- Howard Bryant, Senior Writer
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Scribbled in pencil on the corkboard in the home dugout here at Tropicana Field are the words "Cy was Here," a confident nod to the prospects of 24-year-old David Price being bestowed with the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the American League.
An early building block of the Tampa Bay Rays, star left fielder Carl Crawford, sits at his locker, thinking big -- way beyond the AL Division Series against the Texas Rangers: "We got a taste in 2008. We got to the World Series, and we thought we were going to sweep those boys. But Philadelphia? They put a hurting on us, and now we want to get back, get that bad taste out of our mouths."
After a decade of living in the October shadows, the Rays are again in the sun, able to laugh, so satisfied with a trivia answer that 36 and a half months ago would have sunk them all into annoyance. The question lifts Rocco Baldelli's face, makes Crawford wink.
Which AL East team has won the most division titles in the past three seasons?
"Nobody, and I mean not even the most optimistic person in the world, would have ever envisioned us being here, not if you were around back then," Baldelli said. "If you didn't live it, you couldn't anticipate this because things were so negative."
Things are different now -- or at least they are supposed to be. The Rays reached the mountaintop of baseball two years ago and have stayed there, proving they belong, that the lightning that struck in the 2008 World Series run wasn't a fluke. They finished this season with the best record in the AL and are favored to return to the World Series, their second trip in three years.
Victories have produced champagne spray, beer showers and organizational validation, but the expected, vitally important financial bonanzas -- regional stability, tradition, cultural transformations and fan interest -- that generally accompany winning have been far more difficult for Tampa Bay to achieve.
The result is a Rays team at an odd and seemingly premature crossroads, one in danger of seeing its window close just as the world of winning baseball has begun to open. Rays management faces the vexing questions of determining which elements of geography, a down economy and erratic fan engagement are vital in determining whether baseball can succeed in the area.
According to sources, baseball commissioner Bud Selig has instructed Rays management not to make significant financial investments in the area until attendance indicators improve, suggesting the team could be investing in potential relocation sites.
Meanwhile, this current group of Rays players must win now or most certainly will part ways. Crawford, Rafael Soriano and Carlos Pena are eligible to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, and Matt Garza and B.J. Upton are eligible for expensive raises through salary arbitration.
Crawford, of course, will be perhaps the prized free agent in the offseason. Neither Crawford nor the Rays -- by mutual agreement -- have spoken much about the possibility that he would return to the Rays. Crawford likely will command a contract worth $100 million or more.
"I think everyone understands that this is as much a business as it is a game, and we have to come to grips that there are going to be changes within the organization," said Evan Longoria, the Rays' 24-year-old star third baseman. "So there is a sense of urgency to win with this group. We went into spring training excited, knowing we might not have CC and Carlos around, so we all wanted to go for it. Let's go for it now."
Promise fulfilled, vexing questions
The promise the Rays made to their fans and around baseball was no different from the commitment executives in Kansas City and Pittsburgh have made to their fans, but with one enormous difference in the execution -- the stated plan to build through the farm system and strategically target veteran free agents has worked. The Rays' success is even more amplified because they have succeeded in the division of the $206 million Yankees and the $160 million Red Sox with a payroll of $72 million.
Since 1995, three years before the Rays came into existence and through all of the Rays' perpetual 90-loss humiliations, Boston and Tampa Bay own the same number of division titles: two.
I think everyone understands that this is as much a business as it is a game, and we have to come to grips that there are going to be changes within the organization. So there is a sense of urgency to win with this group.
”-- Rays third baseman Evan Longoria
Garnering two division titles in three years does not necessarily merit a mandate and certainly does not constitute a dynasty -- but these are the Tampa Bay Rays, former laughingstock of baseball, former personal punching bag of the Red Sox and the Yankees, a team that set the tone for beating out the Red Sox for a playoff spot back in April, when they swept the Red Sox four straight at Fenway Park on Patriots Day weekend, then leapfrogged baseball's other superpower, wresting the division from the Yankees on the last day of the regular season.
"We got to a point where we liked playing in that atmosphere," Crawford said, referring mostly to playing the Red Sox in Fenway Park. "It started in September 2008. That's when we knew: We weren't afraid of them, but now we could back it up."
Each of the past three AL participants in the World Series has come from the AL East. Beating the Yankees and Red Sox for the division title again proved that the talent evaluation in Tampa Bay is perhaps the best in baseball.
"When we were in spring training, CC Sabathia kept telling [Carl Crawford] how they hated playing us," Longoria said. "That means a lot. It means everyone knows we're a good team."
Yet, unlike in Philadelphia, where victory, a new stadium and a re-energized fan base coincided, the Rays' transformation has occurred on the field only. Tampa Bay won 96 games yet ranked 22nd in attendance this season, playing its home games at 52.6 percent capacity. Only six teams -- Arizona, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland, Oakland and Toronto -- played in front of a greater percentage of empty seats.
In 2008, when the club went to the World Series, having beaten the defending champion Red Sox in a stunning seven-game upset, the Rays were 26th in attendance. The next year, when league championship teams generally enjoy a major spike in interest and attendance, the Rays saw an increase of just 892 fans per game.
Publicly, owner Stu Sternberg has ceased comment on the possibility of acquiring a new stadium. After the success of 2008, the Rays attempted to expand their reach as a regional team, building a sprawling spring training complex in Port Charlotte, where the Texas Rangers trained for years.
Internally, the Rays are faced with key, potentially intractable issues. Apart from a new stadium, the first is geography. The Tampa Bay area is split by water, cutting off one portion of the fan base from either Tampa or St. Petersburg. For years, discussion in the city had centered around a ballpark in Tampa, but the recent economic collapse in the region no longer makes a downtown ballpark an automatic success. The NHL's Lightning, Stanley Cup winners, do not draw well.
Florida is ostensibly football country, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, less than 10 years removed from winning the Super Bowl, have no projected sellouts at Raymond James Stadium this season. Even the Buccaneers' Sept. 26 game against the powerful and popular Pittsburgh Steelers didn't produce a sellout.
Television ratings for Rays games are some of the best in baseball. But in the final week of the season, the Rays' players boiled over in frustration that the fans were still staying away from the park. Virtually tied with the Yankees in the final week of the season, the Rays drew 12,446 and 17,891 in two of their final home games of the season. Both Longoria and Price criticized the home fans, with Longoria, the leader of the club, calling the turnout "embarrassing." In the home finale, the club gave away 20,000 tickets and achieved a sellout.
Dan Feinstein, the club's director of baseball operations, has seen this before -- when he worked in Oakland. Piece by piece, year by year, the great talent developed and acquired by general manager Billy Beane grew too expensive to retain. MVP Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon left after the 2001 season. MVP Miguel Tejada left after the 2003 season. Twenty-game winners Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson were traded in 2004. Cy Young winner Barry Zito left as a free agent in 2006. Of Oakland's great young talent, only Gold Glove third baseman Eric Chavez remained with the club.
As in Oakland, the Rays have played in a half-empty stadium while playing resurgent baseball. As in Oakland, a stadium deal has never materialized. Like Giambi, Crawford appears to be the first player ready to cash in over the winter. Crawford, who accepted an under-market-value deal to remain in Tampa years ago, now talks about wanting his next contract to be "eye popping."
"There are similarities to Oakland," Feinstein said. "Selfishly, I hope we can bring some, if not all, of the guys back. The one thing we have is depth. A couple of guys are already here. David Price is here. We think [highly touted prospect Desmond] Jennings can be a very good player.
"That's why we want our fans looking three to four years down the road. That's what we do. I enjoy the challenge of being the underdog, of competing with the big boys."
And so the Rays remain, unsettled on the balance sheet and in the seats, but contending for a World Series title.
"I really don't believe that our window is closing," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We understand our situation here is different, unique from others. We have talented players, and it is incumbent upon us as an organization to continue to develop players. We've been very successful at that, and we'll continue to be. I like where we're at. The names will certainly change. It would be naive to think any team stays together, even though I still believe a lot of the names will be back here. But if you ask me, I think we're going to be a good team for a long time to come."
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.
The Rays have won the American League East in two of the past three seasons, but a lack of fan interest continues to trail the team.