June 30, 2008

Dear Commissioner Selig,

As an employee of the Tampa Bay Rays, I must take exception to your recent comments regarding Tropicana Field. In an interview with Howard Bryant of ESPN.com, you criticized the Trop by sarcastically asking, "Have you been there?" Then, when Mr. Bryant replied that he had, you said, "Do I need to tell you any more than that?"

Well, sir, I have my own rhetorical question for you: Where have you been?! Since the last time you visited St. Pete, in June 2004, I can assure you that things have changed. The place is much brighter, livelier and cheerier. Back then, we didn't have a tank of cow-nosed rays in right-centerfield. (You can pet them!) Or a second baseman with an alligator glove that has "No pain, no gain" written on it in Japanese. Or a manager in X-ray specs who can discuss the latest archaeological find at Stonehenge.

Or a double-jointed Ping-Pong player in the rotation. Or mysterious T-shirts that read "9 = 8." Or a rookie third baseman who leaves scouts babbling. Or a reliever who wears three of everything. Or an outfielder with his own personalized boxing robe. Or a closer who was presumed dead. Or 34,441 people at a Thursday-night game. Or a team that's 17 games over .500!

Or me. I'm Raymond, the goofy and lovable blue mascot (No. 00) who runs around during the game. (You can pet me, too!) You should've seen me the other night during the Pepsi race, when various bottles scamper along the third baseline. (Yeah, I know, a knockoff of what your sausages do in Miller Park.) Just as the Aquafina bottle was about to cross the finish line—wham! I clotheslined him. Should've made SportsCenter.

But this is not about me. It's about the excitement the Rays are creating here and throughout baseball. The other day our ace, Scott Kazmir, and I were at the South Brandon Little League fields on the other side of the Bay to announce that the Rays will fund renovations to the complex. When Scott walked away after the festivities, he was like the Pied Piper, taking all these kids along with him as he signed their stuff. "I seem to be collecting fans," he said.

Which is the point. Attendance is up 35% over last season. Some of that has to do with the fan-friendlier atmosphere my new bosses have instituted. (The other night, we had Kool & the Gang: "Cel-e-brate good times, come on!") But mostly it has to do with our turnaround from being the team everybody picked on (nine basement finishes in 10 years) to the team nobody wants to mess with. Cliff Floyd says that at the beginning of the season, opposing players would come up to him and go, "Hey, you guys are playing well." And now? "They just give me this look like, Are you for real?"

No, we're not the same old Devil Rays anymore. People are waiting for the other shoe to drop, but every night we send out a quality starter, and it seems like every game, there's a web gem or two. And the scary thing is, we haven't begun to hit. None of us is sure how and when it all got started. It might be the new management group, which took over after the 2005 season, and their outside-the-box hiring of manager Joe Maddon soon after. (He has posted quotes from John Wooden, Alan Greenspan and Albert Camus. Yes, Camus!) It might be the unveiling of the new unis last fall and the exorcism of "Devil" from our name. That actually had me a little worried, what with the old logo being a ray like me and the new logo being a ray of sunshine. But my bosses assure me that my job is safe.

And how about the moves by VP Andrew Friedman—who only looks like a bat boy—to beef up our pitching, defense, bench and character? Trading unhappy outfielder Delmon Young for starter Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett? Brilliant! Signing Troy Percival as closer and Cliff and Eric Hinske as bench bats? Genius! Heck, practically the only guys still on the roster from the last time you were here are Carl Crawford and Trever Miller.

Some people trace our success to our skirmish with the Yankees during spring training. You remember: The Bombers took exception to one of our infielders, Elliot Johnson, colliding with one of their catchers, Francisco Cervelli, in a "meaningless" exhibition game. A few days later, one of their pitchers hit our prize rookie, Evan Longoria; then Shelley Duncan took out our second baseman, Aki Iwamura, on a spikes-high slide, and both benches emptied. (Fight!) As Joe said recently, "That helped us galvanize as a team, and not just because we came to each other's defense. It helps when you're in the right." We were right to play every game as if it meant something.

That's what the "9 = 8" slogan is all about. Play hard for nine innings, and one of eight postseason spots could be yours.

A lot of other things jelled in the spring. Our catcher, Dioner Navarro, reported in great shape, and now he belongs on the All-Star team. To make room for Evan, Aki moved from third to second, and that alligator glove must work anywhere, because he's made only one error so far. Joe decided to turn lefty J.P. Howell into a reliever, which has made a huge difference—for our bullpen and our clubhouse guys. J.P. wears three shirts, undershorts and pairs of socks when he pitches, which is now more often. (He likes three because it reminds him of three strikes and three outs.)

The results? More wins. And more fights.

I'm sure you saw our June 5 brawl with the Red Sox. Coco Crisp gets hit, goes after James Shields, and somehow three of them and five of us are suspended. Jonny Gomes got five games, but he also got his own boxing robe from Toby Hall, an old teammate who's now with the White Sox. (You should see it: a white, hooded robe with "Gomes 31" on the back.) We even started fighting among ourselves. Navie and Garza went at it on the mound on June 8 and continued their "discussion" in the dugout. Navie, who's about two months younger (they're both 24), called it "older brother fights younger brother." Since they cleared the air, Matt has thrown two gems.

The guys here are often asked to compare the Rays to other teams. Joe, who spent 31 years in the Angels organization, sees a lot of them in us, especially the 2002 world-champion Angels. Cliff says we're like his '97 Marlins, who also won it all. Hinske, who's from Wisconsin, thinks we resemble his beloved Green Bay Packers of last year: "People weren't expecting much, and they got a lot." Percy, who's a car nut, likens us to a Corvette Z06. "We've got hard muscle, great speed, nice lines," he says. "Except we have one old part—namely me."

I'm sure you know our other mascot, Don Zimmer. (Don't pet him!) Zim's been in baseball for six decades (he played with Jackie Robinson!) as a player, coach, manager and now our "senior baseball adviser." The other day, during batting practice, he was saying that the Rays remind him of the mid-90s Yankees he coached: "Pitching and defense can take you a long way, and that's what those Yankees had and these Rays have. Strong up the middle. We also have the same knack the Yankees had for picking each other up. That's what makes a team, and we got it."

We've caught on so fast, I think we might be baseball's first viral team. We're all over the Internet. On YouTube, you can catch our fights; a pseudo documentary on the evolution of the fist-bump, produced by our promotions department at the suggestion of our owner, Stu Sternberg; clips of our double-jointed starter, Andy Sonnanstine, playing table tennis; and yours truly frolicking. (By the way, I have my own blog: raymond.mlblogs.com.)

The Rays now have fans all over. We might even have picked up some Cubs fans last week. We certainly earned their respect. The Cubbies came in for a three-game series with the best record in baseball. The first thing Lou Piniella, our old manager, asked was, "Where's the ray tank?" Well, Evan showed him in the sixth inning of the first game when he hit a bomb that bounced off the aquarium. ("He tested the tank's structural integrity," said our president, Matt Silverman.) In the end, we pulled out a real nail-biter, 3-2.

But what was really electrifying was the crowd—wish you'd been here, sir! We had 31,607, and because it was evenly divided between Cubs fans and Rays fans, every play got cheers and groans. And because the game was so exciting, the fans lost interest in what I was doing, whether it was dancing on the dugouts or cruising in my ATV. They were too busy watching baseball. What a concept!

The next night was pretty much the same thing, but that game was on ESPN, so more people got to see us win, 5-4. Percy made it suspenseful, giving up a leadoff homer in the ninth. But with a man on and two outs, he froze Kosuke Fukudome with a 2-2 curve. After the game, Percy said to Navie, "Nice call, pal."

In the old days, we would've been thrilled taking two out of three from the Cubs (or anyone). But down 3-1 in the seventh inning of the third game, we loaded the bases on Carlos Mármol, then Scott Eyre came in to face Carl Crawford and … kiss it goodbye. And kiss us hello. We won 8-3, and the Cubs fans in the crowd of 34,441 left shaking their heads and sort of smiling. Even Lou had to tip his hat: "We didn't have Boston or New York on the interleague schedule, so I thought we'd caught a break."

In his office afterward, Joe said, "This matters. Tonight matters because when you're playing a team of that caliber and they grab a lead and you know they want to leave here with at least one win, you have to battle through it, and we did. I'm so proud of our guys." Then he poured himself a glass of red wine, a 2005 Napa Valley blend called the Prisoner—which, come to think of it, describes what Piniella must've felt like during the 95-loss 2005 season.

Anyway, now that we're what Carl calls "one of the elite teams," now that we know how to win games, we have to figure out what it takes to win a championship. Zim says, "Just keep doing what we're doing." Cliff says, "We've got to keep that chip on our shoulder." Meanwhile, the talk on sports-talk radio is about us getting Ken Griffey Jr. or C.C. Sabathia.

Joe has given the roster serious thought. "Right now I love our chemistry," he says. "And I love it that we keep surprising people. One of the most powerful motivations in baseball—in life, too—is to be told you can't do something—'You can't win down there,' or 'You can't draw down there.' Well, keep telling us what we can't do, because we're liable to do it. We've been disrespected for a while, but for the first time, we can actually answer back."

You see, Bud, things have changed here. We're not the cute, cuddly D-Rays anymore. We're the power-of-the-sun, don't-mess-with-us Rays. The on-pace-to-win-98-games Rays. I know we need a new stadium, but that's still a sticky issue, so we're not going anywhere for a while. We'll just have to see if winning does the trick.

In the meantime, come back and see us.

How about this October?

Raymond Ray