Commentary

Maddon: This is just the beginning

Originally Published: October 29, 2008
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- For every championship team that sprays champagne, chews victory cigars and rants and screams in a manner that might get you arrested on Main Street at midnight, there's a corresponding losing club forced to deal with the crushing disappointment of it all.

Shortly after their 4-3 victory in Game 5 of the World Series, the Philadelphia Phillies let down their hair in celebration of the second title in franchise history. It would have taken a soundproof bunker and a few extra sheets of protective plastic over the locker stalls to contain their euphoria.

At the other end of Citizens Bank Park, the Tampa Bay Rays came to grips with reality. Some players lingered in the dugout for a few minutes after Eric Hinske's game-ending strikeout to watch the Phillies go wild and 45,940 fans pop their cork. Most of the Rays headed quickly up the runway to the clubhouse, where manager Joe Maddon thanked them for a job well-done and told them how proud he was of their effort and poise under pressure.

"Obviously, you want to win the World Series when you get to this particular juncture, but for us to get here this year is just unthinkable," Maddon said. "I know from my perspective, this is just the beginning. That was part of my message to the players. We need to grow. This World Series will provide us the best instructional video in the history of the organization."

With that, the Rays showered, dressed, paid their clubhouse dues and boarded a bus to a charter flight that carried them home to some warm memories and a bright future. They failed in the pursuit of their ultimate goal, yet were secure in the knowledge that baseball in the Tampa-St. Petersburg market will never be the same.

[+] EnlargeJoe Maddon
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesJoe Maddon's Rays began the season as the AL East's doormat, won a division title and found themselves playing for a World Series title. It was nothing short of amazing.
A franchise that had never surpassed 70 victories -- a franchise that had grown accustomed to being outspent, outgunned and outplayed by the American League East powers -- came of age this season under Maddon's leadership. The Rays captured their first division title with 97 victories, then dispensed with the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox in the playoffs to reach the World Series.

At the peak of this team's grand adventure, cowbells clanged, Mohawk haircuts became fashionable, a teenage saxophone player named BK Jackson became a national anthem-playing sensation, and Dick Vitale, Paul Azinger and Gen. David Petraeus were among the luminaries to throw out ceremonial first pitches at Tropicana Field.

And wonder of wonders, the fans in Tampa-St. Petersburg turned out with enough numbers and fervor to drown out the traveling bands of Red Sox diehards in the ALCS. That will be part of the 2008 Rays' legacy.

"These guys have created baseball in Tampa Bay, I believe," said Stuart Sternberg, the Rays' principal owner. "It's a large amount to bite off and chew. But I don't think the region's three million-plus people knew what baseball could mean until this year. And that's something that's going to stick for generations."

The only thing left to lament was the pale imitation that showed up for the World Series. The Rays were regarded by many as favorites over Philadelphia because they played against superior competition in the American League during the regular season and in October. But that didn't count for much when it mattered most.

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The Rays hit .212 as a team in the World Series, grounded into six double plays and got a combined 3-for-37 effort (.081) out of their Nos. 3-4 hitters, Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena. The defense, considered a team strength all year, committed five errors in five games.

And the Rays seemed just a tick off their game when it counted. Two plays in the Series finale spring to mind.

In the bottom of the sixth inning Wednesday, with the Tampa Bay infield playing in, second baseman Akinori Iwamura failed to make a difficult catch on Jayson Werth's pop fly to shallow center field. Geoff Jenkins scored, and the Phillies took a 3-2 lead.

After Rocco Baldelli's solo homer off Ryan Madson tied the game in the seventh, Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett got overaggressive on Iwamura's infield single and was cut down by Chase Utley at home plate to end the inning.

Might things have worked out better for Tampa Bay if Maddon had employed his relievers differently? Perhaps. But the Rays manager pronounced himself satisfied with his choices of Grant Balfour, J.P. Howell and Chad Bradford in front of David Price, and the Rays were left to concede that the Phillies were simply a better club.

[+] EnlargeEcan Longoria
Rich Kane/US PresswireEvan Longoria's incredible rookie season concludes with a 1-for-20 performance in the World Series.
"They're an unbelievable team," said Price. "They have good depth, an unbelievable bullpen and great starters. You've got to tip your cap to Cole Hamels. He's one of a kind out there. If you could run him out there five times in your rotation, you might never lose."

Before the Series, the conventional wisdom was that the Phillies might be stale from their extended layoff after an easy win over Los Angeles in the NLCS. In hindsight, was it possible that the Rays paid an even bigger price for their seven-game marathon against Boston in the ALCS? Did the ordeal sap their emotions in a way that can't be measured?

"I don't know if it took anything out of us," Baldelli said. "But everything around that Boston series was built up as bigger than this. That was kind of a crazy series, and then there was kind of a lull where we were just working out and showing up. Things weren't as built up for the World Series as that series. It was definitely a tamer atmosphere."

Nevertheless, the complete October experience steeled the Rays for bigger and better things down the road. Price, barely a year out of Vanderbilt University, talked about how the game "speeds up" at the big league level and proceeds at an even faster pace in the postseason. Consider him acclimated.

Carl Crawford, the longest-tenured Ray, spoke of how the team's achievement this season "sets the bar" on how high the Rays can go next year. In other words, the Tampa players won't be satisfied with anything less than another postseason appearance.

The Tampa Bay roster will return largely intact. A starting rotation of Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine and Price would be formidable. And the Rays still have to figure out what to do with Edwin Jackson, who is 25 years old, throws in the upper 90s and tied a franchise record with 14 victories this season.

The lineup is loaded, too. Center fielder B.J. Upton displayed his all-around talent in the postseason. Pena has hit 77 homers the past two seasons. Crawford has All-Star caliber skills in left field, and Longoria is already a mature and polished third baseman at 23. That's quite a nucleus.

"To me, it's almost scary," said Shields. "Other teams in the league are going to take us a little bit differently next year."

The Rays will regard themselves differently, as well. A small payroll and inexperience will no longer be an excuse for coming up short.

"In the minds of a lot of people, just making it into the playoffs was a big thing for us," Longoria said. "Just winning 75 games was a big deal for this franchise. Obviously, there's a great deal of disappointment we didn't win the world championship. But when I go home and sit on my couch for a little bit, there's a lot more good than bad that happened this year."

Maybe it won't even take that long. As the Rays settled into their seats on the bus for the trip to the airport, they knew they'd accomplished something special. Even the hollowness of the ending couldn't change that.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer