Reporting from St. Petersburg, Fla. — Dewayne Staats remembers the lean years in Tampa Bay.
The 10 consecutive losing seasons. The nine last-place finishes. The seven seasons of at least 95 losses.
The expansion Rays, a team without a past, seemed destined to become one without a future as well. Clearly there was no way the low-budget franchise could ever hope to compete with the free-spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the competitive American League East.
But Staats, the TV voice of the Rays since their inception, says all that began to change three years ago.
"That was the first year I sensed the team coming together," he said. "They didn't know if they were a little over .500, but they knew they were better. So they expected to be better.
"Right from the beginning, the vibe was that they expected to be a good team."
They were, reaching the World Series before losing to the Philadelphia Phillies. But if one successful season can qualify as a fluke, then three in a row has to be considered a trend, meaning the Rays are doormats no more.
After averaging 90 wins over the last three seasons, Tampa Bay is poised for its second postseason appearance in three years. And Carl Crawford says he knows why.
"Ownership changed. They came in with a plan and executed it," said the All-Star outfielder, who was drafted during the Rays' second season and made his big league debut in 2002, when the team lost 106 games.
Under their famously petty and penny-pinching founder Vince Naimoli, the directionless Rays were headed for decades of despair in their dark mausoleum of a ballpark. That changed the day retired Wall Street tycoon Stuart Sternberg took over after the 2005 season.
The payroll has more than doubled since and the team has invested heavily in scouting and development, especially in Latin America, where it operates baseball academies in three countries and is about to break ground on its third South American facility, this one in Brazil. At home, Sternberg poured nearly $20 million into improving Tropicana Field.
But the most important changes he made came in only his second month in charge when Sternberg appointed Andrew Friedman executive vice president for baseball operations, brought in former Houston Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker as Friedman's assistant and hired former Angels bench coach Joe Maddon as manager.
"All of sudden with Joe and Andrew, they changed this organization [into] a winning organization," said bench coach Dave Martinez, who was an outfielder for the Rays during their first three seasons. "It's a testament to what all those guys have done over the years to get to where we are today. '08 brought a lot of positives. These guys really started believing they can do this again.
"And here we are today battling for a division title."
Rather than lament the fact the Rays competed in baseball's deepest division, Maddon embraced it. Rather than complain about other teams having payrolls three times the size of Tampa Bay's, Maddon ignored it.
"I thought to play in this division was the best way to get good fast," he said. "To play against the Yankees and the Red Sox and the [ Toronto] Blue Jays and the [ Baltimore] Orioles as much as we do, that's going to get you good pretty quickly. And regarding the money, I never lamented the fact that we don't spend enough money. I've never one time talked about us not spending enough money or somebody else spending too much."
That's a good thing because although the Rays are unlikely to return to their spendthrift past any time soon, there will be some significant belt-tightening this winter. Tampa Bay, which has finished last in the AL in attendance seven times in the last nine seasons, hasn't drawn 2 million spectators since its inaugural season. And with the Rays resigned to losing Crawford and first baseman Carlos Pena to free agency, management plans on trimming its already modest payroll by another $15 million before next season.
But then Maddon never thought payroll was where baseball needed parity anyway. Because as much as investment and inspiration helped fuel the Rays' turnaround, the manager insists inspection played a big part as well. Once testing for steroids began, small-ball, small-market teams like Maddon's suddenly had a chance
"I believe quite frankly once the baseball field is leveled with the extraction of outside influences regarding chemicals, at that point the team that plays the better brand of baseball has a better chance of winning," he said. "So it probably would have been more difficult for us to arrive at this point had the field not been leveled in that regard. Now that it has, it permits us to be more competitive."
The test now is finding a way to remain competitive while shedding players and payroll. Have the last three years marked a permanent change for the franchise? Or was it simply a fleeting romance, an infatuation that will prove unsustainable given the harsh reality of baseball economics?
Staats votes for the former.
"It's always going to be tough to compete against moneyed teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox. And it remains to be seen if you can do that over a decade, year in and year out," he said. "That's going to be a challenge. I don't know necessarily that they'll have to go back to hoping to win 75 games. I still think they can, night in and night out, be a competitive team."