Clear49° WeatherClear49° Weather

It is up to fans to keep the memory of the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays alive

Casey Kotchman singles to center to score Sean Rodriguez in the fourth and pull the Rays within 3-2 in Game 4. After starting the season at Triple A, the first baseman was called up a week later and finished with a .306 average and majors-best .998 fielding percentage.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Casey Kotchman singles to center to score Sean Rodriguez in the fourth and pull the Rays within 3-2 in Game 4. After starting the season at Triple A, the first baseman was called up a week later and finished with a .306 average and majors-best .998 fielding percentage.

ST. PETERSBURG

On the morning after, the buzz has faded. The narrative of the 2011 baseball season has already moved on to other cities, and the next heroes of October await their discovery in distant dugouts.

Even now, that's not the sad part. Every player, owner and fan goes into a new year knowing regret will almost certainly be the by-product of a summer's worth of games.

So do not mourn this season that ended too soon, or this team that ultimately came up a little short. Payroll, history and logic say it was almost inevitable.

What hurts is this:

Few will ever understand what was accomplished by this misbegotten team in this boondocks town in this season of absolute wonder.

"Unfortunately," designated hitter Johnny Damon said, "history only remembers the champions."

So it is up to you to keep the memory of the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays alive. To not allow others to dismiss it as just another season of another team that wasn't quite good enough.

So remember the legend of Super Sam Fuld and the various ways he threw his undersized self onto rock-hard fields and even sturdier walls.

Remember the determination of James Shields and the remarkable way he decided no game was complete until he came off a mound and said it was.

Remember, too, the agony of J.P. Howell. For you may never find an athlete with a heart so kind, even as it was broken night after night.

This is a team that trimmed nearly 50 percent of its payroll from one year to the next. A team that lost its leftfielder, first baseman and six relievers to free agency. A team that saw its six highest-paid players depart in the same offseason.

And still this team won 91 games in baseball's richest division.

"If we had finished this off with the championship, it may have been the best story that was ever written," said manager Joe Maddon. "But that doesn't mean it wasn't one of the best stories ever written."

So remember Casey Kotchman and a career revival that started back in the minor leagues and wasn't fully understood until he finally came home.

Remember Johnny Damon and the sound of an aging rocker pulling it together for another stadium tour that often reminded you of long-ago days.

Remember Desmond Jennings and the way a 24-year-old rookie showed up in July and gave a fading team the kick in the rear it needed.

This is a team that was nine games out of the wild-card race on the morning of Sept. 4. And yet, minutes past midnight on Sept. 29, the Rays were playoff-bound.

All it took was a six-run rally in the eighth inning of the season finale, a two-out pinch-hit homer by Dan Johnson in the ninth and a walkoff home run by Evan Longoria in the 12th. Simple.

And thus a team that came within one strike of potential ruin, a team that was rescued by a triple play, a team that saw rookie after rookie come to the rescue, was the toast of baseball for one unforgettable night.

"It was fun, it was exciting, it was probably the best baseball I've ever been a part of," rightfielder Matt Joyce said. "That month of September was magic.

"We just ran out of steam at the end."

So remember the 0-6 start and the 35-19 finish. Remember how the closer came up lame and the phenom came up large. Remember the Red Sox blinking and the Rays' clowning. Remember the 9-0 series opener against the Rangers and the false hope it engendered. Remember … everything.

"This group," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said, "is incredibly special."

And yet, at precisely 7 on Tuesday evening, the lights went out at Tropicana Field. The scoreboard had long since gone dark, the TV cables had been rolled up, and a roomful of players had left another season behind.

If you listened closely, perhaps you could have heard the echo of cheers. If you stared long enough, perhaps you could have imagined the thrill of watching through an 8-year-old's eyes.

"I can't in any way, shape or form be upset about this," Maddon said. "I thought every ounce of our energy was exhausted on the field this year."

There have been many seasons in many other towns that exceeded what was accomplished in Tampa Bay this summer. No argument there. There have been seasons with similar magic and seasons of even greater surprise. That also is true.

But around here, this 162-game season will forever be unique. Because of the players, because of the games, because of the drama.

And so it is up to you to remember it.

Remember it all, so the world does not forget what happened in Tampa Bay in the fall of 2011.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

It is up to fans to keep the memory of the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays alive 10/04/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 4, 2011 10:47pm]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...