Recently, I came to the realization that my colleagues here at Rays Colored Glasses are not subject to the same Tampa Bay sports misery that I endure year after year. While the other writers here are certainly invested in the Rays, the love for the Buccaneers, Lightning, and Tampa’s adopted NBA team, the Magic, is not common on the staff. Assuming the role of “homer”, I will consider how the history of the Rays franchise fits into the checkered past of central Florida sports lore, and will look ahead and ponder the future of sports in the Bay Area.
When the then Devil Rays took to the field for the first time in 1998, the Tampa area sports scene was in a state of flux. The Buccaneers had just recently changed owners, stadiums, and fortunes, as they began their ascension to what would be their first and only championship. 1998 marked the first year that Raymond James Stadium was home to the Buccaneers, and was a year prior to the Buccaneers run to the NFC championship game that was infamous for the Bert Emanuel’s overturned catch, which would cause the rules for what constitutes a catch in the NFL to change, and would cost the Buccaneers a chance at a victory. Around this same time, the Lightning underwent an ownership change as well, but did not see a change in fortunes. The Bolts posted multiple 50 loss seasons around the turn of the millennia, and joined the fledgling Devil Rays at the bottom of their respective leagues.
Just around the time that Hal McRae was taking over the Devil Rays as manager in 2001, the other Tampa Bay sports teams were soaring. The baseball team in Tampa Bay continued to struggle, as the “Hit Show” of Jose Canseco, Greg Vaughn, Vinny Castilla, and Crime Dog Fred McGriffhad officially left behind the primes of their careers, and caused the Devil Rays to shift focus on younger players, allowing for the development of Aubrey Huff and Carl Crawford, among others. The same could not be said about the Buccaneers, who had a defense full of players in their primes, as John Lynch, Warren Sapp, and Derrick Brooks who were leading the Bucs defense in the now famous Tampa 2 scheme. This defense put the team on its shoulders and led them to a string of playoff appearances, but these appearances failed to result in championships, and the coach who had turned around the franchise was fired, as Tony Dungy was replaced by Jon Gruden. Gruden made the most noticeable of impacts, as his 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers would bring Tampa Bay it’s first “Big 4” professional sports championship, winning Super Bowl XXXVII. Just over a year later, the Lightning would hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup after defeating the Calgary Flames in 7 games. However, the Devil Rays remained merely an afterthought, continuing to struggle in the top-heavy AL East.
Since then, the Bolts and Bucs have regressed back to typical Tampa sports levels, struggling to compete, and not taking advantage of opportunities. The Magic made a Finals appearance as recently as ’09, but otherwise spent the past decade as a moderately poor team with moments of brilliance that went by without championships. However, it is in this absence of success by their brethren that the Tampa Bay Rays were able to vault into relevance, but much like the Magic, their best chances to win have gone by without the reward of a championship. So what is it about the Rays that makes them stick out from the other central Florida sports franchises?
Reason number one in favor of the Rays is that The Rays are, without a doubt, the example for how to run a professional sports team “on-a-budget”. While the Buccaneers have been seemingly tightening the purse strings and being much more conservative with their cash since the large contract given to Jon Gruden finished, they have not shown the ability to be resourceful with limited resources, relying upon large amounts of rookies and cheap, afterthought free agents to construct a roster.
Wait a second- that sounds a bit like what the Rays do! So why are the Rays such a shining example of ballin’ on a budget? They develop those players, bringing out the best in them (especially relief pitchers). Additionally, a balance between veterans and young players creates a fantastic team atmosphere led by a dynamic, trailblazing manager, another key point that sets the Rays apart. While the Bolts certainly have a great owner who cares about the community, the Rays have the dynamic front office and management structure that, sometimes controversial hitting coach excluded, is admired in baseball. Joe Maddon is one of the most likeable and popular managers in baseball, and is never afraid to try something new. At the same time, he is fundamentally sound as well, putting his players in the best position to succeed. Greg Schiano could only dream of balancing being popular with his players and being innovative and creative. Joe Maddon could achieve this balance in his sleep.
As a Tampa Sports fan, I would say that I would prefer the experience of a Buccaneers championship, if only because the Super Bowl is a greater spectacle than the World Series, and has nothing to do with the teams involved. For me, a Rays title would bring the biggest sense of pride, because the unlikeliest of champions, the youthful upstart in the big money sweepstakes of the AL East, would have gone against all odds to develop a championship season.
However, as Rays fans are painfully reminded when looking up at the Yankees in the division, there is a lack of trophies in the offices of the Bay Area’s newest professional sports team. So for now, the Rays find themselves as likely the best run organization in the Tampa area, but also the one with the fewest championship trophies. Given the success the Rays have had early on in their existence, one has to assume that it won’t be long before we see Evan Longoria and company celebrating in a champagne-filled locker room, and bring another success to the “Jekyll and Hyde” history of Tampa sports.