Defining success in an age of wild cards

Mike Ehrmann - Getty Images

The Rays didn't make the playoffs, but I have tears in my eyes and a B.J. Upton shaped hole in my chest. Yes, I'd still call this season a success.

Back in March when the first pitch was thrown in the 2012 season, "Success" was defined for the entire baseball world as one thing: reaching and winning the World Series. That's the end goal that every team shoots for each season, and growing up, we're told that World Series winners are the only teams that get "remembered in the history books." Any season that comes up short of that is, by corollary, a failure.

On one hand, I get it. Even if there is so much small sample size luck and streaky-ness that goes into the postseason, winning the World Series should always be the goal for each team. It's the ultimate prize, and since baseball is a sport, we need to declare some final winner at the end of the season. And since we can only have one winner, we're also going to have 29 "losers" each and every year.

But the 2008 Rays season wasn't wasted because they lost to the Phillies in the World Series, no more than the 2012 Rays season was a failure because they didn't make the playoffs. Game 162 wasn't an less memorable or special because the Rays ended up getting eliminated from the playoffs in the first round. Those seasons may not get remembered by most fans out there, but they'll sure as heck be remembered by me.

Each of these past five seasons has given me memories that I'll remember for as long as I live: Dan Johnson crushing a fastball into the Boston night; Aki fielding a ground ball and leaping off second base, arms raised high, like he'd been electrocuted; Evan Longoria throwing his hands up in sheer, childlike joy while rounding first base; B.J. Upton tearing up while sitting in the dugout last night; and many, many more.

As February has given way to October each year, I've found myself considering the Rays as some weird extension of my family. My wife won't sit down and watch a game, but she knows all the players by sight and knows random facts about each of them. I've spent so much time following them and watching them, their own ongoing storylines, struggles, and successes end up wrecking havoc on my own emotions.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, baseball seasons are more than just exercises in victory and defeat. They're chances for us to reach beyond ourselves, and to follow 25+ guys through a storyline that isn't pre-written or pre-ordained. It's a chance for us to connect with other fans, to share common experiences, and to experience the highs and lows of emotion that we don't reach in our day-to-day lives. If a baseball season can give us all of these things, that's what I consider a success.

The Rays 2012 season is over, and I feel like I should be frustrated and disappointed that this team couldn't pull things together enough to make the playoffs. And yet, while watching B.J. Upton break down during last night's game, all I could feel was gratitude. There aren't many teams that are as tight-knit or as fun to follow on a daily basis as the Rays, and they've given us an entertaining season right down to the very wire. As a fan, you can't ask for much more.

So to all the Rays out there: thank you, thank you, thank you. It's been one heck of a year, and even if it ended sooner than we were hoping, it's been a great ride. I'm personally grateful that I was able to spend my time following such a franchise, and here's hoping there are many more successful, memory-filled seasons in the future.

Let the countdown to Spring Training 2013 begin.

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