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Worst-to-first 2008 Rays set the standard for teams that followed

The 2008 Rays remain a moon shoot, out of nowhere, even more special than the Game 162 Rays.
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Published Aug. 3, 2018
Updated Aug. 4, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG  — There is a new set of young ballplayers at Tropicana Field, but no one knows if they'll ever take the franchise back to the postseason, or if they'll ever play in a new ballpark, or if there ever will be a new ballpark, for that matter.

But once upon a time, 10 years ago, we know what happened. It really happened.

"I guess there's only one first time," James Shields said.
Shield, 36, pitches now for the White Sox and will face his old team Sunday. But once upon a time, he was the bulldog staff leader on the bulldoggiest and one of the most wondrous worst-to-first storybooks: the 2008 American League champion Tampa Bay Rays. Even now it looks like a typographical error. Well, it wasn't.

Alumni from that team will gather at the Trop for a celebration this weekend. Many headliners will be missing. Some have games: Joe Maddon, Evan Longoria, David Price, Ben Zobrist among them. Carl Crawford won't be here. Retired. Carlos Pena won't be here. Retired.

But the memories never retired. The music Maddon and the Miracles made is etched in Tampa Bay sports history. There really was nothing like the 2008 Rays. The Bucs had success before they won the Super Bowl. The Lightning made the playoffs the year before they won the Stanley Cup. But the 2008 Rays remain a moon shoot, out of nowhere, even more special than the 162 Rays.

Here's to the guys who went first.

"It was so much fun, but you really pinch yourself now and you're like, 'Wow, we did that,' " said Jason Bartlett, 38, the starting shortstop on that team. He now lives in Naples. "We were just rolling with it that year. Things got better and better, and all of a sudden we're in Game 1 of the World Series."

Bartlett will catch Saturday night's ceremonial first pitch thrown by his former double-play partner at second, Akinori Iwamura, who flew all the way from Japan. It was Iwamura who stepped on second base to record the final out in Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS against the Red Sox at the Trop. Iwamura, 39, still has the ball. It's in a showcase in the house he keeps in the States.

But that ball really belongs to all of them.

And those Rays belong to all of us.

"The 2008 team kind of set the standard here," said current Rays manager Kevin Cash, a catcher on that Red Sox team upended by the Rays. "They shocked baseball. They shocked the world, just with how they performed, how they got to the World Series."

Along the way, they were wonderfully, gloriously oblivious to the heavyweights of the AL East, the all-powerful Red Sox and Yankees. You knew as much when Elliot Johnson, trying to make the Rays in spring training, barreled over a Yankees catcher in Tampa during spring training (spring training!), igniting a fight a few days later during a game in St. Petersburg.

And you knew it as Shields started a brawl at Fenway Park during the season by hitting Red Sox outfielder Coco Crisp as payback for a hard slide.

"I still say the fight against the Yankees started it," said then-Rays centerfielder B.J. Upton, who is happy not to be Melvin this weekend. "Early in the year, the fight with the Red Sox, topped it off. They were the bullies. We'd go there and get beat. We got tired of it."

"We just didn't care," Shields, 36, said with a grin. "We had such a swagger about our team."

They lost 96 games in 2007. They were hoping not to lose 100 in 2008. They were young, and they were old. They were draft picks, kids from the system, and traded-heres. There was pitching and more pitching. There was defense. There was rookie fever from Longoria and Price. There were glue veterans such as Cliff Floyd and Eric Hinske. There was the daring of Crawford. There was the gifted Upton, who led the team with 44 steals, roamed centerfield and hit seven postseason homers, including a monster shot over Boston's Green Monster in the ALCS.

There were so many pinch-me moments that remarkable season. Maddon and his players had convinced themselves that this was their time. It had started the year before, and it carried into a storybook.

"We felt like we were going to be there," said Upton, 33, who is out baseball and living in Tampa. "Once it started, honestly, we were just kids playing a game. We kept that attitude all year. Joe just pounding us with that attitude. It was almost like we were out there playing Legion ball."

It was so breathtaking, so much fun to watch. There was the September night in Boston, the upstarts trying to hold off the Red Sox in the East, and Dan Johnson, up from Triple-A Durham, fresh off a plane, hitting a tying, ninth-inning home run, years before he hit one in 162.

"Dan Johnson, the hero," Shields said.

It fizzled at the end. Game 7 of the ALCS, inside a deafening Trop madhouse, that was the high point. "That was the craziest, loudest game I've ever been in," said Scott Kazmir, 34, who pitched for the 2008 Rays. The World Series was the anticlimax, weather-delayed, over in five games, Phillies over Rays. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the Rays had closed out the ALCS in five games. Those Rays wonder, too.

But the Rays and their fans will always have 2008, that carefree crew who shocked the world.

Those 2008 Rays like the 2018 Rays.

"They've got a lot of good young pieces," Upton said.

But never forget who went first.

Saturday's 2008 Rays 10th anniversary celebration

The Rays will celebrate their 2008 American League championship Saturday before their game against the White Sox at the Trop.

When the gates open (4:10 p.m.), fans will be greeted by 2008 alumni. They will sign autographs at the 20th season exhibit under the outfield stands. Season-ticket holders can take photos and attend a Q&A with alumni, moderated by former in-game host Rusty Kath. While supplies last, fans entering will receive an Akinori Iwamura bobblehead, depicting the former second baseman recording the final out of the 2008 ALCS against the Red Sox in Game 7.

Iwamura will throw out the ceremonial first pitch, which will be caught by Jason Bartlett, the starting shortstop on the '08 team.

Other alumni players confirmed to be in attendance: Rocco Baldelli, Grant Balfour, Kurt Birkins, Chad Bradford. Reid Brignac, Mike DiFelice, Scott Dohmann, Gary Glover, Gabe Gross, Elliott Johnson, Scott Kazmir, Trever Miller, Fernando Perez, Shawn Riggins, Justin Ruggiano, James Shields, B.J. Upton, Dan Wheeler. Alumni coaches confirmed: Brian Anderson, Tom Foley, Steve Henderson.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029.