As a life long Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays fan, theirs not mine, I always wondered what it was like to cheer for a team in the playoff hunt in September-- to watch games hoping to keep playing in to the fall rather than spitefully playing the role of spoiler or dreaming about a September call-ups future role. With the name change in 2008 came a role change for Rays' fans: we got to enjoy baseball for an entire season.
No longer were the dog days of summer filled with meaningless losses in July and August with a rebirth of youth in September. We got to enjoy the ups and downs of a team in contention that won more nights than it lost. I remember the first time I really realized how great that was, and it was special. I'd say it really hit me when we swept the Sox to begin July of 2008 (solidifying, for the time, our spot on top of the AL East). That feeling persisted in to the fall of that year.; it was a special summer.
As much fun as playoff baseball is, it is also stressful. The ups and downs of a playoff game are short-lived, unlike the long arcs of winning and losing streaks in the regular season. It was in that first great summer of baseball I finally found out what it was like to cheer for a winning baseball team with no expectations.
The following year, for the first time, I found out what it was like to cheer for a team with some expectations. Most expectations were internal, the national media expected that as 2009 ushered in a new season it would strike midnight on the Cinderella Rays. Well they still won. They still were a top team even if they could not match the previous season's luster. I, and imagine most of us Rays' fans, still enjoyed watching meaningful ball all year. What followed was special as well: 2 more playoff runs with meaningful games in to October--even if the playoffs were brief and frustrating.
While the last two years were frustrating at times--sputtering offense, tough losses, etc.-- this is the first time I consider the season a disappointment. We came in with high expectations after back-to-back playoff appearances and adding a couple of sorely needed power bats. As usual, the pitching looked like it would be dominant, but this time it seemed we would have the offensive fire power to back them. Starting with the injury to our best player, the season was a drag. For the first time in the current glorious run we were an unhealthy, injury prone team. We could not score. We came up small in big situations. The defense looked bad. WE COULD NOT SCORE.
So despite other wordly pitching efforts, the lack of offense completely undermined our expectations. Shields' heroic effort last night was the prime example: he pitched one of the best games in team history; Pena was on the bench and failed as a pinch hitter; Scott was lifted for a pinch hitter who was lifted for a pinch hitter; and we lost another one-run game. To make it worse the magic we had seemingly held for 4 years was staring us in the face from the other dugout. The recently lowly Orioles were in the running for the division crown and had already sealed a playoff birth on the backs of the greatest record in close games ever. They had the magic, not us. I was sour. I was frustrated. I was jealous.
Then the realization hit me: this is the burden of expectations. This is what it feels like to expect to be there. This is the gut-wrenching, gnawing pain that strikes Yankees fans every time they don't win the world series. I'll tell you one thing, though, after it wears off you see the bright side of these expectations: the hope that next spring brings a summer of joy once again.