Commentary

Tampa Bay Rays don't stop believing

Offseason losses in the rearview mirror, Joe Maddon's squad ready to rumble in AL East

Updated: February 26, 2011, 9:15 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- On the day he assembled a whole new generation of Tampa Bay Rays for the first time this spring, Joe Maddon repeated one of those fabled Maddon-isms that form the essence of what makes the Rays' manager/philosopher-king a one-of-a-kind leader.

"You've gotta believe it," Maddon told these men, "before you see it."

The manager was well aware of what -- or at least whom -- the players around him didn't see that day.

Carl Crawford, for instance.

And Carlos Pena.

Not to mention Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and, essentially, this team's entire bullpen from the year before.

Not even David Copperfield could make that many people disappear with one wave of the magic wand. But in Tampa Bay, stuff happens that you won't find happening on the other big stages of the American League East.

Johnny Damon

If they weren't competitive, I wouldn't have come here.

-- Johnny Damon

So what happened to the defending AL East champions this winter was not what you'd call a surprise.

"We knew it was coming," said their executive vice president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman. "We knew a couple of years ago that things would change dramatically after the 2010 season."

But knowing it was coming didn't make it any easier for the guys who climbed this mountain to handle the pain of losing a winner-goes-on, loser-goes-home Game 5 of the AL Division Series against Texas this past October -- especially when they began to contemplate what came next.

"After that game was over, packing our bags up and knowing our season was over, that was the hardest part for me," pitcher James Shields said. "Just saying goodbye to the guys I had a really good feeling were not going to be back."

And having that feeling also didn't soften the thud of sitting home this winter, watching Crawford land in Boston, Pena sign with the Cubs, and Garza and Bartlett get traded off to the National League.

"It's difficult," said the Rays' ace, David Price. "It is. It's difficult watching the team we had last year, a team you've been a part of the last couple of years and a team that's had success I guess kind of quote-unquote 'fall apart,' get torn to pieces. It's tough to watch that."

And it is. How could it not be? So let's invoke a moment of silence for the demise of the 2010 Rays -- a demolition that has caused the subtraction of more than half the members (13 of 25) of last year's Opening Day roster and 11 members of October's postseason roster.

But let that silence last only a moment -- an exceptionally brief moment.

Because a moment is about as long as this group allowed the sadness to linger. And now, as this team begins the next chapter in franchise history, an incredible transformation has taken place. The hurt is gone. The mourning is over. And in its place, here's what you find:

Belief.

"You've got to believe it before you see it," Maddon was saying again, still sitting at his desk, four hours after the end of his team's workout. "A lot of people have to see it first. We have to believe before we see it."

But it isn't just the manager's words that infuse that sense of belief, although the manager has many, many words in him to lay out the pathway to that belief.

And it isn't merely the presence of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez in this camp, reminding all around them of the massive, self-generated belief the 2004 Red Sox needed to summon to stamp out The Curse, let alone an 0-3 AL Championship Series hole against the Yankees.

No, there's something else at work here, something very few people on the outside appear to have noticed about this franchise:

"We really don't have any Devil Rays," Friedman said.

And he's right. The "Devil Rays" portion of franchise history, in case you've blotted it out of your memory banks, was a 10-year train wreck -- 10 seasons (1998-2007) in which this team averaged 97 losses a year and never once lost fewer than 91 times. Not even the Mets of the 1960s or the Mariners of the 1970s and '80s kicked off life with a decade quite that ugly. But nowadays, that era of Devil Rays history feels about as ancient as the Ice Age.

[+] EnlargeManny Ramirez
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireIf anybody can keep Manny Ramirez happy and motivated, it's manager Joe Maddon.

A mere three years ago, this team's new regime surgically removed that word "Devil" from its name, carted all the old green and purple hats and uniforms off to the trash bin, and tried its best to start life anew. Three straight winning seasons and two unlikely AL East titles later, that mission has been officially accomplished.

It's only three years. But there are so few vestiges remaining of those old Devil Rays that "half these guys probably don't know we ever wore green and purple," Price said, chuckling.

Half? Heck, of the 62 players in this team's spring training camp, only six played even one game before this team turned into the Rays. And only three -- Shields, B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist -- played in more than 22 games back in the late, not-so-great Devil Rays era.

"So I don't feel," Price said, "like the past haunts this team at all. … These guys here only know the Rays as winners."

And because that's all they know, well, they believe. Still. No matter who's here.

And no matter who's gone.

"Quite possibly," Friedman said, "the most important change we've been a part of has been changing the culture. And it's trickled down to the minor league level. It's obvious when we draft players … and they talk about how excited they are to join our system. There's now a sense of pride about being a Ray that wasn't there before.

"I can still remember Torii Hunter's comment [a few years back] when he was asked if he'd rather be hit in the head by a Randy Johnson fastball or play for the Devil Rays. And he said, 'A Randy Johnson fastball. It's more immediate.' So we've tried hard to create a destination spot, and we've started to really see that. I mean, Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon wanted to play here."

And that's true. It wasn't just that the Rays were willing to employ them. It was that these two legendary ex-Idiots believed -- believed this team still expected to contend in the AL East.

"If they weren't competitive," Damon said, "I wouldn't have come here."

But that's not the only reason. Damon is a man with a personality so effervescent, he has the ability to light up every room he enters. And he's proud of the fact that he has "been a guy who has helped change clubhouses" in both Boston and New York.

So now, for his latest mission, he is trying to help this outfit piece its special chemistry back together and high-jump over the only bar the Rays of 2008-10 couldn't clear -- winning the World Series.

To those on the outside, that seems like an impossible hurdle for this team to clear -- without its home run leader (Pena), without its leading run-scorer (Crawford), without its second-leading winner (Garza), without the guy chosen as MVP of the 2008 World Series team (Bartlett) and without all six relievers who appeared in more than 55 games last season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the 2011 Rays will become the only team in history to have to replace that many pitchers who worked in that many games the year before.

But these Rays are buying into the dream of what their next generation -- Jeremy Hellickson and Jake McGee on the mound, Reid Brignac at short, Desmond Jennings in the outfield -- has a chance to become.

And they're hopeful their influx of roll-the-dice bullpen arms (Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Adam Russell, Cory Wade, Juan Cruz) will figure out a way to handle the end of games.

And they have no doubt they're about to trot out one of the great young rotations in the sport, in Price, Hellickson, Shields, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann.

But it wasn't until the historic day last month when the Rays became the first team ever to add two 2,500-hit men -- i.e., Manny and Damon -- on the same day that the players those two were joining truly believed they'd be able to fit the pieces back together in what Friedman calls their "constantly changing jigsaw puzzle."

"When we signed Manny and Johnny," Price said, "that was a pretty exciting day."

So on Day 1 of spring training, 1,000 people showed up at Charlotte Park -- which isn't exactly as conveniently located as, say, Busch Gardens -- to stampede around the back fields, watching Damon and Ramirez do their Idiots Reunion Tour thing. And while Damon is 37 now and Ramirez turns 39 in May, there's no disputing the buzz they've injected into the franchise, at least for now.

After his messy endings with the Dodgers and White Sox last year, Ramirez is consumed, Damon said, by the drive to "prove to everyone he's the greatest hitter of his generation." And Maddon has made a point not just to talk to Manny -- whom he described as "open and kind of spongy" -- but to listen, because "I'm really into that," the manager said. "It's about building relationships."

Meanwhile, Maddon calls Damon "one of the most affable and humble stars I've ever met." And, because Damon brings such an innate knack for team building and for understanding the importance of gearing up for every game, every inning, every at-bat, Maddon says: "He fits our profile perfectly."

Damon admits he sometimes looks around and sees a bunch of teammates "so danged young, they all should be in college." But he also says: "I love what I see here."

"These kids know how to play, and these kids know how to have fun," he said. "I may not be able to hang with them every night on the road. But that's the great thing about being young."

This won't be a team that can win quite the way it won in 2010. But that's why Maddon's ever-catchy slogan for this season is one Madison Avenue couldn't have phrased better:

"Another Way."

"The 'Rays Way' and 'Another Way' are synonymous terms," the manager said. "On an annual basis, we have to try to figure out a way to take what's given to us and try to make it work."

They'll try to make this work with a payroll ($43 million) that's barely more than half of what the Yankees' starting infield will rake in. But this group has long since learned to ignore dollar signs in this division.

"Everyone underestimates us every year," Shields said, laughing. "We're never going to be the top seed going into the season when you're dealing with $200 million payrolls in the Yankees and Red Sox. But we don't care. We like the fact that people underestimate us."

Oh, they can't quite see where this is all leading. Not yet. But that doesn't matter, as long as they believe there's a happy ending awaiting them out there someplace. Their faith in that happy ending might be shocking to some folks. But as their manager keeps telling the occupants of his clubhouse, they need to believe it -- all of it -- before they see it.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com