96 wins and their first playoff appearance in 6 years, this is what the 2019 season has meant to so many Tampa Bay Rays fans.
Recently, I reached out to a number of Rays fans and employees on Twitter to ask them one simple question: What does this special run to October mean to them on a personal level? I also asked them to reflect on their favorite moments and players from this season. These are there stories…
For some, baseball offers an escape from the realities of everyday life. For others, it is merely a hobby and entertainment. Maybe, a game at the Trop is the continuation of a childhood dream unfulfilled, yet satisfied in the stands with a beer in one hand and a footlong in the other. For young fans, a baseball game played by their heroes kindles that same childhood dream that is so often cut short.
Even more meaningful than the game itself though, is a team that a city can rally behind over the course of 162 games. Until this season though, the fans that boast the “TB” proudly on their heads, haven’t truly had a team worthy of rallying behind since 2013. Now six seasons later, Tampa Bay Rays fans finally witnessed their team sprint into the playoffs behind a magical September filled with walkoff wins and excitement unseen in Tampa since the days of Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena.
Success is rare in baseball and Rays fans have become all too familiar with middling teams since 2013. As a result, teams and seasons like these are special and the more you talk to both fans and employees of the Rays alike, you gain a keen understanding of just how impactful Rays baseball can be.
For season ticket holder Cliff Wolf, “This season confirmed that last season wasn’t a fluke.” For David Fackson,16, this season has been a constant thrill, “It has meant the world. I love this team and its awesome to watch them succeed.”
Longtime Rays fan Ryan Callear on the what this season has meant to him, “It means a lot because we continue to prove that small market teams can do extremely well with the right coaching staff and front office personnel. It is great to see us make playoffs again, it has been quite some time, especially after falling short on a 90 win season last year.”
But, baseball blogger and Rays fan abroad Joel Bailey might have put it best saying he is, “Just proud to have been part of the ride. Proud to be fan. I’m proud to have ‘TB’ on my head.”
For Scott Smith, 47, this season has taken on a meaning that not many of us can relate to. For Smith, who is currently battling cancer, this season plainly put, “Means a lot.”
But the impact this season has had for Smith, a Rays fan since their inception in 1998, cannot be fully grasped as plainly as it was stated. As he puts it, “The doctors gave chemo only a 20% chance of working and my tumors have begun to shrink. I told them the Rays don’t care about small percentages let’s do the treatments and see what happens.”
This season the Rays have had to battle maybe more than any team in the Majors. They have had to endure injurers to both their pitching staff and lineup, using a total of 57 players throughout the season, a club record.
This fact paired with their 96 wins is what has made this team and this season so special for many Rays fans. For Jay Evans, “It’s just been so exciting to watch.”
A team as special as this one is nothing without a handful of fan-favorite players, and there is no shortage of them in Tampa Bay. For Elijah Flewellen, a Rays FanHost, Tommy Pham’s intensity and Blake Snell’s ability to dominate opposing hitters grab his attention. For Fackson it is Yandy Diaz. For others like fans Brett Morgan and Joel Bailey, Willy Adames’ budding potential lands him as their favorite player to watch on a daily basis.
Austin Meadows’ name was a common theme when discussing favorite players as well. For Andrew Katzman, Meadows became his favorite player after he met the All-Star outfielder. “He was the nicest athlete I’ve ever met.” Anthony Lopez sings the same tune regarding Meadows saying, “I deal in autographed sports memorabilia, and during the Gulf Coast League season the year he was drafted I got a few baseballs signed by him, and I was impressed by what a nice, down to earth kid he was.”
For Elizabeth and Christina, twin sisters employed by the Rays as part of the “Rays Community Street Marketing Team”, they can’t seem to single out a single player because they, “Love them all!!!”
While none of the fans selected newcomer Travis d’Arnaud as their favorite player, he still holds a special place in many if not all of their hearts thanks to his magical three homer game against the New York Yankees on July 15th.
Ryan Delgado, the Rays social media marketing manager, was in New York for d’Arnaud’s stunning display of power recalling the night, “That was incredible, not only for his performance, but to hear the whole ballpark go dead silent.”
For the notorious Rays twitter personality, “RaysFanGio”, his favorite moment was Ji-Man Choi’s walkoff homer to defeat the Yankees in the final week of the season.
When personally ranking this season in Rays history the results were as expected. For a majority of fans, this season ranks second only to the magical season of 2008 during which the Rays stunned the baseball world and made it to the Fall Classic.
David Fackson claims that, “It ranks second best only behind 2008, I get a great vibe about them, similar to 2008.” And, you really can’t disagree with that sentiment, especially after the September the Rays had which included six walkoff wins.
For Joel Bailey this season, “Is up there with the World Series fun.”.
For employees of the Rays like Delgado, Flewellen, and the Cadicamo sisters this season has given them a unique opportunity to interact and experience the excitement that exudes from a fan base during a playoff run.
For Flewellen who was working during Nate Lowe’s walkoff game against the Red Sox in the final homestand of the year the experience was second to none. “The pure joy and elation from both the players, and the fans, was something REALLY special to watch. I don’t think I’ve ever high-fived that many people leaving through Gate 1.”
For the Cadicamo sisters, “You could feel the energy coming from the Rays players & Rays Nation, especially after that last game at home against the Yankees which was electric & felt like a Playoff game!”
And for Ryan Delgado, who has indirectly interacted with nearly every Rays fan all season long, “Its been very fulfilling.”
When discussing this season compared to the 2008 run, Wolf couldn’t have put it any better. “This season, is something magical as well. Pieced together around injuries, they have had a remarkable year of battling back with strong resilience. Many times I thought some of the heartbreaking losses would haunt them but they responded the next game with a new found energy and belief that they can win and they won’t be shutdown. I’m so proud of they way they handled those moments.”
A word that came up in nearly every fan response. This is perhaps the word that best encompasses this team. This “resilience” is something that resonates with Scott Smith more than most.
For Smith, who was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, the Rays have given him a reason to fight. “It’s definitely their resilience that is the connection, that if I battle, believe I can win and find joy while going through this I can succeed.”
For Smith and his family they, “Feel at home with this team.” And, honestly, how could you not? Between Willy’s personality on the field and in the dugout, Austin Meadows’ genuine personality and Tommy Pham’s drive to win at all costs, this team is impossible to root against.
They play a certain way, “The Rays Way”.
For Smith, it is “The Rays Way” that gives him a model for how to live and beat the disease that has taken over so many facets of his daily life. “I felt if I battled cancer in the way I saw my Rays play, with resilience and the attitude no opponent was too big, I strive to live that same way the Rays way.”
Finally, David Fackson might have said it best…
“Enjoy this team Rays fan, they don’t come along this good very often.”
I couldn’t have said it any better myself.