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Tampa Bay Rays' hangover from championship season is all too familiar to area sports fans

A team climbs a mountain, a team slides back. There is something achingly familiar about the pattern.

A team captures your heart, a team manages to break it. You have felt that kind of pain before.

Perhaps that has been the most frustrating part of the Rays' sputtering start. There is just so much deja vu to it. One minute, you are cheering a team in its charge from nowhere. The next, it is spending too many days playing like a team intent on going back.

If Tampa Bay knows anything, it is the fleeting nature of success. Around here, winning lives in a tent and it eats at a drive-through window. We saw it with the Bucs after they won the Super Bowl following the 2002 season. We saw it with the Lightning after it won the Stanley Cup in 2003-04. Not to say we do sequels badly, but the guys from Rocky, Jaws and Caddyshack are laughing at us.

So we see a baseball team struggle to get momentum going, and it is a gnawing, hollow feeling, and the natural reaction of a fan base that has been burned before is to worry. Around here, we know how quickly "it's still early" can become "it's too late."

It has been a chore to watch the Rays this year. They show flashbacks of their old selves in this game or that, sometimes even in this series or that, and then they backslide again. We are 29 games into the season, and so far the Rays have not managed as much as a three-game winning streak. This time last year, they already had a six-game streak, and they were on the verge of putting together another.

They are inconsistent. They are losing the close ones. Some of their players are off to terrible starts.

Does that remind you of anyone?

Go back to 2003. Going into that season, there was nothing to suggest the Bucs weren't going to be terrific all over again.

And they went 7-9.

It was a dreadful way to defend a championship. The Bucs were 0-5 in games decided by three points or fewer. They lost a game when they missed an extra point that would have won it in the late going. They blew a game when they gave up a 21-point lead at home. They kicked receiver Keyshawn Johnson off the roster. General manager Rich McKay jumped ship.

Go back to 2005-06. Looking back, the Lightning's best chance to defend its Stanley Cup had been the previous year, but the NHL lockout took that away. The new deal also took goalie Nikolai Khabibulin away.

The team's second-best chance to defend the Stanley Cup came when the franchise trusted the wrong goalie. John Grahame simply wasn't good enough, and the team paid for not knowing it.

But other things contributed, too. That team, too, struggled to build momentum. The Lightning made the playoffs that season, but no one took it seriously. Especially not the Senators, who pushed it into the offseason in five games.

In Tampa Bay, it always has been easy to link the championship runs of the three teams. For a while, you could argue the Bucs were the worst franchise in the NFL … and then they won a title. For a while, you could argue the Lightning was the worst franchise in hockey … and then it won a title. For a while, you could argue the Rays were the worst franchise in baseball … and then it won a title (albeit an American League title).

So why do good teams go bad? Sometimes it's the wrong injury. Sometimes, it's a series of bad breaks. Sometimes, it's allowing little things to turn into big things. And sometimes, it's that success changes an athlete. "Championship hangover," it is called.

What was it that Eddie Arcaro, the old jockey, once said? "It's hard to wake up early when you sleep in silk pajamas.''

The Bucs panicked. The Lightning lost its killer instinct. And neither team has been special since.

As for the Rays? We wait to see, but we worry.

"Not that we have been arrogant, but there is probably a part of us that needed to realize this was not going to be easy in 2009,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday. "Human nature is such that you have to live it somehow. To a certain extent, I still believe there is a hangover from last year.''

Frankly, it's time to make the Alka-Seltzer fizz. The Rays are in a five-game road swing against New York and Boston, and as you know, division games are like Double Jeopardy. Here's another concern for the Rays. While it's easy to grouse that certain players such as B.J. Upton or Dioner Navarro or Pat Burrell have held them back, don't forget that Evan Longoria, Carlos Peña and Carl Crawford have been on fire. And that's not likely to continue forever.

Is there time? Sure. But the Rays need to get a long winning streak going.

And, if at all possible, they should keep Keyshawn and Grahame out of their outfield.

Tampa Bay Rays' hangover from championship season is all too familiar to area sports fans 05/06/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 7, 2009 7:33am]
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