Thursday, October 30, 2008

Tropicana is where I lost my heart

"I'm not much for inspirational addresses. I just wanta point out that every newspaper in the country has picked us to finish last. The local press thinks we'd save everybody a lot of time and trouble if we just went out and shot ourselves. Me, I like to waste sportswriters' time so I'm for hangin' around and seein' if we can give all these guys a nice big shitburger to eat."

- Lou Brown, Manager, Cleveland Indians - Major League (1989)

For some reason I imagine the Tampa Bay Rays' 2008 season began with a similar quote. The Rays, as most know, were picked to finish if not last, barely above the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East. It seemed only Baseball Prospectus thought highly of them, picking them to finish somewhere in the 83 to 88-win range. I, personally, was a little less optimistic. I hoped for 81 wins, a .500 record.

But a funny thing happened on the way to October. To say I was pleasantly surprised by the 2008 Rays is an understatement. To say every fan I talked to was surprised would also be an understatement. Every new fan, every old fan. Everyone was shocked.

While this season has definitely been one for the ages for the Rays' franchise, it has also meant a lot to me personally. Never before have I been so vested in a team. Never before was I so into every game - every pitch, every at bat, and every run. Never before have I been so involved. Maybe it was because the team seemed to want me as a fan, allowing fans to chat with both of the Rays' General Managers. Maybe it was because I had a some money this year and could afford to go to Tropicana Field quite often, nearly 20-25 times, including the postseason. However, I probably watched or listened to nearly 100 other games. Again, hanging on every pitch and cheering every one.

When I was nine, I followed every game of the '86 Mets, following as close as a 9-year old could. But it didn't feel like this. When I was in my late 20s in 2003, I had a college roommate who was a huge Marlins fan (yes, they do exist). We watched as many games of that season as we could in sports bars, cheering and drinking our way through the Marlins postseason. But that didn't feel like this either.

As many of my regular readers know, I have struggled with rooting for the Rays, penning numerous blogs disguised as love letters to my "long-distance love" a.k.a. the Mets. At first, I would say my interest in the Rays was strictly geographic. They are the local team, and I only live 30 minutes from the ballpark. I would have gone even if the team played poorly, as I did in 2007.

But after hearing Rays radio host Rich Herrera nearly choke up while closing the season broadcast, I've come to the conclusion that I am definitely a Rays fan. In his final broadcast, an emotional Herrera talked about how special the 2008 Rays were to him and thanked everyone involved with the team, from the players to the front office to the fans, both new and old, for giving us a magical 2008 baseball season.

I too would like to extend my thanks, although mine are a bit more personal.

I'd like to say thank you to the Tropicana Field ushers I often talked baseball with, and to the hardcore fans I saw in April and May (who were there probably long before that) who lead the cheers as the team got better, specifically those around my seat: the fans above home plate who chanted "left-right, left-right, sit down!" when an opponent struck out and the elderly gentleman who yelled "1 down, 26 more to go" after a Rays pitcher recorded the first out of the game.

Thanks also to the writers of Rays Index and DRays Bay for providing daily Rays-centric sports blogosphere insight, and most importantly, to the co-worker who was kind enough to let me buy some of his season tickets last December. Everyone listed, along with the aforementioned players, fans, announcers, and Rays employees, helped ignite a baseball passion in me that I hadn't felt in a long time.

This 2008 season might be the Rays' equivalent to the 1969 Mets, it may be a watershed year that creates an explosion of loyal, committed, die-hard fans. It may be the Rays' version of 1991, the year the Braves lost the World Series, but began a decade of division dominance. Or, as unlikely as it could be, the Rays could be a flash in the pan, the second coming of the 2007 Colorado Rockies. Next year, the Red Sox and Yankees could decide enough is enough, open up the coffers, and buy themselves another World Championship.

Whatever happens, however, I know that even though I have been a Mets fan for over 20 years and that will never change, I am proud to also call myself a fan of the Tampa Bay Rays.

(Yes, the title of this post is a line from Motley Crue's "Girls, Girls, Girls" [at the 3:05 mark of the video]. According to Google, no one has ever used that line in a Rays' post before.)