- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In all of the lockers in the home clubhouse at Tropicana Field sit individual (and sometimes multiple) empty champagne bottles, physical evidence of a celebration that has yet to cool. Rays utility man Eric Hinske jokes that he is "2-for-2," having been in the World Series this time last year with the Red Sox. "Just call me if you want to go to the Series," he says, laughing.
Cliff Floyd, who also has been to the summit before, as a member of the title-winning 1997 Florida Marlins, was still replaying the eighth inning of the Game 7 showdown with Boston, when David Price introduced himself to the Red Sox, and to October.
"He wasn't just like, there in the eighth, but when he came into the dugout, he was like, 'I want the ball in the ninth,'" Floyd said, exhilarated as though he were the rookie, as though there were no traces of gray in his goatee.
"And yesterday [Monday], well, I don't even remember yesterday. It was like a blur. I have never, ever been so jacked up during a game, and then after a game, in my life. My wife said, ''You'll get over it.' But you know what? I don't think I will."
And so it goes for the American League champion Tampa Bay Rays, still drunk with song, blinded by the awesome light of what seems to be a limitless future. Even during the series with Boston, before Game 2, Joe Maddon said, "You know what the interesting thing about all of this is? This is just the beginning. I'm already thinking about spring training, things that are going to make us even better."
Along with Floyd, Maddon (2002, with Anaheim) and Hinske (2007, with Boston) have World Series rings. But perhaps no one on the Tampa Bay roster is in a more appropriate position to assess the Rays at this moment in time than Cliff Floyd.
They are now the Anointed Ones in the hero game, the team that is young and good and from this day forward is experienced both in postseason boom (see ALCS Games 2 through 4) and bust (also see innings seven through nine, Game 5, 2008 ALCS). Their best players are under control (baseball speak for years from free agency), and the Rays are no longer just potential but are now the team to beat in the American League.
But Floyd knows better than to think that the future could ever be laid out so neatly. He knows that the Rays, for all the euphoria of the moment, stand in a critical position, where they can soar as a franchise, or lose by winning. History will provide that verdict: Will the events of October 2008 provide the springboard for the Rays franchise to become both an AL powerhouse and an economically viable commodity in the Tampa Bay area? Or will the thrilling victories of the month prove to be fleeting? The latter was the case for Floyd's Marlins, a team that won a World Series title (another in 2003) but could not win economically and ultimately was forced to sell off the good times, piece by piece, player by player.
For every projection of a Rays dynasty, the specter of the Marlins lurks. The Marlins, reminiscent of the old Montreal Expos, represent everything the Rays should fear: talent-rich, economically challenged, the team that develops winning ballplayers but is unable to keep them. Despite having won as many championships as the Red Sox over the past 12 years, the Marlins do not have any more solid a hold on their future. They are struggling with local politicians for a new ballpark and are flirting with that exotic baseball location -- San Antonio -- if negotiations crumble. A massive, publicly financed stadium during a national financial collapse is not an endeavor voters are likely to view enthusiastically.
Every sports team needs a moment on the field to solidify its place. Because of Carl Yastrzemski and the 1967 Summer of Love, Bostonians have long forgotten that Tom Yawkey fought bitterly with Boston politicians for a new ballpark and seriously considered moving the Red Sox if he didn't get one. The history of the San Francisco 49ers can be divided into two distinct eras: Pre-Catch and Post-Catch.
The Marlins' on-field success did not create that demarcating line that can alter a franchise, and the result is a team that has seen its best players -- Floyd, Miguel Cabrera, A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, Edgar Renteria, Mike Lowell -- perform for other teams, the champagne long dried by harsher financial realities.
The Rays stand on a similar precipice, with Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson, James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Evan Longoria and Price representing both the nucleus of a scarily good future, and -- if they want to remain together -- potential casualties of their own success. Commissioner Bud Selig, who will be in attendance for Wednesday's opener, has said, without equivocation, that he believes the Rays desperately need a ballpark, and the undertone of the commissioner's position is clear: Without a new ballpark, it will be virtually impossible to ensure long-term success in the region.
"We're a week away from being World Series champs," said outfielder Jonny Gomes. "But down the line, that's the question everyone's going to be wondering about: Can they keep this bunch of guys together?"
Stu Sternberg, the principal owner of the Rays, does not think Tampa Bay will fall as the Marlins did.
"I think people wanted baseball here more. I think with Florida, it happened so fast they didn't know what to do with it," Sternberg said. "I think there are a lot of people here who want baseball in the area. They want it to work. And they feel passionately about it. That will help us get things done here that maybe they couldn't do there."
In the meantime, the Rays stand at the summit, aware of their vitality, but not oblivious to the reality that financial imperative could defeat this team in a way the Red Sox could not.
"How could you not root for this? We've faced some adversity. And I mean adversity," said Carl Crawford, the club's elder statesman. "But you know what? Enjoy it. That's what everyone who has been there before has been telling us. Enjoy it, because everyone said to watch how fast it goes. And then they told us you never know how long it will last."
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.
The Tampa Bay Rays are at a critical juncture as a franchise. Even if they win the World Series, they just might lose.