Saturday, February 23, 2008

Why I'm a Rays Fan

I believe that there's some explanation in order, since the fact that I'm a Ray fan probably seems as foreign and weird to most people as the fact that curling is actually popular somewhere. I am in no way trying to sway anyone's support or convince others to become Ray fans but hey, it it happens, I'm certainly not complaining.

My journey to enlightenment started somewhere around the spring of 2003, I believe. As I mentioned in my last post, a bunch of my friends and I were self-publishing a baseball magazine to sell in our high school. Up until this point, I'd been a born-and-raised Yankee fan and I had no desire at all to go against my family's favorite team. However, this is also the year that Rocco Baldelli got called up by the Devil Rays and became an overnight sensation due to the fact that he had quite possibly the best baseball name of all time and that he batted around .350 for his entire first month or so in the majors. One of my friends wrote an article for our magazine about how Baldelli could be considered the most important player in baseball at the time, since he was actually causing excitement for a team as lowly as the Devil Rays. Later on that year, I first jokingly referred to myself as a D-Ray fan. At the time, I had no idea how true that would play out to be.

The big turning point happened during that next offseason, when the Yankees went nuts after losing the Series to the Marlins and did what in my mind was a complete rehaul. They let Andy Pettite go (and Roger Clemens, but I didn't care nearly as much about him as I did about Andy) and they signed every big name player out there in the free agent pool: Javier Vasquez, Kevin Brown, Esteban Loaiza (who was coming off his only great year), Paul Quantrill, Tom Gordon, and Gary Sheffield. Oh, and they also traded for that Rodriguez guy. Ever since they lost the Series in 2001, getting the biggest guns available out there became the Yankee strategy. For an idea how ludricrous this was, take a look at these numbers...

2000 payroll: $92.9 million (1st in the league by $2 million)
2001 payroll: $112.3 million (1st in the league by $3 million)
2002 payroll: $125.9 million (1st in the league by $17.5 million)
2003 payroll: $152.7 million (1st in the league by $35.5 million)
2004 payroll: $184.2 million (1st in the league by $57 million)
2005 payroll: $208.3 million (1st in the league by $84.8 million)

If I were to graph this, it'd remind me a heck of a lot of graphs of worldwide population growth. While it took humans from the year 10,000 BC until 1804 AD to reach a population size of 1 billion, it only took us 123 years to reach our next billion. And then another 13 years to reach the next billion. And so on and so forth until we've now already eclipsed 6 billion humans living on this planet at one time. In the same way, it took baseball since its inception in the 1800s until 2001 for a team to break the $100 million dollar barrier. Four years later, the $200 million barrier was shattered as well. Since then the Yankees have scaled back and Brian Cashman has begun trying to rectify the mess they created, but the damage was already done.

Attribute their spending to market trends and inflation is you want, but I couldn't help but be disgusted with the Yankees' spending. Does having the largest pocketbook make you a great team? How can you feel good about winning when with that large a payroll, you're expected to win? And what happened to the history and tradition of the Yankee franchise? Do stars honestly think that you can become a "Yankee great" just by signing with the Yankees and playing a couple seasons there? Players like Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra...they were all homegrown talent that stayed with the Yankees for their whole careers. True, there are some exceptions to the rule...Babe Ruth and Roger Maris were traded for, but even they spent the vast majority of their years playing baseball in a Yankee uniform.

So in my mind, none of the players that the Yankees signed were or are true Yankees. Jeter, Posada, Bernie, Rivera, Pettite...those are true Yankees. The rest of them were just after big money and a World Series title, so in my mind they were a disgrace to the uniform. The Yankees had turned from a team of destiny in '96 to a team of sell outs. I simply couldn't stand it.

I gave the Yankees one last chance to redeem themselves, but when they lost in the playoffs in 2004 after being up 3 games to none to the Red Sox, I decided that the baseball gods had just passed their judgement. I knew before the World Series even started that the Red Sox would win. Once they'd beaten the Yankees, it was inevitable. The Yankees had so disgraced the name of their franchise, the Curse of the Bambino had broken. The way I like to see it, Babe Ruth figured that if the current Yankees were content to ignore the history and tradition of their franchise, then he didn't have to screw the Red Sox over for them anymore. The Yankees brought their ruin upon themselves.

In response, I switched allegiances. I switched from the team with the highest payroll to the team with the lowest, which at the time was the Devil Rays. Actually, the Brewers had the lowest payroll in 2004, but I was too attached to the AL East to make that drastic a switch. And anyway, the D-Rays were just so helpless. They'd completely and thoroughly sucked ever since their inception, so I wanted a taste of that misery. As I was observing, Red Sox fans had suffered for years on end, but it only made their eventual World Series win 86 years later all the more sweet. So hey, maybe I'm setting myself up for years and years of suffering, but at least the (Devil) Rays are running a franchise like I believe it's supposed to be built: using home-grown talent.

Heck, no one can accuse a Ray of being there for the money. Even recent signgings Troy Percival and Cliff Floyd aren't in it for the money, but because as they proclaim, they want to be a part of something great that's happening in Tampa. Carlos Pena just signed a 3 year contract to stay with the Rays, even though he could most definitely command more than what he signed for in the free agent pool. To me, this is a team that really has their hearts in the right place.

Also, this team has a bunch of players that you just can't help but root for. There's Scott Kazmir, who's been told time and time again that he's too small to be a starter. You have Rocco Baldelli, who has so much talent but such a fragile body. You have Jonny Gomes, whose family was in and out of a homeless shelter when he was growing up. Oh, and if that wasn't enough, he had a heart attack at the age of 22. But despite it all, he's up there swinging for the fences and playing his heart out every game he gets a chance. He donates to all sorts of charities and runs a baseball camp back in his hometown, so how can you not root for the guy?

Then there's Carlos Pena, who came out of nowhere to have an amazing season last year, and you'll never find a player who seems to enjoy himself more playing the game of baseball. There is always a smile on his face, a spark in his eye, and praise on his lips. He certainly doesn't take his success for granted, but takes every opportunity to express how lucky he has been to be where he is now. And you can't ignore Carl Crawford, who has always been the epitome of class even though he's suffered through 6 losing seasons as a Devil Ray. He has never trash talked the franchise, like fellow long-timers Aubrey Huff and Toby Hall. Instead, he signed a deal a couple years ago that keeps him as a Ray and at a much cheaper price than he'd get on the open market. How classy is that?

If you haven't figured it out by now, the Rays are a collection of good guys, feel-good stories, and underdogs trying to beat the odds. And then there's the Yankees, where all you have is more and more A-Rod drama. I'm sorry, but I'm definitely sticking with the Rays.

So that's my story. I certainly hope that the Yankees one day return to their roots and learn that home-grown talent is better than signing new free agents every year. They made great strides this offseason by not trading for Santana and instead hanging on to Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Melky Cabrera, and Joba Chamberlain. Now if they can only get rid of Damon, Giambi, Abreu, and A-Rod, I'd consider rooting hard for them again. At this point, though, my heart lies in one place and one place only....Go Rays!

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