The “Real” First Rays: 1990 Orlando Sun Rays
After the 2007 season, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays changed their name to the Tampa Bay Rays. The difference was subtle but significant. They had changed from Devil Rays, the cartilaginous (whatever that means) fish, to Rays of sun. Where did that name come from? As it turned out, not from thin air. Let’s look back at some of the previous teams called the “Rays” and as it turns out, there are actually some players you will be familiar with.
After their Double-A affiliate was the Orlando Twins from 1963-1989, for some reason in 1990, the Twins decided to change their affiliate’s name to the Orlando Sun Rays. In any event, the name caught on and was even shortened to “Rays” at times, even on the logo, which was an instant local hit.
So was the team itself. The Sun Rays were managed by Ron Gardenhire in just his third year as a professional manager and the results were outstanding as the Sun Rays went 85-59, best in the Southern League, although they lost in the league finals.
The Sun Rays were not a flashy offensive team, posting a .254/.348/.361 line, managing a .709 OPS that was exactly the league average. Their batting average was 5th in the 10-team league, their OBP 3rd and their slugging percentage 8th. They hit the fewest home runs in the entire league. But they walked the 2nd-most in the league, struck out the 2nd-least, and they stole the 5th-most bases as they managed to push runs across and score the 3rd-most runs. Especially the walks has to remind you of the Rays.
The team was led in hitting by a 21 year old Chuck Knoblauch, who posted a .289/.389/.384 line with 23 of 30 stolen bases and an incredible 63 walks versus just 31 strikeouts. Fitting that the team didn’t have a single qualifying .300 hitter, as we have seen with the Rays way too often the past two years. Knoblauch was one of five future major league position players on the team.
Catcher Lenny Webster, who posted a .262/.356/.382 line in 1990 with 8 home runs and 68 walks versus 57 K’s. Webster played parts of 12 seasons in the major leagues, peaking in 1998 with the Baltimore Orioles when he hit 10 home runs. The Sun Rays’ obligatory power-speed threat was Jarvis Brown, who posted a .260/.366/.408 line with 14 home runs and 33 stolen bases, both of which led the team, joining the walk party with 80 walks verus 79 strikeouts. Brown was never a regular in 5 big league seasons, making his biggest impact when he stole 5 of 6 bases in September of 1991 for the eventually World Series champion Twins. Outfielder Shawn Gilbert posted a .254/.351/.333 line for the Sun Rays with 4 homers and 31 of 40 stolen bases. He appeared in 51 major league games primarily as a pinch-runner, going 2 for 2 in stolen base attempts for his career and also hitting 2 home runs. And finally there was infielder Jeff Rebolet, who hit just .230, but he managed a .357 OBP as he walked 57 times versus 37 strikeouts and played excellent defense. Rebolet carved out a 12-year major league career as a utility infielder, playing primarily second and third base but appearing in at least one game at every position but pitcher. He did pitch a game for the Sun Rays in 1990.
The Sun Rays pitching was the backbone of the team as it posted a 3.35 ERA, second-best in the league. The Sun Rays ranked just 6th in strikeouts, but they allowed the fewest walks and home runs in the league. They were also helped out by their excellent defense, who ranked third in the league in fielding percentage with solid range. Pitching and defense is the Rays’ formula, and it was the Sun Rays’ as well.
The Sun Rays’ twin aces were lefties Doug Simons and Denny Neagle. Simons went 15-12 with a 2.54 ERA, a 5.2 K/9, a 2.1 BB/9, and a 0.6 HR/9 in 28 starts, including 5 complete games, and 188 IP. Simmons posted just a 6.68 ERA in 49 major league games for the Mets and Expos, all but one in relief. Neagle, meanwhile, was absolutely dominant for the Sun Rays in his age 21 season, going 12-3 with a 2.45 ERA, a 7.0 K/9, a 2.3 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 17 starts and 121.1 IP after moving up from High-A Visalia, where he posted an 8-0 record and a 1.43 ERA to give him a 20-3 record and a 2.10 ERA overall in 1990. Neagle wound up reaching the 20-win plateau in his career, but only after the Twins traded him away. Neagle won 13 or more games 6 times in his career, peaking in his incredible 1997 season for the Atlanta Braves, when he went 20-5 with a 2.97 ERA (140 ERA+), a 6.6 K/9, a 1.9 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 34 starts, including 4 shutouts, and 233.1 IP. He went 124-92 with a 4.24 ERA for his career. His career ended by shoulder and elbow surgeries, but after missing the entire 2004 season he did try a comeback attempt with the Devil Rays although he never pitched a game for the team. Neagle’s career is marred by the fact that his name was mentioned in the Mitchell Report and that he was arrested for solicitation towards the end of his career, leading the Colorado Rockies to void the final year of the then-huge 5 year, 51 million dollar contract he signed with the team.
The other future major leaguer to pitch extremely well in a starting role for the Sun Rays was 22 year old Scott Erickson, who went 8-3 with a 3.03 ERA, a 6.1 K/9, a 2.1 BB/9, and a 0.3 HR/9 in 15 starts, including 3 complete games, and 101 IP before getting called straight up to Minnesota, where he went 8-4 with a 2.87 ERA in 113 innings the rest of the season, although his strikeout to walk ratio was just 53-51. Erickson then made huge strides in his sophomore season as he put together and incredible year, going 20-8 with a 3.18 ERA in 32 starts and 204 IP, finishing second to Roger Clemens in the Cy Young Award voting. Erickson won 13 or more games 7 times in his career, with his best years coming in Minnesota and Baltimore, but injuries and inconsistency doomed his career as he finished at just 142-136 with a 4.59 ERA in the end.
Also on the team were a couple of young right-handers who would see time in the big leagues, starter Willie Banks and reliever Rich Garces. Banks, 21 in 1990, had an up-and-down year for the Sun Rays, going 7-9 with a 3.93 ERA and a 114-98 strikeout to walk ratio in 28 starts and a 162.2 IP. Banks would pitch parts of 9 major league season, going 11-12 with a 4.04 ERA for the Twins in 1993. Garces, a big 6’0″, 250 fireballing reliever, stopped off in Orlando as part of an incredible season at just 19 years old, starting at High-A and finishing in the big leagues. He went 2-1 with a 2.08 ERA, although just a 22-14 strikeout to walk ratio in 7.1 IP. He tossed 5.2 shutout innings in the majors in September. Garces spent most of his career with the Red Sox, appearing in parts of 10 major league seasons, going 23-10 but never becoming a closer because of control problems and saving just 7 games.
No Sun Rays pitcher would ever pitch for the Devil Rays or Rays, with only Neagle ever signing with the team, but it is interesting how similar the teams were in terms of pitching and defense, not hitting for high averages but drawing walks, and having little power but a couple big stolen base threats. And when the Rays were talking about rebranding, you have to think that they saw the Sun Rays name and logo and it had to factor at least a little bit into the decision. First and foremost, the 1990 Orlando Sun Rays team was most exciting to Twins fans, who got a couple of critical major league contributors from the Sun Rays. But as Rays fans, we have to at least tip our hats.