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Putting the Rays in historical context

As unlikely as it sounds, Tampa Bay Rays’ seamstress Diane Ellerman of St. Petersburg sews a World Series patch on the uniform of third baseman Evan Longoria on Monday.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

As unlikely as it sounds, Tampa Bay Rays’ seamstress Diane Ellerman of St. Petersburg sews a World Series patch on the uniform of third baseman Evan Longoria on Monday.

ST. PETERSBURG

Today, the Rays are yours. Soon, they may belong to eternity. The story of Tampa Bay's baseball team in 2008 really is that rare. The origins really are that remarkable. The World Series has been around more than 100 years and has given us 208 different teams, but you could make a convincing argument that no franchise has arrived as a greater surprise than the Rays. No one saw this coming. Not the owner, not the baseball operations executives, not the manager. They might have anticipated better days, but they were not planning on October nights. No one predicted this. Not the oddsmakers in Las Vegas, not the suits on ESPN, not the foolhardy columnists at the St. Petersburg Times. A few analysts foresaw dramatic improvement, but few believed 9 could actually equal 8.

These Rays have defied them all. They have a roster with little flash and lots of nerve. They have a payroll smaller than the left side of the Yankees' infield, but with tons of attitude. They have pitching, and they have defense.

All these Rays lack is a snappy adjective. The '69 Mets were Amazing. The 1914 National League champions were the Miracle Braves. The '67 Red Sox were the Impossible Dream.

So what do we call Tampa Bay in 2008?

The Thrifty Rays? The Impossible Haircut?

Whatever you decide, just know that history will call them special.

If you have any doubt, judge for yourself how the Rays stack up against some of the most surprising teams in more than a century of World Series play.

The 1914 Braves

Best argument: In 1950, the Associated Press named these Miracle Braves the greatest sports upset in the 20th century. Based in Boston in the National League, they were routinely losing 100 games a year in an era when teams were playing a 154-game schedule. Over the previous 10-year span, the Braves averaged a 54-98 record. They even began 1914 horribly, going 26-40 and falling 15 games out of first place before a furious 68-19 finish.

Positive sign: Two months before the season, the Braves traded for Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers (of Tinkers to Evers to Chance fame), who went on to win the 1914 version of the Most Valuable Player award.

The 1944 Browns

Best argument: The St. Louis AL franchise was so wretched, history has practically forgotten its lone World Series appearance. From 1923 to 1943, the Browns were never close to contention, finishing every season between 19 and 64 games out of first place. Eventually moving from St. Louis to become the Baltimore Orioles in 1954, the Browns were in sixth place the year before winning the AL pennant.

Positive sign: If you want to consider World War II a positive sign, then things were looking up for the Browns. At a time when a lot of younger players were in the military, St. Louis had the best collection of 30-somethings.

The 1967 Red Sox

Best argument: The year before, Boston was half a game out of last place in the AL with a 72-90 record. The Red Sox were coming off eight consecutive losing seasons and were on their fourth manager in six years.

Positive sign: The farm system was producing a ton of talented young stars. Tony Conigliaro, Rico Petrocelli, George Scott, Reggie Smith, Joe Foy, Mike Andrews and Jim Longborg were all 25 or younger.

The 1969 Mets

Best argument: The Mets were not just bad, they were historically bad. They had never had a winning season in franchise history, and had averaged 105 losses a season since their inception in 1962.

Positive sign: The one drawback to their claim as history's biggest surprise is the franchise was clearly on the upswing. The '68 Mets won a franchise record 73 games with three young All-Stars (Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jerry Grote) and the fourth-best team ERA in the National League.

The 1987 Twins

Best argument: The '91 Twins get mentioned more often because they went from last place to winning the Series, but the '87 team had even less pedigree. Those Twins were coming off a 71-91 record, and had seven consecutive seasons at .500 or below. The '91 team at least had a handful of players (Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Greg Gagne and Dan Gladden) with World Series rings from '87.

Positive sign: Though they had the second-worst record in the American League, the Twins were 43-38 at home in 1986. That Metrodome factor would eventually become huge.

The 2006 Tigers

Best argument: No one can match Detroit's futility meter immediately preceding a World Series appearance. The Tigers had 12 consecutive losing seasons before going 95-67 in '06. And it's not like they were gradually getting better during that stretch. The Tigers had lost 502 games in the previous five seasons.

Positive sign: Detroit nearly doubled its payroll in a two-year span, signing free agents such as Magglio Ordonez, Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones, and hiring Jim Leyland as manager before the '06 season.

The 2008 Rays

Best argument: When it comes to putrid, the Rays are in a class of their own. They are as bad as any team in terms of both recent and consistent levels of losing. They are one of only three teams (2006 Tigers, 1914 Braves) to reach the Series after 10 or more consecutive losing seasons and are one of only two (1991 Braves) to reach the Series after having the worst record in baseball the previous season. And they are the only team to win the pennant when beginning the season with the lowest payroll in their league.

Positive sign: The apocalypse?

Putting the Rays in historical context 10/20/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 23, 2008 5:21pm]
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