KANSAS CITY, Mo.
At a time such as this, when the accomplishments of a season finally seem to outweigh the wobbly manner in which it was concluded, you can judge a ballclub by the faces that come to mind.
Today, as you reflect upon the American League East champion Tampa Bay Rays, perhaps it is Carl Crawford's lopsided grin that comes to mind. Or maybe the piercing stare of David Price. Or even the death glare of Rafael Soriano.
Me? I cannot get over the memory of George Steinbrenner's scowl. Ah, George. If he were still alive, this might have killed him.
Can you imagine the eruption from Steinbrenner's office today? Can you imagine the sound of a fist pounding a desk? Can you imagine the volume of the roar that would send parking lot attendants scurrying beneath BMWs? Can you imagine the Boss screaming for someone, anyone, to try to explain how these Rays beat those Yankees?
For that matter, can anyone explain it to the rest of us, too?
How can you explain this? How does a $72 million payroll raise one of $204 million? How do a bunch of players with batting averages that look like bowling scores outlast a roster that totals 64 All-Star Games? How do the Rays, a team that struggled mightily to beat the Royals this week, manage to win 96 times, once more than the kids from the mansion?
This should be remembered as one of the great upsets of sports, right up there with how Joe Namath beat the Colts and how Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson and how N.C. State beat Phi Slamma Jamma. And this one took 162 games.
This is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the Rays, that they could overcome the blackouts of their own batting order and the recent walkabouts of the pitching staff and still win more games than anyone in the American League. There has never been a better argument that baseball is about more than batting averages and slugging percentage. It is about little things and extra effort and being smart and showing patience.
Also, it is about celebrating victory. Granted, when the Rays raise the AL East pennant next year, it should be ripped like a tattered flag, because rarely has success looked so strained.
Nevertheless, the Rays won. Never mind that so much of the season seemed uphill. By the end of it, they were on top of baseball's toughest division. Somehow.
For a hundred years, researchers will try to figure out how a team with such tiny credentials could end up as the best team in the American League. There are so many small averages, so many strikeouts, such little firepower.
"I was looking at our offensive numbers on the scoreboard board (Sunday)," said third baseman Evan Longoria, who swears he will be back in the lineup Wednesday. "The batting averages and the home runs and the RBIs. To be in the position we're in, with 96 wins, it's probably pretty baffling to people."
Baffling is a good word. Confounding is another. The Rays started a lineup Sunday with four batters hitting under .200 and seven under .242. Even when the Rays play the Rangers on Wednesday, they will have two hitters — Longoria and Crawford — who will make the opposing pitcher nervous. For a while in Sunday's 3-2 victory in 12 innings over Kansas City, it was easy to wonder if the Rays would ever score again.
In a strange manner, the Rays' struggles at the end of the season demonstrate just how much this team overachieved to win 96 games.
The Rays do not bludgeon opponents. They do not overwhelm them. They do not have a fistful of players — as the Yankees do — who will get Hall of Fame consideration.
So how does a team such as the Rays overcome all of the advantages of the Yankees?
They do it with guile, for one thing. The past three seasons, it is difficult to argue against the notion that the Rays have the smartest front office in baseball. They do it with pitching, for another. They do it with great defense — the sloppiness of the past 10 games notwithstanding. They do it with speed, and with chemistry and with youth. They do it by believing that they're going to outlast the other team, and somewhere along the way, they're going to scratch out just enough runs to win.
"We get to a lot of balls that other teams don't," Longoria said. "We do the little things, and we're one of the best teams in baseball at playing the games fundamentally well."
Said manager Joe Maddon: "We play good, old-fashioned baseball.
And Carlos Peña: "Baseball is so much more than a bat and a glove. It's about chemistry and heart. I'm not saying someone else doesn't have it; I'm saying we do."
Say what you will about the Rays, but they are young, they are athletic, and they are versatile. That's why Maddon has trotted out 129 different lineups this season. There is an impression he does it on a whim, as if he sits in his office with a Rubik's Cube, a set of Yahtzee dice and a half-dozen chickens' feet before he decides who goes where. He doesn't. He does it because he thinks it gives his team a better chance to win.
"I'd love to run the same lineup out there every day," Maddon said. "But if I did, we'd get our (posteriors) beat."
How did this happen? At times, this team looks as if it cannot beat the Orioles or the Royals. And it won more than anyone in the American League.
"I believe this," Maddon said. "When I took this job, and there were all of the rumblings about cleaning up the game and getting rid of performance-enhancing drugs, I thought that once that left our game, the playing field would be level. If you had good athletes who played the game properly, you had a chance to win regardless of how much money you spend.
"I was never concerned with payroll. Right now, you pay for experience, which is important. But you're not going to pay for 50 home runs, because they don't exist anymore except for one guy in our league. You're not paying for 10 guys who can throw it 97, because that doesn't exist anymore lately. What you're paying for now is a guy who has been there and done that. But you're not buying the same things you bought five or 10 years ago with your free agent money."
What the Rays have bought themselves is a bit of swagger, a bit of confidence and the AL East title.
As the playoffs approach, they have also bought themselves a chance.
For now, that seems like enough.