The “Real” First Rays: 1997 Orlando Rays
By Robbie Knopf
After looking at one possibility for the “Real First Rays” yesterday, today we’ll look at another candidate, the 1997 Orlando Rays. The Sun Rays were the first time ever to have “Rays” in their name, but the 1997 Orlando Rays were the first team ever to have their name be simply “the Rays.”
Longtime Rays fans know that the Devil Rays’ Double-A affiliate from 1999-2003 was known as the Orlando Rays. Wait a second- didn’t the Devil Rays affiliates begin play in 1997? Yes, they did. But they didn’t have a Double-A team until 1999. In 1997 and 1998, the minor league baseball team in Orlando was known as the Rays, but it was not an affiliate of the D-Rays. In 1997, the Cubs affiliate in Orlando changed their name from the “Cubs” to the “Rays.” And in 1998, the Mariners’ Double-A team was the Orlando Rays for just one season. Today we’ll talk about the 1997 Orlando Rays, an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs and the first professional baseball team known as the Rays.
That is pretty unbelievable. Could that logo be any closer to the Devil Rays’ logo from their early years? Let’s see.
Wow. That is pretty darn close. Here’s the thing: the Devil Rays weren’t entirely sure of their logo until 1998. Did they take it from the Orlando Rays? Comparing the two logos, they very well may have. Nice job, Mr. Naimoli. In any event, let’s continue.
The 1997 Orlando Rays were more similar to the Devil Rays than the Rays, going 63-75. They were managed by Dave Trembley, who later managed the Orioles, and led the team to a record quite similar to his Orioles days. Coincidentally, the Rays’ pitching was quite similar to the Devil Rays’ as well, posting a 4.91 ERA that was third from the bottom in the 10-team Southern League. They were a pretty decent team otherwise (although you’re not going to win very much with terrible pitching anyway), posting a .272/.350/.422 line (.772 OPS) compared to the .275/.351/.426 average (.777 OPS) and although they were third from the bottom in home runs, they ranked second in stolen bases and third in walks. They also topped the league in fielding percentage. That’s pretty Rays-esque. But who cares about the team as a whole! Let’s get to the individual players!
The team featured an incredible 21 future major leaguers, nearly all of whom made the majors after being Orlando Rays alumni. Some you’re very familiar with, while others… not so much.
It all starts with a 20 year old Kerry Wood, who in the year before his unforgettable 20-strikeout game and Rookie of the Year performance in 1998 was pretty inconsistent for the Rays, going 6-7 with a 4.50 ERA, a 10.1 K/9, a 7.6 BB/9, and a 0.2 HR/9 in 19 starts and 94 IP before he was promoted to Triple-A Iowa. Between Orlando and Iowa, Wood really was not that good in 1998, going just 10-9 with a 4.57 ERA, posting just a 131-77 strikeout to walk ratio although he did allow just 4 home runs in 151.2 IP. The good news: no one could hit him. The bad news: he couldn’t find the strike zone. (On a side-note, he actually hit really well for the Orlando Rays, hitting .348 in 24 plate appearances with 3 doubles and 4 RBI. Ironically, he did not draw a single walk.) But when he managed to stay healthy and find the strike zone, he was dominant in the major leagues, going 13-6 with a 3.40 ERA and a league-leading 12.6 K/9 as a rookie in 1998, and going 14-11 with a 3.20 ERA and an 11.3 K/9 as the Cubs came within 5 outs of the World Series in 2003. It’s a pity that Wood never could achieve the sustained dominance and success that made him so endeared to Cubs fans and baseball fans in his younger years.
A pitcher that started nearly double as many games as Wood and won not far from double the amount of games but is not nearly as remembered is Kevin Tapani, who stopped in Orlando for a lone rehab start in 1997. Tapani was traded multiple times before getting established in the major leagues, debuting in the majors in 1989 with the Mets before getting traded to the Twins, and he was excellent in 1991, going 16-9 with a 2.99 ERA, a 5.0 K/9, a 1.5 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 34 starts and 244 IP. He also went 8 strong innings to win Game 2 of the 1991 World Series for the eventual World Champion Twins, although he lost two of his other three playoff starts, including World Series Game 5. Tapani ended up carving out a 13-year MLB career from 1989 to 2001 primarily with the Twins and Cubs, going 143-125 with a 4.35 ERA.
A trio of well-traveled middle relievers ended up in Orlando in 1997: Justin Speier, Rick White, and Amaury Telemaco. Speier had a 12-year career from 1998 to 2009, posting a 4.11 ERA in 613 relief appearances primarily with the Blue Jays, Rockies, and Angels. He was at his best from 2005 to 2006 with the Blue Jays and 2007 with the Angels, posting a 2.79 ERA and a 158-48 strikeout to walk ratio in 174 appearances. White also had a 12-year career, albeit from 1994 to 2007 (returning to the minors from 1996 to 1997), and he posted a 4.45 ERA in- what do you know?- 613 relief appearances with 11 teams, spending the most time with the Devil Rays and the Pittsburgh Pirates. He actually had the best stretch of his career during his time in Tampa Bay from 1998 to 2000, posting a 3.81 ERA in 145 appearances. But his finest moment came in 2002, when he was released by the Rockies but proceeded to be unhittable for the stretch run after being signed by the Cardinals, posting an incredible 0.82 ERA in 20 appearances before posting a 3.00 ERA in 5 playoff games. Telemaco had one nice season in 1998, going 7-10 with a 3.93 ERA in 18 starts and 23 relief appearances between the Cubs and the Diamondbacks, but his career as a whole was not as successful as Speier and White as he posted a 4.94 ERA in 219 appearances, 64 starts, between the Phillies, Cubs, and D-Backs.
24 year old third baseman Kevin Orie had an impressive season in 1997, beginning in Orlando. A first round pick by the Cubs in 1993, Orie spent just 3 games with the Rays, going 5 for 13 with 2 doubles, 2 homers, and 6 RBI, before being promoted to Triple-A and then the big leagues. In ’97 for the Cubs, Orie posted a .275/.350/.431 line with 23 doubles, 8 homers, and 44 RBI in 114 games and 418 plate appearances, good for an 11th place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. But he was traded to the Marlins after struggling to begin 1998, and his career was never the same. After playing with the Marlins in 1999, he was traded, and he collapsed after that, bouncing around from organization to organization in the minor leagues until 2006, surfacing in the big leagues only for a brief stint with the Cubs in 2002.
25 year old shortstop Jason Maxwell was arguably the Rays’ best all-around player in 1997, posting a .279/.397/.465 line with 22 doubles, 6 triples, 14 homers, 58 RBI, 12 stolen bases (albeit with 9 CS), and an 82-72 walk to strikeout ratio in 122 games and 509 PA’s. His 82 walks led the Rays by a mile (next closest had 59) and ranked second in the entire Southern League. He continued to play well at Triple-A in 1998 and went 1 for 3 with a home run in 7 big league games, but he was released by the Cubs and eventually wound up with the Minnesota Twins in 2000 and 2001 as a utilityman for 103 games. He finished off his professional career in a utility role for the Devil Rays’ Triple-A Durham affiliate in 2004. Two other 1997 Orlando Rays also saw time in the Devil Rays organization, both in 1998: catchers Cesar Devarez and Darron Cox. And then there’s one other player that Rays fans are very familiar with: Jose Molina.
Molina, just 22 years old, couldn’t even hit back then, posting a .172/.267/.232 line with 3 doubles, 1 homer, and 15 RBI in 37 games. Molina, now 37, has been a lifetime backup catcher, debuting briefly with the Cubs in 1998 before joining his brother Bengie Molina with the Anaheim Angels in time for a World Series ring in 2002, and after 6 and a half years with the Angels moved on to the Yankees, the Blue Jays, and now the Rays. He has hit just .236 for his career, but his 39% career caught stealing percentage has made him a valuable asset for the teams he has played for.
It is downright bizarre all the coincidences between the 1997 Orlando Rays and the Tampa Bay Rays. The ’97 Orlando Rays were a team built around walks, speed, and defense. Six players would up seeing time in the Tampa Bay Rays organization including Jose Molina, currently with the Rays on the 15th anniversary of these first Rays in Orlando. And someone will have to explain to me what’s going on with the logo.