Brendan Harris (So You’re Thinking of Jumping on the Tampa Bandwagon)October 10, 2008
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?
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.