Gulf Zone Opportunity: Rays at Cardinals

Tampa finally has a chance to put itself on the baseball map. In a good way.

I've just cracked the cover on a book that I'm very excited about reading: "The Gashouse Gang" by John Heidenry. And right from its opening pages, I'm struck by the similarities between the St. Louis Cardinals as inherited by Branch Rickey in 1919, and the plight of the team we face as this season's interleague play opens: the team formerly known as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

"In 1919 [Rickey] had been given the charge of a small, ragtag bunch of men whose mission was to defeat a foe with much greater resources both in manpower and wealth. As the new general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, he had to find a way to send his squad onto the battlegrounds of baseball—Ebbets Field, Wrigley Field, Baker Bowl, the Polo Grounds—and make sure, first of all, that they were not quickly annihilated."

You could easily swap in the Tampa Rays, Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Tiger Stadium, and Camden Yards and tell the same story. The only thing you'd be missing is someone to step into the shoes of the hero of this picture, Rickey (pictured) himself.

The story of Branch Rickey's transformation of the Cardinals from also-ran into a perennial contender is epic poetry. Business at the gate often suffered, facing local competition from the Browns and even from the Federal League, as well as exhibitions of upstart sports such as "professional football." The team faced bankruptcy, and at one point had to be saved from extinction or defection by a league of local businessmen. After years of churning bums in and out of the lineup in search of breakthrough stars, the Cardinals had to completely reinvent their farm system in order to build a true contender. And finally, a generational tide of precocious talent was turned over, producing the legendary baseballers who give title to this book.

Now, no one anywhere on the Gulf Coast will go on record predicting such a turnaround for the Rays, who are entering their eleventh season of existence, still in search of their first winning campaign. But one has to admit, many elements of the same script are in place – at least as far as the challenges go.

A consortium of local businessmen birthed the idea of bringing professional baseball to Florida, and in true Field of Dreams fashion, built a stadium in the hopes that a team would come. Unfortunately, the stadium they built was a dank concrete pit, its roof capped aslant like a giant oil silo half sunk into the soft Florida limestone. While the air outside thrummed with light and life, a perpetual summer of white sails, gray pelicans, and beet-red tourists, the stadium's darkened insides held its dream of baseball in cryogenic freeze.

(An aside: as it happens, I grew up an hour to the south, and watched with brightly cynical teenaged eyes while all this was taking place. I watched this strange story unfold and wondered what lure baseball could hold over these people to bring them to such a foolhardy series of actions. It wasn't until I arrived in St. Louis later that year, and soaked in the depth and wonder of such storytelling as Jack Buck and Mike Shannon could bring to any evening's broadcast, that I began to understand.)

Three years this stadium stood, a vacant cyst in the greenery of lower St. Petersburg, while its founding businessmen pitched woo to restless teams like the Giants and Mariners, all in vain.

This came as no shock to local sports fans – since its entry into professional sports, with the founding of the NFL's Buccaneers, it had always been Tampa's destiny to lose. When the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks in Arizona finally came to be, via expansion when no other option presented itself, Tampa had the misfortune of landing in the boiling waters of the AL East, rather than the therapeutic pool of the NL West.

The Yankees, who have wintered in Tampa for many years, were projected as a natural rival. And in fact, in 1990 when the Rays were a twinkle in Vince Naimioli's eye, Steinbrenner's 7th-place Yankees would have made a reasonable foil for a struggling but upstart franchise. Tradition versus youth, each struggling to succeed – it's a story that tells itself.

However, by the time the Rays actually came into existence in 1998, their friends in blue pinstripes were at the height of their powers once again. Talent-wise, the late-90s Yankees had as much rivalry with the Devil Rays as a hammer has with a bright ten-penny nail. Financially, there was no rivalry at all.

The payroll gap in baseball had exploded exponentially in the time it took to create the Rays. In 1990, the largest MLB payroll (a whopping $24 million) belonged to the Kansas City Royals, and 12 other teams were within 75% of that total. By 1998, the top payrolls had tripled to roughly $75 million, and only seven other teams were able to live in that upper threshold. By last year, only Boston was even close to carrying 75% of the Yankees megalithic checkbook.

Nevertheless, Tampa's bungling baseball minds hadn't realized how much the game had changed under their feet. Still playing by the 1990 playbook, but paying 2000's money, executives such as former GM Chuck LaMar kept insisting that "big name" players, even those far past their prime such as Wade Boggs, were the key to manufacturing a name for themselves in the division. Player development, if it happened, was an accidental by-product of the process.

Under this regime, Lou Piniella (right- who was acquired from Seattle at the cost of the team's only young major league commodity – Randy Winn) coaxed the best season in franchise history in 2004: 70 wins, and an unprecedented finish in not-last-place in the AL East. The victory parade lasted from the manager's reserved parking spot to the curb. He resigned after the following season.

Blessedly, change was to come. New ownership hired a new team at the start of '06, supplanting LaMar and his cronies. Houston's former talent architect, Gerry Hunsicker, and a young analyst by the name of Andrew Friedman, have reoriented the team around drafting and player development, and their work is finally bearing fruit, as the team's positive record, sparkling pitching, and unusual optimism have showed. One can look at the emerging talent on this Tampa team, led by Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria, and see the makings of a potential season-long surprise.

However, it remains to be seen whether Hunsicker and Friedman are up to the larger challenge that Branch Rickey tackled all those years ago, as John Heidenry describes it:

"The law of averages said that the Cardinals, like most other teams, might theoretically someday win a pennant…. Rickey, like the Napoleon of baseball that he was, aspired to something much bigger than an occasional championship season. He wanted an empire, and a long row of pennant flags fluttering above the stadium that was to serve as his court."

Imagining these woe-struck Rays in place of those Redbirds of 1919, there's no wonder that Heidenry's opening chapter is titled "The Impossible Dream."

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