When you think of the Tampa Bay Rays, you first think of that magical 2008 season. The Rays, a perennial cellar-dweller in the American League East, went worst-to-first, winning 97 games, the AL East crown, and eventually, the American League pennant.
It was the start of a half-decade plus of sustained success, multiple playoff appearances and the emergence of future superstars.
I, on the other hand, do not have any of these memories to look back on.
I wasn’t an avid baseball fan early in life. While the Rays were tearing up the American League, my 9-year-old brain was too engulfed with Lego Star Wars and Halo to have any interest in sports past casually watching the Packers. I had just moved away from all my friends and family to Florida after a cold stint in Indiana.
My memory of that year is a bit foggy, but I recall some mention of the local baseball team playing a cheesesteak related team in the World Series. After the championship hype died down, my friends would mention the Rays in passing but I would not dive into the fandom until my family got cable when I was in high school.
As if I didn’t already miss out on the dominance of the early 2010s, my first season was 2016. Yes, the underwhelming and frustrating AL East worst 68-94 Rays. Safe to say, there was nowhere to go but up from there. Most Rays fans like to forget the disappointments of that season, but I have a lukewarm attitude looking back.
Evan Longoria had a resurgent season with a team best .840 OPS, new acquisition Brad Miller hit 30 home runs, and Alex Colomé emerged as one of the best closers in baseball. Under-performances by others aside, these guys stuck around and made the team somewhat watchable.
My first season of Rays baseball came with a trade deadline that saw some big names leave the team. With the team hovering around 20 games below .500 at the end of July, this was the perfect time to trade players for young talent that could help the team in the future. Among these names were utility man Steve Pearce, hit by pitch master Brandon Guyer, and fan favorite Matt Moore.
As a new fan, I had so many questions. Why was the team trading effective players for unproven minor leaguers? Why can’t we buy big names at the deadline like the Cubs or Blue Jays? Why is this bumbling goofball trying to convince me that these moves are good for the team (Matt Silverman was de-facto GM at the time)?
Through my confusion and frustration, the team would finish the season at the bottom of the division. If I were a more seasoned fan, I wouldn’t have been surprised. The Rays were nowhere near the powerhouse they were a few years before.
The roster lacked any promising young talent (besides a rookie Blake Snell), Kevin Cash was still trying to find his identity as a manager, and even if the Rays had a better record, it would still be hard to compete with the Blue Jays and Orioles (remember when they were good?).
The end of the season would mark a turning point for the franchise. Newly appointed general manager Erik Neander started to build what would become one of the deepest farm systems in baseball history.
In 2017, the team signed international amateur Wander Franco, who became the most hyped prospect in franchise history. The Rays selected Brendan McKay after “earning” the fourth overall pick in the draft.
At the time, I had no idea what was in store for the future. I assumed guys like Longo and Dickerson would be built around instead of traded. I held on hope that some impressive offseason moves would be made (aside from Ricki Weeks). My naïve fandom was wanting results immediately. Reinforcements were on the way, but not from where I was expecting.
Over the next few years, the team would blossom into a powerhouse. Mediocrity turned into dominance, with two consecutive playoff berths and a World Series appearance. As the team morphed into a contender, my fandom morphed into an obsession.
I learned about sabermetrics, the importance of young prospects and a good farm, and why the Rays are so highly regarded by many pundits. I also took my fandom to social media, which led me to heights I never thought would be possible, like this haha.
Harping on 2016 may seem pointless nowadays, but it’s the season that got me hooked. Even though the team was objectively horrible, it was new and interesting to me. The next season and subsequent trades tested my patience, but I learned to trust the process. Holding out and being patient has paid off.
When I’m not watching the team ball out during the season, I’m chatting with other fans on Discord, looking into prospects, or thinking of other ways the Rays can assert their dominance on the American League. The team and fandom totally changed my life, and I will always be grateful.