Sports Nut

A Prayer for the Tampa Bay Rays

Sure, Cubs supporters have been suffering longer, but Rays fans have it much, much worse.

The Tampa Bay Rays celebrate a win against the White Sox during the 2008 playoffs

Throw a rock in Chicagoland these days, and you’re liable to hit a mourning Cubs fan who’s old enough to remember Gabby Hartnett’s spry youth. “All of a sudden, I was sitting here, sobbing,” 89-year-old Edith Konya told the South Bend Tribune, describing her mental state after the Cubs lost the second game of the National League Division Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers. If Edith and other aged Cubs fans are in need of comfort this week, they can consult with 96-year-old Inez Rishworth, 104-year-old Leo Hildebrand, 100-year-old Speedy Iavarone, and 100-year-old Richard Savage, all of whose long sufferings were chronicled in the papers this year.

With Boston’s sudden surge to the baseball elite, Cubs supporters have become the poster centenarians for baseball’s oldest cliché: long-suffering fandom. In baseball, more than any other sport, a long history of losing is seen as a prerequisite for winning. The Milwaukee Brewers, wrote George Vecsey last week, “have no right to win the World Series when it is so obvious that this is the perfect year for the Cubs to repair the slips and slights and full-fledged calamities of the past century.” The Brewers, you see, have existed only since 1970, meaning their oldest fans have been without a championship for less than four decades. Considering that attitude, one would expect that Vecsey would pay the Tampa Bay Rays even less respect, and one would be right; he dismisses them as being in the line of the Florida Marlins and the Arizona Diamondbacks, “arrivistes” who “should have joined the queue.”

Enough is enough: The poor, beleaguered Rays fan deserves a defense. The mistake here isn’t to sneer at expansion teams—to be uncomfortable with a team whose color scheme involves teal or magenta hoisting a World Series trophy is just to be a baseball fan. Rather, it’s to regard duration, rather than intensity, as the proper measure of baseball suffering. By a standard that holds that a team deserves to win in proportion to what it’s endured, the Rays have as great a right to a trophy as anyone else. Cheering for the Cubs is like carrying on with a rotten tooth; cheering for the Rays has, until this year, been like being stabbed in the face repeatedly with a butter knife.

Consider the plight of the Tampa Bay baseball fan. For pretty much the entire 20th century, he didn’t even have a team. If you don’t count that as suffering, consider that in the 1980s and 1990s, his city was regularly used as a means to extort other baseball-having cities into building new stadiums—the Twins, White Sox, Rangers, Mariners, and Giants all teased Floridian fans with threats to move to Tampa/St. Petersburg, but none of those deals came to pass. When Tampa did finally get a team in 1998, they instantly became the worst franchise in baseball—and perhaps in all of American pro sports.

Since 1998, the Cubs fan has watched his team play in October four times; the Rays fan has watched his lose 90 games 10 times. While the Cubs fan has taken in games at Wrigley Field, the finest park in the major leagues, the Rays fan has trudged into Tropicana Field, the only park in baseball whose ground rules distinguish between four possible calls that can be made on balls that strike one of several catwalks suspended over the field. (“Batted ball that is not judged a home run and remains on a catwalk, light or suspended object: Two Bases.”) Cubs right fielder Sammy Sosa hit 129 home runs in 1998 and 1999; former Rays right fielder Aubrey Huff is the team’s career leader with 128. On a given game night there are probably 8,000 Cubs fans drinking on Clark Street; the Rays could muster only 8,000 fans to a recent rally celebrating their epic ascent to the postseason.

Far worse than any of this, though, is the dignity gap. To be a Cubs loyalist is to assume a certain air of nobility. Watching the best lineup in the National League score six runs in three games against a Dodgers team that finished the year four games above .500 is wretched, but it’s also a historic event—another line in the team’s glorious record of losing. While the Cubs fan has the pity of national baseball writers and the consolation of a fraternity of similarly deluded millions, Rays fans are seen as a possibly spectral phenomenon. Dick Vitale is the team’s only celebrity fan; a great proportion of the typical Rays crowd shows up wearing a Manny Ramirez or Derek Jeter shirt. In enemy territory, even at home in Florida—that’s the life of a Rays fan.

The Rays fan’s agonies are considered, if they’re considered at all, to be a fitting reward for poor taste. He has attended games at a park featuring fake grass and an aquarium in right field. He has watched his team run up one of the 10 highest payrolls in baseball while running the powdered remnants of Dwight Gooden and Jose Canseco into the field. He has even bought and proudly sported teal jerseys festooned with fish. But so far as the broader baseball-loving world is concerned, all those evenings spent perched next to the radio living and dying with each Ryan Rupe start don’t count at all.

If you think that Rays fans don’t understand pain, just take a look at the club’s history with outfield prospects. Rocco Baldelli, the Rays’ first-round pick in 2000, somehow contracted a mysterious disease that makes his “muscles stop working.” Delmon Young, the top overall pick in the 2003 draft, became famous for throwing a bat at an umpire in a minor league game. Elijah Dukes, a 2002 third-rounder, made his name last year by texting his wife a picture of a gun and leaving her a voice mail that started out: “Hey, dawg. It’s on, dawg. You dead, dawg.” (Both Young and Dukes now play for other teams.) And then, of course, there’s Josh Hamilton, whom the Rays picked over Boston ace Josh Beckett with the first overall pick of the 1999 draft. After establishing himself as a top prospect, Hamilton went on a yearslong crack binge and played all of 98 games in Tampa Bay’s minor league system from 2001 through 2006. After straightening out and being snared away in the 2006 Rule 5 draft, he promptly had two years that wouldn’t look out of place in Ken Griffey Jr.’s prime.

I could go on here—did I mention Toe Nash? or that the Rays took a 23-year-old Bobby Abreu in the 1997 expansion draft and then traded him for Kevin Stocker?—but the point is that this is a history of unmitigated disaster, with a sprinkle of soul-searing catastrophe mixed in. I still maintain that the team that deserves to win the World Series is the one that wins 11 games in October, but if we’re going to invoke any criteria that involve shame and misery, the Rays have a compelling claim. A goat, a black cat, and a Steve Bartman game are awful. A Steve Bartman game every day for 10 years—unrelieved by any such amenities as playing your home games in the most beautiful city in America, being consistently good, or having an owner willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over two winters—is worse.

Those who know it best are doubtless those elderly Floridians who, like their Chicago brethren, have been waiting their entire lives for a World Series victory. Given demographic reality, there has to be at least one Tampa centenarian whose last, burning ambition is to see a flag raised over the Trop. Do it for him, Rays. You owe him.