Unquestionably, the most compelling, surprising, and unexpected story of the 2008 baseball season is the rise of the Tampa Rays, who are in good position to make their first appearance in the post-season this fall.
No matter how the rest of the season turns out, the rags to riches story of the Tampa Rays, who have been the doormat in the American League East in every year but one since their existence, is historical. But where does it rate in the annals of baseball history as far as Cinderella stories go?
Prior to this season, the Rays had never lost fewer than 91 games in any season. Only once, in 2004 under Lou Piniella, had the Devil Rays (as they were known then) finished out of the cellar. Last season Tampa lost 96 games, finishing 30 games back of the Red Sox. Hardly a sign that things were about to change.
But this season, the Rays, with their new name, have surfaced at the top of the standings. The transformation is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the Rays have the fifth-lowest payroll in the game (just over $44 million, or slightly less than what A-Rod and Derek Jeter will earn by themselves this season). The no-name Rays, cute patsies of the AL East, punching bags for the Red Sox and Yankees, have certainly been a Cinderella story in ‘08. Here are a few of the other Cinderella teams in baseball history.
1914 Boston Braves
Over the previous five seasons the Braves averaged 100 losses, and were an afterthought compared to the team they shared the city with, the Red Sox, who had won the 1912 World Series and boasted such stars as Tris Speaker and Smoky Joe Wood. The Braves were very young: their first baseman was 24, their third baseman was 22, their shortstop was also 22, and Les Mann and Larry Gilbert, two-thirds of their outfield, were both 21. Their ace, Big Bill James, who won 26 games, was 22 years old. 26-year old Dick Rudolph also won 26, and the only other starter that manager George Stallings trusted was 24-year old Lefty Tyler. The only veteran of note was second sacker Johnny Evers, a cocky little firebrand who had few friends in the National League because of his brash demeanor and dirty play. Most of the umpires in the league hated Evers too, in fact manager Stallings was just about the only person who loved little Johnny, with the possible exception of Mrs. Evers.
Not only had the Braves been miserable for several years, they started the 1914 season miserably. After being swept in a July 4th doubleheader by Brooklyn, the Braves were 15 games out in the National League race. Same old, same old, right? Wrong. The Braves went 57-19 the rest of the way. 57-19. They didn’t just come-from-behind, they came from behind and lapped the field. The Braves won the pennant by 10 1/2 games and to make their point, they proceeded to defeat the heavily-favored Philadelphia A’s in the World Series in four straight. For their incomprehensible feat, the Braves are suitably known as “The Miracle Braves.“
1969 New York Mets
This team really was quite amazing. In 1968 they finished in ninth place, and even though they had some promising young players on their roster (Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Cleon Jones), no one saw this coming. For the better part of a decade, the Mets weren’t just losers, they were laughingstocks. They were typified by their slapstick manager Casey Stengel, who said of one of his players in the early 1960s: “He’s 23 years old and in a year he has a real good chance to be 24.“
The keys to the Mets surprising success in 1969 under manager Gil Hodges were the hitting of Jones, the contribution of rookie starter Gary Gentry, the play of Tommie Agee in the outfield, and the dominance of Seaver. The Mets really had two aces in Seaver and Koosman, one from the right and one from the left. The bullpen, anchored by Ron Taylor, Tug McGraw, Nolan Ryan, and Jack Dilauro, was fantastic. Once the Mets proved they could handle the test of a pennant race with the Cubs, they dispatched Atlanta easily in the playoffs. In the Series, Seaver and Koosman proved that saying that pitching can win a post-season series. The Orioles, perhaps a little overconfident, were pushed aside in five games and the “Amazin’ Mets” belonged to the ages.
1991 Atlanta Braves
There was a time when the Atlanta Braves were dismal. That period was the late 1980s, following the exit of superstar Dale Murphy. But GM John Schuerholz orchestrated a series of trades and draft picks that stocked the team with potential All-Stars, In 1990, the young Braves lost 97 games, finishing a three-year stretch in which they averaged 100 losses. In 1991, manager Bobby Cox was in the first full season of his second stint as manager of the team, but like the 1914 Braves, things didn’t get off to such a great start. At the end of June, Atlanta was a game over .500, 7 1/2 games behind the Dodgers. But the Braves’ pitching was poised to emerge and it was theose arms that catapulted the team in the second half. Behind 20-somethings Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, and John Smoltz, and veteran southpaw Charlie Leibrandt, the Braves caught the Dodgers and won the NL West by a game. The offense, which ranked second in the league in runs scored, was paced by Ron Gant, David Justice, MVP Terry Pendleton, and a batch of youngsters and castoffs with names like Brian Hunter, Jeff Blauser, Otis Nixon, and Sid Bream.
After clinching the division, with the champagne flowing in the clubhouse, Schuerholz summed up the Cinderella story: “There is no feeling in the world like this, nothing, no way. It has to be one of baseball’s all-time great stories.“
1967 Boston Red Sox
What is it about Boston and Cinderella teams? More than 50 years after the miracle Boston Braves, the Red Sox staged a stunning reversal of fortune and fitted themselves for the glass slipper. The Sox were under the guidance of rookie manager Dick Williams, who was untested but testy, unaccustomed to scrutiny but scrutinizing of his players, and possessed a seemingly endless reservoir of determination. This was the first of many reclamation projects for the hard-nosed Williams, who years later fittingly titled his autobiography “No More Mr. Nice Guy.“
The Sox, like the other teams on this list, were remarkably young: no one in their everyday lineup was more than 27 years old. Even though they had finished ninth in a ten-team league the year before, the Red Sox were a confident bunch, fueled by Williams’ fire. MVP Carl Yastrzemski carried most of the offensive load, leading the league in batting, homers, and RBI, while delivering what seemed like every clutch hit and making every game-saving catch in the outfield. Yaz’s performance ranks near the top of the single-season feats in baseball history, if not at the top.
The pitching staff was led by 25-year old Jim Lonborg, who won 22 games. After him, there wasn’t much else, but Williams and his staff made it work. Plodding along a few games over .500 through June, the Sox caught fire in July and August, winning 39 games in those two months. They survived an tight four-team race that went down to the last day of the season, earning Boston’s first pennant in 21 years. The Red Sox won 92 games, a 20-game improvement, earning Manager of the Year honors for Williams. They lost in seven games to the talented Cardinals in the World Series.
Occurring two years before the Mets had their magical season, the Red Sox “Impossible Dream” team is overshadowed, mostly because they didn’t win the Series, and even though they had come from way down, they weren’t the Mets. Nevertheless, the ‘67 Red Sox still hold a special place in the hearts of their fans.
1993 Philadelphia Phillies
Unlike the other teams on this list, the Phillies were not a young team and they stayed in first place almost the entire season, after a 17-5 April. In ‘92, the Phils were a sixth-place team, winning just 70 games. Their roster was a mixture of young untested players and grizzled veterans with an attitude. These guys were rough around the edges, party-til-dawn types, with nicknames like Krukker, Nails, Dutch, Izzy, and Wild Thing. But between the lines they could play, and they played an all-out, hustling, brand of baseball. They had the most potent offense in the National League, sparked by catcher Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk, Dave Hollins, and Pete Incaviglia. Manager Jim Fregosi used a rotation that featured Curt Schilling and Tommy Greene from the right side and Terry Mulholland and Danny Jackson from the left. Out of the bullpen was the “Wild Thing” – mullet-wearing closer Mitch Williams who saved 43 games while giving the fans a heart attack nearly every time he toed the rubber because he usually walked a few batters between his frequent strikeouts.
With their tobacco-stained uniforms, unshaven faces, and confident swagger, the Phils rolled to a 27-game improvement, winning 97 games and their first division title in a decade. In the playoffs they stunned the Braves in six games to win just the fifth pennant in franchise history. Their loss in the World Series, punctuated by a dramatic home run surrendered by Williams, did little to spoil a Cinderella season. Unlike most of the other teams on this list, the Phillies weren’t a young team launching themselves into an era of prosperity. On the contrary, after 1993, they had seven straight losing seasons.
“We were just a bunch of maniacs who played baseball hard every day,“ Kruk said of the ‘93 team. For one season, these maniacs got it right.
2007 Colorado Rockies
Where did these guys come from? In one of the most shocking turnarounds in history, the Rockies ended up in the World Series after years of frustration and hapless play. After the debacle of 1999, when manager Jim Leyland retired following one season in Colorado, the franchise dove into a funk the size of the Rockie Mountains. The Rockies found themselves in fourth and fifth place every season between 1999 and 2006. Free agent signings, trades, draft picks – they tried everything to restock the roster, but nothing worked. Invariably, a few hitters each season would put up awesome numbers because of the thin air and small dimensions at Coors Field. It was great for selling a few tickets and jerseys and getting guys into the All-Star Game, but not so good when the pitching and defense were so abysmal they couldn’t get anybody out. Then, gradually, Clint Hurdle and his coaching staff started to make some headway, and in ‘07, after a mediocre 76-86 season in ‘06, there were some expectations, though a second place finish was an optimistic projection.
An eight-game losing streak in late June left the Rockies eight games out and in their customary fourth place looking up at the rest of the National League West. Much hadn’t changed nearly three months later – on the morning of September 16, the Rockies were 4 1/2 games back in the wild card race, with several teams in line ahead of them, including their division rivals, the San Diego Padres. From then on, they just kept winning. With the big bats of Matt Holliday and Troy Tulowitzki leading the way, the Men in Purple averaged nearly seven runs per game the rest of the way, winning 11 in a row, and 13 of 14 to finish their schedule tied for the wild card spot with the Padres. Colorado won the wild card playoff game 9-8 in 13 innings and vaulted into the playoffs in Cinderella fashion. Amazingly, the team added seven straight wins in the two rounds of the NL Playoffs, giving them victories in 20 of 21 games.
1987 Minnesota Twins
Since the late 1970s, the Twins organization had been producing good young ballplayers, but they had nothing to show for it. In 1984 they flirted with the AL West division race but slipped in September. Two years later they lost 91 games and finished in sixth place, ahead of only the woeful Seattle Mariners. In 1987, stocked with several of those players from their farm system, the Twins enjoyed a Cinderella season, vaulting all the way to first place and a 14-game improvement. Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Frank Viola, and Kirby Puckett were the core of the team, and all of them came from the Twins system. Second year manager Tom Kelly guided the team to their shocking five-game win over the Detroit Tigers in the AL Playoffs. In the World Series, Steve Lombardozzi and Tim Laudner (two more Minnesota draft picks) were clutch with the bat, and veteran Bert Blyleven, in his second stint with the team, starred on the mound as the Twins defeated the favored Cardinals in seven games. As a result, the Twins went from sixth place to World Champions in a single season.