They were what Americans call a doormat team – a bunch of losers who played in a dump of a stadium, condemned to eternal futility by the presence alongside them in the American League East of those baseball aristocrats the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. But they aren't laughing any longer in Boston and the Bronx. The Tampa Bay Rays are going to the World Series.
Tomorrow night the Rays open their assault on the supreme prize against the Philadelphia Phillies, newly crowned kings of the National League. And did they ever earn the right. With the nervelessness that can alight on carefree talented youth, the untested Rays prevailed over the Red Sox, the reigning world champions, after one of the most thrilling pennant series of modern times.
Just last Thursday in Boston the Rays staged a collapse for the ages, managing to lose 8-7 after leading the Sox 7-0 with just seven outs needed for a Game Five victory that would have wrapped up a 4-1 series win.
Boston then won the sixth game to tie matters at 3-3, and few were betting against baseball's Houdinis completing yet another improbable comeback on Sunday. But in the end, it was the battle-hardened old hands of the Red Sox who buckled in the decisive seventh game.
First Matt Garza, the Rays starter and all of 24 years old, gave up only one run and a couple of hits in seven ice-cool innings. Then manager Joe Maddon summoned from the bullpen a lanky 23-year-old leftie named David Price. Price may be considered one of the hottest pitching prospects in all baseball. But this was just his eighth major league appearance – with no margin for error after the Red Sox had loaded the bases. No need for alarm however. Price scythed down the last four Boston hitters and the Rays had won an utterly deserved 3-1 victory.
There were of course other heroes, most notably Rocco Baldelli, a vastly gifted outfielder but whose career is threatened by a debilitating disease called mitochondrial disorder, which causes extreme fatigue and muscular weakness. Baldelli missed the first four months of the season, and when he did return on 10 August he was only used sparingly by Maddon. So uncertain is his health that the Rays have refused to extend his contract beyond the end of 2008.
But on Sunday, Baldelli delivered when it mattered most, with a fifth-inning single that drove in a run putting the Rays up by 2-1, a lead they would never lose on a night the 40,473 present at Tropicana Field will not quickly forget.
Thus this most astounding of season-on-season turnarounds continues, under the benign supervision of Stuart Sternberg, baseball addict, one-time Wall Street whizz-kid and former Goldman Sachs partner, who bought effective control of the Rays – then known as the Devil Rays – just four years ago.
Tampa Bay has only been home to a major league team since 1995, when it was awarded one of two expansion franchises that year (the other went to the Arizona Diamondbacks who won a World Series in 2001). The team started playing in 1998, and ran up 10 straight losing seasons, culminating in 2007 when it compiled the worst record in the major leagues, losing 96 games and winning just 66. Only once in that epically atrocious decade did they manage to finish out of last place in the AL East.
But astute observers were aware that, despite the miserable results, something remarkable was stirring in this obscure and much mocked corner of the baseball universe. Quietly Lou Piniella, who managed the Rays until 2005, and then Maddon had assembled an array of young talent that no other team could match.
Baseball's player draft helped of course. Under the system, aimed to foster competitiveness in a league where there is no promotion and relegation, the worst teams get the first choice of young players coming up to the majors. Thanks to their dismal on-field performance, the Rays were able to pick high – and well – almost every year.
The lightning-fast outfielder Carl Crawford was one of the first to arrive. By 2004 Baldelli had joined him, as did the pitcher Scott Kazmir. The team that saw off the Red Sox on Sunday evening included four first-round draft picks in all, among them Garza. Another top prospect and potential superstar is Melvin "BJ" Upton, acquired by the Rays as the second pick in the 2002 draft, who has hit seven homers in two post-season series, all at the tender age of 24.
And then there's slugging third baseman Evan Longoria, former college star from Long Beach, California, selected by the Rays as the third pick overall in the 2006 draft and named to the AL All-Star team last July, in his very first year in the major leagues. A fortnight ago Longoria reached the ripe old age of 23, having hit 27 homers in his rookie season. If Tampa Bay fans have a favourite in this galaxy of youthful talent it is Longoria, seen by many as another Mickey Mantle or Mark McGwire.
By 2007 the Rays were scoring runs by the truckload. All that was missing was a decent bullpen – the mostly unsung but all-important relief pitchers whose job it is to hang on to leads when their team is ahead, and to give its hitters a chance to close the gap when behind. With the arrival of the likes of Dan Wheeler and Troy Percival, and the emergence of Price, that hole was plugged.
Even so, few expected the miracle of 2008. The Rays made a net 31-game improvement in a single year, turning the dismal 66-96 season into a steamrollering 97-65. It was the first time the franchise had ever won more than 70 games in a regular season. The question now is: where will it all end? The Rays' starting line-up this year was the youngest in the major leagues in a quarter of a century. If they can hang on to their precocious talent, there is no reason why they should not build a dynasty to match those of the Red Sox and Yankees before them.
Even in vanquished Boston there are few hard feelings. As Bob Ryan, a veteran sports columnist for the Boston Globe wrote yesterday, "Experience is nice, but nothing beats talent. The best team in the American League East is going to the World Series." And, he might have added, is clear favourite to win it.
Home truths: 'Trop' that flopped
*grey days The Rays may be about the best team in baseball, but they play in its least loved stadium. Tropicana Field has an exotic name, derived from a well-known brand of orange juice. In reality, it's a dreary concrete pile that's not even in Tampa Bay but adjoining St Petersburg.
One of only three closed-roof, artificial turf stadiums in major league baseball (the others are in Toronto and Minneapolis), its main feature is a sloping domed roof designed to lower cooling costs in the steamy south Florida summer and protect it from hurricanes.
The 41,000-seat "Trop" was put up in 1990 on an "If You Build It, They Will Come" basis. But for a while nobody came, and the arena was unused until 1998, when the expansion Rays played their first MLB game there against the Detroit Tigers on 31 March.
Despite several facelifts in recent years, the Trop had anything but a hedonistic tropical feel. The interior is drab and grey. Until this year's success, the place was three-quarters empty for most games.
Rays v Phillies: World Series Dates
Game 1 at Tampa Bay, tomorrow
Gm 2 at Tampa Bay, Thurs
Gm 3 at Philadelphia, Sat
Gm 4 at Philadelphia, Sun 26 Oct
Gm 5* at Philadelphia, Mon 27 Oct
Gm 6* at Tampa Bay, Wed 29 Oct
Gm 7* at Tampa Bay, Thu 30 Oct
* if needed