In the Boston Globe's morning coverage on the loss of Jon Lester, a writer named Chad Finn that I particularly enjoy for NFL media coverage reflected on what the loss of an Ace meant for Red Sox fans on a metaphysical level.
It was an entertaining read, if nothing else to see the tear stains in the manuscript, and he began by defining why the Boston fan base latches on to certain players and not others. Here's where things got interesting.
Appreciating Boston -- hell, getting Boston, digging Boston, and thriving in this distinctive atmosphere -- matters to us. [When beloved players leave], forgiveness is just a nostalgic flashback away.
If you think this all sounds a little much, he acknowledges that too.
I realize I'm treading embarrassingly close to, if not full-on beyond, True Yankee territory here. So be it. I'm OK with that, because fans of any franchise (even the Rays, maybe?) care about these things, about legacies and history and traditions passed from one generation to the next.
And it's that last bit in the parentheses that just drove me bonkers - I shouldn't have let it happen, if anything I should have expected it. Of course the Boston writer is going to try a swing at Rays fans while he's feeling down. It's a cliched pot shot, but no less infuriating.
Finn establishes that a "True Red Sock," or whatever he wants to call it, is a player who can not only survive in the caustic environment the fans and media have created at 4 Yawkey Way, but embrace it and then win in spite of it.
The awkward ballpark and the energy that Fenway holds is something to appreciate in Boston; even Longoria has said it's his favorite park, and I've seen first-hand the passion of the fans that drives the intense love for baseball in this town, but you have to admit: that's a really shitty way to define what makes a True Boston athlete.
Furthermore, even if you performed great for the self-identified Mass-holes, you'll still get smeared on your way out of town. Even the bringers of World Series: Epstein and Francona. Is it any surprise that being great when you're going through hell is what gets you loved in Boston?
The Rays have a completely different environment, and intentionally so; one fostered by Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman. Fans finally enjoyed an era of winning baseball after nearly a decade of being the worst franchise around. Did we smear them on their way out the door? Are we any better?
I've seen it in the comments, a claim that someone might never think favorably of Maddon for leaving, not after he said a week before he was committed to the Rays. Others had a tendency to call out every failure of the franchise under Friedman's tenure when he left for the Dodgers, like the 2008 and 2011 drafts, the 2009 and 2014 rosters, or the 2010 and 2013 playoffs. By even writing this, I've risked the pot calling the kettle black.
But the pot shot is there, and I'm riled up so I have to ask: Are we any better?
What does it mean to be a True Ray?
It starts by being under-appreciated, and by being good at what you do. Alex Cobb and Ben Zobrist have quietly been among the best players in all of baseball with barely any recognition, because they play under the dome and I'm not convinced anyone outside Tampa Bay wants them to do well.
Begrudgingly there is recognition that Zobrist's utility status on the field might make him superior to other guys limited to second base, or that Alex Cobb might very well be the best damned pitcher in the American League East, as said by Peter Gammons yesterday!
Being a Ray is fighting for the respect you deserve, and that includes winning on the field.
It also includes being appreciative for what you have in life, and one way we've seen that are in long term extensions. Evan Longoria has signed two deals in his Rays career, giving extreme home town discounts to the club. Ben Zobrist, Chris Archer, Matt Moore, and Yunel Escobar have as well, because they want to be a part of the Rays culture for as long as possible.
Another way we've seen that is by players investing in the community, from the leaders of the franchise, to the stars, to the prospects. We know because countless pictures flood our twitter feeds. Chris Archer hands out turkeys, donates sports equipment to the fire department leagues, and is a regular presence at the Children's Hospital and even speaks at schools and prisons. He's in South Africa right now sharing his love of the game, and investing in kids. The stories go on and on and on.
Rays players tend to also have certain less-than-obvious skills that the Rays champion (with sometimes maddening effects for their opponents). Skills the industry doesn't appreciate, like Jose Molina and his framing ability that sent helmets and curse words flying. Or the extreme defensive wonder of so many Rays, a priority for the club.
On the mound there's the change up, the rising fastball, the pick-off, and the pitching coach seems to have an ability to make titans out of castaways -- Fernando Rodney is a great example. The Rays seem to prioritize finding the approach or niche that can make a player great, from the front office on down, and we latch onto it as a fanbase.
That's the Rays Way. So is there a True Ray?
Under-appreciated by the industry, grateful to be here, invested in the community, talented.
Let's see if this definition works. Are there any players that could leave the Rays and still be universally beloved by our fans?
I can think of two players who pitched in the AL Central last season that fit: former Rays aces James Shields and David Price. They were hugely involved in the community, big personalities and constant jokesters, great at what they did but under-appreciated all the same. Shields even took a long-term deal. The Rays eventually sent each of them packing but the love remains.
Sean Rodriguez is another who will continue to be loved. He knew his role as the first man off the bench, and he played his heart out at every position on the field. Sam Fuld is a legend, and will continue to be one.
There certainly is a definition for a True Ray.
Finn, continue your weeping over Lester leaving, but don't try and take it out on us. You'd just be more wrong than the fans who blame Lester for being insulted by the $70 million the Sawx tried to give him last Spring.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have a Carl Crawford shirtsy to wear.