ST. PETERSBURG — Days like this do not come along often for a baseball fan. It’s those blissful hours after a playoff spot has been clinched, but before the postseason stress has commenced. It’s a time for reverie and relaxation.
And, if you are of a mind, it is also the perfect time for a Rays fan to gloat.
Granted, it’s not an attractive or productive quality, but it is satisfying for a franchise and a market that have grown accustomed to being dismissed and ridiculed for their peculiarities and shortcomings. Yankees fans? Red Sox fans? They have historic ballparks and superstar players. Rays fans? Well, you’ll just have to settle for another American League East title.
Oh yeah, that’s what gloating sounds like. It’s a wondrous thing when Charlie Morton’s contract is not picked up, when Blake Snell is traded away, when Tyler Glasnow blows out his elbow and when your team is still flirting with 100 victories.
Seriously, this is not a moment to be taken lightly. The fact that Tampa Bay is once again sitting atop baseball’s toughest division with the 26th-largest payroll in the game is a remarkable accomplishment. It speaks to the genius of Erik Neander and the front office. It speaks to the culture created by manager Kevin Cash and his staff. It speaks to the unselfishness of players willing to sacrifice stats for the greater good.
“Certain guys get paid a certain amount for a reason, and I certainly don’t fault them for that,” said Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier. “But when you get 26 guys to buy in and have that blue-collar mentality like we’ve had here, it’s a beautiful thing. It feels great looking across the diamond and seeing everyone we play that has a bigger payroll, and it’s just so nice to stick it to those guys.
“Because you know, a lot of them are looking at us saying ‘Who’s that? Who’s this?’ We know who we are and, sooner or later, people are going to find out more about our guys. And we’re making that case stronger now than ever.”
Since the Rays began this run of success in 2008, they have won just as many division titles and have one more World Series appearance than the Yankees. And yet New York has spent nearly $3 billion in payroll while the Rays have yet to reach their first $1 billion.
It’s not as if it’s a constant topic of conversation among players, but it’s human nature to cheer for the little guy. Particularly when the little guy is the second baseman sitting next to you in the dugout for 162 games.
“I think the guys really cherish the idea of going in and playing teams that have bigger payrolls and have the $25 million and $30 million players,” Cash said. “And then you look up at the end of the year and see where we are.”
By now, most of us understand some of the secrets to Tampa Bay’s success. Since the Rays cannot reasonably afford those $25 million-a-year stars, they try to approximate their value on the field by acquiring players who can do specific things really well in limited roles.
Like a first baseman who crushes right-handed pitching. Or a centerfielder who catches every fly ball in three zip codes. Or a reliever who has a knack for getting ground balls and double plays.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. The Rays also need to know when the time is right to insert/pull the right player. And they have to acquire players willing to share these roles. And they need to manage the roster expertly enough to have all of these different pieces available when needed.
But when it works it is, as Kiermaier said, a beautiful thing. Rays right-hander David Robertson saw it firsthand while playing against Tampa Bay during two different stints with the Yankees that covered parts of nine seasons.
“When I was going against the Rays, they were the peskiest, most annoying, high-impact team that I ever played against,” Robertson said. “Playing in the Trop was just so frustrating, because I felt, no matter what, we couldn’t score runs off them and they would always score runs against us. They’d have a guy who hadn’t put the ball in play for a week and then hit two home runs against us.
“I’d be like, ‘I don’t get how this keeps happening.’ But it did, every time we came down here.”
The postseason is a strange and wonderful thing in baseball. Over the past 20 years, a wild-card team has won the World Series just as many times as the team with the best regular season record.
The point is no one knows what the coming days will hold. So appreciate this week. Appreciate the growing anticipation. Mostly, just appreciate this very special team.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
David vs. Goliath
Since 2008, the Rays and Yankees have travelled a similar path on the baseball field. The Yankees have won a few more games and reached the postseason more often, but the Rays have one more World Series appearance. The big difference is in cost. New York has spent nearly $3 billion in player payroll while Tampa Bay has spent less than one-third that amount.
*Could make a 10th playoff appearance in 2021
AL East titles
Yankees: $2.9 billion
Rays: $920 million
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