2013 MLB Playoff Race: Tampa Bay Rays Are Busting Myths as They Climb in the A.L. East

The Tampa Bay Rays have been around for some 16 seasons now. That is enough time to make some assumptions about the franchise, the stadium and the fan base. This year’s Rays seem to be about busting all of them.

For instance, the Rays have spent the better part of their existence playing in front of sparse crowds in Tropicana Field. It was assumed that the area just isn’t a good place for baseball. After all, as recently as three seasons ago, the rays played a late September game with a playoff spot on the line in front of about 12,000 fans. It prompted David Price to question the fan base, which he later apologized for.

Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay Rays (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

But now, the Rays are playing in front of some very large crowds. I know this first hand because I attended Sundays game between the San Francisco Giants and the Rays. The only empty seats in the house were the ones covered by huge tarps. The Rays covered those seats up years ago in the third level because, well, they just didn’t need them. They may want to think about uncovering them now.

You can say, “well, the Giants were in town and they are the defending champions.” That’s fair enough. But, this is not the first time a defending champ has come to Tampa Bay. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox made it a habit. And while those series always draw well, it is mostly because of the large number of Yankees and Red Sox fans in the crowd. There were very few people dressed in black and orange on Sunday.  Of course, the larger crowds at the Trop this year have gone largely unnoticed by Bud Selig and the national baseball media who are so quick to jump on the small crowds in years past.

I believe the reason the crowds are better now is that the fans now trust the team and its ownership. The original owner of the team, Vincent Naimoli, was an earlier version of Jeffery Loria, the skin-flint owner of the Miami Marlins. Like Loria, with Naimoli it was not about winning or putting a good product on the field. It was about making a profit. If that meant screwing the fans, then that was how it would be. Fans aren’t stupid, and they have long memories. After ten seasons of getting the shaft, the new ownership team of Andrew Friedman and Stu Sternberg had a lot of work to do to get the fans to buy in. One season of winning the American League pennant was not enough.

So the Rays have been doing their best for six years to get the fans to buy in. Not only do they put a winning team on the field every year now, they allow fans to bring their own snacks and there is even free parking available for parties of four or more. As a fan, you really can go to a game for the price of a ticket and no more if you want to. Its difficult to earn the trust of fans who have been worked over by the previous owner, but these Rays have finally succeeded. No longer is the Trop a neutral crowd or even a road-team-friendly crowd. The fans come dressed in the Rays colors and they get loud for their team.

Another myth that the Rays are busting is that they are a nice little small-market team, but they can’t really hang with the Red Sox and Yankees. In the last six years, the Rays have been to the playoffs four times assuming they make it this season (and they are looking more and more like a lock). That means that four of the last six years, either the Sox or Yanks missed the playoffs while the Rays went instead. This year the rays are only 6-10 against the Sox, but this is the first time the Sox have taken a season series from them since 2009. And the Rays have also won three of the last four games against Boston.

Tampa Bay is also 7-6 this season against the Yankees. Much of the success has been against the Yanks’ high priced ace, C. C. Sabathia. Sabathia was once an automatic loss for the rays. That is no longer the case as they have beaten him up the last few seasons. The Rays can hang with anyone these days.

And perhaps the largest myth this team is busting is that they are all pitch and little hit. In the last few seasons, the Rays have been known as a great defensive team and a very good pitching team. But they have been a bit weak on offense. The team has been no-hit more times in the past five years than they would care to remember. Dallas Braden of the Oakland A’s, Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners and Mark Buerhrle of the Chicago White Sox threw perfect games against the Rays. They were also no-hit by Edwin Jackson of the Arizona Diamondbacks and were one-hit by Brandon Morrow of the Toronto Blue Jays (Evan Longoria broke that one up with two outs in the ninth), and R. A. Dickey of the New York Mets (that one hit could easily have been scored an error on David Wright). All of these took place after 2009.

Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay Rays (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

This year’s team can hit. The Rays have scored 505 runs. That means they are one of only nine teams to break the 500-run barrier. They are still a bit behind the Red Sox and Detroit Tigers, but with their pitching, they don’t really need to. All they need is a decent offense and they can go a long way. they now have that with rookie sensation Wil Myers, the always dependable Ben Zobrist, the steady James Loney, and Longoria.

The pitching staff got off to a poor start, but lately they have been phenomenal. David Price, Matt Moore, and Chris Archer have been nearly unhittable. Now Fernando Rodney seems to be regaining his form from last season. The Rays have won 28 of the last 35 games. If this keeps up, they may break the biggest myth of all, the myth that they can’t win it all.