It's finally that time of the year, time for the chalk lines to be drawn and opening day logos to be painted onto Tropicana Field's beautiful turf. Time for the Rays to move back into their team clubhouse and for the Blue Jays to take temporary ownership of the visiting dugout. Time for the Sun Sports team to set up the broadcast booth perched above the field behind the plate. Time for hopes to be renewed for what is sure to be an exciting, tension filled season with plenty of ups and downs resulting from the most glorious thing on earth, baseball.
As Opening Day beckons, let's take a look back into the Rays almost twenty year history and reminisce about some of the great moments that have occurred at this annual rite that, if this were a just world, would be a national holiday.
1998: The Inaugural Game
On March 31st, 1998 after decades spent trying to land a major league team, the citizens of St. Petersburg could celebrate their first major league regular season game as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays hosted the Detroit Tigers at Tropicana Field. There was a grand ceremony that featured local luminaries and honored those who worked so diligently to land the area a team.
The crowd noise was deafening as veteran southpaw Wilson Alvarez became the first pitcher in team history to put cleats on the Tropicana Field mound. A perfect opening day was marred when Alvarez missed on his first pitch to Detroit's Brian Hunter, a ball.
Alvarez wasn't deterred, however, and retired the side in order. The Rays then came up and proceeded to not hit the ball out of the infield, going down in order. In their second inning against Alvarez, the Tigers decided provide a reality check for the fans of the infant Devil Rays, scoring four times on six hits. By the time the Rays came back up, their win expectancy was at a dim 17%.
That's how the night would go for Tampa Bay as they trailed 11-0 by the sixth. That's when another franchise first would happen as Wade Boggs stepped up with the 80-grade name, Quinton McCracken on base and smacked a home run into the seats in right. The bullpen would then hold the Tigers for the rest of the game, while Tampa Bay tried to muster a rally in the ninth, but it was too little too late and the Rays fell, 11-6. However, for the people of the Tampa Bay area, even losing baseball was better than no baseball.
2003: A New Spark?
Things hadn't gone so well for the fledgling franchise since its 1998 inauguration, as the greatest drama each year was the (usually failing) effort to avoid 100 losses. This was especially true in the 2002 season, when they put up an embarrassing mark of 55-106.
However, there was reason for excitement entering the 2003 season. Carl Crawford had potential; Aubrey Huff had power; and now Lou Pinella, a managing legend and a home town boy, was at the helm.
Sadly, it seemed like more of the same was on the way for the 34,000+ in attendance on March 31st, 2003. The Devil Rays hosted the Boston Red Sox, a team with which Tampa Bay has had some problems with in the past. After six and a half innings, the Devil Rays were being shut out by nemesis Pedro Martinez and trailed the Sox, 4-0.
Tampa Bay would then attempt to rally as they put the first two batters of the inning on base. They had runners on the corners for former USA gold medalist Brent Abernathy with one out. Abernathy would hit a tailor made double play ball to the third baseman, Shea Hillenbrad. His throw to second never made it, however, allowing the first run of the game for the good guys. Rey Ordonez would then do what Abernathy didn't and ground into a double play to end the inning, 4-1 Boston.
After a quiet eighth and Boston half of the ninth, the Devil Rays came up and great things started to happen. Travis Lee led off and grounded a ball through the hole and into right field for a single. Terry Shumpert then took his first plate appearance in a Rays uniform, pinch hitting for Al Martin. After a first pitch ball, Shumpert turned and drilled a ball into the seats in left to make it a one run game.
Ben Grieve then followed with a single of his own. Following that though, Chad Fox, the Boston reliever, settled down, struck out Toby Hall, and coaxed a fielder choice ground ball from Brent Abernathy. Abernathy then proceeded to snag second base, while Fox pretty much pitched around pinch-hitter, Marlon Anderson, to bring up Carl Crawford with two outs and runners on first and second.
Crawford came up hacking and offered at the first four pitches he saw, fouling each one off. He then took a ball to make the count, 1-2. Fox came set, turned and fired. Crawford swung hard and was able to square it up and send the ball soaring into the seats and initiated a wild celebration as Tampa Bay walked off against Boston, 6-4.
2006: Under Construction
Unfortunately for the Rays, their surplus of talent that had come through over the years hadn't paid dividends as players underperformed or suffered injuries that had made them shells of their prior selves. In early 2005, the team had been bought by a new ownership group which shied away from handing out big contracts to marquee free agents. Lou Pinella apparently disagreed with this strategy, leading to his early dismissal from the club towards the end of the season.
That's when an unorthodox manager was brought in and the franchise would begin to undergo a change.
Although the team's performance didn't immediately reflect this change as they took a 9-6 defeat in Baaltimore, it was evident that Tampa Bay wouldn't be losing for very much longer.
*Stayed tuned for Part two, which will be out tomorrow.