ST. PETERSBURG — The celebration began somewhere beyond amazing, somewhere on the far side of impossible.
The Rays, of all teams, had clinched a playoff spot, of all things. From the look of it, they intended to party right up to the moment the playoffs begin.
This was the Dance of the Inconceivable, the Celebration of the Unachievable, the Embrace of the Unbelievables. The Rays, bottom-dwellers throughout the history of their franchise, have discovered life after the regular season.
And so, at 7:22 p.m. Saturday, this team of incredibles spilled from the dugout and rushed at reliever Trever Miller as if he were fielding a punt. The Rays engulfed him somewhere between third base and home, and they pounded on each other, and they embraced, and they hopped up and down, as if a decade's worth of bad memories was beneath their cleats.
In a way, of course, it was.
Could you ever have imagined this? Would you ever have pictured the Rays' clubhouse draped in plastic and smelling like a champagne car wash? Would you have thought you would live to hear the music blast or see beer-soaked ballplayers dancing in the corner in a party that would not end?
Who ever would have thought of a celebration here?
This was the black hole of baseball, remember? The graveyard where careers came to die. For a decade, they were the dissa-Rays, and commissioner Bud Selig could not speak of them without using contractions.
This was the team of the lost, and man, it lost. Quicksand might as well have been in the infield and poison ivy in the outfield. This was the team of Wilson Alvarez and Ben Grieve, of Danny Clyburn and Mike Kelly, of Dewon Brazelton and Vinny Castilla.
You can forget about them now, all the bad plays and bad games, all the bad management and bad memories.
This team has replaced them all. Already it has won 26 more games than it did last year. Given a blueprint for success, given the conviction to stick to it, this team has reached the postseason.
Funny. Owner Stuart Sternberg wasn't at the Trop on Saturday. He was back home in New York, following the game on MLB.com on his computer (the game wasn't televised in his area). Perhaps, for Sternberg, there will be bigger celebrations to come.
At this point, how can you doubt that? This has not only been the darndest season any Rays team has had, you could argue that it has been one of the darndest seasons any team has had.
What's that? You want to argue for the '91 Braves? Yeah, those guys improved by 29 games. On the other hand, they had the National League MVP in Terry Pendleton and the Cy Young winner in Tom Glavine. You want to argue for the '67 Red Sox and their Impossible Dream? Same deal. Carl Yastrzemski won the MVP, and Jim Lonborg won the Cy Young. You want to put in a word for the Amazing Mets of '69? Ah, but Tom Seaver won the Cy Young and finished second in the MVP voting, and Cleon Jones hit .340.
These guys? Do you see anyone on the roster who is going to finish in the top 10 of the MVP voting? In the Cy Young Award voting? There isn't a .300 hitter. There isn't a pitcher who has won as many as 15.
For the Rays, that does not speak of weakness, it speaks of strength. It speaks of a roster filled with small-name players who keep coming up with big-time performances.
Yeah, you could call it amazing, if the Mets hadn't claimed the word. And you could refer to it as impossible, if the adjective hadn't been adopted by the Red Sox. So, really, what word applies?
"Unlikely," is the one that manager Joe Maddon picks. And it fits. Oh, most of us thought the Rays would be better. But who thought they would win 92 and counting? Who thought they would have a grip on the AL East, the tallest mountain in major-league baseball, going down the stretch?
"Radical," is the word Miller picked. And as an alumnus of the bad old days, Miller should know. He was here at a time when the only celebrations that September promised were farewell parties.
"Miraculous," said Dave Martinez, the bench coach.
"Persistent," said Troy Percival. And that one fits, too. "We have one heartbeat," Percival said. "This team never quits."
"Resilient," said Carlos Pena. Who is going to doubt that? This team lost Carl Crawford, and B.J. Upton and Percival and Rocco Baldelli, and Evan Longoria was gone for a while, and still the wheels never came off.
"Warriors," said Cliff Floyd. "We keep battling no matter what."
Then, of course, there was the adjective used by vice president Matt Silverman. "Ray-mazing," he said.
The Radical Rays? The Miraculous Rays? The Resilient Rays? Somewhere in there you have the description of a playoff team. They can pitch it, and they can catch it, and at the important times, they can hit it.
From the looks of it, what they do best is celebrate.
Who knows? Perhaps more of it is to come.