TORONTO — John Higgins would hear it from friends, casual acquaintances and random people who knew where he worked.
The Major League Baseball team that started play in St. Petersburg in 1998 with great fanfare had been somewhat of a grand failure, winning as many as 70 games once in its first eight seasons and averaging 97 losses.
“A number of people started to question whether it would ever succeed,” he said.
Eventually Higgins — employee No. 001, hired as general counsel by original Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli a few weeks after the March 1995 franchise award — started to have his own doubts.
“You never gave up hope,” Higgins said. “Over the course of one year to the next year, you saw us drafting good players and you had the hope that things would improve.
“But as you go along and you’re still not coming anywhere close to even having a winning record, you had to wonder when it would happen.”
Contrast that to now, as the Rays — celebrating their 25th anniversary season — are headed to the playoffs for the ninth time in the last 16 years, starting with the unexpected 2008 breakthrough, and for a fifth straight season.
“It’s been amazing to witness,” Higgins said.
Only the Braves, Dodgers and maybe the Astros (pending the final weekend results) have made it for the last five seasons. Since the 1995 start of the wild-card era, only four other teams — Cardinals, Guardians, Phillies and Yankees — had runs of five straight playoff appearances at any point.
“It’s awesome,” said starter Tyler Glasnow, one of six current Rays with the team since the run started in 2019. “Everyone’s dream is to play on a team that’s always competitive every year. Certainly the last few years if we weren’t to make the playoffs it would be a disappointment.”
The turnaround started after the fall 2005 purchase of the team by Stuart Sternberg, who installed sharp people and smart practices and, after two more rough transitional seasons (101 and 96 losses), launched a rebrand that changed not just the name and look of the team dramatically, but the perception and performance.
What once seemed unrealistic, given the past history and the present day challenges of competing with the big bucks Red Sox and Yankees, is now commonplace.
“I think the culture and expectations we have ... the bare minimum is getting in (to the playoffs),” said reliever Colin Poche, another Ray since 2019.
“We expect that out of ourselves and out of this group. So I think that’s kind of where we start from is we want to get in, and then from there you never know.”
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Still chasing ‘ultimate’ goal
The “from there” part has been the blemish.
Of their eight trips to the postseason, the Rays have made it to, and lost, two World Series.
Five other times they were knocked out in the best-of-five Division Series (two times after winning a wild-card game). And last year in the then-new best-of-three, one-site Wild Card Series, like they will host starting Tuesday.
“We’re still chasing that ultimate goal,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said. “I’d be happy to trade in five postseason trips for one World Series win. …
“That is the goal. That is the priority. And I think never losing sight of that is important. But I think as a means to doing that, we often talk about our belief that the best way to have a chance to win a World Series is to get into that final tournament as many times as possible and let things play out as they play out. And we’ve set ourselves up to continue to have opportunities to do that.”
Which means they have avoided cycling through a dramatic and obvious multi-year rebuild, such as the Orioles losing 115, 108 and 110 in the three full seasons (and 35 of 60 in 2020) prior to Baltimore’s turnaround that led to this year’s AL East title.
“There’s an additional gratification to sustaining competitiveness, there’s no doubt about it,” Neander said. And one he believes benefits the fans, the staff and the players.
That the Rays have done all of this on a budget, with often a bottom-five payroll in the $75 million range, while battling much higher-financed division teams, and with a steady churn of the roster and some staff and management, makes their accomplishments more impressive.
“It’s just a big testament to kind of what Stu brought in, and then it’s just continued to carry, no matter who’s running it or who’s in charge of (baseball) ops or whatever,” said manager Kevin Cash, who took over in 2015 from Joe Maddon. “There’s been enough turnover, but people seem to really work well together and find ways to have success.”
Closer Pete Fairbanks, another 2019er, said that includes players and staff, and talent and trust.
It takes a village
That team effort is part of it, Sternberg said.
“We all recognize how special our results have been and we take none of it for granted,” he said. “Our organization is dramatically larger than 15 years ago. The leadership we have continues to do an amazing job keeping all our folks aligned and poised for success.”
From the outside, others have marveled.
Starter Zach Eflin, who grew up a Rays fan in the Orlando area and pitched for the Phillies from 2016-22, certainly did.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “I was in Philly for seven seasons, and we made the playoffs by one game in one of the years and that was last year. … So this doesn’t just happen all the time. We had a $200-plus million payroll for five out of the seven years I was there and we never made the playoffs. It’s just a testament to everybody’s hard work here.”
Also — if there are any secrets to the success — it is in how they go about things.
“It’s everything,” Poche said. “I think how you do anything is how you do everything. There’s no detail here that’s too small or if there’s an advantage out there to take no matter how small it is, we’re going to go for it.
“That’s kind of like the organizational philosophy — basically whatever we can do better to gain an extra run here or there, we’re going to do it because that margin is so small. That’s what it comes down to.”
After the 2008 worst-to-first breakthrough, Higgins naturally wondered, given the cyclical nature of the game, when or if they’d do it again. Similarly when they went from 2014-18 without making the playoffs.
And now they’ve made it for a fifth straight year.
“The organization takes great pride in its success and wants to make sure that it continues,” he said. “Everybody works together for the common goal of having success. So it is really something tremendous, and you want to relish every moment of it.”
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