Every sport has teams that never seem to win it all. Many have passionate fan bases, however small. Many also have more modest budgets than the “big city” teams that seem to win a championship every few years. The Tampa Bay Rays tick all those boxes, and then some.
Tampa Bay Rays
For those who have never visited (you should), the Tampa Bay area in general and St. Petersburg in particular are beautiful spots. Great beaches. Laid back people. And sports teams that rarely compete for the grand prize.
For baseball fans who love smart, scrappy teams that manage to compete despite overwhelming odds against them, the Tampa Bay Rays are your kind of baseball club.
Here are some reasons to back this “little brother” team that just keeps chugging away, never giving up.
They’re Not Rich
Which is another way to say they are, by baseball standards, poor. The Tampa Bay Rays consistently rank near the bottom of teams in terms of payroll. The Rays also ranked dead last for attendance in 2017. That’s another familiar ranking spot for the Rays.
Yet They Compete
The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays made it all the way to the World Series. The book and film “Moneyball” made the Oakland Athletics famous for being smart in putting together a low-budget contender, and deservedly so.
But the Rays actually did better than that. They won the American League pennant, beating the Boston Red Sox in an exciting seven-game AL Championship Series. Guided by the sort of data-driven front office and savvy manager (Joe Maddon) that simulation game players respect, the Rays had a storybook season. It’s just that Brad Pitt didn’t star in a movie about it.
It also started a long run of finding ways to field a competitive team using advanced analytics. They’ve competed at a much higher level than the team payroll would lead you to expect.
A Monster Division
When you have a division that includes the Red Sox and the New York Yankees, you have a tough challenge. Both teams spend like there’s no tomorrow. Take the Yankees. In a rebuilding year in 2017, they almost won the AL pennant. And yet they still fired their manager, Joe Girardi. Now that’s high expectations, backed by high dollars.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Rays sometimes seem like a farm team for richer clubs. Maddon left for the Chicago Cubs. Pitcher David Price went to the Red Sox. So did Carl Crawford. That’s just three of many examples.
Yet since that 2008 season, the Rays have only had one season – 2016 – where they were truly bad.
Baseball fans agree on few things. But one of them is that Tropicana Field is the worst stadium in the majors.
That’s a bit unfair. If you have ever been there, it’s a lot better in person than on TV. There are live rays in a pool beyond centerfield. There are plenty of good eats, including Cuban sandwiches. There’s also beer on tap from the area’s local breweries.
Yes, it’s a bit of a dated tin can. But the rap that it’s in a bad location is also a bit unfair. St. Petersburg is one of the nicest places in Florida. It’s also become cool – a major change from an area once known primarily for elderly retirees. Both before and after games, Central Avenue and downtown St. Petersburg offer plenty of things to do.
If you’re looking for a New York City or San Francisco experience then, yes, it’s a little slow. But the whole idea here is you are not looking for a New York City or San Francisco team to back. They’ve got enough fans, already.
Longoria keeps hanging in there with the Rays. He’s one of the few stars that ever have. He’s made it clear he would like to play his whole career in Tampa Bay, and he’s been a great ambassador to the community. What’s not to like? Although – uh-oh – the Rays are thinking of trading him this off season.
Hard Luck Tampa Bay
The Tampa Bay area, when it comes to sports, is perhaps best known for the NFL’s Buccaneers. Other than one glorious Super Bowl victory, they typically dwell near the bottom of the standings. The Tampa Bay Lightning have become competitive again in recent years, but no championship since 2004. The Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer team fielded the last championship team in the area, winning the North American Soccer League in 2012. Other than that, it’s quite a dry spell.
Tampa Bay is not quite the Buffalo of the tropics, but there’s been a lot of heartbreak. Still, all these teams have a reputation for being scrappy. They rarely completely implode, including the Rays (well, not since the Maddon era, anyway). They have passionate fan bases. How can you not like that?
So, if you’re looking for an underdog team to root for outside of your hometown, why not the Tampa Bay Rays? There’s plenty there to like. Also, they could use another fan or two.