ST. PETERSBURG — The large TV production trucks were still parked alongside Tropicana Field on Thursday afternoon, crates of beer were stacked in the concourse, and the staging for interviews sat folded in the lower-level lobby.
But there was, of course, no game to be played. The action wasn't on the field, but in the Rays clubhouse.
Players, looking a bit disappointed and bleary-eyed after the 3 a.m. return from Philadelphia, said their goodbyes and carried out personal items. Clubhouse manager Chris Westmoreland and his staff packed dozens of cardboard boxes with equipment. Team officials did interviews, speaking pridefully about the recent past and optimistically about the near future.
Deep down, none of it felt right.
"Part of me," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said, "thinks we're playing tonight."
Pitcher James Shields drove into the Trop just as if he were starting Game 6 as (re-)scheduled, and he, too, felt a little weird. "We're not playing any ball anymore," he said. "It hit me this morning when I woke up. But I woke up all smiles."
And why not? As the disappointment of losing the World Series in five games fades over the next few days, the Rays might as well put a happy face on their accomplishments.
Manager Joe Maddon said it probably will take him a couple of days — after Thursday's goodbyes, today's rally in downtown St. Petersburg and a Saturday flight to California to ready for his Nov. 8 wedding — to accept the finality of the season being over.
"For me, it's just the beginning," he said. "You need a jumping-off point, you need to arrive at this stage in order to advance and become pretty significant within the game. Regardless of what happened, of the perceived negative side, the fact is we made it to the World Series this year, well ahead of schedule."
And the difference that made as he sat behind his desk for the usual end-of-season media session was enormous.
"Isn't it great?" he said. "Over the last couple years, I'd explain what we're doing and how it's going to work and nobody believes me and they look at me like I've got two heads all the time.
"And now all of a sudden we're at this particular juncture and you can see all the things we had planned come to fruition this year. We came up three games short. The now is to make sure that doesn't happen again."
Friedman and his staff will soon be assessing and assembling their 2009 roster, heading out Monday to the annual GM meetings in California.
"It's the nature of the business — I'm sure there's going to be some turnover; where that will be I'm not sure yet," Friedman said.
"One thing that is encouraging is that we're heading into the offseason with a team that won 97 games in the toughest division in baseball and is defending American League champion, so we feel all we can really do is go up from there. And obviously we have a job to do, and that's to try and get better, and that's where our focus is going to be."
"Obviously we have some talent here, and we have fun playing together," shortstop Jason Bartlett said. "So just coming back in spring training, guys are gonna be happy and ready to go again.
"We tasted October. We tasted the World Series. We're never gonna be happy until we get back there and win it."
The Rays had their chances Wednesday in Game 5 to at least extend the Series, and there was considerable national debate Thursday on how Maddon managed the game. The primary questions were about Bartlett's unsuccessful dash home and Maddon's handling of the bullpen, specifically allowing lefty J.P. Howell to hit, then having him face right-hander Pat Burrell, whose leadoff double in the seventh led to the eventual winning run in the Phillies' 4-3 victory.
Maddon was a) unyielding in his belief they made the right moves in all cases and b) amused by all the attention that he knows is part of the high-profile stage.
So, he was asked, would he swap roles next week and second-guess any of the decisions fiancee Jaye Sousoures made in planning their Fullerton, Calif., wedding?
Not a chance, it turns out.
"She's meticulous in her planning, really well-organized. I anticipate a flawless Nov. 8," he said. "And even if I thought so, I would never bring it up."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected].com.
World Series earns lowest TV rating
The average TV rating for the Rays-Phillies World Series is the lowest ever, attracting an average of 13.6-million viewers for the five games. 4C
Other takes: Check out a sampling of e-mails with advice and tributes for the Rays and their fans. 2C
Time to party: Celebrate the Rays' successful season from 4 to 6 p.m. today at North Straub Park in St. Petersburg. 1B
Remember the fun
View a video commemorating the Rays' worst-to-first season at rays.tampabay.com.