In 1998, three years after being awarded an MLB franchise, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays began donning unis, smacking gloves, and tarring bats. As the God of baseball would have it, this early, hapless incarnation of the Rays would join the American League East -- the Yankees' private and comfortable castle.
That year, the Yankees team would win more than twice as many games as they lost, going 114-48, and would eventually sweep the San Diego Padres in the World Series. Led by Bernie Williams and featuring a young Jorge Posada (and an old Darryl Strawberry), this Yankees incarnation hardly noticed the infant Devil Rays stuck in the clay of their cleats. They beat the Devil Rays by night and on the flight home ask, "Who did we play today?" To the Yankees, 1998 was just another season.
The statistics of this brief yet shared history helps illuminate the vast chasm of inequality between these two teams. Let us explore it.
Behold the disparity of the fighters! Above we see the historical difference between average runs scored and average runs allowed (or [runs/games] - [runsallowed/games]). Observe your precious Rays, high atop the list on a special Throne of Suck whilst the Yankees sneer from their absurd Cellar of Dominance. No two teams are more Yin and Yang than these two teams. No two teams have reached such great heights and scoured such empty lows as the Yankees and Rays.
Behold the overbearing dominance of the Yankees! An insulting 40 pennants! A mind-bottling 27 World Series championships! And then find your beloved Rays, sallow and alone in the flatlands of the chart, hoisting a single pennant proudly above its feeble neighbors.
Behold the barely post-pubescent David and his grayed Goliath counterpart! The Yankees yearly featured a diverse assortment of men bound for bronze busts and the Rays featured Travis Lee, Bryan Rekar, and Damon Hollins -- careers that hardly sparkled before they smoked.
But then something happened -- a strange rumbling as though Earth had repositioned itself, as though Time had begun to kneed a new era. In just the final two months of 2007, the Devil Rays scored nearly 300 runs -- more than they ever had in any two months in franchise history. Viewers at home watched this same, hopeless team -- but it looked and felt different. Something curious had happened.
Then, as though a muscle-bound Bug of Awesome bursting forth from its green cocoon and flipping off the world, the Rays blossomed in all manners of Glory!
BEHOLD! The Rays overnight went from proud of 70 wins to ashamed of 80! The Yankees, who had so pleasantly strolled across the corpses of their seasons received a surprise uppercut -- a swift meeting of knuckle and haughtily closed eye.
"Flash in the pan! Flash in the pan!" cried Ruth and DiMaggio, pointing at Andrew Friedman and nursing their shiner. "Flash in the pan! Flash in the pan!" cried Mantle and Berra, but the 2009 Rays still went twelve rounds. The ghosts of the Yankees Past merely cried in 2010 as the Rays and bombers exchanged blows again.
But to this day, I -- living in Chicago now -- tell people I am a Rays fan and they say, "Who?"
The Rays. You know, the other team in Florida
"The... The Marlins?"
No, the Rays. They went to the World Series like two years ago.
"Really? So they're a major league team?"
Yeah, they played your White Sox a few weeks ago.
"Ohhh! The Devil Rays!"
Usually at this point I produce my pistol and begin to air my grievances slowly, but to the casual baseball fan, the Rays are still an enigma -- perhaps a name they have heard or a team they have seen once or twice, but never remembered. Even the Great Upheaval of 2008 failed to crack the Rays shell of anonymity. Meanwhile, the Yankees bask in the glow of endless popularity and pomp.
To say the Rays have been merely a footnote in the history of the Yankees wrongly implies St. Pete's participation in the narrative. The Yankees have nearly over a century of famous names, dramatic comebacks, and shocking home runs. They have Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra. They have over a quarter century of championships. No other team has than many World Series appearances, much less championships, than the Yankees.
And that's why I love the Rays so much. Because, honestly, who the hell are they? Who do they think they are to challenge the legacy of the Yankees -- the team that defines baseball?
If a person loves the thought of the hapless competitor facing the brutal champ, the weakling nerd raising his fists the spoiled bully, the underdog proudly presenting the Monster his privates with a smile -- if anyone loves the hero when he is weak and outmatched, then he or she loves the Rays. And I love the Rays.