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Secret sauce to Rays’ success? A culture club

Newcomers say it quickly becomes obvious the team does things differently and why that leads to success, such as four straight playoff berths.
Rays players and staff celebrate after clinching an American League wild-card berth with a 7-3 victory over the Astros Sept. 30 in Houston.
Rays players and staff celebrate after clinching an American League wild-card berth with a 7-3 victory over the Astros Sept. 30 in Houston. [ DAVID J. PHILLIP | AP ]
Published Oct. 6|Updated Oct. 7

CLEVELAND — Catcher Christian Bethancourt didn’t need long after his trade from Oakland in early July to get a sense of why the Rays have been so successful, making the playoffs for a fourth straight season.

“It’s different,” he said. “It’s definitely a different culture here.”

New teammates welcomed him, regardless of his limited past success. Staff made sure he had whatever he needed. Coaches conveyed information in simple form, stressing positives and boosting confidence.

And he quickly came to understand manager Kevin Cash’s main mantra: to make players feel comfortable so they can perform better and the team can win more.

“Like, two days after I got here I was feeling like I’d been here all year just because of how they were treating me,” Bethancourt said during Thursday’s Wild Card Series workout.

“They’re like, ‘Hey, we only worry about what you do on the field. Don’t worry about anything else. Like, you don’t want to hit batting practice? That’s totally fine. As long as you do what we ask for in the field and you take care of what you’re supposed to be taking care of, we’ll be fine.”

Bethancourt has been around enough, playing in seven other organizations and one year in Korea, to know how different this was.

Some teams are obsessed with details such as dress codes, matching workout gear and other rigid rules. They are focused on what players do wrong and need to correct. And they operate in an atmosphere that creates pressure from the top.

“From what I’ve seen, it comes from the front office, Cash, the coaching staff, and it’s transmitted to the players that we should not be worried about anything but what we do on the field,” Bethancourt said. “That’s something that makes us, as a team and personally as a player, feel a little more comfortable.”

Outfielder Randy Arozarena (56) celebrates with fans at Tropicana Field after the Rays clinched the 2021 American League East championship.
Outfielder Randy Arozarena (56) celebrates with fans at Tropicana Field after the Rays clinched the 2021 American League East championship. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Veteran outfielder David Peralta arrived from Arizona at the end of July and was similarly struck by how different and how much of a group effort the Rays’ success was.

“It’s everything,” Peralta said. “It’s all about teamwork. It’s not just one person. It’s everyone to do their job. And that’s why we’re here in the postseason. … We’re a big family. And I love that. We eat together, we hang out together. And that makes a difference.”

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The Rays needed some time to get to this point, one of three American League teams and six overall to make the postseason four straight years.

Their first wave of success under Stuart Sternberg’s ownership — reaching the postseason four times in six years, including a shocking run to the 2008 World Series — seemed over when top baseball executive Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon left after the 2014 season.

With team president Matt Silverman initially running baseball operations before ceding control to rising executive Erik Neander, the Rays hired Cash, who had never managed anywhere, and plotted a return to glory.

“It’s one thing to talk and hope about it, but there were some trying years,” Cash said “It’s not easy to do.”

The Rays finished under .500 three straight years before making a run at a playoff spot, albeit unsuccessful, in 2018. They won a wild-card spot in 2019 and have been postseason regulars since.

“No time frames, and a lot of ignorance,” Neander said. “You’ve got to be naive enough to believe you can do this and just get to work. It’s a lot of really good people just chipping away. Took our lumps for a few years, really trying to build this and build it right and rebuild it up. And I think we’ve done that. Certainly, that’s been the case the last four years.”

Obviously, there’s more to it than allowing players to wear jeans and T-shirts on team flights, skip batting practice and listen to music or play video games in the clubhouse.

Rays players celebrate after defeating the Baltimore Orioles in the second game of a doubleheader in Baltimore to clinch a playoff spot in 2020.
Rays players celebrate after defeating the Baltimore Orioles in the second game of a doubleheader in Baltimore to clinch a playoff spot in 2020. [ JULIO CORTEZ | AP ]

The Rays, especially on the pitching side, do an extraordinary job assimilating complex analytical data and presenting it in simple, applicable — and personalized — ways to convince players it will help.

They do remarkable work finding undervalued players to supplement the talented core they assemble and spend their limited money wisely. They bring in good people who share their team-first values. They stress communication and transparency in all directions.

New-this-year reliever Jason Adam said the openness, simplicity of messaging and selflessness of the group stand out to him. Reliever Shawn Armstrong, a 2021 Ray who returned this year, is wowed by how “everybody’s got each other’s back” on and off the field. He noted that they share a common goal of simply winning, referencing the upbeat flight from Boston Wednesday as an example of being able to shake off their five-game losing streak for the clean slate of the playoffs.

“This is a very good environment to play a stressful game with a lot of anxiety,” said pitcher Jalen Beeks, a relative veteran given his July 2018 arrival from Boston.

“I think the main thing is how comfortable it is for young guys to come up and play. And older guys at the end of their years, they love it here. It’s just environment and comfortability.”

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