There is at least one place where hope springs eternal

Published April 18, 2006

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have won seven games in their young season to date, while losing only six. This places the Rays in third place in the American League East behind the teams from Boston and Baltimore.

Speaking objectively, a 7-6 record is not news. The season has 162 games. An elite, highly paid team such as the New York Yankees barely pays attention until the season is halfway done before stirring from its pampered dolor and lifting a pinky to make the playoffs. It is possible the Yankees do not realize the season has started.

A team such as the Devil Rays has no such luxury. It must scrap to win games from the get-go. So far the Rays have done this in fine fashion, wrapping up the weekend with a three-game sweep of the Kansas City Royals.

Have you been to a game yet?

It feels good. It feels different this year - the new manager, the attitude of the new owners, the atmosphere at the ball park.

This is how it felt when the Buccaneers and the Lightning began their turnarounds. The greater implications for the Tampa Bay area are interesting.

There was a nice moment Saturday night when Rays slugger Jonny Gomes came to the plate with the bases loaded against the Royals. There were 20,000 fans on hand, loud enough to make Tropicana Field feel like a baseball stadium and not a tin can. Most of them were holding Jonny Gomes figurines handed out that night.

The worried Royals pitcher walked Gomes on four pitches and forced in a run. That's a great moment in baseball - when your guy scores not from swinging the bat, but from the opposing pitcher's fear that he might.

At the home opener April 10, more than 40,000 fans showed up, and there was a rare excitement in the air, not felt since, perhaps, the very first home game of the franchise's first season.

"I've lived here almost 20 years, and I go to 10 or 12 games a year," fan Tony Cusumano of Seminole told me. He brought his son Matthew to the home opener for his 12th birthday. "I haven't been to a game here where everybody had so much hope, so much buzz."

The Rays lost that home opener, and dropped three out of four to the Baltimore Orioles before rebounding against the Royals. Now the team is off to play the Yankees, the Texas Rangers and the Boston Red Sox on their home fields.

Nobody using a brain believes the Rays will win more than half their games this year, let alone attain the dream of reaching the playoffs. Everybody says this is a team that has a chance to be competitive in a couple of years.

But, you know, the brain by itself never swung a bat. The Devil Rays have been driving home runs into the stands at an impressive pace and staging gritty come-from-behind victories.

As for pitching, some teams have tough, grizzled veterans who sneer at terrified young batters. The Devil Rays rotation, in contrast, includes peach-fuzzed youngsters who for the most part do not sneer. Yet they are learning. The team's new manager, Joe Maddon, is a bespectacled thinker who takes in every detail.

Just as the team's 7-6 record is a change, so is the new attitude of the team's ownership and management. There's free parking, lower prices and a spiffed-up stadium. The management cheerfully allows tailgating and permits outside food in the stadium. Team executives mingle with fans and write down their ideas.

There's talk of changing the team's name and identity. I hope not. At the most, my vote is to drop "Devil" from the name, since the team is commonly called "the Rays" already. As for those who think the team should be named "St. Petersburg" instead of "Tampa Bay," out of parochial interest, I assume that you also think the football team should be named the "Tampa Buccaneers." This team will not succeed unless it is a Tampa Bay team.

Does our society put too much emphasis on professional sports? Sure. Is the Legislature up to no good, the president in trouble and our future at risk? Always. Forgive me, then, this frivolity, which I defend on one ground only, that it is always better in life to have hope than not to have it, no matter the field of endeavor.