The 2009 Tampa Bay Rays: Testing a Theory of Evolution

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The 2009 Tampa Bay Rays: Testing a Theory of Evolution
(Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Is it really Thursday already? It’s hard to believe Opening Day is three days in the review mirror.

What is not hard to believe is on day four, the New York Yankees are 0-2 and everyone in the Northeast is on the brink of suicide.

However, everyone knows—unless you bet your life savings on the Yankee’s first two games—then there’s no reason to worry.

Well, that is until the Yankees get desperate and sign Scott MacIntyre, who is a blind piano player and the latest singer booted of off American Idol, to a pitching contract.

“At least he might be able to find the plate,” joked my girlfriend, a die-hard Yankee fan who never misses a game.

Just look at it this way New York fans, your pitching staff isn’t half bad as the Washington Nationals, which compiled a team ERA of 14.25 in its three losses to the Florida Marlins.

Or you could be a Houston Astros fan who watched Brian Moehler and Russ Ortiz give up eight runs in the first two innings against the Chicago Cubs.

I am pumped about Moehler being our No. 3 starter! More amped that Mike Hampton is in the back of the rotation to pick up his slack.

But what can you really tell by three games? Not much. However, one topic did catch my attention on Monday night when my girlfriend and I were laying in bed, watching baseball and making our season predictions.

I selected Tampa bay as the AL East winners. She picked the Yankees for her rooting interest—she will hate that line and demand it be taken out.

But one thing caught my attention when I asked, “Not giving the Rays a chance?”

“Well they’re good. But last year they had a lot of things go right for them. Plus, I can’t pick against the Yankees,” she responded.

Her loyalty is just and I respect that. However, I couldn’t help but think how many Yankee-Red Sox fans are picking their teams because of loyalty or because they have an older brother complex.

A complex which is derived from the Younger Brother Theory of Evolution (for those who have younger brothers, you know this theory well).

Step one of evolution is: The Years of Domination.

You’re 15-years old, he’s 10. You dominate him like Michael Jordan would Barack Obama.

You go right (because dribbling with your left-hand is impossible), spot-up (because you’re a foot taller) and swish a 10-footer in his face and yell, “you can’t stop this!”

He gets possession (after you allow him to seal it away), he takes a shot, you swat the ball (which lands on top of the garage) and you scream, “Ohhhhh!" and wag your finger like Dikembe Motombo.

Step two: The Years of Potential.

He’s 15, in high school, a bit taller, more coordinated (he can use both hands) and able to make it competitive.

You’re 20, in college, still stronger, more skilled andlike Jordan against young Lebron Jameslose only during a bad shooting day.

Step three: The Years of Transition.

He’s 20, in college, stronger, faster and more skilled then you ever were (because younger siblings always are).

You’re 25, out of college, working three jobs and out of shape. Your skills have diminished because your girlfriend takes up all your free time so you never developed the fade-away shot as you had hoped.

Now, he’s blowing by you, dunking on the 9-foot homemade rim and screaming “that just happened!”

You’re days as alpha dog are over.

Yankee and Red Sox fans are at about age 23 and their years of domination maybe slowly coming to an end.

After going 11-7 against the Rays last season, Yankee fanatics—who have experienced only one losing season against the Rays in their 11 years of existence—still look at Tampa as their 10-year old, little brother.

Red Sox fans may have more of a clue because they’ve had first-hand experience (the 2008 American League Championship Series and its 8-10 regular season record against Tampa) that the Rays are for real.

But each fan base is missing the big picture. These guys are actually really good and last season was no fluke.

Just check out the Rays improvements over the past three seasons.

Win-loss in blowout games (five or more runs) and one-run games.

2006: 12-26 (blowout), 17-22 (one-run).

2007: 19-33, 22-21.

2007: 27-18, 29-18.

Their team pitching has improved.

2006: 4.97 (ERA), 1553 (WHIP), 180 (HR), 606 (BB).

2007: 5.53 (ERA), 1.551 (WHIP), 199 (HR), 568 (BB).

2008: 3.82 (ERA), 1.286 (WHIP), 166 (HR), 526 (BB).

Add consistent offense over the past two seasons.

2006: .255 (BA), .733 (OPS), 689 (R), 650 (RBI), 190 (HR).

2007: .268 (BA), .769 (OPS), 782 (R), 750 (RBI), 187 (HR).

2008: .260 (BA), .762 (OPS), 774 (R), 735 (RBI), 180 (HR).

Add a little, “boil, boil, toil and trouble” and poof! You have yourself an American League East contender for the next couple of seasons.

So, why is it so tough to convince loyal Pinstripers and Red Sox fans the Rays can do it again?

It’s basically straight denial that their little brother isn’t growing up. Both the Yankees and Red Sox still think they can beat the Rays when they’re at their best. And this goes back to the little brother theory of evolution.

By the time you’re 23 years-old and he’s 18, you see changes in his attitude which you’re not ready to accept.

Instead of hanging back and waiting for you to miss shots, he’s contending your shots and boxing-out for rebounds.

It doesn’t intimidate you because you’re still stronger and can use your wits to collect rebounds or put backs. But with closer observation you see him putting in the extra effort. Now, he thinks he can compete with you.

Rewind to March 2008, during a Spring Training game between the Yankees and Rays.

In the first inning with two men on, Yankee pitcher Heath Phillips was ejected after hitting Evan Longoira.

New York’s Shelley Ducan starts the top of the second off with a single. Duncan tries to stretch the single into a double after the ball rolls behind third base. He sprints into second knowing he’s going to be out by five feet or more and slides in on Akinori Iwamura, who is playing second base, with spikes up.

Ex-Tampa Bay outfielder Jonny Gomes races in from right field and tries to spear Ducan. A slight brawl ensues. No punches are thrown but a slight message is sent to the Yankees.

The same happened to the Red Sox on June 5.

A night after Coco Crisp slid hard into Iwamura, James Shields belted Crisp with a pitch.

Shields hit Crisp in the right hip, Crisp rushed the mound, ducked a swinging right-hand by Shields and chaos ensued.

Crisp, Shields, Iwamura, Gomes, Jon Lester, Sean Casey, Edwin Jackson and Carl Crawford were all suspended.

The next night Tampa Bay manager Joe Madden made this statement to the press, “I want to be very clear: I defend everything our guys did. I feel actually proud of the way we handled the situation that was presented.”

Despite being swept in Boston that week, the Rays battled back to take a 5 ½ game AL East lead by August 31.

We all know where the Rays finished by season’s end.

However, a funny thing happened on Tampa’s road to the World Series. New York fans began to support their “little brother” in the ALCS because they didn’t want its rival sibling, Boston, too advance.

But the cheering did not stop in the ALCS. It continued into the World Series!

So, my question is how long is it going to take the Rays to build sibling rivalries with the Yankees and Red Sox?

At what point does Tampa Bay earn enough respect in the AL East for Boston and New York fans become jealous of little brother’s success?

Will it take back-to-back AL East championships? Multiple World Series titles?

It does not seem fair to hold the Rays accountable for their past when today’s sporting culture uses the expression, “what have you done for me lately?” for every front office move.

What Tampa Bay has done now is built a team that won the AL East, went to a World Series and arguably is stronger than last season.

Fortunately, baseball fans can sit on the outside of the chain-link fence and watch the sibling trio battle in pickup game of 21.

But for the older siblings, New York and Boston, who are on the court. They don’t have the luxury of becoming a fan anymore.

Because before they know it, their littler brother will be blowing by them, embarrassing them with a thunderous dunk and shouting, “You can’t stop this!”

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