Editors Note: We would like to welcome out newest columnist Jim Weihofen to the writing staff. In Jim's first article, he introduces himself and tells why the Rays are so special to him. Enjoy!
Before I begin my first entry here on The Rays Way, allow me to introduce myself. My name's Jim, I'm 20 years old, living in the Chicago suburbs, and I'm a huge Cubs and Rays fan.
Now, for my first post, I went through a lot of mental conflict of what to write about. Do I just jump into it, doing something along the lines of other sports writing I've done? Do I do a "fluff" piece along the lines of DJ Kitty and/or those creepy Don Zimmerman giveaways? Or do I go in a wholly separate direction?
After much thought - and a good amount of personal problems which lead to the extreme delays in writing this - I decided to go with the last option. Sure, I could go on about how great Joe Maddon is, how lucky the Rays are to have not lost bench coach Dave Martinez, how the #6-10 on the Rays starting pitcher depth chart likely is better than the Orioles #1-5, but, that's a bit too generic for my tastes. At least to start off with.
Instead, I've decided to write about why I love the Rays. Having never lived in Tampa Bay, nor having family there, nor some awesome personal connection, there's obviously a reason for my extreme love of this team. I still wear my 2008 League Champions cap with pride.
The reason I love the Rays so much started back when they were still the Devil Rays and wearing those atrocious uniforms that deserved to be demoted back to AAA - along with most of the team at the time. Back in the days of Aubrey Huff and not much else.
I truly got into baseball in the summer of 2003, which, by some weird stroke of luck - I'm still undecided if it was good or bad luck - was the year the Cubs came so painfully close to the World Series. Five outs away, that was all. However, I'm fairly certain any baseball fan who has been paying attention on even the most modest of scales knows about the Game Six collapse of the Cubs in the '03 NLCS, and I shan't bore you with yet another recap.
Around that time, the Rays were admittedly a team in the gutter. Tampa Bay's franchise was still paying the price of their inaugural season's "hit parade", a failed experiment of bringing together a bunch of over-the-hill sluggers in hopes they would generate enough offense to carry a team whose pitching ace was Wilson Alvarez.
The team, then plagued by depressingly low attendance, had no choice but to be baseball's bottom feeders, barely managing to pay anyone much above a million dollars a season. However, the Devil Rays had something special going for them: for whatever reason, they could seem to always be a team that played above .500 against the Yankees.
While I was still coming into my own in my knowledge and understanding of baseball - not only as a sport, but the differences within the MLB itself - one of the first things my mom taught me about baseball was the evils of the Yankees. To see a team that would only win about 70 games a year consistently beat the Evil Empire was something to draw an instant attraction.
A few years passed, the Cubs got worse, and my love and knowledge of the game got stronger. I didn't have home internet yet, so the best I could find out about the non-Chicago teams was the box scores in the sports page, and maybe a one-paragraph blurb. If I was really lucky, Tampa Bay would be on Fox on the weekends, but that rarely seemed to happen.
Then, in the winter of 07/08, I recall getting quite excited about seeing a Major League team changing its name. While I liked the new color scheme and jerseys, admittedly, I was underwhelmed by the change. Everyone knew the Tampa Bay team as the Rays by now anyway, or at least referred to them as such.
To say I was wholly invested in paying attention to the Rays to start the season would be to tell a lie. Over the winter, my grandfather, who I'd lived with since I was about two years old, passed away just shy of 96. That, high school, and the fact that the Cubs were quite good courtesy of now deposed-GM Jim Hendry's spending spree, captured my attention quite well.
Around roughly June or July, I noticed that Tampa Bay was doing quite well. I was happy, as my one-time love affair with the Red Sox had quickly diminished, as they'd become simply another incarnation of the Yankees, and no longer the team that could best understand my suffering as a Cub fan. Boston had won the World Series the year before - much to my dismay, as I was pulling for the Rockies - and I was glad to see Tampa Bay finally putting it together.
The season wore on, and Tampa Bay continued to hold their own in the AL East. Meanwhile, back home, the Cubs were having a historically good year, going on to win 97 games. It truly seemed like, for the first time in a century, the Cubs would be champions of baseball.
It would not be so. as the Cubs were swept out of the playoffs by the Dodgers. On the other side of town, the White Sox were playing Tampa Bay. As I've stated, I'd always liked Tampa Bay, and only three years before, I had to deal with the White Sox winning the World Series, so, naturally, I was pulling for the new-look Rays.
Between the two Chicago entrants to the playoffs, the only game that was won was the third game of the ALDS, with the White Sox beating the Rays at home to hold off the sweep. My happiness at the time was two-pronged, first for Tampa Bay winning, and second for the White Sox losing.
The Rays then went on to face the Red Sox in the ALCS, in what seemed to truly be a David vs. Goliath matchup. The Red Sox had won two World Series in the past five years, while the Rays were making their inaugural playoff berth. Admittedly, I was far more interested in this matchup than the NLCS, where I hoped a crater would open up in the earth and swallow both the Dodgers and Phillies whole, for all I cared.
Boston had spent a whopping $90 million more (just over 3 times as much as the Rays) in payroll during 2008, but couldn't derail the Rays. At the time, I was sure the Rays were a team of destiny. Their awesome pitching staff, amazing manager, and surefire future star third baseman would lead the way past the Phillies.
Alas, it was not meant to be, but the ride was still great. 2009 came, and the Cubs collapsed while the Rays established that 2008 was anything but a fluke. Since then, my hometown Cubs have become a joke and the Rays are now the epitome of what Billy Beane had hoped to create with his Moneyball philosophy.
In this success is where I feel the Rays are the epitome of everything that is right about baseball, the U.S.A., and the American Dream.
The team struggled for ten straight years, never seeming to be able to put the pieces together. New management came in and promised results if the plan was just stuck with and seen out.
Now, in most ventures, a decade of failure wouldn't even be allowed to happen, as the venture would likely be brought to an end. However, perseverance, and an absolute refusal to give up eventually lead to results that the whole baseball world must envy. In all likelihood, Alex Cobb is in the rotation of just about every other MLB team. For the Rays, he's comfortably at AAA Durham.
This is also a team that refuses to give in to conventional wisdom. Sure, the lineup may have a good amount of pop in it for 2012, but the standard issue Rays team doesn't have four sluggers like we'll see this season in Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, Luke Scott, and B.J. Upton. Heck, they grabbed Carlos Pena off the scrap heap after he seemed to be done, and all he's shown is that he's a quality MLB first baseman.
In many ways, the Rays are what we all strive for, what we all hope for, what we tell the younger generations life should be like. That no matter what the odds are against you, that you can succeed. Sure, there may be opposition in your life not unlike the Yankees and Red Sox (and even Toronto if they can consistently draw well), but that's not a reason to give up.
It's motivation. The Rays, to me, are motivation. They make me believe, they make me want to believe that anything can happen.
That is why I am a Tampa Bay Rays fan. To me, they're much more than just a team.