhi, my mother, several 9/11 firefighters, and my cats. But since you asked, I will provide my thoughts on the matter.

First of all, the Tampa Bay Rays should not be considered the underdog in this series. They not only finished ahead of the Red Sox in the American League East, they beat them in the season series 10 games to 8. When the Red Sox had a chance to apply pressure to them with a series at Fenway Park late in the season, the Rays took two out of three. Furthermore, the Rays come into the series with key players who earlier sustained injuries, such as Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria, now healthy, while the Red Sox are limping, reigning World Series MVP Mike Lowell out for the series and ace Josh Beckett iffy.

Of course, no season occurs in a historical vacuum. The Red Sox have been a prominent playoff presence since 2003, and are the only team this decade to win two World Series. On the other hand, the team they are facing has been so bad for the entirety of their existence until now that it is almost like they have not even existed. My response to that line of thinking is that they haven’t existed until this season. This is the first season of the Tampa Bay Rays. And this is not just me saying it. Last November, the owners of the team disowned any connection to anything previous to this season by throwing the original name of the team, the one that had suffered a losing record every year of its life, into the dumpster. (After the name change, the next move by the team was to ship the member of my Golf Road collection pictured here, Brendan Harris, to Minnesota along with Delmon Young, a move that identifies Brendan Harris as one of the last true Devil Rays.) The Red Sox have been in the playoffs five out of the last six years, which is pretty good, but it’s not as good as the one hundred percent success rate of the Tampa Bay Rays.

So they are not the same team that endured all that suffering. Why are they not the team that endured all that suffering? Why did they change their name? Apparently, some market research was done that found that the name “Devil Rays” was less marketable than “Rays.” Even if this decision to change the name was not due to pressure from religious groups objecting to the word “Devil,” a scenario that seems highly likely to me in this age of rampant fundamentalist idiocy, the name change would still rub me the wrong way. If market research had been done on the name “Mets” before the 1969 season, it surely wouldn’t have “tested” very high either, but part of the reason that season has caught the imagination of so many sports fans is because it was the New York Mets that won it all that year, the exact same team that had been so bad for all of its existence, and not the New York Thunder or New York Rage or New York Conquering Black-Clad Charismatic Sharp-Fanged Predators.

But even if you swallow the premise that the Tampa Bay Rays are a continuation of the version of the team they tried to revise into invisibility, I ask you: just how much did they and their fans suffer? First of all, what fans? The team couldn’t even pack them in for most of this year, let alone in previous years, so it’s not exactly like they have a legion of deeply-scarred devotees who are on the weepy brink of finally seeing all their wildest dreams come true. Second of all, it’s not as if there are a lot of guys on this year’s team who have endured year after year after year of defeat in a Tampa Bay uniform. These guys, by and large, are newcomers, unburdened by history. Most of them are young and have been leaping from triumph to triumph throughout their lives. What suffering?

In fact, these guys, the Tampa Bay Rays, are more of a collection of “chosen ones” than the team they are facing for the American League pennant. Out of their regular nine-man lineup, the four-man pitching rotation they will use for the series, and the six bullpen pitchers most likely to get called on to record crucial outs (i.e., their nineteen key players for the series), they have ten former number one draft choices. The Red Sox, by comparison, have five former number one draft choices manning those corresponding spots, and two of the five, Drew and Lowrie, didn’t even start all four games of the recently concluded ALDS against the Angels, while a third, Varitek, was pinch-hit for in a big spot, showing his diminished role on the team, and a fourth, Beckett, has been reduced by injury questions from an exclamation point to a big question mark.

I realize, of course, that it would be preposterous to argue that the Red Sox, a giant-market juggernaut with virtually limitless financial resources, are at some kind of a fundamental disadvantage against the tiny-market, inexperienced Rays. But when I think about the Rays I think about standing around the sidelines before a pickup game as a kid. Two big kids are choosing up sides. They pick the best players first, the cool kids, the handsome kids, the kids without glasses or braces or odd personality quirks. Meanwhile, most of us have to stand there and wait to get picked, our worth in the eyes of our peers on graphic display for everyone. If you’ve ever had to stand there waiting and waiting to get picked, you have felt the sting of disappointing life. So why would you be so eager to jump onto the bandwagon of a team full of young elites who have never had to deal with that devil?

***

Note: The Griddle will be carrying the Baseball Toaster game thread for tonight’s first game of the American League Championship series between the Red Sox and the Rays.

14 comments

  1. 1.  You make a compelling argument, Josh. Fortunately I was already on the Rays bandwagon before I read your screed. As an Orioles fan who bristles regularly at the obnoxious and entitled Red Sox fans who overrun my beautiful home stadium and try to term it “Fenway South”, I wouldn’t be caught rooting for Boston on a dare.

    With all that said, I generally do not lump you in with that overbearing rabble and I wish you no specific harm, good sir.

    With that also said, I bristle at your use of the word “elite” to cast a shadow over the Rays. Given its disingenuous connotations in the current ugly American political landscape, I think you can do better. There’s nothing wrong with elitism in political figures or pro athletes. Elite means that they are at the top of their profession. Sure, I might root for Prince Fielder because he’s a big fat guy, but at the end of the day I’d rather have a more complete player like Albert Pujols holding down first base.


  2. 2.  1 : I listen to a lot of games on XM, which uses home announcers to carry every game; the main Baltimore announcer’s (Angel?) loathing of Boston fans is unmatched throughout the league with the exception of one of the Tampa announcers, who spends entire radiocasts between the two teams unleashing bile on Boston fans. (I’m sure I’d feel the same way if my home park was always overrun by fans of another team.)

    Fair point about the word “elite.” It’s a funny (but not “ha-ha” funny) term in the political realm (which I was not at all trying to tap into; I was just trying to let flow my neverending bitterness over being an unpicked loser as a youth). The one guy who in recent history has been most successful at manipulating the idea of an elite into showing himself as a “regular” guy, the guy voters said they’d most like to have a beer with, is the guy who has benefitted most from actually being, by birth and not by merit, a member of the highest, most exclusive echelons of the elite.


  3. 3.  Very nice post (first time, long time, as they say in the depressing world of talk radio). I might agree, if I didn’t already loathe this version the Red Sox so much.

    Also, I think my inclination to root for the Rays stems not from their history or their long-suffering “fans” (though to those few fans there are, and they do exist, 10 years is a really long time not not lose fewer than 90 games), but from the way they were treated THIS year. They were obviously a good team. BP had them with 89 wins. But everyone laughed at that, and even thoughout the season everyone kept waiting for them to fall apart, and they didn’t, and people should’ve known that they probably wouldn’t have. So it’s more about the gratification of seeing statistical reality win over “experience” and “history” and “drive” and “leadership” and such. They had to earn respect from everybody, and they actually did it.

    On Brendan Harris: he was the last Devil Ray and in a way, paradoxically, was also the first Ray:

    JUST SAY NO: Brendan Harris spent less than a month with Cincinnati at the end of the 2006 season, but he still flew back into town last December to serve as a model when the team unveiled its new uniforms at the annual Redsfest. Less than a month later, he was traded to Tampa Bay.

    A little over three weeks ago, Harris was on hand as the Rays rolled out their new look in downtown St. Petersburg. He joked that night that his presence there probably meant he would be traded before spring training.

    Wednesday afternoon, before the deal that sent him to Minnesota was officially completed, Harris already had made a vow for 2008.

    “The Twins, if they have a uniform unveiling next year, I’m not going,” he said.

    http://www2.tbo.com/content/2007/dec/02/sp-rays-working-to-fill-clubhouse-leadership-void/sports-rays/
    (When I started searching for this, I thought I remembered he had actually modeled the Rays jersey too, which would have made it a better story. Still, thought it was kind of interesting.)


  4. 4.  It wasn’t until the Anaheim hockey club broke free from the clutches of the Disney empire, and lopped the utterly ridiculous “Mighty” from their name, that they won their first Stanley Cup.


  5. 5.  3 : Good point about the “no respect” angle. I can see that. As far as my feelings about them: They scare me. Great bullpen, Percival or no Percival. Plus they are hungry and fearless. The two guys I think of when I think of their team are Balfour (led the league in Ks/9-innings) and Bartlett (started, in my opinion, the bad blood between the Red Sox and Rays; I dislike him for that but see that he’s chippy and unafraid, and his teammates seem to follow his lead).

    Great find about Brendan Harris being at the unveiling of the Rays. Now I wish I’d framed a post around that. (He was also one of the last Expos and one of the first Nationals, I think.)


  6. 6.  “The team couldn’t even pack them in for most of this year, let alone in previous years, so it’s not exactly like they have a legion of deeply-scarred devotees who are on the weepy brink of finally seeing all their wildest dreams come true.”

    When I read this the first thing that popped into my head was that there are probably more Chicago Cubs fans in Tampa Bay than Rays fans. OK, maybe not after this year, but I bet it’s close…


  7. 7.  “…who havenever had to deal with that devil”? Let’s take a look at Carl Crawford’s career, shall we:

    2002 55-106 .342 5th place
    2003 63-99 .389 5th place
    2004 70-91 .435 4th place
    2005 67-95 .414 5th place
    2006 61-101 .377 5th place
    2007 66-96 .507 5th place
    2008 97-65 .599 1st place

    In his six seasons before this one, the teams CC played for averaged 63 wins and 98 losses. They have turned over quite a bit of the roster, certainly you would too with so bad a record, but guys like Crawford, B.J. Upton, Rocco Baldelli and Scott Kazmir have fought their way past a lot of losing to get this far. For anybody who thinks that’s easy, see: Royals, Kansas City or Pirates, Pittsburgh for evidence to the contrary.


  8. 8.  *have_never


  9. 9.  I’ve been a Dodger Ray fan ever since Upton 1st showed up. It has been my dream for 5 years that they would crack the tyranny that NY/Boston have held on the Atlantic. That dream is coming a few years to early and it doesn’t matter if they lose today. Just knocking one of the big boys from the postseason was good enough and so I have a mixed rooting interest. I want one of two things to happen.
    Dodger/Boston World Series
    Philly/Ray World Series
    That way I have a very clear rooting interest and I think a Manny/Boston world series would be great for baseball pushing the interest onto the public in ways it hasn’t been in years.


  10. 10.  7 : I meant to shoehorn an “except for Carl Crawford” phrase somewhere into my doomed argument. Thanks for not only filling that gap (and adding other long- and sorta-long-sufferers) but providing the numbers to back it up. He’s been a hell of a player toiling in obscurity for quite a while.


  11. 11.  9 : If the Red Sox are lucky enough to get to the series, I’m hoping they see the Phillies. This is nothing at all against the Dodgers, and nothing against Manny either (actually the opposite of that). I’m a very sentimental fan when it comes to Old Greats, and if he returns to Boston in the series I’d be robbed of having Manny as a Red Sox Old Great. Time heals all wounds, but there hasn’t been enough time, so even though there are many fans like me who appreciate all he did for the Sox, I think he’d get booed pretty badly if he returned this year, which he probably wouldn’t react well to, and it’d just be really ugly.


  12. 12.  11 JD Drew is still booed in Philly, a team he never played for.

    I am guessing that Derek Lowe would get a nice reception, Nomar would be mixed, Torre would get booed and Manny, well you would like to think it would be mixed but probably not.


  13. 13.  12 : I think Lowe and Nomar would get cheered anyway, but they might get even bigger cheers by fans attempting to tell Manny “See, this is the love you could have had from us.” Torre would probably get booed, but I don’t know how much venom would be in it. I think Red Sox fans have always felt that he’s one of the more benign wearers of the pinstripes. They gave him a standing O in his first game back from taking time off to treat his cancer; I think I remember reading that Torre counts that moment among the more moving of his career.


  14. 14.  After the White Sox are eliminated each year, I root for teams based on how much I like watching televised postseason games from their home ballpark. I always want the Red Sox and (at least until this year) the Yankees to hang around as long as possible. The Rays are ahead of only the Twins on that count.



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