Welcome to the first in a series of articles examining the history of Tampa Bay Rays baseball. With 20 seasons now etched in the history books, we’ll look back at each individual year and reminisce on all the highs and lows that this franchise has brought to us over the past two decades.
Tampa Bay has had professional baseball for decades. Major league teams, needing to escape the frigid early spring temperatures of their Northeastern and Midwestern home cities, traveled to the area for spring training.
But as soon as the northern snows melted, professional baseball would make its way north, leaving Tampa Bay residents baseball-less once more.
As the regional population grew, local leaders did everything they possibly could to gain a major league franchise and even got close a couple of times, but things fell apart at the last minute, sometimes the very last minute. But finally, in 1995, MLB decided to expand and awarded St Petersburg a major league franchise. This franchise became the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
It took a couple of years for the team’s infrastructure to be built, at last on March 31st, 1998, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were ready to play their first game. Tickets for the game sold out in under 20 minutes.
They had brought in several stars of the past two decades with big names like Fred McGriff and Wade Boggs. They went to the international market and signed Cuban ace, Rolando Arrojo. In addition to those players, the Rays stockpiled several more veterans, such as: Roberto Hernandez, Wilson Alvarez, Dave Martinez, Paul Sorrento, and Kevin Stocker. For the first manager in franchise history, the Rays named Larry Rothschild, who had been the pitching coach of the reigning World Series champion Florida Marlins.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays welcomed the Detroit Tigers for the first game in franchise history. Wilson Alvarez took the mound for the Rays with Detroit’s Brian Hunter standing in the box. As Alvarez wound up, thousands of cameras flashed to capture the first pitch; a ball, inside.
The Devil Rays would go on to lose that game by the score of 11-6. Multiple franchise firsts occurred, though, as Dave Martinez recorded the first base hit and hometown hero Wade Boggs belted the first home run in franchise history.
The following night, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays experienced their first taste of victory as they defeated the Tigers, 11-8. The Devil Rays went on a roll following the victory as they won four out of five and on April 19th, they were 10-6, marking the highest over .500 an expansion team had ever been that late into a season.
Then things went downhill quickly for the Rays as they’d only win 36% of their remaining games that season, finishing with just under 100 losses with a record 63-99, 51 games back in the division.
Over the course of the season, the Devil Rays didn’t make many moves, staying quiet in trade talks. In the 1998 draft they selected two players who’d go on to be major league regulars, Aubrey Huff, and the late Joe Kennedy. The Rays also picked up Travis Harper and Jorge Cantu during the year.
The best offensive player for the Devil Rays that season was Fred McGriff who slashed .284/.371/.443 with 19 HR to lead the team, good for 111 wRC+ and 3.1 fWAR. The second top player on the team was rookie Miguel Cairo, who put up a solid year of his own with 2.4 fWAR, mostly due to his defensive prowess.
Rolando Arrojo and Tony Saunders led the pitching staff with solid years. Arrojo was the Rays lone selection to the All-Star Game in Colorado and he finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.
The Devil Rays avoided 100 losses, which is an accomplishment for a first year expansion team.
Vince Naimoli, the majority owner of the Devil Rays, had finally brought major league baseball to Tampa Bay and now with one season over, he looked ahead to 1999 and the effort to build a real contender.