Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Upstarts

The postseason is almost upon us. The Red Sox look to be playoff bound...only they're not where we expected to them be. After dropping 2 out of 3 in Tampa, the Sox find themselves looking up at the surprising Tampa Bay Rays.


These are the former "Devil Rays" we're talking about, the team that had never come within 65 percentage points of even a .500 season. And they're in first?

Oh yes, and they look very good doing it. They're young, they're fast, they're playing with energy, they look like they're having fun doing it, and damn it, they're fun to watch.

Except when they're stifling the Red Sox.

But unlike when the Yankees would beat the Sox, I don't hold any animosity towards the team from Tampa. Sure, they've had more than their share of brawls with the boys from Boston but few were really egregious and, from the fans' perspective, none of them left a lasting bad taste. My biggest concern during those fights was that no one actually got hurt or did something off-the-charts stupid and get suspended for too long (unlike the Bronx/Boston fisticuffs in which events like this are a source of joy for fans...though to give him credit, Varitek won't autograph pictures of this donnybrook because he thinks it sets a bad example).

For years, the Rays tried to survive and thrive on past-their-prime players like Fred McGriff, Vinnie Castilla, and Jose "Needle in My Butt" Canseco, hoping to bash their way to respectability. Now, lugs like that are gone and the veterans on the team, players like Cliff Floyd and Carlos Pena, are showing some leadership as well as some pop in the field. But it's the young players in the field and on the mound who are leading the way now. Even oft-injured Rocco Baldelli - the Pride of Woonsocket, RI - worked his way back from a series of alternately bizarre injuries (torn ACL while playing catch in the backyard with his little brother) and mysterious ailments (a mitochondrial disorder) just in time to fill in admirably following an injury to another player in August.

However, it's the manager, Joe Maddon, who deserves so much credit. Wearing his Elvis Costello glasses and urging his players to take chances, he's a manager you just have to love to watch. His players have apparently bought into him as well:

Sure, Maddon has adorned the clubhouse with inspirational quotes from the likes of Albert Camus. (“I don’t think he ever played here,” Upton said.) But players know they have the only manager in the big leagues with a cooler music collection than theirs, and he infuses them with the same free spirit he has carried through three decades in professional baseball. (NY Times, August 8, 2008)

After the Rays finished dead last in 2007, he decided to set a new goal and changed the equation. His new view on the world? 9=8.

Maddon suggested that a team with nine players on the field (10 including the DH, but when you’re making a claim like “9=8,” you can take some liberties) who executed properly and well for nine innings every night would allow his team to be one of eight in the postseason.

“I wanted nine more wins out of the offense, nine more wins out of the defense and nine more wins out of the pitching staff than last year,” Maddon said last week.

That improvement would tack on 27 wins to Tampa’s total of 66 victories a year ago.

“Two plus seven equals nine, nine equals eight, that would put us at 93 wins for the season, which I thought would get us into the playoffs,” Maddon concluded. (WEEI)

OK, he lost me on how the math works out but when it comes to the actual results on the field, 9=8 may actually equal #1.

Of course I'll be cheering on the Red Sox through the remainder of the regular season and well into October. However, if the worst should happen and the Sox were to fall by the wayside, if the Rays are still in it, I'll put on a 9=8 shirt, borrow some Elvis Costello glasses. and cheer on a team that plays like they love it.

Now if only they could get some of their own fans to come out and cheer for them...

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