Seriously? You must be kidding me!

June 17, 2008 at 12:00 am | Posted in Introduction, Rays | 4 Comments

The line that I am using as the title of this post is one that I hear often. I hear it every time I tell someone that I am a Tampa Bay Rays fan, or as they were known until November of 2007, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

I am hoping that I won’t hear as much astonishment in peoples’ voices now that the Rays are having a winning season. But in the past, people had a very difficult time understanding how someone could avidly cheer for a team that had losing records the first 10 years of their existence, never won more than 70 games, and only finished out of last place one time, when they finished barely ahead of the Blue Jays in 2004.

I do love explaining the reasons why I am such a huge fan of the team, even if I can be a little long-winded about it. So I figure that I will explain it here in my blog for all of the folks in cyberspace who are wondering how an average guy in North Carolina became a fan of the lovable losers from Florida.

To properly tell my tale, I have to start at the beginning, before the birth of the Devil Rays in 1998. As I mentioned in my first post here, I grew up as a Yankees fan. Looking back, there were three major reasons why I became a Yankees fan as a youngster in the mid-1980s:

1. They were on TV all the time, first on WPIX, and later on MSG Network. It was easy to become a fan of a team that I could watch regularly.
2. I have always been very interested in baseball history and the Yankees are the central characters in any baseball history books. They were the most storied franchise in the history of sports, having won 22 World Series championships (now 26) and having more stars and Hall of Famers than any other team. I was enthralled by hearing and reading about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, and many others.
3. I became a huge fan of both Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly. Winfield had the same first name as me and was a consistently great player. Mattingly was the hardest worker in baseball and was smashing the record books. Most importantly, they both were and are genuinely good guys and tremendous role models for a kid to have.

You must understand that being a Yankees fan in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a much different experience than being a Yankees fan today. They were a decent team in the 80s, but far from a powerhouse, having not made the playoffs after 1981. By 1989, they had a losing record, a feat that they repeated four years in a row. 1990 was the low point when the Yankees had the worst record in the American League. I didn’t like the losing, but I did like dreaming that one day the team would regain its past glory and possibly return to the World Series.

When Dave Winfield was traded in 1990 (a move that I vehemently opposed), Don Mattingly became my sole favorite player. Later, I became a huge fan of players like Wade Boggs, Paul O’Neill, Mike Stanley, and others. In 1993, my patience paid off as the Yankees had a winning season and contended for the division title until September. They were even better in 1994, and had the best record in the league in August. And then the strike happened. The World Series was canceled for the first time since 1904 and my dreams of seeing the Yankees play in the postseason were dashed.

Baseball was never the same for me after that. When the strike finally ended in early 1995, I was disappointed to see that the Yankees front office try to improve the team by spending a lot of money on Jack McDowell and John Wetteland rather than going with players who developed in their farm system. The problem got worse with the lopsided David Cone trade at mid-season. I liked the new players, but I didn’t like that the team was being built by George Steinbrenner spending a huge amount of money and pillaging the small market teams. I didn’t watch nearly as many games in 1995 as I had in previous seasons. However, when the Yankees made the playoffs, I was glued to the TV to watch the incredibly exciting series against the Mariners. In the end, Seattle prevailed, but the true heartbreak was yet to come.

George Steinbrenner ruined the Yankees for me after the 1995 season ended. He basically forced my hero, Don Mattingly, into retirement by refusing to re-sign him, and spending big money to bring in Tino Martinez to replace him. I loathed Steinbrenner for the disrespectful way that he treated Mattingly. I also greatly admired the manager, Buck Showalter, and loved the way that he ran the team. Showalter was also forced out and he was replaced by a retread from St. Louis named Joe Torre. I was disgusted and I was sure that the Yankees would never go back to the playoffs with Torre as manager.

Well, I was obviously wrong about Joe Torre. The Yankees won the World Series in 1996. And 1998. And 1999. And 2000. I watched almost no Yankees games in 1996. I was too upset over the way that Mattingly and Showalter were forced out, and I didn’t like how Steinbrenner was building a team by signing stars from other teams to big contracts. I watched all of the 1996 World Series, but it was very bittersweet for me. My childhood dream of a Yankees world championship had come true, but it just didn’t seem right without Don Mattingly there.

With each passing year, I liked the Yankees less and less. When I started college in 1997, I met many “band wagon” Yankees fans who wouldn’t have been able to name three players from the last place 1990 team. Without a favorite team to cheer for, my interest in baseball waned. For the first time, I followed football and hockey more closely than baseball.

In the back of my head, I was looking for a new team to cheer for. I thought about becoming a Diamondbacks fan when they hired Buck Showalter as manager for their first season in 1998, but I just couldn’t get interested in them. I knew that I couldn’t become a fan of a team that was having a really good season, or people would accuse me of jumping on the band wagon. I would rather be insulted in just about any other possible way than to be accused of being a band wagon jumper! It also would be tough to become a fan of an established team and have to learn as much about their history as I knew about the Yankees.

In 2001, I moved to North Carolina and went to my first Durham Bulls games. They were and still are the Triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays. I immediately loved the stadium and atmosphere at Bulls games and began closely following the players. As players like Toby Hall, Aubrey Huff, and Brent Abernathy were called up to Tampa Bay in 2001, I started to follow their careers and root for their success.

By 2002, I was starting to consider the possibility of becoming a Devil Rays fan. I was attracted to the fact that they had a short history and had never had a winning season. This way, I could never be accused of jumping on the band wagon! I began do research the team and players on the internet. I continued going to Bulls games and saw players like Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli develop in Durham. Then, after the 2002 season, Hal McRae was replaced as manager by Lou Piniella. Lou had been the manager of the Yankees in the late 1980s and I had a huge amount of respect for him.

Finally on Opening Day 2003, I announced to my family and friends that I was officially a Tampa Bay Devil Rays fan! Few people could understand how a former fan of a legendary team like the Yankees could switch allegiances to the Devil Rays. I began to recite the same story to them that you are reading in this post.

I followed the Devil Rays closely in 2003 and bought my first Rays hat and t-shirt. In 2004, I bought the MLB Extra Innings package on cable for the first time and began to watch a ton of their games on TV. In 2005, my wife and I took our first trip to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. With each passing year, my devotion to the team grew, to the point where I became just as big of a Rays fan as an adult as I was a fan of the Yankees when I was a kid. The constant losing was not easy to endure, but I put my hope in the future and the young players that were being developed in the minor leagues.

The team’s direction began to change after 2005 when Stuart Sternberg’s ownership group began running the team. The new group immediately began to make better business decisions and better baseball decisions, putting together an extremely exciting group of young players. Now, in 2008, I am seeing the fruit from my years of being a fan as the Tampa Bay Rays are a winning team contending for the American League East division title! I am loving every minute of it, and I am confident that I will be a Rays fan for life, unless someday the Steinbrenner family buys the team and ruins it in the same way that they ruined the Yankees for me.

So, if you’ve made it to the end of this post, now you know why I am a proud fan of the Tampa Bay Rays!

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4 Comments »

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  1. Really good post! Isn’t weird the things that make you a “fan”? Lofton was my guy when I was a kid and after Cleveland let him go I realized that I was still an Indian for life. So much so that I can’t tell you much about what happened to Lofton after that…

  2. Well, let’s see, after Lofton left Cleveland, he went to Atlanta, then back to Cleveland, then Chicago to play for the White Sox, then San Francisco, then Pittsburgh, then back to Chicago to play for the Cubs, then New York to play for the Yankees, then Philadelphia, then Los Angeles, then Texas, and then finally back to Cleveland last year. Ha!

    Yes, I had to look that up. I have long been amazed at how a really good player like Kenny Lofton could bounce between so many teams!

  3. Thats a pretty cool story! You are a really good writer and it was a joy to read. I became a fan of the White Sox around the age of 12 due to very similar reasons why you became a Yankee fan. I lived in the Midwest so I got the WGN channel and thus lots of White Sox games. My favorite player is Frank Thomas and I am captivated by the history of the team (Black Sox, Joe Jackson, etc.). I was really excited for the Rays last season. Even though they beat my team! The Rays were just unstoppable so I was able to accept my team’s fate. If the White Sox get into the postseason this year, I hope and pray we don’t face the Rays! That team is loaded to the gills in raw talent. Nice blog and best of luck in 2009!

  4. I grew up a Donnie and Yanks fan in the same time period you did. One thing I really did not get is hoe The Boss ran off Donnie? Never saw that, and never heard that.

    Donnie stopped playing, and there was even word that during the 96 season that they went back and asked Donnie if he wanted to play first part time and DH and pinch hit some and he declined. The trade for Tino happened after Donnie said he was not coming back, not the other way around.

    I had many of the same feelings you did about the 96 team and the 96 world series, but faulting The Boss for going out and getting top players is silly. Last time I checked the only team in professional sports history to EVER have 3 guys play their first 16 years together is the Yankees. I think we are damn lucky to have seen Jeter, Posada and Mo play this long together.

    I would trade all 6 of the Yankees WS winners I have seen to have seen Donnie win one, but I do not fault The Boss or anybody else for Donnie retiring. He obviously had some family issues to deal with on top of his back injury. More athletes should consider their family first.


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