The scene was familiar for the last day of the season: players stuffing boxes and equipment bags, signing memorabilia for the team and each other, tipping the clubhouse staff and saying their goodbyes. But the mood was different Sunday, because after tasting champagne four times on their way to the World Series last year, the Rays weren't happy to be packing up so soon. "There's no doubt about it, it sucks," first baseman Carlos Peña said. "We know where we want to be: We want to be in the playoffs. We want to be in the World Series. We don't want to miss that party. It was a lot of fun for us." "You don't want to go home," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "Not now."
The 84-78 record made it the second-best season in franchise history. There were the additional accomplishments of Peña becoming the first Ray to share (or win) an American League home run title, shortstop Jason Bartlett being the first to rank as high as seventh in the batting race, and team records for runs, home runs and stolen bases.
But as much as the Rays tried to remind themselves of that — "We can't forget the fact that this is an awesome year," Peña said — it still felt hollow as they filed out after a 10-2 loss to the Yankees.
"It's disappointing," said third baseman Evan Longoria, who'll miss the postseason for the first time in his major-league career (which started last season!). "Any year that you don't go is a disappointment, in my eyes. I thought barring last year and what we did, this would have been a celebration for the franchise. We won 84 games, and that's a pretty good year in a tough division.
"But I think that we need to aspire to do more, and I don't think anybody's leaving here happy with not going to the playoffs."
The Rays also leave with uncertainty over what the team will look like when spring training starts Feb. 19 in Port Charlotte. Several veteran players, including second baseman Akinori Iwamura, outfielder Gabe Gross and potentially catcher Dioner Navarro, may have played their last games as Rays, and at least a partial makeover of the bullpen is expected.
Changes to the coaching staff are also possible, if not probable. All the coaches' contracts are up, and individual meetings with the front office start today, so relatively quick decisions are expected.
The only positive to the premature vacation is the theory that the Rays will be determined to make sure they don't experience it again.
"I think it will make us better," Upton said. "Just having that feeling of coming back with high hopes and not getting it done, you just don't want it to happen like that again. Guys will go home, let it sink in and refocus."
"Definitely," leftfielder Carl Crawford said. "Now that you know what you're missing out on, it should make guys want to have that taste again."
In a way, executive vice president Andrew Friedman said, it could be a good lesson.
"I think the fact that everyone in this room is disappointed shows just how far this organization has come," Friedman said. "Everyone in here had extremely high expectations for this season, and collectively we came up short. It's all of our jobs to evaluate what we can do to put ourselves in position to play in October next year, and I feel very strongly that everyone is on the same page and fully committed to do just that.
"There's no doubt we'll be right back in it," Maddon said. "And our goal is to get to the World Series again in 2010 — period. Nothing else really matters in regard to our goal-setting: We want to get back to the Series."