Commentary

Rays bring more than fists to fight against Red Sox

Updated: October 10, 2008, 12:40 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- When the original sin occurred, around 5 p.m. on Aug. 29, 2000, I was standing in the visitors' clubhouse at the Oakland Coliseum, waiting to talk to Frank Thomas, the hulking Chicago White Sox first baseman.

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Thomas was animated and friendly. The sky was blue. The birds were singing. His team was in a pennant race, in first place by seven games over Cleveland, about to play a young, rising Oakland club. As we spoke, his eyes flickered back and forth with marginal interest, both in the game on the television -- Boston at Tampa Bay -- and whatever we were discussing. It was just another day in baseball.

Then, in a flash, Thomas sprung up from his chair. In a kind of tribal unison, the rest of the White Sox players joined him, abandoning their mundane pregame routines, rushing to the nearest television to witness the human eruption taking place 3,000 miles east. Gerald Williams was charging Pedro Martinez. Williams swung, and Martinez stumbled awkwardly off of the mound, falling to the turf. Jason Varitek corralled Williams. The benches cleared; insults were hurled; two managers, an acting manager and five players were ejected.

While fury ruled, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Thomas was fully animated, wearing a broad, bloodthirsty smile as he stalked around the room.

"Oh, they did it now!" he yelled. "Oh … They made him mad. They made the Big Man mad! They might not get a hit tonight … not-a-one!"

And the then-Devil Rays didn't -- not a hit or a walk for the next eight innings. And as the Red Sox piled up an 8-0 lead, all the Rays could do was hit Red Sox players with the baseball. John Flaherty broke up the no-hitter with a leadoff single in the ninth, but a wound had been ripped open that to this day has never healed.

[+] EnlargeJames Shields and Coco Crisp
AP Photo/Michael DwyerJames Shields swung and missed at Coco Crisp on June 5, but the Rays KO'd the Red Sox in 10 of 18 games in 2008.

Exactly one month later, the Rays eliminated the Red Sox from playoff contention. Roberto Hernandez ended the game by striking out Trot Nixon, and then he waved goodbye to the Boston players.

"They can stop watching now," Hernandez said afterward. "Scoreboard's over. Goodbye."

From those days came other days -- two beanball wars in 2002, brawls in 2004, 2005 and 2006 -- but all came with a similar conclusion: The Red Sox maintained the advantage in a hammer-and-nail relationship. The Sox and Rays might duke it out on the field, but on the scoreboard, it was Tampa getting punched out, every time.

"And now," said David Ortiz, walking across the crunchy synthetic grass to stretch Thursday, eight years after Williams-Martinez and one day before these two teams begin the American League Championship Series, "after all that stuff, this is their revenge."

*****

NOBODY WANTS TO ADMIT that if humiliation isn't the only fuel that powers the Rays' collective engine it certainly is an important element of their biodiesel. Julio Lugo, the former Tampa shortstop who is now with Boston, tried to explain with a straight face that eight years of tension on the field did not produce compound interest.

"We knew [the Red Sox] had a top team over there," Lugo said. "Maybe we didn't think about winning [in Tampa], but we knew we had to give them a tough game." Lugo said that each annual escalation was merely an "isolated incident" from "guys who play hard."

This, of course, is pure nonsense.

Entering this season, the Rays were 58-111 all time against the Red Sox. The Red Sox went 30-8 against Tampa Bay in 2001 and 2002, and 38-9 against the Rays at Fenway Park between 2003 and 2007. It wasn't enough for the Red Sox to win; they did so with impunity.

"They fought us, because they used to fight with everybody," Ortiz said. "Now, it's different, 'cause they know they can win."

Fury alone does not create a rivalry, and in 2008 the Rays brought more than their fists to the fight -- although the Rays and Sox did enjoy another round of punch-out this season, when Coco Crisp, James Shields and Jonny Gomes were tossed in a June 5 bean-brawl -- and Tampa has already won two important victories. The first was playing the Red Sox even during most of the season: Each team went undefeated on its home turf, winning 6 games apiece, up until September. And then the Rays beat the Red Sox in four of their final six matchups in September -- proof that what manager Joe Maddon was teaching could become more than motivational theory.

[The Rays] are dangerous. But you know why they're dangerous? Because they have nothing to lose. They don't have any pressure on them. ... And, they're probably mad at you already? That's the kind of team you don't want to face.

--David Ortiz

The way the Rays won at Fenway in September -- beating the great Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth after losing the opener and then winning the finale in 14 innings -- erased, for the moment, the concern that Tampa might be weak in the clenches.

The second is what they've already taken from the Red Sox: the AL East crown. For all the talk -- and much of it is legitimate -- of the Red Sox's being a superpower, Boston has won just two AL East titles over the past 14 seasons since the beginning of the three-division realignment. They bested the Yankees in 2007 for the first time since 1995, but held their title for just one year, as the Rays took over first place early and held on late.

And holding the division title brings vindication -- vindication of philosophy, but also of the past humiliations.

"For me, even when we were getting our butts kicked quite regularly, the AL East was a wonderful place for us to learn how to play, under those intense moments in front of that crowd, against world champs," Maddon said.

The next step is to knock out the champions. As Los Angeles found out, regular-season successes do not provide a springboard for October challenges. The Angels beat Boston eight of nine during the season, but wilted, again, predictably, when the playoff curtain rose.

The beauty of this confrontation is in the raw athleticism of Crawford, the poise of the kid Longoria, the oddly dangerous journeyman Pena. It's in discovering whether the Wheelers, Howells and Balfours of the world can close out four games against the champions. These questions stand in contrast to the clutch Ortiz, Pedroia and Drew because all of this drama seems, so quickly, old hat to them.

But there is also beauty in this: After all the punches, finally in the ALCS is the beginning of a real rivalry. Both have something the other wants and each is talented enough to succeed. The Rays have their athleticism, youth, health, spirit and home-field advantage; the Red Sox their stoic October pedigree, toughness and self-assuredness -- both at the plate and on the mound -- though Sox infielder Kevin Youkilis said Thursday he does not believe experience counts for much, even at this late stage in the campaign. The teams have made one error between them in eight playoff games. If it isn't clear whether the October lights will be too much for Tampa, the Red Sox can be counted on, if nothing else, not to fold.

"They are dangerous," Ortiz says. "But you know why they're dangerous? Because they have nothing to lose. They don't have any pressure on them. They can go after us because they've already passed what anybody thought of them in the first place. Now, they can do whatever they want. And, they're probably mad at you already? That's the kind of team you don't want to face."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.