In 2008 the Tampa Bay Devil Rays dropped the Devil, becoming the Tampa Bay Rays. Changing their name also changed their fortunes. The Rays have a .535 winning percentage, much better than the Devil Rays, .399. Tampa is winning roughly 22 more games a season since the switch. In 12 seasons as the Rays, Tampa Bay has won at least 90 games seven times, made the Postseason five times, won the American League East twice, and reached one World Series. The Rays success has come while averaging 27th in team payroll.
Tropicana Field was not always home to success. The Devil Rays began play in 1998 and struggled through the 2007 season, their last as the Devil Rays. They averaged 25th in payroll, including ranking 10th in 2000. The 2004 season was the Devil Rays best, winning 70 games and did not finish last. Tampa Bay finished 4th, three games ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Every expansion team has growing pains as they build a competitive team. Tampa Bay received no breaks in the Expansion Draft. None of their first five draft picks played more than three seasons in Tampa Bay. Teams need players to build around and the Devil Rays did not find a franchise player in the Expansion Draft.
The Devil Rays held the first overall pick in the 1997 Expansion Draft. Tampa Bay selected Florida Marlins pitcher Tony Saunders. In 1997, the 23 year old lefty started 21 games for the Florida Marlins, going 4-6 with a 4.61 ERA and 1.464 WHIP in 111.1 Innings, allowing 57 Earned Runs, 12 Home Runs, 64 Walks, and 102 Strikeouts. Saunders pitched in the Marlins Postseason run to their World Series victory. Saunders, a young lefty with Postseason experience, was a logical first pick.
The Devil Rays took Tony Saunders with the first overall pick in the 1997 Expansion Draft. (Jonathan Kirn/Allsport/ Getty Images)
The 1998 Tampa Bay Devil Rays struggled, finishing 63-99, 16 games behind the fourth place Baltimore Orioles. In 31 starts, Tony Saunders went 6-15 with a 4.12 ERA and 1.570 WHIP in 192.1 Innings, allowing 88 Earned Runs, 15 Home Runs, 111 Walks (league leader), and 172 Strikeouts. Saunders pitched 7+ innings in 10 starts, allowing 3 runs or less in nine of those starts. He won twice. In four of those starts, Saunders pitched 8 innings, allowing three runs or less, yet he lost all four starts. Saunders received 3.37 in run support, while Major League teams averaged 4.79 runs per game. Tony Saunders pitched well for the expansion Devil Rays, despite his record.
Tampa Bay and Tony Saunders entered the 1999 season full of hope. The Devil Rays sought to play more competitive baseball and Saunders looked to build upon his success. Entering play on May 26th, the Devil Rays were 22-24. An expansion team hovering around .500 a quarter of the way through the season had many hoping the Devil Rays would soon contend. The Texas Rangers were visiting Tropicana Field facing the surprising Devil Rays. In the Top of the Third Inning, the Rangers had runners on first and third with two outs, trailing 3-2. Tony Saunders had a full count on reigning American League MVP Juan Gonzalez. Saunders took the sign from John Flaherty and uncorked a Wild Pitch. Gonzalez trotted to first, Rusty Greer moved to second, and Luis Alicea scampered home to tie the game.
Tropicana Field fell silent except for Tony Saunders screaming, writhing in pain on the ground. The pitch broke the humerus bone, the bone connecting the shoulder and elbow, in Saunders’ left arm. Training staff tried helping Saunders up, but the pain was too much. He was carted off the field and taken to the hospital. His season was finished and his career was in doubt.
Professional baseball players are tough. They play through pain and injury throughout the long season. A year after breaking his arm Tony Saunders was pitching again. His rehab assignment began with the Charleston RiverDogs, Tampa Bay’s Single A team. Saunders pitched in two games, throwing 5 Innings, with a 1.80 ERA and 0.800 WHIP, allowing 2 Hits, 1 Earned Run, 2 Walks, and 3 Strikeouts. He was promoted to the St. Petersburg Devil Rays, Tampa Bay’s Advanced A team. Entering the Third Inning of his second game, Saunders had pitched 7 Innings with a 3.86 ERA and 1.429 WHIP, allowed 7 Hits, 3 Earned Runs, 3 Walks, and 3 Strikeouts. Then it happened again, Saunders broke his arm throwing a pitch. His Major League career was over.
Tony Saunders broke his arm throwing a baseball. The Devil Rays future rested on his left arm. (www.mlb.com)
The Devil Rays retained their rights to Saunders through 2004, when they released him. Less than a month later the Orioles signed Saunders. He pitched in Spring Training for the Orioles, but spent the 2005 season pitching for the Mesa Miners of the independent Golden Baseball League. He pitched 9 Games in relief, going 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 1.600 WHIP. He threw 10 Innings, allowed 9 Hits, 2 Earned Runs, 7 Walks, and 8 Strikeouts.
There are no guarantees in baseball. Tony Saunders is not alone in having his career cut short by injuries. However his injuries were particularly gruesome. The future of the Devil Rays rested on his left arm, it took years for Tampa Bay to recover. Tony Saunders’ efforts to continue his baseball career did not go unnoticed. He received the 2000 Tony Conigliaro Award from the Boston Chapter of the Baseball Writer’s Association of America. The annual award is given to a Major League player who best overcomes an obstacle and adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination, and courage. While the award cannot replace his career, it is important to recognize Saunders’ perseverance in his comeback attempts.
Tony Saunders’ final career statistics: 3 Seasons, 61 Games Started, 2 Complete Games, 13 Wins, 24 Losses, 4.56 ERA, 1.528 WHIP, 345.2 Innings Pitched, 343 Hits, 175 Earned Runs, 33 Home Runs, 204 Walks, and 304 Strikeouts.
Oh, what could have been in Tampa Bay.
Lou Gehrig is remembered for three things: his greatness on the field, a speech, and the disease that claimed his life. He left a legacy in baseball and for those facing adversity, especially those battling ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Today is the 80th anniversary of Lou Gehrig Day at Yankee Stadium and Gehrig delivering baseball’s most famous speech. He did not focus on his problems, rather he spoke of the good in his life. A life cut short less than two years later.
On the diamond, Lou Gehrig was a tremendous competitor, forming the toughest duo in baseball history with Babe Ruth. Gehrig played 17 seasons for the Yankees, 1923 to 1939. In 2,164 Games, Gehrig collected 2,721 Hits, 534 Doubles, 163 Triples, 493 Home Runs, 1,995 RBI, scored 1,888 Runs, Stole 102 Bases, drew 1,508 Walks, 790 Strike Outs, .340 BA, .447 OBP, .632 SLG, and 1.080 OPS. Gehrig’s career numbers ensured his enshrinement into Cooperstown, even without his special election in 1939.
Putting Lou Gehrig’s greatness into perspective, consider his all time rankings today. Gehrig ranks 64th in Hits with 2,271. He is 42nd in Doubles with 534 and 33rd in Triples with 163. His 493 Home Runs still ranks him 28th. His 1,995 RBI are seventh all time. Gehrig’s 1,190 extra base hits are 11th most and his 5,060 total bases are 19th all time. His 1,888 runs scored rank 12th all time. He walked 1,508 times, 17th most. A career .340 hitter, 16th best. His .447 OBP is fifth, his .632 SLG and 1.079 OPS both place him third all time. His 179 OPS+ ranks fourth and his 112.3 oWAR places him 14th. 80 years after his final game, Lou Gehrig remains an all time great.
Hall of Fame numbers are not compiled in a few good seasons here and there, they come from excellence year after year. In Gehrig’s 17 seasons with the Yankees, he played fewer than 13 games in three seasons. Playing 14 full seasons before ALS robbed him of his abilities further shows Gehrig’s greatness. The Iron Horse registered eight seasons of 200 or more hits, leading the league in 1931. In 1927 and 1928 he led baseball in Doubles with 52 and 47 respectively. In 1926, his 20 triples paced baseball. Gehrig was the Home Run King three times (1931, 1934, and 1936). He was perfectly placed in Murderers’ Row, leading the league in RBI five times, driving in at least 109 in 13 consecutive seasons. He led baseball in Runs Scored four times, scoring 115 or more Runs in 13 consecutive seasons. The Iron Horse possessed both power and patience at the plate, drawing at least 100 Walks in 11 seasons, leading baseball on three occasions. Gehrig struck out a career high 84 times in 1927, he would never strike out more than 75 times in any other season. Gehrig hit .300 or better in 12 straight seasons, led the league in Slugging twice, OPS three times with 11 consecutive seasons above 1.000. He had five seasons with at least 400 total bases, leading baseball four times. In 1934, Gehrig won the American League Triple Crown with a .363 BA, 49 Home Runs, and 166 RBI. Shockingly he finished fifth in MVP voting behind a trio of Tigers (Mickey Cochrane, Charlie Gehringer, and Schoolboy Rowe) and teammate Lefty Gomez. Gehrig did win two MVP Awards (1927 and 1936), while finishing in the top five in six other seasons. The Iron Horse was always a MVP contender.
Lou Gehrig was one of the greatest players to ever step on a diamond. (Mark Rucker/ Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)
The Yankees during the Gehrig years were seemingly in the World Series every October. Lou Gehrig played in seven Fall Classics. New York won six World Series with Gehrig (1927, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1937, and 1938), sweeping their National League opponents four times. Gehrig played in 34 Games with 119 At Bats. He collected 43 Hits, 8 Doubles, 3 Triples, 10 Home Runs, 35 RBI, and scored 30 Runs. He drew 26 walks against 17 Strikeouts. Gehrig hit .361, .483 OBP, .731 SLG, and 1.214 OPS. The Iron Horse helped the Yankees reach and win multiple World Series.
Despite his greatness on the diamond, Lou Gehrig is best remembered for the speech he gave on July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Day, as the Yankees honored him as he fought ALS. The Gettysburg Address of Baseball remains one of the most famous moments in baseball history. There is no known full recording of the speech, however we do have a partial recording and a transcript of Gehrig’s words.
“For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.
When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such a fine looking men as they’re standing in uniform in this ballpark today? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.
When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift- that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies- that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter- that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body- it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed- that’s the finest I know.
So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.”
There are several ways to define greatness. No single definition will satisfy everyone’s understanding of the word. One definition of greatness in baseball, and in life, is doing the unthinkable while also doing the basic things extremely well. There are several super star players in baseball at the moment, but Mike Trout rises above the others for his greatness and his ability to do the basic things well.
Greatness in a career, not just a singular moment, requires the ability to continually place yourself among other great players. In his first five full seasons in the Majors, Mike Trout has established himself as a consistent and reliable player for the Angels. There have not been any wild swings, up or down, in his statistics. He has scored more than 100 runs, collected at least 172 hits, hit 27 home runs, and hit 27 doubles in every full season. He has played in at least 157 games every season over the last four seasons. His consistency looks like this:
Mike Trout makes the extraordinary seem commonplace. (Mark J. Terrill/ Associated Press)
This consistency, season after season, has led Trout to never finish lower than second in the American League MVP voting. He has received a vote on 148 MVP ballots in his first five seasons, out of a possible 148. Trout won the MVP Award in 2014 and 2016. He finished second to Miguel Cabrera in both 2012 and 2013, and to Josh Donaldson in 2015. In his rookie season, Trout received all 28 first place votes for the 2012 AL Rookie of Year Award, far outdistancing runner up Yoenis Cespedes.
The Rookie of the Year Award, two AL MVP Awards, and five Silver Slugger Awards are quickly filling up Trout’s awards case. In some ways, the awards mask Trout’s dominance. He has drawn at least 83 walks in each of the last four seasons, twice leading the league with 110 in 2013 and 116 in 2016. This while sharing the Angels lineup with Albert Pujols. Trout’s discipline at the plate has meant a .405 career OBP. Yes, Trout does strikeout more than he probably should (136 times or more in every season), there are two things to remember. First, his walk rate is increasing while his strikeout rate is decreasing, so he is still learning. Second, Mike Trout is 25 years old. He is still a young ball player.
Despite all his ability on the field, Trout does not receive the appropriate fanfare he should. He is one of the most visible players in the sport, yet he could be so much more. There are three things that have dampened his rise to supreme super stardom. Above all baseball is a team sport. No individual can truly carry an entire team for a season like a player can in basketball or football. If Mike Trout were to get hurt, the Angels could replace him and still remain competitive. If LeBron James or Tom Brady were injured their team’s season is probably over. This understood, Trout has played on an Angels team that has not consistently competed in the American League West. In his first five full seasons, the Angels have finished as follows: 2012 89-73 (3rd AL West), 2013 78-84 (3rd AL West), 2014 98-64 (1st AL West, swept in ALDS), 2015 85-77 (3rd AL West), and 2016 74-88 (4th AL West). In baseball, great players need to be on competitive teams if they are to achieve the recognition their talents deserve.
The most common comparison for Mike Trout is to Mickey Mantle, and it is easy to see why. (www.nydailynews.com)
The second issue is that Trout plays on the West Coast. East coast bias is a real thing, and here is one of the main reasons why. Night games in California during the week start too late for people living on the East Coast or in the Midwest to stay up and watch. It is tough to watch a three hour game that starts at 10pm, when you have to be at work by 8am the next morning. Unfortunately, Friday and Saturday nights are really the only time for players like Trout to shine at home before the national audience. Trout and the Angels are also fighting for an audience in Los Angeles. After the eastern half of the country has gone to bed, there are still plenty of baseball fans awake to watch Trout, if they so chose. The Dodgers’ return to competing for a World Series title has meant less attention on the Angels as they seek their own return to consistently competing for the post season. Anaheim will always be the second team in Los Angeles, in part because Angels Stadium is 25 miles from downtown and Dodgers Stadium is two miles from downtown. Anyone who has ever tried to travel 25 miles in Los Angeles traffic can tell you that reaching Anaheim in time for an Angels game often requires divine intervention.
Trout’s greatness is one of a remarkable craftsman. His play makes him a superstar, yet his consistency year after year has him steadily climbing closer to the all time greats. Players like Hank Aaron and Derek Jeter are craftsmen. Aaron hit 25 home runs in all but one season from 1955 to 1973, yet never hit more than 47 home runs in a single season. Jeter averaged 191 hits for 18 of his 20 seasons in the Majors, leading the league in hits twice (1999 and 2012). It is not always easy to see the greatness of these compilers early on in their careers, it is the consistency over an entire career that raises these players from great to legendary. Predicting the future of any player is impossible because the game of baseball is unpredictable. Injuries are the hardest thing to predict. What sort of career would Mickey Mantle have had if he could have stayed healthy? Mantle is already a legendary player, but did he reach his potential? We will never know.
Mike Trout’s talent should help him rise to the top in baseball and in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill/ Associated Press)
The greatness of Mike Trout cannot be ignored but it is only occasionally celebrated. He is a superstar, yet few people understand the company Trout is in through his first five full seasons in the Majors. Comparing Trout by age has meant comparisons at age 20 to Vada Pinson, Frank Robinson at age 21, and Mickey Mantle from age 22 through 24. The top ten similar batters through their age 24 season are Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr., Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Mel Ott, Miguel Cabrera, Orlando Cepeda, Vada Pinson, Al Kaline, and Jimmie Foxx. Every comparison except for Vada Pinson is a Hall of Fame player, without question. Mickey Mantle is the most common comparison, and the longer these comparisons continue the higher Trout rises in baseball’s pantheon.
Mike Trout’s greatness is known throughout baseball, yet he remains undervalued. A talent like Trout may only appear on the diamond once in a generation. Barring injury or some other unforeseen issue we have many more seasons to enjoy Trout and his greatness. Make sure you take time to watch Trout play, even if it means staying up late or fighting through Los Angeles traffic. Greatness should be appreciated, and looking back you will not remember how tired you were the next morning or sitting in traffic forever but that you were able to watch one of the legends of the game in action.