ARLINGTON, Texas — The Rays certainly looked like they belonged at the World Series, with the patch on their right sleeve and the side of their caps as they lined up for Tuesday’s opening, and late, game against the Dodgers.
Yet there is a perception, perpetuated in some print reports and radio/TV talk, that a team that does things as differently as the Rays — with their low payroll and unconventional strategies — shouldn’t be on this stage.
More so, that how they operate, using openers and annually churning their roster, is somehow bad for the game.
To which Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred had a few choice words of his own.
“I think that the Rays are an example of what’s great about our game,” Manfred told the Tampa Bay Times at Globe Life Field before the opener.
“And what I mean by that is that there’s lots of different ways to put together a roster that can be really, really effective. And I think the fact that the Rays have done it with more limited resources than almost any other club is a phenomenal accomplishment.
"It’s a credit to their ingenuity, their talent, their innovation. And now we should celebrate the Rays.”
Further, Manfred said, what the Rays accomplished by getting here could have a positive impact on their long-term future in the Tampa Bay area.
They have been looking for more than 10 years for a new stadium in the area, given that the current use agreement at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season.
After several unsuccessful attempts, they most recently have been focused on a plan to split future seasons between the Tampa Bay area and Montreal, with new stadiums built in each market.
“My hope is the continued success of the Rays, because they really have had a phenomenal run, will help build their fan base, and the building of their fan base in the Tampa region will be an assistance in terms of them getting a long-term (stadium solution),” said Manfred, without specifying a site.
The current run is a bit of a renaissance for the Rays. After they made their shocking worst-to-first turnaround and reached the World Series the first time in 2008, they made the playoffs three more times over the next five seasons.
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But they went through a down stretch, as well as the departures of baseball operations chief Andrew Friedman (who left for the Dodgers, and ironically is competing against his old mates for the title) and manager Joe Maddon.
Under new management, with Erik Neander ascending to the general manager job, and a new manager in Kevin Cash, they have worked and won their way back into contention.
They logged 90 wins in 2018, then 96 in 2019 to return to the postseason and take Houston to a fifth game of the Division Series.
What they did in this pandemic-delayed and abbreviated season, winning 40 games — the equivalent of 108 in a full season — and eliminating the Blue Jays, Yankees (in a fifth and final game) and Astros (in seven), was the next step they were building toward.
“I’d like to think so,” Neander said. "I think people that that have followed baseball will see the wins we put up in ’18. What we did last year, in ’19, in taking Houston to the brink and Game 5 of the DS.
"And to this year, going 40-20 in the regular season, having the best record of the American League and then having two really great series against two excellent teams.
“I hope we’re not too much of a surprise. We’ve had some success here and I feel like we’re where we should be.”
The players certainly feel they are worthy of being on the stage.
“I know we belong here," Game 2 starter Blake Snell said. “And I wouldn’t say anything past that. With how we’re built, the chemistry that we have, makes us a really, really good team. ... People are going to say a lot of things — but our focus is let’s just do what we’ve been doing and find a way to win.”
And they seem eager to show it.
“The way that we play, the way that we do things, the way that we manage ourselves as a team, that’s how we’re going to prove that we belong here,” shortstop Willy Adames said. “The way that we play the game. The way that we show up every day to the field. And the way that we have fun every day, the energy we bring to the field every day. That’s how we’re going to show to the people that we belong here.”
Principal owner Stuart Sternberg makes the case that these Rays may be even more deserving than the 2008 team — in addition from the extensive COVID-19 restrictions and protocols they operated under — because of the degree of difficulty as other teams, including the Dodgers, have incorporated some of their methodologies.
“We don’t need validation and whatever but you know it validates everything that we’ve done to rebuild and continue growing as an organization for Erik and that whole group so it’s incredibly rewarding,” Sternberg said.
"It’s kind of harder to do. It was easier to do what we did back then. It wasn’t easy, but it was easier to do. Right. It’s gotten much harder given that we’ve got people (who left the Rays) around the game, given that everything we’ve done has been copied, from catchers and shifts, openers and you name it, and that that’s only part of it.
“So it’s gotten harder to innovate and the fact that we’ve been able to do this, and rebuild a decimated farm system and still do it on a shoestring is nothing short of miraculous.”
And certainly worthy of a place on baseball’s grandest stage.
“I don’t understand why anyone would ask the question as to whether or why the Rays belong here,” Manfred said. “They had the best record in the American League. They beat the Yankees. They beat the Astros, probably the most dominant team of the last five years. I can’t even imagine why anyone would ask that question.”