If you haven't been able to tell from my other posts, I like to be reflective. Ever since I was a kid, I've loved baseball history and loved looking back on how teams have developed and changed over the years. Maybe it's the holidays, maybe it's having too much time on my hands, maybe it's something else entirely, but I've been in a very reflective mood these past couple of weeks, and I keep coming back to the Rays. And as weird as it may sound, it was the Halladay-Lee swap that started my mind down this path.
As most of you probably know, last year the Mariners changed general managers. Bill Bavasi had been their GM since 2003, but under his watch, the Mariners toted huge payrolls and still managed to finish in last place every year except one. While there have general managers that have gotten away with far greater travesties and kept their jobs, Bavasi made some royally bad moves during his tenure including: trading Rafael Soriano for Horacio Ramirez, trading the farm for Erik Bedard, signing Carlos Silva to a 4-year/$48M contract, and a multitude of other misdeeds. For the full list, check out his Wikipedia page; it's pretty hilarious.
Last off-season, though, the Mariners went a new route and hired Jack Zduriencik, and watching the reaction among Seattle fans (especially on sites like Lookout Landing) has been quite fun to watch unfold. At first, no one knew what to expect. Zduriencik had a good track record with the Brewers and there were rumors that he was big on progressive statistics, but after dealing with Bavasi for so long, the fans were obviously initially skeptical. This is a horrible metaphor, but Jack was the new girl on the block, and the last girl to come around had left a really bad taste in the Seattle fans' mouths. Change was good, but what did Jack have to offer? Would he be another heart break?
Well, over the course of one season, Zduriencik has turned the last-place Mariners into the favorites for the AL West. He acquires players for below market rates, keeps few rumors from leaking out, values defense and progressive analysis, and overall, he's one shrewd, cunning general manager. The change in the direction of the franchise has been monumental, and Seattle fans are singing Zduriencik's praises.
What does any of this have to do with the Rays? Well, four years ago (has it really been that long?), our franchise underwent a giant paradigm shift as well. Think back on that time: do you remember what it felt like? How uncertain were you? I remember those yellow "Under Construction" signs showing up everywhere, and although it made me comforted somewhat that things were changing, I still didn't know what to think. Were things changing for the better? Were any of the moves the new front-office was making going to turn out okay? Personally, after seeing the Devil Rays suck for so long, I found it very tough to believe that we'd actually have a winning season, nonetheless compete. I hoped for it, but it was merely a dream.
And then...the 2008 season happened.
I swear, that entire season feels something like a dream now. The unveiling of the new uniforms, Percival's spring training t-shirt, the preseason brawl, 9=8...and finally, being in first place. And not just during the first week of the season. At the time, I was studying abroad in Denmark and it was the dead of winter - freezing cold outside, like feel-like-you're-dying-if-you're-not-wearing-a-parka cold. I had to walk ¾ of a mile to the train station every day to get to school, but I would check the baseball scores every morning when I woke up and man, I would get on such a high seeing our name in first place, I never felt the cold. After sweeping the Red Sox and Angels early on during the season, I remember talking to myself and gesticulating wildly the entire way to train station, nearly dancing in my excitement; I don't know what the straight-laced Danes must have thought of me. But I was so excited - so happy with life - that I simply couldn't contain it.
A couple months ago, Joe Posnanski had a blog post up about how infrequent it can be that the team you follow plays the exact same way that you love. If you love strong defenses and you're a New York Giants fan, you're kinda stuck this year. And more painfully, if you're a Kansas City Royals fan and you loved OBP, you're really screwed. What can you do, though? If you're a true fan of that team, you just have to suck it up and deal with it. Someday, maybe, the team will get a new manager, owner, general manager, whatever, and things will line up perfectly. Your team will run things and play the game exactly the way you love, and you'll be in a moment of sports nirvana.
Watching the Mariners' fans reactions to the Lee deal, I realized something: we're in the midst of a moment of sports nirvana. After years of bumbling and fumbling, the Rays finally have a competent ownership group and an exceptionally talented general manager. In 2008, I felt the way that Mariners fans felt in reaction to the Lee trade - I loved our front-office. They were incredible, our team was incredible - I was walking on air. That feeling has faded over time, though, and I find myself taking our front-office for granted. They're amazing, but it's too easy to forget on a day-to-day basis.
That's unfortunate, though; like I said, this is a rare, rare moment. Our team rarely makes a bad acquisition or move (can you think of any? I can't), and other fans look at our team as a model for how things should be done. Our front-office is in favor of advanced statistics and analysis, and they've been very open with our community here online. What else could we possibly want? How many other fans and teams are lucky enough to have franchises as smart as ours? We're living in a moment of sports nirvana, with a team that's smart and plays the game we love to see it played. Take a moment and appreciate it, because it's not often that a team this enjoyable to follow comes along.
Happy Holidays, everyone. Enjoy the gift that keeps on giving: the Rays.