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Somehow, this bad year feels better
By GARY SHELTON
Published May 31, 2006
It is June 1, and yes, you know where your Devil Rays are.
They are in last place, again. They are riding a losing streak, again. They are double-digits behind in the American League East, again. The payroll is not much bigger, the stands are not much fuller and the bullpen is not any better.
In other words, if everyone wasn't in agreement that this franchise was so new and improved, you might swear this was the same old swill.
The glow was bound to wear off, of course. Even the euphoria of free parking - Whee! Let's park again! - eventually fades. So does that starting-over, new-management, fresh-canvas feeling that comes with a new owner and a new plan. Look, no one shovels a decade's worth of muck overnight. Or over 53 nights, for that matter.
Still, it was easy to hope for more by now. More wins. More fans. More pitchers. More hope.
And so, two months in, it is time for the question you have delayed asking:
Here in their ninth consecutive expansion season, are the Rays really better off now than they were before?
If so, the numbers would suggest that it isn't by much. The Rays have won only two more games at this point than last year, and they have won fewer games than in either of their first two seasons of existence. If the roster is any better than last year's, it is marginally so. The bullpen is still a horror movie. The hitting hasn't been what most of us expected. Losing comes in clumps. And the minor leagues still have the look of a day care gone wild.
Even for a new owner in his honeymoon period, last place should be unacceptable. Yet, here we are, with the American League East once again stacked on top of the Rays like Lincoln logs.
With every defeat, the Rays look a little more like yesterday. With every blown opportunity, the critics come back from the shadows. This was bound to happen. No one goes to the park to watch the new owner own, and eventually, the born-again fervor of the fans was bound to fade.
Yet, despite it all, even a cynic would have to concede that yeah, this franchise is better off, incrementally, than it has been.
That isn't saying much, of course, and perhaps what it does say is more about the past than the present, and perhaps it doesn't say anything at all about the future. But, yes, things feel better. For the first time in a long time, last place doesn't seem like a life sentence.
I know, I know. You've heard optimism before, and you've heard about other plans. As a franchise, the Rays are overdrawn when it comes to patience and undeserving when it comes to faith, yet here we go again, starting the countdown to 2008 when games will really, really matter.
Say this for Rays fans, bless their sunny little souls: They want to believe. For a decade, the only thing more familiar than last place was the promise that this team wouldn't be there for much longer, and time after time, fans would try to believe this year was different than the one before. So understand their angst. What's the old line: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me for a decade, and I'm wearing a Rays cap?
Because of that, the word-of-mouth factor feels a little better about this team. Matt Silverman, the team president, points out that television ratings are up and Web hits are up. Attendance is slightly improved.
Perhaps those fans have seen enough clues to believe the Rays could dig themselves out of a hole that took a decade to dig. Already, Scott Kazmir is the best pitcher this franchise has had, and Carl Crawford is the best player. Toss in Jonny Gomes and Jorge Cantu and a farm filled with prospects, and the core is better than it has been.
Ah, but what about money? With the Rays, a franchise that has always squeezed nickels so hard it left fingerprints on them, that's always a question.
Yet, there are clues the Rays are prepared to spend more money. The $37-million payroll is only a small improvement, but when you consider the overall payout, it's more promising. Take the $8-million or so in dead money paid to players who turned out to be mistakes. Take the $3-million or so paid to buy out Lou Piniella and Chuck LaMar. Consider at least a portion of the millions used to improve Tropicana Field. It isn't hard to picture this team with a $50-million payroll.
How much winning can that buy? Ah, that's the question, and that's where faith and patience come back into play. Do you believe in owner Stuart Sternberg's commitment? In vice president Andrew Friedman's abilities?
Say this much for the early going. The Rays at least seem disciplined enough to stick to their own plan, which was never the case before on Franchise Willy-Nilly. For instance, they could have added a few expensive Band-Aids this year, and they could have made things look a little better. They could have brought back Danys Baez - who, according the talk-shaw callers, has turned into Mariano Rivera - and it would have helped win a few more meaningless games.
For this team to climb out of the rubble, however, it's going to have to swallow a little dirt. And so the Rays will take their lumps this year and next, until the pitching prospects grow up, until the phenoms arrive.
No one expects miracle cures. This is going to take time. If nothing else, the first two months of the Sternberg era suggest how much work this franchise has to do before anyone will believe that there is really anything different about it. Two months? It's too soon to tell.