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Tampa Bay Rays fans should stop fretting, enjoy a wonderful season

They are the second-best team in baseball, and doesn't it tick you off they are not first?

They are two-and-a-half strides behind the Yankees, a team with money in its pocket and with future Hall of Famers on its roster, and doesn't it bother you the Rays have not left them in the dust?

According to ESPN's numbers, they have a 97.1 percent chance of reaching the postseason, and doesn't that missing 2.9 percent drive you up a wall?

Around Tampa Bay, you can hear the angry sounds of furious fans, loud voices and grinding teeth and boiling blood.

The Rays are having a simply wonderful season, and their followers are about to have skull explosions because they are not even better. They cannot believe the nerve of a team that wins only 61 percent of the time.

So here's a question: Why do so many sound so unhappy?

Read the comments. Listen to the talk shows. Pay attention to the conversations in your office. Has there ever been a season this good that has left so many people so distraught?

Considering the way the Rays were embarrassed in a big game Monday night, there will be a lot of fresh meltdowns today. That's understandable. When it is September and a team is suddenly playing slow-pitch, fans have a right to be disappointed.

This is nothing new, however. An alarming number of fans have been furious all season long. Lose a game, and some want to fire the manager. Lose a series, and others want to concede the race.

I received a letter recently from a guy who wanted five regulars and five relief pitchers gone by morning. I received an e-mail that suggested the Rays stink. At the time, they were tied for the best record in baseball.

This is Joe Maddon's fault, of course. And Derek Shelton's. Soon, it will be Jim Hickey's turn again. It's because of B.J. Upton. And James Shields and Carlos Peña and Ben Zobrist and Gabe Kapler and Kelly Shoppach and Wade Davis and every member of the bullpen not named Soriano or Benoit.

Executive vice president Andrew Friedman should have made a trade, by golly. Owner Stuart Sternberg should have spent more money. The team should have cut Pat Burrell sooner, or maybe not at all. Why is this guy batting leadoff? Why is that guy batting fifth?

And every now and then, you'll hear something like this: This team should be 10 games ahead (or 12, or maybe 15) of the Yankees by now.

Excuse me?

Yes, the Rays are a fine team. But when, exactly, did they become the '27 Yankees? Ask yourself: When you look at the roster, do you really see one of the finest teams in the history of the game? Of course not.

This is baffling to me. Granted, baseball is perhaps the most frustrating of all games, because there is a new result to dissect almost every day, and there is usual a different villain, a different decision or a different frustration. In a sport where even very good teams lose 60 times a year, there are bound to be some unhappy days.

Ah, frustration is one thing, but misery is another. Shouldn't more people be having fun on the good days?

Look around you. Tampa Bay has become defined by low expectations. The Bucs are still building for 2011. The Lightning has made nice strides, but few people expect the team to reach the playoffs this year, and if it does, few expect it to last very long.

The Rays? They have been in first place 82 days this season. They have a chance to go to the World Series. And yet, some seem to think they should have won it already.

You can hear this, too. That this season will be a failure if the Rays don't win the World Series. It's either that, or the season is worthless.

Oh, for heaven's sake. The Rays have exactly one postseason appearance in franchise history. They haven't reached the point yet where they can measure their seasons in championships. You don't throw away a playoff season, or a 90-win season, that callously. Sure, the last day of the season will end in disappointment if the Rays fall short of winning the Series, but that doesn't make the season forgettable.

Come on. These are the Rays. They have had 13 seasons, and in 10 of them, they have lost 90 games. This is the Rays' golden era. The past three years, they are 67 games over .500. What? Did you think they should be undefeated?

So what's going on here? Are Tampa Bay fans asking too much? Do they have such little perspective? Or are they just this frustrated?

My guess?

Start with this: The Rays are a flawed team. That's not an insult. That's what a $72 million payroll buys you. It buys you a couple of stars (Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford) and a bunch of guys who aren't complete hitters. It buys you a pretty good pitching rotation, most weeks. It buys you a solid end-of-the-game bullpen with some mix-and-match guys. It buys you a lot of guys (Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac, John Jaso) seeing their first real playing time in the majors.

That means when the Rays are on a roll, they are awfully impressive. And when they aren't? They can give up 28 runs in three straight losses.

Then there is this: I think the urgency of this season, the now-or-never feel of it, has amped up the angst. If the Yankees don't win it this year, heck, they'll just try to win it next year. In Boston, most fans have written this season off to injuries and bad luck, and if the Red Sox are eliminated from the wild-card chase, they will just wait to hit the reset button for 2011.

Here, we can hear gallows being built in the distance. Fans know Crawford is gone. A team can't commit one-fourth of its payroll to a leftfielder. Peña and Rafael Soriano are probably in their final weeks, too.

In other words, there is more right-now to this season than for any team in baseball. Fans know that. And on nights when the Rays look ordinary, it is hard not to think about this as what this team might become.

Tampa Bay fans have seen it before. The Bucs were never anything special after the Super Bowl, and the Lightning has been just another team after winning the Stanley Cup.

So, yes, the stakes are high. Who knows when the Rays will be this close to a championship again?

That said, relax a little bit. Smile more often. Try to read the standings twice a day. No, this team doesn't stink. No, Maddon is not stupid. No, the Rays do not win in spite of him. Yes, there are 30 other teams that will change places with the Rays right now.

Yes, it's a bumpy ride. On the other hand, it's a good one.

Try to enjoy it. While you can.

Tampa Bay Rays fans should stop fretting, enjoy a wonderful season 09/06/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 7:37am]
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