ST. PETERSBURG — For all the days to come, the banner will be a symbol of good times and magic moments.
The afternoon Manuel Margot crashed over a wall, and the night Charlie Morton shut down his old team. Mike Brosseau’s home run to win a playoff game, and Brett Phillips’ last at-bat heroics in a World Series game.
Yes, the raising of a pennant is baseball’s way of turning that final page.
And, as a 2021 bonus, giving the Yankees a paper cut.
Oh, come on, you know you enjoyed that moment. You had to wait an extra week for baseball to come back to Tropicana Field and you had to endure a putrid three-game sweep in Boston, but it was all worth it to see the New Yorkers standing on the third-base line during the pregame ceremonies honoring the 2020 Tampa Bay Rays on Friday.
“That’s never something you want to see,” New York designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton said. “But you understand before going out there that’s what we have to do. It happened; you have to acknowledge it. And you have to understand … this is how it’s going to be. You’re going to see the highlights of last year here all year.”
This isn’t just being snotty, although I am not above that. There was plenty of bad blood between these teams last year and a symbolic passing of the torch. Okay, considering their disparate histories, it wasn’t really a passing of the torch. More like a disposable Bic, but it still mattered.
The Rays had a .323 lifetime winning percentage against the Yankees going into 2020 and went 8-2 in the shortened regular season before eliminating the Bronx Bombers in the playoffs.
So is it fair to say the Rays grew during those highly charged showdowns?
“I think a lot. You go back years and we had fits going into Yankee Stadium and fits with them coming here,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “It’s two really good teams that compete at a very, very high level. Last year there were some big, big games. We came out on top more often than not, which is good, especially good for a young team.”
That’s why a 10-5 victory in Friday’s home opener may have carried a little more weight than usual. Of course, it’s just one game in a season that’s still got six months of highlights and heartaches ahead, but it came at an opportune moment for Tampa Bay.
The Rays had lost four in a row, and had looked painfully off-kilter along the way. They had held a lead for only seven of the previous 39 innings played and, with Pete Fairbanks on the shelf, nearly one-third of their payroll is now on the injured list.
So, yeah, there was a little reminder in those video highlights that played on the stadium scoreboard before the game. There was an acknowledgement that Tampa Bay was the better team in 2020 and — until the Yankees do something about it — that theme still holds true.
“We always want to send a message. We always want you to know who you are playing,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “But the message is sent throughout the year with our play. We have to play consistent and play well and, if we do that, we’ll be the team we expect to be. So I don’t really get that caught up in making a statement in one game.”
He’s right, and the Rays seemed to agree. Joey Wendle said he didn’t even bother looking at the Yankees during the pregame ceremony. Brandon Lowe, who was involved in some of the chirping between teams in 2020, said the Rays have already moved on.
“It didn’t matter to anybody who was on the other side of the field. That was our moment,” Lowe said of the ceremony. “It wasn’t made sweeter by anybody on the other side of the field.”
Fair enough. It’s a new year, and the Rays have a completely new set of challenges. None of the three pitchers who faced the Yankees on Friday — Rich Hill, Hunter Strickland and Chris Mazza — were in Tampa Bay last year, and neither was Saturday’s starter, Chris Archer.
It’s probably a stretch to say the Rays made a statement on Friday, but it was encouraging to see the kind of team they can be. A team built around pitching and defense, with hitters capable of extending at-bats and wearing down an opponent.
Of course, there will be times this season when they don’t necessarily look that way and times when they may even forget their own identity.
If so, there’s now an easy and permanent reminder. Just check the rafters.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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