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Tampa Bay Rays area's last hope for sports success this year

They have been ranked as the No. 1 team in baseball for the coming year. If it's all the same to you, Rays fans would like that number to be guaranteed.

They have added a bit of pop in free agent Luke Scott. For those who have seen this lineup silenced too often, however, a bit more sounds like a fine idea.

They have stared at the payroll numbers following the new contracts for B.J. Upton and David Price and did not blink. On the other hand, their followers would prefer they spend more.

And so it goes. Every day, you look toward the Rays to see if a new addition has come aboard. Have they signed a first baseman? Have they made a trade for a shortstop? Have they found a catcher on the waiver wire?

Something.

Anything.

Soon.

In a wasted sports year, the Rays have become Tampa Bay's last hope. It isn't just that fans want the Rays to be good. They need for them to be. They need games that count and moments to remember and electricity in the air. They need a team to turn the idle evenings into something dramatic.

After all, no one else has.

It has been a grim year for sports in Tampa Bay. The Bucs, as you might have noticed, had one of the ugliest seasons in their history. The Lightning has been almost as bad. For the first time in six seasons, USF didn't make it to a bowl game, not even one of the little ones that exist only as programming for one of the ESPNs. None of the other college teams in the state had a season worth discussing.

And so on. Here in the early days of 2012, we have turned into Disappointmentville, a dank and dreary place where optimism goes to die. The losing is coming from all directions, and frankly, it's starting to wear us down.

Most years, there has been something to get us through. There have been some bad seasons scattered over the past decade, but in most years, one team or another has been entertaining enough to make up for it.

There was the Bucs' Super Bowl in '02, and the Lightning won its first playoff series in '03, then the Stanley Cup in '04. The Bucs made it to the playoffs in '05 and Florida won the national title in '06, and USF climbed as high as No. 2 in the polls in '07 before crashing to earth. In '08, the Rays reached the World Series, and in '09, the Gators fell just short of a title in Tim Tebow's last season at Florida, and in '10, the Rays reached the playoffs again. There was always something worth watching.

Last year, for instance, the Rays made the playoffs, and the Lightning made the playoffs, and the Bucs just missed in their previous season and USF reached its sixth straight bowl game.

This year?

Bupkis. And re-bupkis. And after that, a little more bupkis.

Which brings us back to the Rays. And haven't they pulled off that spare-pitcher-for-power trade yet?

Odds are, when that trade comes, or any trade, the first impression will be general approval. And why not? Over the past few years, the Rays have become the most trusted team in town.

True, the Rays have a lot of the same obstacles as other teams in town. Not enough money. Too many empty seats. A bad economy. A low payroll. The Rays have overcome all of it.

At this point, the other pro teams in town would do well to follow their blueprint. The Rays draft well, and they develop, and they have their own ideas about why players succeed. They don't spend much on free agents, but they are careful with their money, and they overcome their mistakes (Pat Burrell, Manny Ramirez, Kelly Shoppach). They believe in strong arms and solid defense and long-range planning.

Also, the Rays seem to believe in their plan. In the reactionary world of sports, that isn't always the case.

Want to know why the Rays haven't traded Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis yet? Because other teams haven't offered enough. Want to know why Upton is still here even though he's now making a $7 million a year? Same answer. (Just wondering, though. Is it possible that Upton and Price walked out with each other's contracts on the way out of the room?)

As long as we are talking about belief, here's a fairly large question: Which Tampa Bay team do you believe will next play in the postseason?

The Bucs? Right now, they don't have a coach, and until they do, it's hard to gauge their direction. But judging from this season, that defense is more than one offseason away.

The Lightning? It's hard not to like owner Jeff Vinik, general manager Steve Yzerman and coach Guy Boucher. Still, those guys inherited a lot of contracts that limit the team's flexibility.

The Rays? Probably. The Yankees helped themselves with a big trade last week, and the Red Sox will be good again. Still, one or two more moves and the Rays go from interesting to really interesting. I don't quite buy that they're the No. 1 team going into the baseball season, as ESPN's Buster Olney wrote recently, but they're in the discussion.

Maybe another weapon arrives tomorrow. Maybe the day after.

For the Rays, it's time to sound the charge. In Tampa Bay, who else even remembers the tune?

4-12

MISSED PLAYOFFS

14TH PLACE IN EASTERN CONFERENCE

5-7

NO BOWL APPEARANCE

THE TEAM TO BELIEVE IN?

Rooting interest

A decade of events that kept Tampa Bay interested:

m 2002: Bucs win Super Bowl

2003 : Lightning wins first playoff series, vs. Washington

2004: Lightning wins Stanley Cup

2005: Bucs win NFC South, reach playoffs; USF first of six straight bowls

2006: Florida wins football and basketball national titles

2007: Bucs win NFC South, reach playoffs; Lightning reaches playoffs; Florida wins basketball national title

2008: Rays reach World Series; Florida wins football national title

2009: Tim Tebow, Florida unbeaten and ranked No. 1 until losing SEC title game to Alabama

2010: Rays reach playoffs

2011: Lightning reaches NHL Eastern Conference final; Rays in playoffs

Tampa Bay Rays area's last hope for sports success this year 01/18/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 18, 2012 11:08pm]
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