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Rays deliver a season that changes everything

DETROIT - Seven months ago, they were just another group of ballplayers.

Maybe a little better than we were used to seeing, maybe carrying a little more hope than we had known before. A handful of familiar names that might provide a moment or two of entertainment in the days ahead.

Back then, they were the lowly Tampa Bay Rays.

And today they are forever's team.

Kaz and Aki. B.J. and Longo. Joe Maddon pushing buttons, and Carl Crawford running bases. Andrew Friedman calling the shots, and Carlos Pena hitting the bombs.

The Tampa Bay Rays - the sorriest group of ballplayers on the planet a year ago - are the 2008 American League East champions. They are just the second team in history to go from the worst record in baseball to a division championship in back-to-back years.

"Nobody would have believed this," said designated hitter Cliff Floyd. "Not in here, not out there, not in Japan, not in Greece. What you've seen is a team come together. It literally happened overnight, but it was a long night coming."

So maybe it was fitting that the final night stretched into the next morning. The Rays could have clinched on their own Friday against the Tigers but lost 6-4, and had to wait for the Red Sox to lose a rain-delayed game to the Yankees.

Most of the team had left Comerica Park for a banquet room at the nearby MGM Grand Casino, but they began racing back to the ballpark as the game in Boston neared its conclusion. The players gathered around televisions in the visitor's clubhouse, cheering and groaning for the final 10 minutes until - at 12:52 a.m. on Sept. 27 - they officially bested the Red Sox and Yankees to become AL East champions.

"I don't have the words to describe what is happening in here," said bench coach Dave Martinez, who was an outfielder on the original Devil Rays team of 1998. "I've been in the playoffs before, but it's never felt like this. All I can say is believe. That's it. Just believe."

Maybe they needed a little help from the Yankees to clinch the title, but the Rays needed no assistance when it came to celebrating their achievement.

Hard to say when it crossed from mere party to legitimate blowout. It might have been when Maddon carried in the bottle of Patron tequila he bought earlier on Friday, and handed it to Jonny Gomes to be passed around the room. It might have been when Dioner Navarro performed some kind of Russian folk dance, followed by Evan Longoria and Pena dancing, arm in arm and cheek to cheek. Or it could have been when squeeky clean Gabe Gross began spraying champagne, and Floyd started screaming "You've changed! You've changed!"

But the clincher, as it were, was probably Navarro drinking beer out of his cup - the cup from his jock strap.

"They're young," Maddon said, squinting from behind alcohol-blocking goggles. "This is what they do."

This was their night, but it was also Tampa Bay's moment.

This is for the civic leaders - some still here and some who have passed - who spent years chasing a Major League Baseball franchise for a growing market. This is for the folks who spent a lifetime cruising spring training fields and watching the big leagues from afar.

This is for those who have been there from the beginning and, yes, this is for Vince Naimoli too.

"What makes it special is the sheer improbability of it all from an outsider's perspective," team president Matt Silverman said. "The odds were so long, some casinos probably didn't even have it on the board."

Maybe you thought you would never live to see it. And, if you weren't willing to stay up beyond midnight, you obviously didn't. But that's okay, because this wasn't about a single moment of exhiliration or a champagne-soaked clubhouse.

It was not just the division championship or the 90-something victories. A half-dozen teams win division titles every year, and are dutifully saluted as part of the game's history.

This was something different. This was a once-in-a-generation bit of lore. A team that went from ridicule to respect in one stunning summer, never pondering the possibility they did not belong.

They have a fraction of the payroll of either New York or Boston. They have no one who can truly be called a superstar. They have no reason to be where they are today, except for their collective talent and indomitable will.

"This whole season has felt surreal," said outfielder Eric Hinske.

Other cities have had curses, goats and ghosts. Their losers were lovable. Or they were bums. Their fans were diehard, or they were long-suffering. In Tampa Bay, there was nothing romantic about the last 10 years. The baseball was abysmal and the fans were indifferent.

Think of it this way:

How do you measure a baseball fan's disappointment?

On the north side of Chicago, they measure it in the number of decades between World Series titles. For the longest time in Boston, they measured it by the collection of heartbreaks.

Our disappointment has always been measured in a complete and utter lack of faith. Tampa Bay did not have fans as much as it had witnesses. There was never a reason to give yourself over to this franchise. The team would begin April with very little hope, and it always downhill from there.

And now, just like that, a legacy changes. Maybe not completely, but just enough.

Tampa Bay will always be the franchise that gave us a hideous color scheme, a goofy stadium and a dysfunctional ownership group, but now there is something more.

For one unforgettable summer, the Rays also gave us a touch of magic.

They were not just deserving of your money at the box office, or your evenings in front of the television. For the first time ever, the Rays were deserving of your love and devotion.

From the time Gomes stood up to the Yankees in spring training, to the moment when Dan Johnson got out of a cab and hit a game-tying home run in the ninth inning at Fenway Park in September, there has been something captivating about this team. Something utterly charming.

It shortchanges their accomplishment to say this was destiny, but there were times when it had that feel. When it seemed nothing would get in the way of the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays and their vision of glory.

And Maddon made sure the players understood that when they were coming out of the All-Star break on a seven-game losing streak.

"I told them they had to treat this opportunity with respect," Maddon said. "If you expect to be in this kind of position every year, you're foolish. Treat it with the respect it deserves, and finish it off."

The final month was a struggle. The Red Sox cut the lead, the Rays lost more than they won and the players were walking in and out of doctor's offices on a daily basis.

Sometimes, it seemed like this season would never end.

And now, it never will.

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

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Rays deliver a season that changes everything 09/27/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 29, 2008 3:47pm]

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