Imagine if the Rays met the A’s in the American League championship series. In one ballpark, you might have to give away Joe Maddon Garden Gnomes for anyone to show up. In the other ballpark, you’d worry a game would be postponed because of raw sewage in the dugout.
And yet, that very well could be your matchup, which would underline the new baseball ideology: Being smart on a limited budget is way cooler these days than being stupid with $236.9 million. That’s what the Yankees sunk into their payroll this season, but they aren’t part of baseball’s postseason rumba, reduced to begging Joe Girardi not to leave, hoping Jay-Z doesn’t hold them hostage for Robinson Cano and thinking they’ve got 99 problems and the shortstop’s one of them. In fact, of the top five revenue-producing teams, only the Red Sox reached October. I see no Phillies, no Giants, no Cubs. I see no Angels, no Rangers, no Blue Jays. I see just one team from a massive market, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and they simply aren’t hateable despite their own $236-million payroll as long as Vin Scully is in their TV booth, Jackie Robinson is in their lore and ageless Chavez Ravine is their dropdead backdrop.
But, quite charmingly, three teams from small markets are still playing. Three of the final eight, in fact, which computes to a .375 batting average, which wins you a batting title in this sport and — I’m hoping and praying — the very first World Series title ever won by a club ranked in the bottom five on a modern spending list. Yes, I’m openly rooting for the Rays, A’s and Pirates, even if it requires three flight connections and overtime pay to your GPS lady to find St. Petersburg, Oakland and Pittsburgh.
Whether a championship is possible depends on those usual October variables: supreme pitching, experience in such moments and late-season hotness. Funny thing is, Tampa Bay has all three at the moment. They may not have many fans who want to sit inside hideous Tropicana Field, which looks like a half-opened Campbell’s soup can and feels like a fine window-less place for a monster trucks exhibition, but what’s great about the Rays is that they don’t care about anything — except having an ample supply of Silly String. They’ve been on the road 11 days, in five cities, so long that outfielder Sam Fuld missed the birth of his third child and depended on the wives and fiancees of teammates to join his wife in the maternity ward. In spite of such hardships, the Rays continue to look like a team that could beat anybody anywhere, advancing to the divisional round in Boston after winning two elimination games in three nights with typical airtight, Maddon-loose, pitching-and-fundamentals efficiency.
“Not making light, because you would have liked to have a couple days off,” Maddon told the media, “but when you get this momentum kind of thing on a daily basis, and you’re playing great competition, and you’re going from city to city to city and it’s in adverse territory, all this stuff is what you train for and really dig. And you love it.”
Dig it, hipsters.
“Nobody wants to go home,” Alex Cobb said after pitching the clincher in Cleveland.
Well, maybe Fuld wants to go home. And first baseman James Loney, who said, per the Associated Press, “I’ve got to wash some clothes or buy some socks or something.”
But no one else.
While commissioner Bud Selig pulls a back muscle congratulating himself for a competitive revenue-sharing model — which, in turn, has facilitated increased parity — this is more about brainpower. Billy Beane developed the paradigm in Oakland, of course, drawing the attention of Hollywood with his early emphasis on metrics and detailed intelligence reports. “Moneyball” became the norm for all franchises, small or large, but the Rays took shrewd front-office thinking to new and more consistent levels in recent years. While the A’s suffered through a lull period between the Brad Pitt era and their current run, Tampa Bay achieved something in 2008 that Beane has not — a World Series — and has continued to generate 90-win seasons while constantly dealing with low-budget constraints and hard-to-explain dumpings of star players. It’s astonishing that baseball boss Andrew Friedman, with basically no room for error, usually connects on every move, whether it’s something monumental like the James Shields-for-Wil Myers deal or seemingly trivial like the late-season pickup of Delmon Young, who ripped a big home run to help eliminate the Indians. People forget that Young, with Detroit, was MVP of the ALCS last autumn. Maddon didn’t forget, urging his bosses to sign the power hitter despite personal problems that included a 2012 arrest in New York for hurling an anti-Semitic rant at a panhandler in a Yamulke. He was suspended for seven days by Major League Baseball.
In other cities, such baggage would make him unhireable. In Tampa Bay, memories are short when a potent bat is acquired basically for nothing. Any baggage carried by Young and other Rays was a million miles away during their second champagne celebration in three nights, when they again partied in the dark with goggles and sprayed each other with Silly String. All of which is largely about the groovy vibe of Maddon, a master of positive reinforcement and gimmicks — you know about the penguins and snakes in the home clubhouse — intended to forge a fun atmosphere conducive to productive relaxation when October arrives. Oakland and Tampa Bay are mirror images in achieving the most with the fewest resources; at least The Trop has functional plumbing, unlike the deplorable Coliseum. On the flip side, Beane has just enough of a budget to chase a Cuban prodigy like Yoenis Cespedes; Tampa Bay doesn’t have the money to plunge into the global chase or buy major free agents. Pittsburgh, so lame for 21 years despite a wonderful ballpark, finally developed a plan to pay big bonuses to draft prospects while giving life to older veterans cut loose by other teams.
Tell me: Why would anyone root for the Dodgers … or the Red Sox … or the there-every-year Cardinals … when you have three adorable overachievers?
“I’d give us as good a chance as anybody,” Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said, per the Tampa Bay Times. “Anybody. I don’t think there’s anybody who should be favored over us. … There’s no question in my mind that there’s no one that says they want the Rays. Absolutely not. Whether it’s Cleveland, Boston, Detroit or Oakland. Nobody’s looking forward to that.”
Said Oakland catcher Derek Norris: “I think in peoples’ eyes we’ll always be a surprise story. Honestly, we could win the AL West 10 years in a row and people would still pick the Angels or Rangers to win it. They look at our numbers and say, `Well, they don’t have this or that.’ It doesn’t always have to be the .330 hitter with 40 home runs who carries you to the playoffs. Since I’ve been here, it’s always been a team effort. It’s been 25 guys piecing together their own contributions to form a well-played game.”
Sounds like Tampa Bay. Sounds like Pittsburgh.
Sounds like the adorable kind of cause America should embrace this autumn, right?