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The Chicago Cubs are playing for the Rays’ legacy

For six years, Tampa Bay was baseball’s best team. Now Joe Maddon can make sure they’re remembered.

Tampa Bay Rays v Texas Rangers, Game 3 Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The saddest thing about losing in the playoffs is not the loss itself. Baseball fans are used to losing. It’s a long season, and even the best teams generally lose more than 60 times.

No, the saddest thing about losing that final playoff game is the knowledge that your team—the team you’ve been with for 162 games as they made it nearly to the top—will not be remembered.

Legacy is cruel. It is not the same as history, which is a collection of facts and stories that can be dug up and rehashed whenever the current time has need of them. It is a much scarcer resource, and more highly prized. It is not so malleable as history, because it is rooted to the time and place of its happening.

For six years the Rays were the baddest kids on the block. They came out of nowhere. They had no money. But they were smart, and they knew where to find the cutting edge in baseball.

Andrew Friedman built a front office team that took the next step down the path the early adopters of “Moneyball” had blazed, reevaluating sabermetric orthodoxy, finding holes (especially in defensive evaluation), and exploiting them. Joe Maddon worked with that front office to bring their research to the field, redefining the job of the manager.

They won with pitching and defense. From 2008 till 2013, no American League team allowed fewer runs. But they could also hit. Only the big-budget Yankees, Red Sox, and Tigers posted a higher wRC+ than the Rays over that span, and once you consider defensive and baserunning value, the Rays hitters/fielders/runners clearly were the best in baseball.

Given the Rays’ financial and economic disadvantages compared to the league and to division rivals, that run should qualify as one of the greatest in baseball history.

But it doesn’t.

No one notices if you don’t win it all.

Instead, the Rays are a minor sidebar in the story of the San Francisco Giants dynasty. And both their wealthy rivals, Boston and New York, won a World Series during the “Rays Era,” burnishing their own legacies in the process.

Legacies, unfortunately, aren’t built on consistent over-achieving, they are built on championships. We Rays fans were left holding a memory without any of the stamps to validate it.

When Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon left Tampa Bay, I knew the era was over. But I was wrong about one thing.

We thought that Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon were the Rays, but it turns out they were just assets. Any asset can be bought.

Friedman and Maddon really were the Rays, and they still are. Because legacy is about a time and a place. The thing they built together in Tampa Bay from 2008-2013 is still sitting there, waiting to be validated.

There are a couple ways this could go.

  1. If Andrew Friedman and the Dodgers win the World Series, the story is about the relationship between Moneyball and Money. It’s about how, while the innovation may happen in small market teams, as soon as a good strategy is developed, it and the people who made it are gobbled up by the biggest fish. There would be something poetically depressing about the guy who made his name with the smallest budget finally winning with the biggest budget. Not the type of poetry I go in for, but poetry beggars can’t be poetry choosers. Even in that story, the Rays get recognized.
  2. If Joe Maddon and the Cubs win the world series, though, the stamp is emphatic. Lifting the curse would be the biggest baseball news of the [year? decade? century?], and the GM and the manager who did it would be celebrated everywhere. And while some Rays fans remain bitter about Maddon leaving (despite some claims that he gave the Rays a very real chance to keep him), he remains the person carrying the largest single share of the Rays legacy. His league-leading contract with Chicago already shows that the market knows those Rays were exceptional. And Maddon getting that money from GM Theo Epstein—the man behind the juggernaut Red Sox teams Maddon’s Rays battled and beat during their run—does even more work.

So I am rooting for the Cubs, and for the legacy of the 2008-2013 Rays.

Ben Zobrist already got his validation in Kansas City, but when I see him move from second base to the outfield, and then see multiple other players, particularly budding super-utility Javier Baez, shift spots as well, I will see the Rays.

When I see Jake Arrieta strike out a batter with a high fastball, I will see the Rays.

When I see right-handed pitcher Kyle Hendricks bury his changeup on the bottom inside corner to a right-handed batter, I will remember James Shields and see the Rays.

And if I see that same aggressive changeup from a Cubs reliever not known for his offspeed, I’ll not only see the Rays’ hand, but specifically that of Joel Peralta, who spent time with the Cubs before retiring this season. Remember, Peralta took his role as veteran mentor seriously with the Rays, and he was the one who, in spring training, taught now-closer Alex Colome a new approach to the changeup.

When the Cubs, owners of the league’s best defense, reposition their fielders during an at bat—that’s something we first saw with Joe Maddon here in Tampa Bay.

The Rays aren’t likely to win the world series any time soon. Balling on a budget is hard. The 2016 season was bad, and next year will be 2017, and while I’m not great at arithmetic, I’m pretty sure that both of those fall outside the span 2008-2013.

But nothing that happened in 2016 can change the fact that for six years, the shoestring Rays were the favorites. All that 2016 can change is whether their excellence becomes an interesting nugget for some future baseball history nerd to uncover and wonder about, or if it’s the prologue to the Big Story.

What happens when the Cubs have runners on first and third with one out? Well, it depends who’s up to bat and how the defense plays, but we Rays fans will know to watch for a safety squeeze. If we get one, I don’t think I’ll be able to stop smiling for a week.