Eighty-nine games into the 2006 season, the piercing headaches that Devil Rays fans know all too well have returned, as well as faint glimmers of hope that have not been present in the team’s clubhouse since the Vince Namoli Virus took control of the Tampa Bay baseball bloodline several years ago. Remnants of the McGriff-Canseco-Vaughn-Castillo “Hit Show,” Vince Namoli outbursts and overall fan disdain of the hometown club have finally begun to melt away as this team of young talent, capable ownership and interested management begins to flex its muscle.
The first half saw the Rays struggle early due to injuries, but eventually begin to pull together a functioning, efficient and exciting team that is able to compete at a major league level night in and night out.
If you’ve been to a game this year, you probably have already grasped that there is something new going on at Tropicana Field. The team’s new ownership, led by New York entrepreneur Stuart Sternberg, has made valiant strides to erase the hatred and contempt the local baseball community acquired under the former regime of Namoli. Some benefits – like allowing fans to bring food and drink into Tropicana Field, as well as implementing free parking at the stadium – have helped. If the ownership begins to spend money and keep the talented players who are already here, attending a game at Tropicana Field could become the thing to do on a weeknight rather than an afterthought. Maybe one day Red Sox and Yankees fans might actually be outnumbered at the Trop.
Manager Joe Maddon has firmly sunk his teeth into this ball club, organizing his staff and energizing his team with a distinguished, educated face – behind a set of bold-rimmed, emo-style glasses that would surely get him a free drink and a phone number at The Orpheum. His approach differs greatly from his predecessor, Lou Piniella, who is far more accomplished and destined for Cooperstown once officially retired. Piniella preferred to spend his time kicking sand on home plate, spitting on umpires (like he always has) and dying his hair blonde. He seemed not to have the patience to develop a young team into a winner. This is where Maddon excels – and is a reason for Rays fans to buy into the hype.
Keeping this young core of talent in Tampa is probably more important than ownership mindlessly spending money on old, aging, once-dominant players. Teams like the Yankees can carry out that initiative if they want, but here in Tampa Bay, building a team with the talent already here is the plan.
When Carl Crawford wowed the world after stealing home on an off-speed breaking pitch last week against Boston, all of the potential trade talks sending Crawford to God knows where effectively and appropriately ended. One day later, pitcher Scott Kazmir blanked those same hot Red Sox in a two-hit, 10-strikeout shutout performance that stunned the best hitting team in baseball and basically solidified his slot on the A.L. All-Star team.
There are enough bright spots to believe this mediocre, sub-.500 ball club to drag itself out of the division cellar in the near future – with the addition of a solid starter and reliever – and become a legitimate contender for a playoff spot.