2011: The Year of the Tampa Bay Rays
The 2011 Tampa Bay Rays were not supposed to play October ball—they were not supposed to come even close to the American League Division Series.
Not after losing the likes of Willy Aybar, Carl Crawford, Brad Hawpe, Carlos Peña, Rafael Soriano and several other key components before the season even began.
Not after dropping their payroll to 29th place in Major League Baseball, ahead of only the perennially-inanimate Kansas City Royals.
Not after losing third baseman Evan Longoria to a strained left oblique on the third day of the season.
Not after spending $2 million on a disappointing 1-for-17 Manny Ramirez, who stunned baseball when he announced his retirement only one week into the season after testing positive for a banned substance. This was Ramirez's second offense, and had he not retired, he would have faced a 100-game suspension.
Not after starting with a pitiful six-game losing streak.
And certainly not after trailing the Boston Red Sox by nine games for the American League Wild Card as late as September 1.
But in baseball's 162-game season, anything can happen. Baseball is the sport of the unbelievable, the sport of dreams. As Vin Scully would say, "In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened."
And boy, did it ever.
History was not on Tampa Bay's side. No team in baseball history had ever qualified for the postseason after facing a nine-game deficit in the month of September. Never.
The little team from St. Pete was done. Nice try, let's get 'em next year. All that was left was that little "E" in the games back column.
The "E" would never show up. Not so fast. Those pesky Rays were up to something unheard of.
The Rays then met the Red Sox down in Florida and swept the series, outscoring Boston 22 runs to just eight.
The following weekend in Boston, the Rays won three of four, going 6-of-7 against the Red Sox in the clubs' final two series.
The Rays kept pace. The Red Sox fell. Big time. From a peak of 99.6 percent on September 3, Boston's probability of reaching the postseason was falling, and falling fast.
The final series was finally here. The Rays hosted the Yankees, and the Sox were in Baltimore.
I think you know that story by now.
At the end of it all, the upstarts from St. Pete with that tiny $41 million payroll had beaten the boys from Beantown with their $162 million super-team.
And that was only the half of it. The Rays ultimately pushed Boston into a complete tailspin.
Upon seeing that "E" next to their name, Red Sox nation quickly fell into shambles. In their haste to lay blame, the Red Sox chose to part ways with popular manager Terry Francona. Boston's 2012 is quickly shaping up to become one of the biggest question marks in baseball.
In the end, Tampa Bay has much to be proud of.
The Rays' historic September journey was truly magical and will forever be a cherished part of baseball history. What Maddon, Longoria and all the rest were able to accomplish in that final month of the season will forever live on for baseball fans everywhere to enjoy.
Unless they live in Boston.
It was manifested in a packed Trop on that final day of the season. With what might have been the most exuberant crowd in that dome's history, the Rays completed the most miraculous of comebacks. It was a full month all wrapped up in one game.
It was manifested in a rainy, tempestuous Camden Yards. That night, Orioles fans became Rays fans. The Orioles team became the Rays by proxy.
As the team celebrated a walk-off win as if it had just won the World Series, the Orioles fans celebrated a Rays win as if they themselves had just clinched a Wild Card berth.
It was manifested by that arrogant and karmic statement by Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon the night before: "The weak will fall by the wayside."
If only Papelbon had known that he would be the one to blow the save. If only Papelbon had known that he would be the one to give up the game-winner.
As Kirk Gibson famously would say, "how sweet it is."
In the end, Joe Maddon's club may have not won the 2011 World Series, but it did win something far more important.
To the Rays, you have much to be proud of. In shaking baseball to its core, you delighted the sports world and made us all remember what America's pastime is all about.
The 2011 MLB season will ultimately not be remembered for its champion—there was one last year and there will be another one next year.
Instead, the 2011 MLB season will be remembered for a team that refused to quit. Down, but not out, a ragtag group of ballplayers played their hearts out to win a playoff spot and give all baseball fans a reason to smile.
Thank you, Tampa Bay Rays.