ST. PETERSBURG — There will always be that night, the home run carrying down the left field line at Tropicana Field, the man who hit it with his arms raised as he rounded first base, circling the bases on one of the biggest nights in Tampa Bay sports history. That will never change. That will always be 162.
That will always be Longo.
The Rays would never again have made the playoffs with Evan Longoria. They might never be a playoff team without him.
It’s just as well. The garage sale has begun. Longoria was traded Wednesday to the San Francisco Giants for two players with Tampa Bay roots — infielder Christian Arroyo and outfielder Denard Spann — and a couple minor-league pitchers. A cornerstone is gone. Longoria, the ace of the Rays for a decade, is officially part of franchise history. This team is headed in a different direction, maybe even to a different part of the country.
Longoria might stage another comeback in San Francisco, another season that turns heads, like with his spectacular 2016. Before last season might have been the time to trade him, when you look back on it. But this is for looking back on a now lost face of a lost franchise, and what he meant.
If there’s a local sports Rushmore, Longoria is somewhere on it.
He arrived in Tampa Bay nine years ago, early in the 2008 season, and as he arrived, so did the Rays. They made a miracle under Joe Maddon, broke all the rules and made up some of their own, all the way to a World Series. Longoria played third base and was voted rookie of the year. He became, simply, Longo. He always will be.
He became the face of the franchise as the other faces fell away. Crawford. Upton. Pena. Shields. Price. Longoria probably would have become the face anyway. He will go down as one of the most important athletes in this community’s history.
Longoria came to do a job, and do it every day. He always seemed to be at third, sometimes to the detriment of his body, even his career. He started out as if he was headed to Cooperstown, but that dried up. What didn’t was his approach, how he played the game. "Professional" is the word that came to mind.
He was an admirer of Yankees great Derek Jeter. I still remember a young Longoria at his first All-Star Game, in New York, talking about how much he admired Jeter, No. 2’s calm in the middle of all that storm. Even later in his career, when he was long established, Longoria sought advice from other players. He wanted to be better.
He tried some hands-on leadership early in his Rays career, calling out B.J. Upton for loafing. It didn’t go well. That wasn’t for Longoria. There was a spring training when Longoria said he was going to leave the leadership to others. It left an unmistakable void, one that couldn’t be filled by hopeless pretenders like Chris Archer. Longo walked the walk at least.
Sometimes media had to wait a half hour to talk to Longoria after games. He led the majors, I believe, in interviews conducted over clubhouse vacuum cleaners. But he knew what we needed, knew his role, the talking points. Two minutes of Longoria was better than 20 minutes of anyone else. What did Longo think? It mattered. He mattered.
More important, he was always there for the Rays, often playing through injuries, with the occasional big swing or catch. The guy won a Gold Glove on the way out the door.
On the day the miracle Rays clinched the 2008 postseason, it was Longoria who caught the final out in foul territory near the third-base stands. It made perfect sense.
He wanted to do things the right way. Name a true Longoria scandal. He respected the game. And its history. Little wonder he was close to late Rays senior advisor Don Zimmer, who had seen it all. Longo could listen to Zim all day.
Little wonder, too, that before every game, after Longoria loosened his arm near the dugout, he’d toss the baseball to a child in the stands. No fanfare, just a guy who knew who he was and knew what it meant.
But we all know what we’ll come back to when we remember Longoria. Sept. 29, 2011, after midnight, at Tropicana Field. One of the most remarkable and improbable and spectacular comebacks in baseball history, much less Rays history. If you weren’t there, you’ve been lying that you were ever since.
There is no way around what Evan Longoria meant that night. He made this place what it really isn’t: a baseball town. It sure felt like that, sure as those upraised arms. That was when the Rays mattered. And Longo came through.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly