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.
Since I’m not Muslim, I don’t know the Quran, and I’m not all that big on massive crowds, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever visit Mecca, the Holiest city of the Muslim world. Don’t get me wrong, I think it would be really cool to visit and see the sights, watch the swirling masses of people all joining in a gigantic celebration and demonstration of their collective faith. Take a look at the Google Street View of the place, its surreal. At the same time, this is not a perfect utopian vision where all peoples in the city are all singing their own version of Kumbaya, of which this is my personal favorite rendering is below. There are indeed factions amongst the Islamic faithful, this much is evident in a brief viewing of world news over the last umpteen years. Sadly, for all concerned, it doesn’t seem to stop at mere divisions of believers, it gets much more extreme and ugly.
While I may not have the right to visit Mecca in my lifetime (Saudi Arabia only allows Muslims to enter the city), I understand that there are pilgrimages all over the world, each offering their own healing, enlightenment, or rebirth. Christianity has the Holy Land. Judaism has the Western Wall, a pilgrimage back to the site of the second temple. Hindus have the Kumbh Mela, which is touted to be the largest religious pilgrimage on the planet, more than 30 million in a single day in 2013. Insane people have presidential campaigns where they tour the great country of the United States of America and yell at people like stark raving lunatics that are fit for little more than a strait jacket and a padded, door less cell. Sadly instead we put these nutsos in charge of everything…this is what we get for giving up on Manifest Destiny and putting fluorine in our tap water I guess (P.O.E.).
The classic Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. (Sony Motion Pictures)
Out of all of these, I could currently care less. Right now, it’s March and I’m in Tampa. It’s the best pilgrimage of all: SPRING TRAINING.
I have ended up in Tampa, a mere 2.7 mile jaunt down the street to the George M. Steinbrenner Field, spring home of the Damn Yankees. Putting things into perspective, I am closer to baseball right now than any of my fellow fantasy league devotees will be for weeks, measurable in mileage ticked off in triple digits. Eat it.
I am not an expert on pilgrimages, but for the following observations, I am willing to self-appoint myself to this lofty title, Grand Poobah of All Things Pilgrimage, The Winning Run edition (GPoATPTWRE for short). I know some things about a few pilgrimages, so I think that makes me expert enough to do this job, so let’s get started.
The Grand Poobah (Hanna-Barbera Productions)
The people. There are tons of people traveling here in Tampa wearing their favorite team’s logo/merchandise/moniker on their bodies somewhere. I am usually the sole person traveling that is sporting any form of a baseball T-shirt. My favorites are always Minor League teams, but I will also sport the big boy’s threads too, if the feeling strikes me. Last night was the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, go and see their bat dog, it’s worth it. Tonight I have shared my elevator trips with Pirates, Orioles, and Yankees fans. I’m calling that a first for me to make three consecutive trips in the same elevator and see three different offerings of fan wear en mass.
Minor League Baseball is always fun. (The Winning Run)
The traffic. Tampa traffic sucks. I’m not sure if this is just a Spring Training thing, or a Tampa thing, but someone needs to learn to get their red lights in some sort of order. Right now, I think rabid squirrels, high on peyote, that are drowning in Jell-O pudding, must program them. I’m serious, traffic here is dumb in the face.
The businesses. There are marquees up around town welcoming fans from the closest team in Spring Training. People love feeling like they are being acknowledged, this prompts businesses to get desperate and put up things like this. A fool and his money…
Don’t waste your money. (The Winning Run)
Breakfast. I went down for breakfast this morning, and in any other place that I’ve stayed before, when breakfast is offered, there is usually a decent mix of men and women staring blankly into space drinking a hot cup of coffee that likely tastes like a sweaty sock (I’m not a coffee fan, so I assume all coffee tastes this way). Tuesday morning I went down, presented my breakfast voucher, and observed something quite to the contrary. Out of roughly 40 people eating, a visual guestimate would place the male to female ratio somewhere in the vicinity of 39:1, with the one being roughly 5 years old and hyper.
The pool. The lady at the front desk made a big deal about giving me a room with a view to the pool. Fine by me, I enjoy people watching. I took a glance out my room last night and noticed the following: a hot tub directly outside my window with seven guys and zero girls. Again, the proportions are all kinds of off. If these guys were like the standard spring break bro bunch, they are picking a bad location to stay, roughly 45 minutes from the beach, and are striking out desperately with the ladies.
It’s Tampa. Why else would you come here? We queried a taxi driver we had a few years back that was taking us to Tropicana Field on what else there was to do in and around Tampa. His reply, “There’s nothing to do here in Tampa. This is God’s waiting room.”
The above evidence is admittedly circumstantial; there is no cause and effect directly shown. I may have shown up in a demographic anomaly where men outnumber women in ways that typically lead to war. It could be that the International Sausage Festival is at the Tampa Convention Center this week and I’m just out of the loop on deliciously spiced and flavorful tube meat meet-ups. Another idea all together is that Mango is dancing this week at a club in Tampa. People must have Mango, but Mango says “No!” If none of these things are true, then we should probably follow the logic of Occam’s Razor and pick the outcome that has the fewest assumptions as being true. There is a pilgrimage going on right now, and its destination is baseball.