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Rays' miracle season over, but its effects will last

PHILADELPHIA — The celebration began in front of the mound and spread quickly around the infield. The regret moved more slowly, one heartache at a time, until it could be felt all the way to Tampa Bay.

The Rays lost 4-3 to the Phillies in the completion of Game 5 of the World Series on Wednesday night, ending the most remarkable season of baseball Tampa Bay will ever know.

And when it was done, a dugout of players looked despairingly toward the field as another team took ownership of their dream. For the first time since February, these Rays had nowhere left to go. They had fallen one step short of conquer.

So tell me, how are you supposed to feel today?

Do you curse the premature ending, or do you celebrate the unexpected ride?

"These guys have created baseball in Tampa Bay, I believe," Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said. "I know it's a large amount to bite off and chew, but I don't think the region's 3-million-plus people knew what baseball could mean until this year.

"And that's something that's going to stick now for generations."

There may be a day in the future when the Rays take it a step further. There may be a team from Tampa Bay that one day will be called World Series champions.

But it is hard to imagine any team having a greater impact than this.

Long after the details have faded and the hurt has dulled, that is how you should recall these Rays of 2008. As the team that changed a sport's perceptions, and a community's baseball identity.

"We gave every inch of our bodies for this, and I hope people in Tampa Bay know that and appreciate that as much as we appreciate them," designated hitter Cliff Floyd said. "Now that they have a good taste of this, I hope they don't want to let it go as much as we don't want to let it go.

"You want them to hold this and caress this for as long as they can, and know that when you're in this situation that it's precious because it doesn't come around too often."

If a thrilling, 3 1/2-inning sprint seemed a strange way to end baseball's Fall Classic, it was only fitting Tampa Bay was involved. For you could argue no team has ever taken a more inexplicable journey to the World Series than these 2008 Rays.

From the bottom of the standings, the back of the pay scale and the far reaches of expectations, the Rays traveled a greater distance than any team before them.

Which is why, after the box scores have yellowed, the affection should remain. The memories of a team that exceeded a world of expectations and stayed on the field until the season's final pitch.

Tampa Bay fell in love with these guys. Fell in love with their spunk and their exuberance. And, as your reward, came to realize there is nothing quite so intoxicating as the daily rationing of a pennant race.

"We've been on this ride for so long, it's hard to believe it's over," said pitcher Scott Kazmir. "It was hard watching them celebrate. I really thought that was going to be us."

The final night was cold and, as it turned out, unforgiving. For a manager willing to buck convention, and a baserunner eager to take a risk.

Maybe you question Joe Maddon's handling of the bullpen, and maybe you curse Jason Bartlett's aggressive running, but it is the way the Rays have played all season. On their terms, and the consequences be darned.

So even if the season's final act in Philadelphia was painful and bitter, does it diminish the months that preceded it? The answer is no. A thousand times no.

Once they beat the Red Sox in the ALCS, it was as if the Rays were playing with house money. They had survived the 162-game regular season in baseball's toughest division, and they had stared down the defending world champions in a remarkable seven-game playoff series.

That was the essential challenge. Had the Rays not made it past Boston, the successes of the regular season would have somehow felt diminished. Almost as if the Red Sox were toying with the Rays until the real prize was within sight. So, yes, the ALCS victory gave the World Series an air of borrowed time.

You could nitpick about a few too many errors, and some ill-timed slumps. You could complain about umpires, weather, starting times and Bud Selig's haircut.

Yet, in the end, the Rays did not play well enough. There is no shame in that, but there is disappointment.

The world was left thinking the Phillies were the much better team and, for the past week, they were. But it would have been nice to see the Rays play the way they had in May when the winning began. Or in August when the reality began to take hold. Or in September when they stood up to the Red Sox and doubters.

Eventually, the hurt will diminish. The close calls will no longer matter.

In their place will be enough fond memories to fill any scorebook.

Of the days Jonny Gomes stood up to the Yankees, and James Shields fought back against the Red Sox. Of Kazmir pacing in the bullpen at the All-Star Game, or Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton going over the Green Monster in the ALCS. Of mohawks and cowbells. Of comebacks and walkoffs.

And of the manager who showed kindness, good humor and an inquisitive mind can thrive in a sport where scratching, spitting and swearing are a hardball trinity.

The best part is the Rays have created a new reality for themselves. Remember back on Feb. 15, on the first day of spring workouts, when Kazmir talked about the playoffs, and the rest of the world chortled?

That will not happen again, at least not in the near future.

Twenty-five guys have changed the perception of an entire franchise. The years of jokes and losing are now merely a part of the team's past, instead of its entire identity.

The Rays wake up this morning as the defending American League champions.

Only 107 days until pitchers and catchers report.

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

Rays' miracle season over, but its effects will last 10/29/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 2:53pm]
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