2008 Destined to be The Year of the Ray

Joe Maddon?  Cat.

Joe Maddon? Cat.

In the days following the 2004 World Series, I came to terms with the fact that watching baseball would never again be quite the same. Growing up in Rhode Island, I had always been an avid Red Sox fan, and I dedicatedly followed their trials and tribulations as they failed to overcome The Curse of the Bambino season after disappointing season. For most of my formative years, the Red Sox (along with the other New England teams during the nineties—New England dominance in professional sports, let us not forget, is a relatively new phenomenon, at least to this generation, so hey, New England naysayers, why don’t you get off the collective nuts of the Boston fanbase and let us enjoy our teams when they finally win some championships? Jesus) sucked pretty hard, but I stuck with them, coercing my family to eat dinner at the nearby Roger Clemens Roasted Chicken franchise and scrutinizing the length and general majesty of Wade Boggs’ mustache each time Donruss released a new edition of his baseball card. Sure, I envied the Yankees, and the Braves, and, ya know, good teams, but I was a Red Sox man. And it was sort of just accepted that the Red Sox never won, but you loved the shit out of them anyway. And that’s what I did.

This steadfast determination to embrace the Sox, regardless of their hapless history in the postseason, added a sublimely romantic and mythical air to the story of the 2004 playoffs. When Boston went down three games to none in the ALCS against the Yankees, we resolved that it was over. Maybe next year, we said. It was a pretty good run. We were used to heartbreak, so our hides were thick, even though our hearts were crumbling inside.

But still we watched. That fall, I took in most of the baseball postseason from the top floor of the sorority house where my college girlfriend lived. I’d microwave popcorn and sneak in cubes of Coors Light, and stare at the tiny tube set haphazardly propped on their coffee table, transfixed by the historic drama that was unfolding before me. I look back on that time with a kind of glossy nostalgia—a time when everything seemed just right with the world. The four-in-a row comeback that Boston launched to clinch the ALCS was truly the stuff of legend, and I fondly recall those nights of reveling in their glory as if it were my own. You know when you have a single experience that seems like it defines an entire period in your life, to the point where you can recall that one event and remember exactly how you felt during that time? Yeah, that’s what watching the 2004 ALCS was like for me.

After what was arguably the greatest comeback in the history of sports, the Red Sox bested the Cardinals in four straight, winning their first World Series since Babe Ruth first shook his stubby fist at the organization way back in 1918. It was truly breathtaking.

Following this historic victory, my allegiance to the team has certainly not waned, and I follow their progress as dutifully as any fan who is very invested in their ball club, but generally finds the day-in-day-out, languid pace of the regular season somewhat laborious. I still want the Red Sox to win the World Series every single year. My heart still skips a beat each time Big Papi wills a fastball into the stratosphere with his merciless strength. But I’ve acknowledged that nothing’s ever going to be quite like that first time. I mean, yeah, of course I had a huge broner when the Sox were champions again last year. I got hammered in one of the few Boston sports bars in the city and yelled along with the rest of Red Sox Nation, high-fiving dudes with terrible goatees and gloating about how the Patriots were going to further assert New England’s dominance by winning the Super Bowl in a few short months (this was long before we could fathom the unassuming, muppet-faced resolve of the brilliant Eli Manning). But this testosterone-fueled, man-on-man love fest just didn’t compare to the profundity of the curse finally being broken after 86 years.

This realization is why it was a little easier to swallow last night’s season-ending Game 7 against Tampa Bay. When Boston went down three games to one in the series, I said it was over. What can I say? I’m a Boston fan. That’s how I roll. When they pulled off the biggest postseason comeback ever in Game 5, I was intrigued, but I still thought the Sox were finished. When Game 6 also went their way, I was fired up. I eagerly awaited last night’s game. Would we be able to do it again?

Nah. And not surprisingly, for that matter. Boston’s a great team—they’re going to continue to be a fierce competitor in the American League for the foreseeable future. They have outstanding talent, a badass bullpen, and a future Hall of Fame coach at the helm. But 2008 just wasn’t about the Red Sox. It was about the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Rays were the baseball story of the year, and we all knew it. They bounced back from the worst record in baseball last year to the best one this year. They handily won the AL East, a division historically overshadowed by the might and cultural clout of the Yankees and, yes, the Boston Red Sox. They’re a new franchise filled with fresh-faced, idealistic dudes looking to make history, and they’re a goddamn delight to watch, even if they are manhandling the nuts of the team you love. Sure, I was pissed when these brash young whippersnappers just rolled up midseason and usurped the first place slot from the Red Sox, who looked like the uncontested division favorites at that point. Oooh, look at you, Tampa Bay! Acting like an actual baseball team. How cute! When the Rays maintained their lead for the remainder of the season, though, they demanded to be taken seriously. By consistently playing smart, unrelenting, lethal baseball, the Rays effectively silenced the haters, one by one (myself included), all the way to the World Series.

The Rays are the story of Major League Baseball at the moment, plain and simple. They’re a Cinderella team with heart, and strength, and an innovative, verbose baller of a general manager in Joe Maddon. A Tampa Bay World Series win would be a victory for youth, hope, vitality, and the power of possibility. Which is really just what we need right now, innit? That’s pretty much why, despite my allegiance to the boys in Beantown, I say go Rays. Git ‘r done.

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