2008 Out of Darkness, Rays of Light

Thought to be eternally chained to the bottom of the AL East standings, the rebranded Tampa Bay Rays become one of the game's unlikeliest surprise teams with a stunning appearance in the World Series alongside the Philadelphia Phillies.

Rookie slugger Evan Longoria gives a curtain call in a season full of them for the Tampa Bay Rays, who surprisingly spring from baseball’s darkest depths to capture the American League pennant.

Death and taxes have always been said to be the two certainties in life. And for a decade, baseball fans would tell you of a third: The order of finish in the American League’s Eastern Division.

From 1998-2007, parity had no meaning in the AL East. The only suspense was to which team, between the titanic New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, would grab first place and leave the wild card to the other. Otherwise, the song painfully remained the same in the East. Toronto, a consistently competitive team standing in the shadows of the towering cash piles of New York and Boston, was a third-place constant. The Baltimore Orioles, struggling in the shadows of their former success, were entrenched in fourth.

And then there were the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

An expansion team in 1998, the Devil Rays were annually eliminated from postseason eligibility on Opening Day by the game’s pundits. Clad in uniforms with gradated tropical hues, the Devil Rays looked like a recreational retirement league team and played like one. They never threatened and, justifiably, were never taken seriously; the franchise was rumored to be on the chopping block when contraction talks hit the majors, and more recently suffered from serious cash flow issues. When the Devil Rays barely slipped out of the cellar and finished fourth in 2004, there was a champagne celebration in the clubhouse.

For 2008, Tampa Bay tried to shed its losing image aesthetically with a complete makeover, exercising the “Devil” from their name while introducing a new logo and uniform with a more traditional look and feel.

Almost no one anticipated that underneath the Rays’ improved façade lay a stunningly improved product on the field.

Hints of stability, if not improvement, began in 2005 when the team was taken over by Stuart Sternberg, who went about reducing the franchise’s red ink while forging a more intensive approach to building talent from within. To nurture that talent, Tampa Bay brought in as its new manager Joe MaddonMaddon had taken over for Lou Piniella, who bailed from the Devil Rays when he felt the team wasn’t committed to winning., a baseball lifer in the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim organization who learned the deft yet stern approach to managing from his former boss in the dugout, Mike Scioscia.

Despite the changes, Tampa Bay continued to be Tampa Bay for the next few years, flirting as always with 100 losses. In 2007, not only was there trouble on the field with another last place finish, the majors’ worst pitching staff and the AL’s second-worst defense, but there was trouble off it as Elijah Dukes and Delmon Young, two young, highly prized yet malcontented talents, created numerous distractions in the clubhouse.

The Rays shrewdly jettisoned Dukes and Young before 2008 in return for a blossoming starting pitcher (Matt Garza) and dependable shortstop (Jason Bartlett), trusted soldiers more willing to fit into the puzzle and make a contribution. For a franchise strapped with the majors’ second lowest payroll, the moves were seen as positive but also considered nothing more than baby steps on the long, long road to reaching competitive equality with the Yankees and Red Sox in baseball’s division of death. Experts believed the newly renamed Rays would do just well enough to break the franchise record for wins—hardly a difficult assignment, given that their previous high was 70; the oddsmakers were more skeptical, tagging the Rays as high as 400-1 underdogs to win the World Series.

Too inpatient to wait until the regular season, the Rays showed off their newfound, cohesive intensity to spring training opponents, engaging the Yankees in particular into several on-field brawls. Such testosterone elevated the confidence of the Rays, all while the Yankees waived them off as a low-budget wannabe trying to bully the master. But once the games began to count, the Rays translated their energy into a winning attitude by steadily hanging well over the .500 mark. And even as they were being swept by the Red Sox in an early June series at Fenway Park, the Rays left Boston with their heads held high after another scrapThe fight at Fenway developed when Boston outfielder Coco Crisp reacted angrily to being hit by a pitch from the Rays’ James Shields. that further sharpened the Rays’ focus and support for one another—something badly lacking among the Devil Rays of old.

As the season progressed, the Rays showed remarkable resilience for a team listed as the AL’s youngest. When they lost seven straight games going into the All-Star break—giving the team unwanted time off to dwell on it—the Rays quickly rebounded to their winning ways when other inexperienced teams might have buckled under the pressure. When they did win, it was often in cardiac fashion; 11 games were won in their final at-bat, with stars and benchwarmers alike sharing in the heroics.

Despite the dramatics, despite the stunning about-face they exhibited from Opening Day, despite their constant placement in the AL East ahead of both the Red Sox and Yankees, fans in the St. Petersburg-Tampa area showed all the speed of a tortoise in jumping on the Rays’ bandwagon. Crowds at the Tropicana Dome remained as low as 12,000 through August; a three-game series against the Yankees after Labor Day averaged 24,000—15,000 below capacity—with many in the crowd rooting for New YorkIn years past, Yankees and Red Sox fans typically outnumbered those of the Rays when their teams visited St. Petersburg; Red Sox fans in particular referred to the Tropicana Dome as “Fenway South.”. For much of the 2008 season, the only sellouts the Rays were able to achieve had less to do with baseball and more to do with postgame concerts featuring acts like Kool and the Gang and country star Trace Adkins. By season’s end, the Rays—Cinderella champions of the AL East with a 97-65 record—managed to draw just 1.78 million fans, ranking 26th among 30 major league teams.

Tampa Bay’s remarkable 31-game turnaround for the better fell just shy of making baseball’s top-five list for such achievements.

Offensively, the Rays were consistent if not overpowering, with first baseman Carlos Pena overcoming a slow start to lead the team with 31 home runs and 102 runs batted in; on the other side of the infield, highly touted rookie third baseman Evan Longoria hardly disappointed by adding 27 homers and 85 RBIs in just 122 games. On the mound, five starting pitchers (led by Garza, Scott Kazmir and James Shields) earned at least ten wins while keeping their losses in the single-digit range, and the bullpen executed a spectacular turnaround, registering a 3.55 ERA after recording an atrocious 6.16 mark just a year earlier.

Any remaining skeptics who anticipated that the unaccustomed Rays would wilt in the heat of the postseason were won over. Tampa Bay had little problem taking care of an experienced Chicago White Sox team in the first round of the playoffs, leading to a date in the ALCS with divisional rival Boston, which entered October as a wild card. Now firmly in the national spotlight, the Rays initially shined for those who previously had not caught their act, taking three of the first four games against the high-priced defending champion Red Sox. But up 7-0 in the seventh inning of the potential Game Five clincher, the Rays blew all four tires as the Red Sox pulled off baseball’s biggest postseason comeback in 80 years to win 8-7 and stay alive. The shock and significance of that game threatened to ruin a season’s worth of momentum and vibe for the youthful Rays, but they slowly regrouped—and just in time, overcoming a Game Six loss to Boston back home in St. Petersburg with a hard-fought 3-1 win in the winner-take-all Game Seven to, incredibly, move Tampa Bay onto the World Series.

As confident as the Rays had become, their opponents in the Fall Classic had long since run circles around them in the bragging department.

Even before spring training broke, the Philadelphia Phillies were feeling awfully good about their chances, and publicly so. Never mind that they were given a gift pass into the 2007 postseason, following the September collapse of the divisional rival New York Mets, and were swept in the first round of the playoffs. Bravado reigned supreme in Philadelphia, a state of mind best reflected in shortstop and reigning NL MVP Jimmy Rollins—who predicted that the Phillies would win 100 games in 2008.

Rollins’ prophecy appeared elusive throughout the year as, for the second straight September, the Phillies looked at the very real possibility that they would be home for October. But once again, the Mets came to their rescue. A year after botching a seven-game lead with less than three weeks to play, the Mets performed a mild encore, this time blowing a 3.5-game lead in the same time frame thanks to a wretched bullpen that blew one save opportunity after another in the wake of closer Billy Wagner’s season-ending injury in early August.

As much as the Mets deserved blame for their collapse, the Phillies deserved credit for waking up at the right moment and, once again, seizing the opportunity. Among those revived from a deep sleep were boomer Ryan Howard, slumping in the .220s through late August before destroying the competition with a .367 average and 12 homers over the Phillies’ final 27 games; ageless starting pitcher Jamie Moyer, who won his final six decisions to lead the Phillies in wins at age 45; and fellow starter and clubhouse leader Brett Myers, whose 7-4 record and 3.09 ERA in the final two months erased the bad memory of being temporarily sent to the minors after a terrible start.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season in Philadelphia was the success of the bullpen, originally considered an iffy proposition once Brad Lidge, exiled from Houston after he lost his touch, was named the Phillies’ closer. But Lidge re-emerged on the mound in perfect tune, converting all 41 of his save opportunities for the Phillies and, in sharp contrast to the Mets’ bullpen woes, may have been the major difference that helped send Philadelphia over the top, past the Mets and into the postseason.

There was little doubt about Manny Ramirez’s ability to hit a baseball. Less certain was his ability to give a damn about it. For the unpredictable Ramirez, both abilities were on full-frontal display during 2008. Approaching the tail end of his long-term lucrative contract in Boston, Ramirez gradually showed off his dissatisfaction with the Red Sox in a bizarre chain of events that, by July, had him all but shouting to the world his intense desire to be traded. He engaged in one dugout brawl with teammate Kevin Youkilis in June, then another in Houston with the team’s 64-year-old traveling secretary over a failure to provide a block of tickets. Ramirez also started complaining of a bad knee, a claim the Red Sox didn’t believe; when asked to get off the bench one night to pinch-hit in the ninth inning against the Yankees and Mariano Rivera, Ramirez walked to the plate and hardly budged as Rivera fired three strikes past him. Ramirez told the press that the Red Sox “don’t deserve a player like me,” but by then his teammates were more than happy to see him go; 23 out of 24 polled by the media wanted Ramirez traded. Ramirez finally got his wish on August 1, when he was sent to Los Angeles as part of a three-team trade that netted the Red Sox Jason Bay from Pittsburgh. Like a liberated man on a mission, Ramirez’s game rocketed upward with the Dodgers, hitting nearly .400 with prodigious power, but his antics in Boston left him a pariah in the eyes of major league owners and general managers as free agency loomed.

Continuing their roll through October, the Phillies could not be stopped by two NL playoff foes ignited by major midseason acquisitions. They couldn’t be stopped by the wild card Milwaukee Brewers, making their first postseason appearance in 26 years thanks to the second-half contribution of burly ace pitcher CC Sabathia, who survived a rotten start in Cleveland and became utterly dominantDespite not making an appearance for Milwaukee until July 8, Sabathia managed to lead the NL with seven complete games and three shutouts. after being shipped to Wisconsin. Nor could Philadelphia be stopped, in the NLCS, by the NL West-winning Los Angeles Dodgers despite the presence of Manny Ramirez, the fickle veteran slugger who came west after purposely becoming a major distraction for the Red Sox in an attempt to get out; despite hitting .396 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs in 53 regular season games for the Dodgers—not to mention a .520 mark with four more jacks in the postseason—the Dodgers could only manage one win against the Phillies, who thrived on big innings and two stellar starts by third-year ace Cole Hamels to win the NL pennant.

All that now stood between the Phillies and their second-ever championship were the Tampa Bay Rays.

Fresh off their rollercoaster struggle against Boston, the Rays played the Phillies tight and split the first two games at St. Petersburg before crowds that were finally filling up the Tropicana Dome. Moving to cold and rainy Philadelphia, the Phillies crucially grabbed Game Three, responding to a patented late-inning Tampa Bay rally with an uprising of their own in the bottom of the ninth. Not that the Phillies had anything to do with it. The Rays’ J.P. Howell started the frame by hitting Eric Burntlett. Grant Balfour took over for Howell, but delivered a wild pitch past his first batter, Shane Victorino. The moment only got wilder when catcher Dioner Navarro, trying to nail Burntlett at second, threw wide into the outfield. With Bruntlett at third and no one out, the Rays intentionally walked the next two batters to set up a force at any baseThe Rays went to extremes after loading the bases by bringing in outfielder Ben Zobrist as a fifth infielder, but the tactic became moot., but Carlos Ruiz tapped a slow grounder up the third base line that gave Bruntlett enough time to score ahead of Evan Longoria’s throw and win the game for Philadelphia, 5-4.

The Rays’ feeling of deflation after handing the Phillies Game Three became magnified in Game Four when Ryan Howard’s two home runs powered Philadelphia to a 10-2 rout. Desperately hoping to take Game Five to avoid elimination and move the series back to Florida, they struggled along with the Phillies in miserably wet and windy conditions that forced umpires to call a halt in the sixth inning—just as the Rays had tied it at 2-2—ultimately making it the first World Series game ever to be suspended by bad weather. Unbeknownst to the players, Commissioner Bud Selig had earlier smelled the rain in the Philly air and set an agreement with management of both teams that any Series game would be played to a full conclusion, a departure of sorts from regular season contests. Two days after play stopped, Game Five was continued with a see-saw affair that ended in the Phillies’ favor, 4-3, to ice the Series.

The Phillies’ Brad Lidge celebrates second after closing out the World Series to complete a perfect season in which he saved 48 games without blowing a single opportunity.

From start to finish, Philadelphia pitchers became the primary heroes of the World Series. They neutralized the Rays’ two slugging stars of the AL playoffs, Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton, who against Chicago and Boston smacked a combined 13 homers; against the Phillies, the two ganged up to go 6-for-40 with no extra base hitsLate in the World Series, Philadelphia fans began tormenting Longoria with chants of “Eva.”. Among the chief contributors to Longoria and Upton’s hitting woes were Cole Hamels, who wrapped up a 4-0 postseason with two more solid starts against Tampa Bay, and Brad Lidge, who capped his year of perfection in the closer role by nailing down the Series clincher for his seventh postseason save—in his seventh opportunity.

For the Phillies, the preseason bragging paid off. Jimmy Rollins’ headline-making boast was realized; with 92 regular season wins and 11 more in the postseason, the Phillies got their 100 wins—and then some.

In spite of defeat, the Tampa Bay Rays, once destined to become baseball’s eternal losers, were given just as big a pat on the back for achieving what some believed was unthinkable. The Rays shook up the decade-long status quo in the wide-ranging class structures of the AL East and relegated the game’s marquee franchises, the Yankees and the Red Sox, to the back seats.

The bigger challenge lay ahead for the Rays: Avoiding the stigma pegged upon other small- to mid-budget one-shot wonders who briefly sprang loose in the 2000s. Because, and without a doubt, the Yankees and the Red Sox were not about to disappear.

2009 baseball historyForward to 2009: The Salvation of Alex Rodriguez Baseball's biggest star embarks on a long, tough road from injury and damning steroid evidence.

2007 baseball historyBack to 2007: Bow if You Will, Spit if You Wish Barry Bonds breaks Hank Aaron's fabled career home run mark, but few people are happy about it.

2000 baseball historyThe 2000s Page: Driven Deep to Disgrace The new century gives Major League Baseball a decidedly more international flavor with a healthy rise in foreign-born talent—but a disturbing pall is cast over the sport as one megastar after another is exposed for using steroids.

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2008 Standings

National League East
Philadelphia Phillies
New York Mets
Florida Marlins
Atlanta Braves
Washington Nationals
National League Central
Chicago Cubs
Milwaukee Brewers (w)
Houston Astros
St. Louis Cardinals
Cincinnati Reds
Pittsburgh Pirates
National League West
Los Angeles Dodgers
Arizona Diamondbacks
Colorado Rockies
San Francisco Giants
San Diego Padres
American League East
Tampa Bay Rays
Boston Red Sox (w)
New York Yankees
Toronto Blue Jays
Baltimore Orioles
American League Central
Chicago White Sox
Minnesota Twins
Cleveland Indians
Kansas City Royals
Detroit Tigers
American League West
L.A. Angels of Anaheim
Texas Rangers
Oakland A's
Seattle Mariners

2008 Postseason Results
NLDS Los Angeles defeated Chicago, 3-0.
NLDS Philadelphia defeated Milwaukee, 3-1.
ALDS Boston defeated Los Angeles of Anaheim, 3-1.
ALDS Tampa Bay defeated Chicago, 3-1.
NLCS Philadelphia defeated Los Angeles, 4-1.
ALCS Tampa Bay defeated Boston, 4-3.
World Series Philadelphia (NL) defeated Tampa Bay (AL), 4-1.

It Happened in 2008

Upon Further Review…
After a rash of questionable home run calls by umpires, Major League Baseball finally gives into public pressure and ushers in—during midseason—instant replay for the very first time. Replays only apply to “boundary calls”: Whether a long fly ball is fair or foul, interfered with, or hit above or below the yellow demarcation line on the outfield fences to determine a home run. Initiated on August 28, seven calls are reviewed by umpires, using a flat-panel monitor near the dugout in coordination with a centrally located control center in New York. Two of the calls are overturned, the first occurring on September 19 when Tampa Bay’s Carlos Pena is given a home run after a deep fly he hit was initially ruled a ground-rule double due to fan interference above the outfield wall.

The King of Closing Time
Francisco Rodriguez raises the bar on season saves last hoisted 17 years earlier by Bobby Thigpen when he successfully closes out a record 62 games for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He accomplishes the feat in 69 opportunities, another record.

Lords of the Whiff
Second-year Arizona third baseman Mark Reynolds becomes the first player to strike out more than 200 times in a season when he racks up 206 Ks for the Diamondbacks. Philadelphia’s Ryan Howard, who had set the major league record in 2007 with 199 strikeouts, once again comes within a single whiff of 200. Meanwhile, in the junior circuit, Oakland’s Jack Cust sets the AL mark with 197. As the trend toward more strikeouts in the game continues, it's not surprising that neither mark will hold for the long run; Reynolds himself will reset the all-time record in 2009.

Ziegler’s Zeroes
Called up in late May, Oakland reliever Brad Ziegler appears in 29 games and tosses 39.1 innings before allowing his first career earned run, finally being tagged for a tally on August 14 by Tampa Bay in a 7-6 loss. The shutout streak to begin a career shatters a 101-year-old record previously held by George McQuillan; Ziegler finishes the year with a 1.06 ERA in 59.2 innings and is rewarded late in the year by becoming the A’s closer.

Oh No-No!
For the fifth time in major league history, a team allows no hits—and loses. The Angels yield to the crosstown Los Angeles Dodgers in a June 28 interleague game, 1-0, with the only Dodgers run occurring in the fifth when Matt Kemp reaches on an error, advances to third on a steal and catcher Jeff Mathis’ wild throw, then scores on Blake DeWitt’s sacrifice fly. Jered Weaver allows the one run and lasts six innings, with two relievers throwing the remaining hitless frames; it’s only the second time multiple pitchers have combined to hurl a no-hit loss.

The Long, Painful Road to 600
Ken Griffey Jr., in the final year of an injury-riddled. nine-year tenure with Cincinnati, becomes the sixth player to join the 600-home run club when he belts his milestone shot in the Reds’ 9-4 win over the Florida Marlins on June 9 at Miami.

Catching Greatness
Jason Varitek of the Boston Red Sox becomes the first catcher in major league history to be behind the plate for four major league no-hitters when he helps steer Jon Lester’s no-no on May 19 against Kansas City. Varitek also caught no-hitters for Clay Buchholz (2007), Derek Lowe (2002) and Hideo Nomo (2001). Carlos Ruiz will match Varitek in 2015.

Finally Imperfect
Major league records for defensive excellence are established at first and second base. Detroit’s Placido Polanco extends the mark he set the year before for most consecutive games (186) and chances (911) at second without making an error—while over at first, Boston’s Kevin Youkilis raises the bar by not erring in 238 straight games and a whopping 2,002 consecutive chances. The Angels’ Casey Kotchman will begin another run of perfection in 2008 that will lead him to break Youkilis’ mark in 2010 with 274 games and 2,379 chances without an error at first.

Tribal Customs
Cleveland’s Asdrubal Cabrera turns baseball’s 14th unassisted triple play—six of which have involved the Indians—on May 12 when he makes a diving stop on a line drive near second base, then erases two Toronto baserunners who were running on Lyle Overbay’s swing. The Blue Jays overcome Cabrera’s solo hat trick of fielding and defeat the Indians in ten innings, 3-0.

City of 115,000 Angels
Returning to the scene of their Southern California debut 50 years earlier, the Dodgers draw 115,000 to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for an exhibition game against Boston on March 29. It’s the largest crowd for any baseball game, anywhere, ever. The Red Sox win, 7-4.

The Hottest Ticket in Baseball
With a sellout crowd at Fenway Park on September 8 against Tampa Bay, the Red Sox break the record for the most consecutive home sellouts with 456, besting the mark set seven years earlier by the Cleveland Indians. The streak will grow to 820 before ending in early 2013.

Intentionally Given History
Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers is the fifth player in modern major league history to be walked intentionally with the bases loaded on August 17 at Arlington against Tampa Bay. His ninth-inning, two-out free pass forces in a run to cut the Rays’ lead to 7-4—and brings up Marlon Byrd, who’s in the midst of a hot hitting streak. But Byrd strikes out and the Rays hold on to win.

Cyclemania II
Stephen Drew and Adrian Beltre each hit for the cycle in separate games on September 1, only the second time in major league history that two players have done it on the same day. It had previously been accomplished by Bobby Veach and George Burns on September 17, 1920.

Would Making More Outs Be Less Selfish?
In the midst of a rotten year in Seattle in which the Mariners become the first team with a $100 million payroll to lose 100 games, an embattled Ichiro Suzuki—accused by some teammates of self-interest—breaks an all-time record by recording at least 200 hits in eight consecutive seasons.

Dangerous When Loaded
Alexei Ramirez, a Cuban émigré, sets a rookie season record by belting four grand slams for the Chicago White Sox. The last of those four helps win a September 29 contest against Detroit that sets up an AL Central tie-breaking playoff against Minnesota, won by the White Sox to reach the playoffs.

New Ballparks

Nationals Park, Washington Few ballparks built in the game’s building boom of 1991-2010 have experienced as much turbulence as Nationals Park. The facility, and that of the Montreal Expos’ move to Washington, appeared doomed early on when D.C. politicians demanded that 50% of the ballpark be privately funded; ultimately, the vast majority of the money came from public funds.

Once completed, more issues evolved. Limited parking forced fans to find other means for arriving at the facility—the Nationals actually employed bicycle valets—and many were shuttled from RFK Stadium; the Nationals, who paid little to build the new ballpark, refused to pay rent during the venue’s first year, protesting behind-schedule construction that extended into the season; and then there was the team itself, which inaugurated Nationals Park with a 59-102 record—the worst by a non-first-year expansion team opening in a new ballpark since the New York Mets went 53-109 at Shea Stadium in 1964.

On the plus side, Nationals Park finally gave us a modern ballpark that looks modern, dispensing with the tiring retro trend and embracing a more modern, neo-classical mix of stone and glass in sync with D.C.’s many famed structures. There’s also pride to be found in the fact that Nationals Park is the first major sports facility to be rewarded with the environmentally friendly LEED certification. The shape of Nationals Park’s playing field owes itself to that of old Griffith Stadium and, in its first season, the ballpark played surprisingly well for Washington pitchers who feared increased offensive numbers that never came after three years at pitcher-friendly RFK.

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