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A Treatise on Fandom and the Rays

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With the beginning of the season fast approaching, I’ve been finding myself being very reflective.  A year ago today, our team was still considered a laughing stock by many – a .500 team at best with a strong farm system – and now, Dave Cameron has ranked our franchise as the second strongest in all of baseball.  A year ago today, thoughts of competing with Boston and the Yankees were mere dreams, even to the most optimistic Rays’ fan.  The playoffs?  Totally inconceivable – I know I would have been very happy merely finishing above .500 for the first time.  Needless to say, it’s been a year for the ages.

Now, I first became a baseball addict in 1996 when the Yankees had their “magical” run to the World Series.  I was 11 and a born-and-raised Yankee fan, so that season was incredibly powerful to me, my first taste of what it can be like as a fan for your team to win.  I stayed a fan of them through all of their subsequent World Series victories, but became disillusioned when they began to sign the likes of Giambi and A-Rod.  I was a huge fan of Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neil, and Bernie Williams, so to see them slowly go in favor of big money players absolutely disgusted me.  Starting during the season in 2003, I swore off big-money teams and decided to root for a team with a ridiculously low payroll and no chance of success in their immediate future – the Devil Rays.

After already switching allegiances one time in my life, I can’t help but ask myself could I do it again?  After such a magical and impressive season, could ever a situation arise in which I decide to abandon the Rays in favor of some other team?  I feel like it’s utter sacrilege to even think about after last year, but at the same time, it’s a question that gets down into the heart of what it means to be a fan and how we each individually define fandom.

I recently heard someone say that if they didn’t feel a team was committed to winning, then it was their duty as a fan not to root for that team and not to invest their money in that franchise.  While fandom is a very personal issue and I’m sure everyone has slightly different responses to that statement, I don’t completely agree with it.  Yes, if a franchise is horribly mismanaged (like the Nationals, for instance), then going to games and buying merchandise for that team is only providing those owners with ill-deserved gains.  But at the same time, I was a Yankee fan but switched to the Devil Rays, the exact opposite of what that statement would suggest is right.  Instead, I would say that if you don’t believe in a franchise (however you choose to define that), then you shouldn't root for them and invest your money in them. 

Personally, I couldn’t believe in the Yankees after their free-agent spending because I couldn’t feel like their victories were well deserved, but bought like you or I would a loaf of bread.  I could, though, believe in the Devil Rays because they didn’t have the money to buy victories, but instead had to grow them.  Their team was full of energetic young talent like Baldelli, Crawford, Cantu, Upton, Gathright, Gomes, etc.  Heck, I even fell in love with not-so-talented young players, like Doug Waechter and Germi Gonzalez.  Their front-office was not well run at the time, but despite that, I could still believe in and connect with the franchise.

Looking ahead now, I simply cannot foresee a situation where I switch allegiances again.  I believe in our front office's ability and philosophy, I feel a real connection to our quirky players and manager, and no matter how much attendance increases, I believe we will still always be forced to compete through using young talent and making smart business moves.  In short, I feel a real connection to this team.  I believe in the Rays.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is that we should be damn proud of our organization.  Each of us may be fans of the Rays for a variety of different reasons, but no matter your rationale, we're priviledged enough to be investing our money and time and love into a franchise that is about as well-run and put together as you could wish.  So what are your stories?  Why are you a Rays' fan?  With the season starting in a week, I feel like it's a fun exercise to look back and re-remember the beginning of our connections with this team.  A new chapter is about to begin, but where did this book start for you?