It was the start of the new Millennium. Y2K came and went without the collapse of all things internet. Moviegoers were Remembering the Titans while Beyonce and Jay-Z were Crazy in Love.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays now had two years of major league experience under their belts. They still hadn’t achieved a winning season though and as the novelty of Tampa Bay baseball wore off, attendance started dwindle towards the end of their 1999 campaign.
Team ownership wanted to spice things up and reignite fan interest, so the 1999 Winter Meetings, the Devil Rays made a couple of huge splashes.
On December 13th, 1999 the Tampa Bay Devil Rays signed free agent slugger, Greg Vaughn to a four year deal. A little later on in the day, the Rays brought in another slugger as they acquired Vinny Castilla from the Colorado Rockies in exchange for Aaron Ledesma and Rolando Arrojo.
Vaughn and Castilla were two of the fearsome hitters in the game during the 1990’s. From 1995 to 1999, the two combined to average 72 homers a year. Adding them to a lineup that already featured two of the games best hitters in 1999 in Fred McGriff and Jose Canseco, the Devil Rays were looking to form a powerhouse in the middle of their lineup.
They dubbed their new creation, ‘The Hit Show’.
The Devil Rays weren’t done after those moves however, as they brought in outfielder Gerald Williams, and a couple of veteran starting pitchers, in Steve Trachsel and Juan Guzman, to round out the rotation. A former Silver Slugger winner, Carlos Baerga, also joined the Devil Rays.
The Rays had caught the attention of the baseball world with their flurry of moves. However, there were some serious question marks as well. Would the Rays big foursome continue to bash? The Hit Show’s average age was around 35 years and old and the youngest, Vinny Castilla (32), would be coming from the hitter haven of Coors Field.
The season sure got off to a great start though.
On April 3rd, 2000, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays opened the season at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minnesota against the Twins. Gerald Williams was batting leadoff for the Devil Rays and on the first pitch of the season, he went deep. Later on in the game, Fred McGriff launched a grand slam, and starting pitcher Steve Trachsel shutdown for the Twins for seven innings en route to a 7-0 victory.
If only the season could have ended after that successful Opening Day. But there were 161 more games to play and few of those went well. The offense did what they were supposed to do (despite Vinny Castilla opening the year on the DL and Carlos Baerga’s contract being voided), as they averaged 5.5 runs a game during April. Unfortunately, the pitching didn’t follow suit, allowing 6.7 runs per game.
Juan Guzman, to whom they had given a $12M - 2 YR deal, made his first start on April 7th. He wouldn’t make it through three as the Cleveland Indians shellacked him. That would be his last time on a major league mound.
Greg Vaughn did what he could to carry the team that month as he belted 8 HR and put up 133 wRC+. Jose Canseco was right there with him as well, with 4 long balls of his own and 117 wRC+.
In May, everything just went bad.
The offense tanked and the pitchers continued their atrociousness.
Soon after Guzman’s exit from the team, the Devil Rays went out and got hometown hero Dwight Gooden from the Houston Astros. Gooden had been primed to be the next best pitcher in the game, winning Rookie of Year at age 19 and he Cy Young award at age 20. But much had gone wrong since then, including injuries, addiction and legal problems. Now he returned to him hometown team at age 35. He’d make some forgettable appearance before being released, along with Kevin Stocker.
The 2000 MLB draft would end up being one of the most impactful in team history as the team selected the Woonsocket Rocket, Rocco Baldelli with their first round selection. Later on, the Devil Rays selected James Shields in the 16th round of the draft.
At the trade deadline, the Devil Rays became active sellers for the first time in franchise history as they made several moves.
Back in May, the Devil Rays had already made a couple of moves as they traded Marc Valdez to the Houston Astros for Russ Johnson, and they also sent Tony Graffinino to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for Tanyon Sturtze.
On July 28th, the Devil Rays dealt reliever Jim Mecir and minor leaguer Todd Belitz to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for Jesus Colome, who had been ranked as the 53rd best prospect in baseball by Baseball America.
Tampa Bay wasn’t finished as they would also send outfielder and fan favorite, Bubba Trammell, and RHP Rick White to the New York Mets in exchange for OF Jason Tyner and RHP Paul Wilson.
To finish things out, on the 31st, the Devil Rays sent pitchers Mark Guthrie and Steve Trachsel to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for second base prospect, Brent Abernathy.
In August, the Devil Rays began to dismantle the Hit Show, sending Jose Canseco to the New York Yankees. Canseco was decent for the Devil Rays, but again was plagued with injuries. Overall he hit .257/.383/.450 with 9 HR over 61 games, good for a 114 wRC+ and he accrued 0.8 fWAR.
The final month of the season did give us one of the most memorable moments in franchise history.
The Boston Red Sox were in town and sent their ace, future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez to the bump. Gerald Williams came to bat for the Devil Rays to lead off the bottom of the first inning...and then chaos.
Williams was hit, he charged the mound, knocked Martinez to the ground and then was swept up in a mob of Red Sox players. The benches and bullpens cleared in the ensuing fracas. The benches would clear a couple of more times throughout the night and when it was all said and done, Pedro Martinez had thrown a complete game one hitter. Meanwhile the Devil Rays had eight members of the team ejected from the game. This would be just a precursor for the next 17 years of rivalry.
As the season came to the close, the Devil Rays had the last laugh against the Red Sox as they defeated them in the final series of the season, effectively eliminating them from the playoff chase. Devil Rays closer Roberto Hernandez emphatically waved goodbye at the the Sox as he closed the door on their post-season hopes.
The Devil Rays would finish the season with a record of 69-92. They had played the best baseball in franchise history, and actually over a three month period from June to August, the played at an above .500 record (42-40). Unfortunately, that solid performance could not avoid another last place finish in the American League East as they finished 18 games behind the New York Yankees.
The Hit Show had been a dud with Canseco being dealt mid season, Vinny Castilla had dealt with injuries throughout most of the season and when he was in the starting lineup, he provided very little production finishing the season with -0.4 fWAR and a 35wRC+ over 85 games.
Fred McGriff and Greg Vaughn tried to their respective parts, but even the Crime Dog had a lack luster season, finishing the year with a 107 wRC+ and 0.1 fWAR. Greg Vaughn carried the team as the top player, finishing with 28 HR, 116 wRC+, and 2.2 fWAR.
Pitching wise, Bryan Rekar broke out as the team’s top starting pitcher and trade deadline acquisition, Paul Wilson, performed very well down the stretch for the Devil Rays.
With three seasons under their belt, the Devil Rays didn’t seem to be getting any better and the management’s plans for success were failing. The team was finished buying and now they’d be entering a new phase in team history.