Pity Tampa Bay baseball fans – all four of those diehard souls – who’ve been forced to watch an amalgam of charmless souls take the field over the last decade. Perhaps it was a losing gambit to begin with, a second team in south Florida, when the first one was barely able to draw respectable attendances despite two World Series championships. Though Tampa Bay had long been a (spring) baseball town, attendance for Rays games has never been, uh, good. Before 2008, they drew the least fans in the American League seven out of the ten years of their existence.
Despite hope in the form of a young, steadily improving franchise core, there had not been much the average Joe Sixpack spectator could get excited about. Watching Brent Abernathy range to his left to start a double play was about as titillating as watching, say, Harry Reid deliver the Democratic response to the State of the Union.
Now this year. Whoo-boy, this year. As the intellectual elite group of statisticians (Baseball Prospectus, notably) predicted, they finished with their first winning record (97 victories) en route to the World Series. In the October classic, they’ll face the Phillies, who last won it all in 1980, the same year Ronald Reagan’s march to the White House crippled liberalism.
Some in the talking-head circuit were predicting a sweep by the Red Sox in the ALCS, but these young, brash Rays have been cool, confident, and calm under pressure. Sure, there was a misstep – allowing the Sox to come back from a 7-0 deficit in Game Five – but nobody reacted in desperation. The game plan was the game plan, and Tampa Bay’s heading to the Series.
Which reminds me of another team, one that’s been down for so long, it’s hard to remember what excitement was like. Let’s compare:
The Parallel Trajectories of Tampa Bay’s Ballclub and the Democratic Party’s Fortunes:
1994-95: Newt Gingrich’s “Contract for America” begins. Heartbreak is on the horizon.
1994-95: Tampa Bay is awarded an MLB franchise. Heartbreak is on the horizon.
1995-1997: The Rays screw themselves by naming Chuck LaMar GM; as his first major transaction, he deals Bobby Abreu for Kevin Stocker following the expansion draft in November 1997.
1995-1997: The Democrats screw their moral standing by having a president stick a cigar in an intern’s vagina and then ejaculate on her dress.
December 11, 1998 – Jose Canseco signs with the Rays.
December 19, 1998 – Bill Clinton is impeached.
June 1999 – Al Gore announces his candidacy; as vice-president during an administration of an unheralded economic boom, how can he lose?
June 1999 – The Rays select outfielder Josh Hamilton in the first round of the amateur draft. As a preposterously talented high school player with preternatural tools, how can he lose?
2000 – Like every other president, lame duck Clinton believes that trying a last-ditch effort to solve the Middle East crisis will work out (Camp David Summit). He’s very, very wrong.
2000 – Like every other team, Tampa Bay believes that acquiring over-the-hill sluggers (Greg Vaughn and Vinny Castilla, to go along with Fred McGriff and Canseco) and giving them a clever nickname (“The Hit Show”) will lead to a championship and attendance boosts. They’re very, very wrong.
Following the 2000 season – Hamilton gets into a horrible car accident, becomes a crack addict, gets 20+ tattoos, is suspended by baseball, and ends up almost wrecking his life.
Following the 2000 election – Gore gains a mess of weight, grows a beard, travels in Europe, and shuns the media.
January 2001 – In a three-way trade with the Royals and A’s, Tampa Bay trades Cory Lidle and Roberto Hernandez and receive Ben Grieve, a former Rookie of the Year, who’s coming off consecutive seasons of 28 and 27 homers. He ends up sucking.
January 2001 – George W. Bush is inaugurated into the White House. Ibid.
2001 – The Rays lose 100 games; uber-prospect Hamilton gets into car wreck; Tanyon Sturtze is their “ace.”
2001 – The Democrats embarrass themselves by signing the Patriot Act into law; following 9/11, Bush’s approval rating briefly hovers over 90%.
2003 – The Rays are tricked by the Mariners into trading All-Star Randy Winn for a minor-league pitcher and the rights to negotiate with frickin Lou Piniella. Piniella takes the Rays’ bait and comes on over.
2003 – The Democrats are tricked into thinking that voting for the frickin Iraq War will be politically and popularly palatable.
June 2004 – the Rays go 20-6, at one point winning 12 games in a row. On July 7th, the Rays are at 42-41, within five games of the wild card.
June 2004 – Having wrapped up the delegate count three months before, John Kerry looks very strong on paper. Polls have a deadheat between him and incumbent Bush. On July 6th, Kerry picks John Edwards over Dick Gephardt to be his running mate.
July 27, 2004 – Barack Obama delivers keynote address at the DNC. It is nationally attention-grabbing; a lot of people become convinced this is a viable candidate in four or eight years.
July 30, 2004 – In the first good trade of their seven-year existence, the Devil Rays ship Victor Zambrano and change to the Mets for Scott Kazmir and change. A lot of people become convinced that the Rays have finally done something beneficial.
Fall 2004 – Despite finishing with the best record in franchise history and not finishing in last place, the Rays end up 21 games under .500 (70-91), tumbling through the second half of the season.
Fall 2004 – Amidst claims of another stolen election, the Kerry/Edwards ticket falters (due to some combination of swiftboating, wooden non-charisma, Edwards turning out to be a relatively impotent pick, and a strong Republican base).
Late Summer 2005 – In a brilliantly short-sighted move, Lou Piniella complains that the front office is too concerned with building for the future, and negotiates his way out of town. Things begin to look up for the Rays.
Late Summer 2005 – In a brilliantly short-sighted move, Bush decides that Hurricane Katrina isn’t really that big of a concern. Things begin to look up for the Democrats (if down for New Orleans).
End of 2005 – Having taken over as managing general partner, Stuart Sternberg continues an overhaul in reaction to failed management and policy of the franchise’s history. Sternberg fires GM Chuck LaMar and much of the front office. He reorganizes the hierarchy, giving young Andrew Friedman role of Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations, Gerry Hunsicker (from the Astros) is given the role of Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations (advising Friedman). Joe Maddon is lured from the Angels’ bench to become the new club manager.
End of 2005 – Having taken over as Democratic Party chairman, Howard Dean continues an overhaul in reaction to failed management and policy of the past two election cycles. Giving credibility to the young liberal blogosphere, Dean installs the 50-state strategy in an attempt to rebuild the party’s presence and be competitive across the nation.
2006 – Over the course of the year, the new front office begins to shed overvalued vets like Travis Lee, Russell Branyan, and Julio Lugo. They grab Evan Longoria in the first round of the amateur draft. James Shields makes his Rays debut; Carl Crawford hits 18 homers and steals 58 bases; at the end of the season they don’t have a single player in their starting rotation or in their starting lineup over 30 years old. In November, the Rays snap up Akinori Iwamura from Japan.
2006 – The Democrats take back Congress.
February 1, 2007 – Carlos Pena signs with Rays.
January 20, February 10, 2007 – Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively, declare candidacy for president.
Regression, 2007 – Some missteps in the ranks threaten to derail the Dems’ progress: Despite momentum and their much-hyped “100-hour agenda,” the Democratic-controlled Congress approves the Bush administration’s FISA amendment, fails to limit the Iraq War, and is unable to reverse years of the GOP’s legislation.
Regression, 2007 – Some missteps in the ranks threaten to derail the Rays’ progress: Elijah Dukes threatens to kill his ex-wife and her kids; he’s also accused of impregnating a 17-year-old girl who was in foster care of his grandmother. Prospect Delmon Young throws his bat at an ump following a strikeout. Both are traded in the offseason (the latter for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett).
July 2007 – The general populace is surprised at the amount of fundraising the Obama campaign has amassed. ($58 million in the first six months of his candidacy is a record)
July 2007 – General managers probably take no notice of two key relievers the Rays have amassed in Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler.
2007 – Though he refuses a bid for Democratic presidential candidacy, Al Gore wins Academy Award for An Inconvenient Truth and Nobel Peace Prize en route to uber-celebritydom.
2007 – Though he’s no longer a Devil Ray, Josh Hamilton finally makes it to the major leagues, slugging .554 in 90 games, en route to an MVP-caliber performance the following year.
Winter 2007 - 2008 – In November, Tampa Bay changes its logo, uniform, and even its name (dropping the “Devil”). At a press conference in February, Stuart Sternberg announces, “We are now the ‘Rays’ – a beacon that radiates throughout Tampa Bay and across the entire state of Florida.”
Winter 2007 – 2008 – Barack Obama wins the Iowa caucus, and in a critically-acclaimed speech on change declares “On this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do…You came together as Democrats, Republicans and independents, to stand up and say that we are one nation. We are one people. And our time for change has come…We’re choosing unity over division, and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.”
February – March 2008 - After the team debuts its official new motto, “We are one team,” the Rays begin circulating the motivational “9 = 8″ t-shirts in spring training, a message that nine players working together can lead to the team being one of eight to make it to the postseason.
February – March 2008 - During record voter turnout during the Democratic primaries, Obama begins pulling ahead of Hillary Clinton for the nomination. What had been 8 candidates whittle down to two.
Spring 2008 – Tampa Bay has their best spring training ever; they sign Evan Longoria to a multi-year contract during his rookie season; and have the best record in the league by Memorial Day.
Spring 2008 – As Obama pulls ahead of Clinton during the primary, more and more Democratic party elites and former candidates throw their support behind the young senator.
June 2008 – Days after a bench-clearing brawl with the division-rival Red Sox, the Rays succumb to an in-house fight when Matt Garza and catcher Dioner Navarro go at it in the dugout. Many are left to wonder whether the Rays can continue their division lead.
June 2008 – After a bitter, divisive battle, Clinton concedes the primary to Obama, but with tepid words of endorsement. Many are left to wonder if Obama can pull the Clinton supporters over.
August 25-28 2008 – Obama and vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden, along with party heads Bill and Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, and a host of others, excite constituents with the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
August 29 2008 – The Rays secure their first winning season ever, beating the Baltimore Orioles 10-9.
Late Summer 2008 – The Rays lose Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, and Troy Percival continue to injuries. Pundits predict the team’s downfall.
Late Summer 2008 – The addition of Governor Sarah Palin to the GOP ticket electrifies the Republican party base. Pundits predict the Democrats’ downfall.
Fall 2008 – The “Rayhawk” becomes common fashion.
Fall 2008 – “That One” becomes common parlance.
October 2008 – Led by prominent African-Americans Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, and top prospect David Price (who saves the final game of the ALCS), the Rays advance to the World Series.
October 2008 – Led by prominent African-American Barack Obama, the Democrats poll well ahead of the Republicans as the favorite to take the executive office.
November 2008 – Though the Rays lose to the Phillies in the World Series, they maintain a strong core of young players and prospects committed to Tampa Bay, including emerging team captain Longoria, who has options through 2016.
November 2008 – Though the looming economic, international, and domestic crises threaten the country, the Democrats take back the White House and the new executive begins the new term with record approval ratings.