2011 did not start well for the Rays. After losing key contributors Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Matt Garza and Carlos Pena, most onlookers believed the Rays could not keep up in the supremely competitive American League East. After all, what team could withstand the loss of a five-tool leadoff man, an elite closer, a starter with no-hit stuff and a Gold Glove slugger? When the Rays opened the season 1-8, suspicions seemed confirmed. The swift descent of the Rays seemed complete and irreversible.
Even as Autumn approached, the Yankees and Red Sox were considered locks for the postseason, and rightly so. The Rays' run in September was truly historic. The nine-game deficit they overcame will go down in the books as the greatest September comeback of all time.
Achievements labeled "the greatest" in any sport are always significant. That said, when something is "the greatest in baseball," it enters a whole new category. Major League Baseball has been around for 142 years. The number of teams that have played in those years is exponentially higher than other sports. Countless players who have taken the field have faded into dusty, little-remembered statistics. They were not "the greatest." Even so, the numbers can only tell part of the story. It was the manner in which the Rays made history that will stay in our minds for years to come.
The final game of the 2011 regular season encapsulated the spirit of Joe Maddon's Rays, and reminded all of us why we watch baseball. Dan Johnson, an underachiever all year, hit a game-tying home run in the bottom of the ninth with two strikes, two outs and the season on the line. It was at this moment that I realized this team must be "the greatest" at something. It was a moment of supreme effort, focus, dedication and determination.
Suddenly, everything seemed not only possible for the Rays, but even likely. That a sure-handed Jonathan Papelbon would blow the save for Boston and Evan Longoria would hit a walk-off home run for the Rays just moments later seemed almost necessary, but no less electrifying to watch. It had to happen, because the Rays were the making the greatest comeback ever.
Yes, strange things happen in baseball. Every once in a long while, something mystical happens that prevents certain events from ever becoming mere statistics. It was the way Dan Johnson pumped his fist to the sky in triumph and the way Evan Longoria threw his helmet off in joy after they won. In that moment, they were the greatest.
It does not matter that the Rays lost to the Texas Rangers in the ALDS. Does anyone remember that the Giants lost to the Yankees in the World Series after Bobby Thompson's pennant-clinching home run? Could that fact ever diminish Thompson's home run? No, the event had already been sealed in history well before the 1951 World Series even took place. The Rays have also already taken their place in history.
Joe Maddon deserves his Manager of the Year award as much as anyone who ever won it.