The Tampa Bay Devil Rays completed a successful unsuccessful first season of major league baseball in 1998, finishomg in last place in the American League East with a record of 63-99.
Now, they looked to turn the page with the last year of the 20th century set to begin.
During the off-season, Devil Rays GM, Chuck LaMar, wanted to make a splash to keep the fans coming in, so he went out and signed one of the biggest starts of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, veteran slugger, Jose Canseco. The man who made history as the first player to homer 40 times and steal 40 bags in a season.
Jose Canseco immediately made the investment look wise as he homered during his first game in a Devil Rays uniform, launching a solo shot against Mike Mussina of the Baltimore Orioles. Canseco would tally 10 homers over his first 20 games for the Rays that season. By the All-Star Break, he had reached 31 and for his efforts was named one of the Devil Rays All-Star Game representatives, along with closer Roberto Hernandez.
Unfortunately, injuries derailed his season and he’d struggle the rest of the way. Canseco would finish the season having slashed .279/.369/.563 with 34 HR over 113 games played, good for a 131 wRC+ and 2.4 fWAR.
Also during the summer of 1999, the Devil Rays had the first selection in that year’s draft and with that choice, they selected Josh Hamilton.
Scouts dubbed him one of the top draft prospects the game had ever seen and Hamilton instantly became the best prospect in all of baseball. The Devil Rays made several more notable draft picks in 1999 as they took Carl Crawford in the second round, as well as Doug Waechter and Seth McClung later on.
Another highlight of the 1999 season was the Wade Boggs 3,000 hit watch. The veteran third baseman was now in his 18th season and he had averaged just over 170 hits per season. Now, entering 1999, he was at hit number 2,922.
On August 7th, 1999, Boggs was just three hits away from 3,000. The Cleveland Indians were in town and before a sold-out crowd, Boggs went for history.
During his first at-bat, Boggs received a thunderous ovation, and promptly grounded out harmlessly. However, during his next two trips to the plate, Boggs found the hole on the right of the infield and he was now at 2,999.
His next time up, he decided to avoid the right side of the infield altogether. Boggs, using a bat chosen by his son, who was filling in as the bat boy, took a hanging curveball and ripped it into the seats in right field for his 3,000th hit, becoming the first player in MLB history to homer for hit number 3,000.
In a jubilant trip around the bases, Boggs hopped for joy and pumped his fist in the air and he made his way towards plate, he got down on the ground and kissed the plate and then was met by all of his teammates.
That moment would become the defining highlight of the Devil Rays 1999 season. Well, that and Tony Saunders arm exploding mid-pitch. Saunders was coming off an excellent season in 1998 with the Devil Rays, but struggled early on in 1999. He would not have the chance rebound unfortunately as he would suffer one of the most horrific injuries we have ever seen on a baseball field as his arm snapped while delivering a pitch.
Saunders would never take a major league mound again.
As the end of the season approached, the Devil Rays had one more highlight to bring to the table. The Devil Rays had signed a 35 year high school science teacher by the name of Jim Morris. Morris had shown promise as a former first round pick and top prospect before arm troubles prematurely ended his career before he reached the majors. He had left baseball, but had recently participated in an open tryout where he impressed with his high velocity.
On September 18th, Morris would finally pitch in the majors, appearing in his home state of Texas against the Rangers. He would strike out Royce Clayton to begin his career. Morris would go on to write his autobiography, which ultimately went on to become a motion picture, ‘The Rookie’, in which Morris was played by Dennis Quaid.
(footage of Morris’s major league debut)
The Devil Rays fared a bit better in 1999 then they had during their inaugural season, as they finished the year with a record of 69-93, but they were still in last place in the American League East.
There were several positives for the club though as Fred McGriff showed he still had some left in the tank, blasting over 30 home runs and finishing the year with a wRC+ of 140 and 3.6 fWAR. Jose Canseco was still under contract for another year, and there was hope that he could repeat the success he found during 1999.
On the pitching side of things, unfortunately, several players had taken steps back in their development with Rolando Arrojo putting up poor results. Of course no pitching catastrophe could come near that of the unfortunate Tony Saunders. It was clear that a team competing in the American League East on a small budget was going to have to draft and develop starting pitching, and as of 1999 they had not succeeded in that goal.
The upcoming off-season would be one of the most exciting in the history of the franchise, but as we’ll see next week, excitement does not necessarily lead to success.