BY GRIFFIN GUINTA
Every year begins the same way. We tune out the soiled hopes and dreams of last season and lick our lips at the sleek new squad the brain trust of Matt Silverman, Brian Ault, and Stu Sternberg has assembled. They may not be huge acquisitions, in fact often we’re the ones dealing our stars away (e.g. James Shields, Matt Garza, David Price) yet we somehow ignite this hope that we can compete with a division replete with the biggest dollars and the biggest names. This is the life of a Rays fan.
Full disclosure: I became a fan of the Tampa Bay Rays (or Devil Rays as they were called then) back in 2008 after defecting from my hometown team, the Boston Red Sox. Growing up in Boston, the Sox were my life. As a third grader, I cried when we lost Nomar. I cried harder when Aaron Boone knocked the Red Sox out of the 2003 ALCS with one swing. I witnessed those tears of sorrow turn into tears of joy after the “Idiots” won their first World Series since 1918 a year later. A myriad of factors, including the infamous “beer in the clubhouse scandal,” and the firing of Tito Francona caused me to wean away from the team I once loved.
Around the same time, the horrific Devil Rays, known for drawing more fans of the other team than fans of their own, announced that they’d changed their name to simply “The Rays,” and added a new set of logos and uniforms to match. People were abuzz about their pitching potential, quirky manager, and much-hyped rookie Evan Longoria. Sure enough, the scrappy Rays rode that team all the way to a World Series appearance the same year. I was hooked. This team had one of the lowest payrolls in baseball (over half the size of the Red Sox) and continued to dominate the AL East in succeeding years by using sharp analytics (sabermetrics) and squeezing the most out of burnout players like Cliff Floyd and Sean Rodriguez.
Flash forward to this season, where the Rays have already gotten off to a rocky start. While bad Aprils don’t necessarily doom a team–the Rays went 0-6 to start 2011 and still made the playoffs–I’m worried that some of my Rays optimism is fading. The Red Sox have David Price. The Yankees have Masahiro Tanaka. The Blue Jays have Josh Donaldson. And we have…Corey Dickerson I guess?
On paper, the Rays’ starting rotation should keep this team afloat barring any major injuries. Yes, Chris Archer and Drew Smyly have gotten off to slow starts, but they’ll make the adjustments to lead a proven staff. The offense, per usual, is the big question mark. Rays’ management bit the bullet this semester and actually made trades and threw money at bats like Logan Morrison, Brad Miller, Steve Pearce, and Corey Dickerson. So far, Dickerson seems to be the only bright spot, with the other three hitting a combined .164 and no home runs. The Rays, typically known for having strong defense, have made several unusual errors (somewhat offset by Kevin Kiermaier’s Gold Glove fielding) and look perpetually out of rhythm and uninspired. I’m not sure what to think of Kevin Cash other than “ehh.” He seems like a nice guy and isn’t doing a bad job, but I wince a little bit whenever the camera cuts to the dugout and the silver-haired man with thick black-rimmed glasses isn’t standing there.
Make no mistake–I will go to plenty of Rays games this season. I’ll fist pump enthusiastically as DJ Kitty takes the screen to hype up the crowd and overspend money on the new Ducky’s restaurant in Center Field simply because Evan Longoria owns it. All the Rays’ shortcomings in the star power department are balanced out by the eclectic culture and perpetual ‘scrappiness’ of their teams. Where else can you watch an indoor game against the Yankees that costs less than $20 for a decent seat? Where else can you be mooned by anthropomorphic dinosaur named Raymond?
The logical part of me worries about this year’s Rays. On the surface, I gulp at the notion that Brad Miller is hitting fifth and at the moment we have no closer. Yet the exuberant baseball fan in me, the one who’s had a track record of hitching his wagon to lovable losers, is excited to see what this year’s Rays can do. Because as Rays fans, hope truly is all we have. We have to hope that Evan Longoria can resurrect his 30 home run seasons of old, and that some random Durham Bulls prospect comes out of nowhere to light a miraculous spark. At the end of the day, that’s all we have. And it’s kind of fun.
So here’s to hoping. Here’s to DJ Kitty.