You’ve seen the movie a hundred times – a rag-tag group of underachievers combine with some overlooked but spectacular talents to come from nowhere to win a championship. Usually there’s a new coach or manager involved that inspires everyone to do their best. After a long, dark night of soul-searching, the players find resources within them that they never knew they possessed. And at the end of the movie, they succeed beyond their wildest dreams.
Make it a basketball movie and you have Hoosiers or Glory Road. In hockey, it’s The Mighty Ducks (the first and second films, not the third sequel where they’re at a prep school). In football, we can talk about Remember the Titans. And in baseball, take your pick from classics like “It Happens Every Spring” and “Damn Yankees” to Bad News Bears and Major League.
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Despite their recent struggles, the Tampa Bay Rays might just be living that film scenario as they stand tied for first place in the AL East. Coming off a disappointing 2014 and starting a season after trading most of their best-known players, no one predicted the Rays would be in first place at the start of summer. The Rays replaced a managerial legend, Joe Maddon, with a rookie manager, Kevin Cash. They started more rookies on the field than any other team. Many of their rookies and young players, like 29-year-old Joey Butler and career minor leaguer Jake Elmore, made it to their roster after other teams had given up on them, .
The main hope for the season was the strength of the Rays’ starting rotation. It didn’t take long for that hope to be dashed, as their planned ace, Alex Cobb, went under the knife for Tommy John Surgery and just about every other starter spent time on the disabled list. John Jaso hasn’t played since the first game of the season and James Loney has been on the DL for the first two times in his career. Who could have predicted that all of those things would happen?
Yet, improbably–just like the movies–most of the moves worked. The Rays have the rookie with the most home runs and RBIs in baseball, Steven Souza Jr., and the one with the highest average, Joey Butler. Butler’s success must make heads of player development around the league wonder why they couldn’t see his talent. That includes the Rays, who started Butler in the minors. The veteran leadership of Evan Longoria and the hustle of Kevin Kiermaier help round out the cast.
Of course, there’s a long way to go. The Tampa Bay Rays still must go out on the field every day and execute in order to win. This is not yet a movie. But every day, we can see the young Rays believing in themselves more. We now expect them to win, and are disappointed when they don’t. That, in itself, shows how far they’ve come this year. 2015 could become the Rays’ greatest season, and few people thought back in April that we would be able to say that.