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Rays were clearly heaven-sent

Around here, the seas never parted. Around here, no one walked upon the water. Around here, the really cool miracles always seem to come on the playing fields. Talk about a religious experience. Check out the Tampa Bay Rays, standing there in the on-deck circle of that great beyond called "the playoffs.'' If that doesn't strike you as miraculous, then what on earth does? Even now, you have to remember where they have been. They were lost, and now they are found. It is as if the sick have been healed, the meek have inherited the earth and the franchise left for dead — or contraction, at least — has been raised.

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Of course, we have seen this before. The Bucs and the Lightning both made similar journeys from the netherworld to the promised land. That's the thing about sports in Tampa Bay. Sometimes, it can test your patience, and sometimes, it can reward your faith.

This would be better. If the Rays managed to win the World Series, miracle of miracles, it would be better than the Bucs' Super Bowl, better than the Lightning's Stanley Cup, better than anything.

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Time was, we could not see.

At least, we could not see excellence.

Oh, we tried. We would squint and focus toward a football team, but all we saw was wretchedness. There were ugly uniforms and ugly seasons, hopeless coaches and helpless ballplayers, and after a while, it seemed like a plague.

For 14 seasons, it went on. The Tampa Bay Bucs, it was easy to argue, were the worst franchise in all of professional sports.

And then came the Miracle of the Bucs, and the blindness was cured, and that was good. After the 2002 season, Tampa Bay won a Super Bowl. Who would have believed it?

Time was, we could not walk.

At least, we could not bring ourselves to walk toward the ticket window.

Oh, there were temptations. A new owner here, a new coach there, and you would try to watch a hockey team. But it never changed. The owners never seemed to care about their sport, and when it mattered the most, they were unable to make the rest of us care, either. After a while, it was as if there were locusts.

So the suffering continued. The Tampa Bay Lightning, a national magazine proclaimed, was the worst franchise in all of professional sports.

Then came the Passion of the Bolts, and the lameness was healed, and that, too, was good. In 2004, Tampa Bay won a Stanley Cup. Who would have imagined it?

Lo and behold, here we are again. Another worst-franchise-in-professional-sports has made a turnaround of biblical proportions.

Look, ma. The Tampa Bay Rays don't have leprosy anymore!

It's a tough business, the comparing of miracles. After all, one man's parted sea is another man's burning bush. When it comes to Tampa Bay sports, after all, we have seen a few wonders.

That said, the Third Miracle of Tampa Bay would be the best of them all.

Look, this is baseball. The 12th-best team in the league doesn't get in, the way it does in the NFL. The 16th-best team doesn't get in, the way it does in the NHL. Eight teams get in. Can you imagine how loud the coaches would get if the NCAA basketball tournament told 56 of its teams to stay home?

Not only that, but remember, the Rays compete in the AL East, where they spend dimes to the dollars of the Yankees and the Red Sox.

It's like pitching a tent among the mansions.

And still, the Rays have made it into the postseason.

After the Lightning's championship followed on the heels of the Bucs, I wrote this: "When the Bucs won, it was like pigs flying, and when the Lightning won, it was like pigs in space. If the Rays ever win, it will be like pigs doing time travel." I should have added "while performing brain transplant surgery."

Chew on this for a moment. This year, the Rays had a better record than 27 other teams.

In their previous 10 seasons combined, the Rays finished ahead of only 18 teams (and seven of those came in 2004).

So how has this happened? Without a .300 hitter, without a 20-game winner, with only one trip out of the cellar in their history, how have the Rays succeeded?

Well, in a way, they have done it just like their Tampa Bay big brothers did.

Start with new ownership, which in all three cases has brought a calmer approach and a better plan than the desperation they inherited. Does anyone really believe that Hugh Culverhouse, Art Williams or Vince Naimoli would have had this kind of success?

Sprinkle in great young talent. For the Bucs, it was Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch. For the Lightning, it was Vinny Lecavalier, Brad Richards and, for a short time, Ruslan Fedotenko. For the Rays, it has been Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton and a staff filled with fine starting pitchers.

Add in a solid veteran presence. Remember how important Hardy Nickerson was for the Bucs? Remember Dave Andreychuk with the Lightning? These days, you can think of Cliff Floyd and Troy Percival in the same way.

Then there is the right coach at the right time. For the Rays, that has been Joe Maddon. You knew he was positive and you knew he was patient, but it was only this year that you learned he had a knack for making moves. It's hard to see him without thinking that he has a bit of Tony Dungy's demeanor and a bit of John Tortorella's fire in their first trips to the playoffs.

There is something sweet, something special, about that first taste of success. Remember the unexpected rush of the '97 Bucs? Remember the Lightning winning its first playoff series in '03?

On the other hand, those aren't the seasons Tampa Bay remembers best, are they? And as good as the story has been, it isn't too much to wonder how far the story can go.

Can the Rays win this series? The next one? Can they win the World Series?

And if so, how much do you think the concession stand will charge for an order of loaves and fishes?

Rays were clearly heaven-sent 10/01/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 2, 2008 10:54am]

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