Spring training is here which means, of course, hope springs eternal for fans everywhere. For one brief shining moment, all teams are somewhat equal and, with a few notable exceptions, all fans are able to dream of theirs hoisting the Commissioners Trophy after the World Series ends. As a diehard Tampa Bay Rays fan, I have heard the consensus that the new, Kevin Cash-led franchise will crash and burn like a bloated-budget military aircraft experiment gone horrible wrong. This also means that ESPN and the rest of the national media have locked in their Vegas bets on how many losses the Rays will suffer, how few fans will show up on average, and how much money in incentives Montreal will throw their way to relocate.
That said, here are 10 reasons the Rays are The Team to Watch in MLB this year.
- Kevin Cash – the Tampa native has the opportunity to make good in his hometown and take the Rays to the playoffs. While he’s not as cerebral as former skipper Joe Maddon, he does bring an intangible to the clubhouse which could serve this particular team extremely well – his ability to relate to role-players.
- E-Long’s life has settled down a bit – Evan Longoria is no longer the portrait of fast-lane craziness. Now a dad, number 3 is focused on family life and this should enhance his desire to have fun on the field as well as off the field. This is one player who recognizes he is the true face of the franchise and not just a flavor of the month.
- Pitching is still “The Rays’ Way” – all of the Rays starting pitchers this year could start on just about any other franchise. Even Grant Balfour, the goat of the 2008 World Series, appears to be in far better shape mentally than in the past. This is a pitching staff with their eyes to the future, and arms lock into “win now” mode.
- The Two-Faced Gods are Gone – Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon both left for greener pastures during the offseason, and have given more indications with each passing day that Tampa Bay was just a steppingstone for something juicier. Maddon is about to get a taste of the bruising Chi-Town media, while Friedman will quickly learn that the crosstown Angels are a far easier team to run than the sky-high budget and sky-high expectation-driven Dodgers. Before the middle of the season, look for one of these two to have a media meltdown, while Cash and Silverman just keep plugging along.
- The Stadium Issue – there is still life in this matter. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and the Rays have agreed to give a stadium deal another shot. If the St. Petersburg City Council can actually stop acting like shills for the good ol’ boys in the Tiger Bay Club, then something may actually get done.
- Jeter is retired, and A-Rod is back – for the first time in over a decade, the Yankees are truly the villains of baseball. You just couldn’t say that when Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera were on the team. Sure, you could hate the pinstripes, but Jeter and Rivera were real standup guys who made a good team truly legendary. A-Rod’s return, combined with the former’s departures, turn the Yankees from a team fans loved hating into a team with overpaid, overhyped, and cheating athletes. If there’s one thing the Rays and their fans love, it’s taking a stone to a roid-raging Goliath and knocking him down.
- They get to check if the O’s 2014 season was a fluke – Tampa Bay and Baltimore have an interesting baseball history. Former Ray Aubrey Huff, while playing in Baltimore, called out fans for not showing up. O’s owner Peter Angelos was reportedly one of the big-market owners pushing for the Rays to be contracted, and the Orioles have been the baseball equivalent of the Oakland Raiders the last few years – meddled with and few results until last year. Now the Rays can do another thing they love to do – knock teams off ill-gotten high horses.
- Best play-by-play guy in the game – Forget John Sterling, the late Harry Caray and Harry Kalas, forget Vin Scully and Scott Hamilton – DeWayne Staats, the Rays play-by-play man on Sun Sports, is baseball’s most underrated, underappreciated voice. A calm delivery during lulls followed by gusto during big plays and home runs makes Staats compelling television all on his own. Not to mention the best perm in all of baseball.
- The Catwalks – love em, hate em, get rid of em, Tropicana Field’s catwalks are now the stuff of legend. Rays players are finally starting to hit in a way where the catwalks become a true home-field advantage, and teams and visiting media and fans are bellyaching about it consistently. When the opposing team’s entourage bitch about the home team’s ballpark quirks, that means only one answer is acceptable – keep the damned quirks!
- ESPN loves to dogpile the Rays – let’s face it. The Worldwide Leader of (New York and Boston) Sports loves, and I do mean loves, to see the Rays and their fans fall on their face. If the Rays players would ever figure this out, it would make a great Major League style moment where a Rays player would hopefully say “Well, I guess there’s just one thing left to do…win the whole, effing thing!!!’