- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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CHICAGO -- Just in case Michael Phelps needs any more marketing concepts, Tampa Bay first baseman Carlos Pena has one. Champagne goggles.
"We had seen other teams celebrate, and we knew about the eye goggles. But some of us overlooked the eye goggles and how necessary they were," Pena said of Tampa Bay's first-ever celebration two weeks ago when it finally clinched a postseason spot.
Lesson learned, experienced gained. After the Rays' series-clinching victory over the White Sox, Pena sported a pair of Speedo swim goggles to protect his eyes from the spray of so much champagne and beer that the clubhouse smelled like Matthew McConaughey's hotel suite. "I think this is going to help [Phelps] out as far as endorsements are concerned."
Yeah, the guy really has been scrambling for sponsors lately.
The Rays rarely had anything to celebrate in their first decade of existence, finishing last nine times and next to last once those first 10 seasons. The only time they sprayed champagne was after Wade Boggs' 3,000th hit. But give them this: They've picked that skill up quickly. After wrapping up the AL Division Series against the White Sox, the Rays displayed all the champagne- and beer-spraying fundamentals of Derek Jeter.
"They celebrate as well as anybody I've ever been involved with," pitching assistant Brian Anderson said. "You take the Diamondbacks in 1999 and 2001, the celebrations I was involved with in Cleveland, Arizona winning the World Series -- and these guys have this part down right. I just hope they can keep this going on the field and see how the ultimate celebration will go. As far as celebrating, this team has no learning curve. They've got it down solid."
Well, you would celebrate a chance to go to the World Series, as well, if you'd been so bad for so long that the only thing missing was a movie about your franchise starring Charlie Sheen and Corbin Bernsen.
"We greatly appreciate where we are at and what we have accomplished," Pena said. "We know we haven't been here before, and we have no shame of that. In fact, we embrace it. This is the first time in Tampa Bay, and we are going to celebrate like we are due to celebrate and we must celebrate. In fact, that's the only way to show how grateful we are. This is a special time in all of our lives, a special time in our careers. So why not celebrate to the max and say thanks to the max."
That was a theme of a speech Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon gave the team this year: Appreciate this while you can. You don't know when it will come around again.
Which is something Tampa Bay players should know better than anyone
"The one thing I told our players post-All-Star break is to treat this situation with respect. And they have," Maddon said. "You are not going to be in this position on an annual basis. You try to be, but it's very difficult. We happen to be here right now. Let's treat it with respect and learn some lessons from this whole thing so we can repeat it in positive ways in years to come."
One example of treating the game with respect came midsummer when Maddon benched outfielder B.J. Upton for not running out a ground ball. "Sometimes you've got to do things like that," Maddon said. "It's no different than parenting. It's the same principle, and he responded great. Didn't make excuses, didn't push it off on somebody else. And he is really making a difference in his baseball career."
[Winning the division series] means everything. We've been at the bottom of the barrel for so long. I think there was a point where people didn't even know who we were.
--Rays outfielder B.J. Upton
Upton didn't need to hustle around the bases Monday, though, when he hit two home runs in his first two at-bats. The first was in the first inning and gave the Rays a lead they never surrendered.
"It means everything," Upton said of winning the series. "We've been at the bottom of the barrel for so long. I think there was a point where people didn't even know who we were."
They should now. In beating Chicago, Tampa Bay showed what fueled its rise from division doormat to division champ in the AL East. The Rays pitch well (starter Andy Sonnanstine and the bullpen held the White Sox to two runs and four hits), fielded well and hit enough to make the difference. And now the Rays will play the Red Sox for the right to play in the World Series.
Yes, the Rays! Playing for the pennant. And if winning the division series as well as the AL East has failed to convince anyone that Tampa Bay is a team to reckon with, well, that's fine. But you'd better bring some eye protection to the Rays' clubhouse during the ALCS just in case. If not, you might have to endure the sting of champagne in the eyes along with Anderson, who prefers to go sans goggles, with or without a Phelps endorsement.
"I guess I'm from the old school, 'Let it burn, let it burn,'" he said. "These guys are not, and watching how violent they can get, maybe the goggles are a good idea. There are a lot of corks flying around."
Jim Caple is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com.