Friday, October 7, 2011

For Whom the Cowbell Tolls, Time Marches On

I’ve been mulling over how to eulogize the Rays this year. It’s tough to write about a team that was so inconsistent yet overachieved. One that was so baffling yet pulled out one of the greatest runs in baseball history. How can one accurately summarize the 2011 Rays?

Before the season if you would have asked me if the Rays would have won 90 games, I would have definitely taken the under. If you would have asked me how many games the American League Wild Card team would need to win, I would have said 93 or above. There were too many good teams in the AL. Maybe the fact that the Rays made it into the postseason with 91 wins is a testament to a growing parity borne of front offices catching up in decision making with some of the more traditionally successful franchises. Maybe it was because a few traditionally smart teams made some really bad decisions that equaled lower wins – looking at you, Carl Crawford, John Lackey, and Adam Dunn.

So were the Rays good, magical, or just plain lucky?

Maybe I follow the team too closely, but before September, I would have called them maddening. Of course, we all knew they weren’t going to lose 100 games, but six in a row to begin the season was frustrating. Then Manny, then Longo was shelved. Then Wade Davis forgot he was supposed to be an ace. And of course, BJ Upton, Kelly Shoppach, Reid Brignac, and the early season version of Dan Johnson.

Enough to bang my head against a cowbell.

As July rolled around, I tried to take solace in the fact that although this team wasn’t championship material, they weren’t bad at all. James Shields was a joy to watch. Kotchman was magical. Hellickson showed flashes of brilliance. And Sam Fuld flew over tall buildings. And although I was meeting more fans at the Trop and enjoying each and every trip, the team was kinda third-place boring.

(Is there any place in the standings more boring than third place? Baseball doesn’t give bronze medals – although they will soon. Third place is for teams who are rebuilding, stagnant, or overmatched. And it’s tough to brag about a third place team without having to look to the future. “We might be sorta good this year, but we’ll be something next year!” Sounds like a Marlins pre-season campaign.)

Then came September. Again, was it the Rays playing good or Boston completely collapsing? The Rays didn’t play great. There were no 10-game winning streaks, no sweeps (except of the aforementioned Red Sox), and no clubhouse rumors of Joe Maddon rallying the troops around a bikini-clad Don Zimmer cut-out a la Lou Brown in Major League.

But even without flash, pizzazz, or much notoriety, the Rays climbed within a whisker of the Wild Card in the final week of the season. And we all know we will be talking about the final day of the season for years.

Of course, if you only tuned in for Game 162 and the subsequent first round dismissal, you are probably disappointed. I hope you didn’t think the Rays were good enough to win the World Series based on talent alone. Luck might be the spawn of hard work and opportunity, but if you are counting on luck or Longoria in every game, you’re probably not going to beat the best teams in baseball consistently.

Would Manny Ramirez have helped? Possibly. Even a steroid-less Manny would have contributed more home runs than Reid Brignac. But having Manny all year would have meant Johnny Damon in left field. And that would have meant one of three things: either Desmond Jennings or BJ Upton would have been traded, or Desmond Jennings would have spent the whole year in Durham, bored.

Unfortunately, the 2011 Rays had their problems. They were below league average in on-base percentage, slugging, and OPS (slugging+OBP). Save for Boston, the teams who lead the league in those categories are still in the playoffs. Great pitching can win games, but hitting helps bail out the occasional struggle. Maybe this offseason they can address those needs, but we will spare the speculating for now.

So who were the 2011 Rays? They made it further than we thought they would, they were more exciting than we thought they would be, but they were no doubt flawed. And these flaws made for some maddening baseball. They were the final game of the regular season – terribly depressing at times and yet incredibly exciting enough to pull out wins by the skin of their teeth.

Before I close my personal book on the 2011 Rays however, I have to admit I am a bit jealous of some of the teams still in the playoffs. They have beautiful ballparks and incredibly vast crowds. When I see nearly 50,000 fans waving hankies or whatever they are given in support of their team in an outdoor ballpark with a gorgeous view of a downtown, I want that.

I know it might not happen today, tomorrow, or even in the next 10 years.

But if the 2011 Rays leave me with anything, it’s dreams. Dreams of Matt Moore, Desmond Jennings, and a collection of guys we are already familiar with celebrating a World Series victory in a retractable roof stadium in downtown Tampa (yeah, I said it) with 50,000 people from all over Florida dressed in blue screaming and banging cowbells to the heavens above.