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During Spring Training, 1969, one man I know who was in Clearwater, FL predicted that the New York Mets, the expansion team also-rans, would win the NL title and go to the World Series. That man was Jerry Grote, catcher for Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and the others. "In spring training Jerry Grote knew," Seaver said. "He said we were going to win it. We thought he was crazy, nuts. But it made sense. He was the one who had caught us all the year before and he was catching us now in spring training. He just knew." (http://www.jerrygrote.com/the_1969_miracle_mets.htm).
During Spring Trainin, 2008, a fan in Clearwater, FL, posted on ESPN forum walls, at the request of others, his projections for the upcoming baseball season: his most controversial and, to many, unbelievable prediction was that the Tampa Bay Rays, no longer the Devil Rays, would win the AL East over perennial dominators Boston and the New York Yankees. That fan was I and it was more than a gut feeling.
I have come to live with a friend in Clearwater in the middle of summer, 2007. My friend lives just ten miles from the Tropicana. So I saw the Devil Rays close out their season with a band of promising young outfielders and arms. Parking was free. The ticket prices were low. But, for those of us still paying attention, we saw the possibilities of the Rays fielding a winning team the next season. They had Kazmir and Shields and some late promise in the bullpen and rumors of strong arms in the minors. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the new "Devil Rays" had been re-building for two years around some really good recruiting decisions. (One that proved to be regretful was giving up on the addicted Josh Hamilton. Imagine THESE Rays with Hamilton!)
In the off-season, three things happened. A friend of mine in my best private keeper league (fantasy baseball) asked me my opinion of Evan Longoria. I had not seen Evan Longoria play so I researched him and discovered that many, many baseball scouts and "authorities" expected Evan to break in almost immediately when he came up the next season. They were comparing him to Ryan Braun who had broken in with Milwaukee and surprised us all with his success as a rookie in 2007.
Secondly, the Rays front office moved to shore up their defense up the middle and rid themselves of a talented but disruptive influence in young Delmon Young. For Young they got Matt Garza, a power pitcher yet to make his mark, and Jason Bartlett.
Thirdly, they gave old pro Troy Percival a chance to be their closer. The Rays had had closer problems and Percival was shaky, in my estimation. Then I heard the interview with him, after the signing, and it was that interview that cinched the deal for me. I didn't expect Percival to do as well as he did, as it turned out, but it didn't really matter. What he said in that interview told me all I needed to know. Percival was coming in and probably doing one last year and he was doing it with a club that I could tell he believed now had a chance to go all the way.
"He said he had comparable offers from other teams and may have even been able to get more money, but he likes Tampa Bay's nucleus of young talent and thinks longtime friend Joe Maddon is the right manager to get the Rays out of the AL East cellar." (http://wizbangsports.com/2007/11/tampa_bay_rays_sign_troy_perci.php)
Delmon Young had a decent developmental year in Minnesota, but Garza pitched close to 200 innings and won 11 while losing 9, with a 3.70 ERA. And, for Garza and all the Rays pitchers, the acquisition of Bartlett, the rise of Longoria as the greatest 3B since Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt (according to Don Zimmer) and the play of Iwamura at 2B and the gold glove of Carlos Pena made for a gold glove infield, while the Rays OF, built on the sometime forgetful B. J. Upton in center, became the fleetest outfield in the American League. When they are on their game, the young Rays have been simply the best all-around team in baseball this season and that is why my Spring Training prediction wasn't all that far fetched. Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson were surprises and Percival imploded down the stretch, but the Rays found arm after arm after arm when they needed it, except for that last game in Fenway against the Bosox two nights ago.
Ironically, it was defense, most notably Evan Longoria's error at third, and relief pitching (Balfour, Wheeler and company) that allowed the Red Sox to tighten things up and give their fans a second victory in the playoffs.
I don't look for Longoria, Upton, that young intense relief corps or the other Rays(indispensable "no-names" like Aybar and Gross and J.P. Howell) to choke like that at home where, beginning tonight, they have the chance to go all the way to the World Series for the first time in franchise history.
From worst to first.
Oh, and they lost the Devil from their Rays of hope.
Is this just a coincidence? I'm LOL, as the kids say.
What does it matter?
The future is very bright.
And the future is now.
This is the greatest baseball team story since Jerry Grote's Miracle Mets of 1969.
They did it. Why not the Remarkable Rays?
--Steve Pipkin-Savage Clearwater, FL 1:34 ET, (6.5 hours to gametime) Saturn's Day, 18 October 2008