I recently arrived at the conclusion that the Rays are the perfect Florida team. They epitomize the state in a way no other professional team does. I think I’ve mentioned before that I am a Florida State grad, and if one postulates the theory that former FSU head coach Bobby Bowden was “Old Florida” – where “daggum it” was a popular phrase and the good ol’ boy system ran rampant – then the Rays are the best team to carry the mantel in the post-Election 2000, post-real estate bust, post-recession “New Florida”.
A few months ago, I explored how difficult it is to win fans in Florida, but there isn’t a reason why fans shouldn’t support the Rays. Looking at the Florida sports landscape, if we cast other sports teams into certain Florida “roles” none are as perfect as the Rays. The Miami Dolphins, for example, are like my grandparents’ house near the Villages. My grandparents have been around forever and they keep muddling along, living day-to-day as old people do. Sure, they might win a bingo tournament and be the talk of the town for a week, but their most recent accomplishments will never compare to their own personal glory days. And like Archie and Edith’s reverence of old Herbert Hoover, Dolphins fans shed tears to the past and sing songs to the memories of Marino, Shula, and their heralded ’72 perfect season.
Staying down south, the Rays baseball brethren, Florida Marlins, are as Florida as an oft-traded beachside timeshare. With their two World Series Championships and several mediocre years, they are the residence that sits frequently empty mired in perpetual disarray, only to be fixed up and flipped to new owners. Yet somehow while the neighbors think they are a blight and the homeowners association has lost all semblance of control, the owners fleeced the city for wads of cash to build an entirely new home.
Admittedly, I don’t know my Bucs and Lightning histories as well as I should. I know the Bucs stunk hideously, were good for a bit, went back to stinking, turned the corner with Dungy, won with Gruden, struggled again for a bit, and have just now found their groove again. But I am not sure how that relates to Florida culture. Really bad, good, bad, good, great, bad, and good. That’s more like a roller coaster at Busch Gardens than a predictive model.
Anyway, let me explain why I think the Rays are more “New Florida” than the aforementioned teams or any other team in the state.
First and foremost, let’s look at the Rays current living conditions. Like many Floridians, the Rays ownership moved into a fixer-upper home thinking the conditions were prime for renewal. They spent their hard earned money on upgrades and modifications. Then reality struck. The market plummeted faster than Scott Kazmir’s ability to get out hitters. Now the Rays, like most Floridians, are stuck in their current homes, unable to sell or renegotiate the agreements binding them their place of residence. For the Rays, it is a terrible lease, while for many Floridians living in homes that are undervalued, it is their draconian mortgages that keep them in the red. The only difference is where there are thousands of vacant homes destroying the market value for homeowners, there are no empty stadiums for the Rays to move to, unless you count the remnants of several minor league parks scattered throughout Central Florida.
Second, the Rays are perfect for Florida because like the state they are moving past their cheesy schlock gimmicky stage and rapidly progressing into an era of responsibility. If one were to compare the Namoli Era to plastic flamingos and kitschy “Wish You Were Here” postcards depicting arrays of oranges and palm trees, then the Sternberg Era is when people decided Florida is more than just a collection of bingo halls, spring break meccas, and retirement communities, it is a legit place to live, work, and raise a family. It is where elections are decided, Space Shuttles are launched, and decisions on wars are made.
The Rays are also similar to the state of Florida in that they are making smarter decisions on long-term development. For years Florida was the land of whimsical development decisions, where housing developments, Best Buys, and Wal-Marts were built without any care or consideration for their environmental impact. Which is similar to how the Rays once acquired talent. They would sign million dollar closers, aging sluggers, and other assorted has-beens or never-will-bes.
Now there is a growing movement on both fronts to follow a process of growth and responsible management. There is more cognition of the overall landscape of the both organizations and efforts are made to maintain growth and overall organizational health. The only fear is whether it is too little too late.
Fourth and most interesting to me is how the Rays talent development at the big league level should be readily accepted by the average Florida sports fan. People like to call Florida a “football state” and cite that as one of the reasons the Rays don’t belong, but in reality a college football state is perfect for the home of the Rays.
The most popular players in Florida college football history only played four years for their school. No matter how great a player like Tim Tebow, Charlie Ward, or Jim Kelly is, he can only quarterback for his respective schools for a few years before he must move on to bigger and better things. So how in concept is this different than a majority of the Rays homegrown talent?
Admittedly, there is no NCAA-like law stating a player like Carl Crawford had to leave the Rays, but until baseball changes its fundamental financial system, it might as well be mandate that players will change from small market team to a larger market franchise at the end of their initial contractual obligation. Small market organizations, like college athletic teams, have to develop a cyclical talent development process (or a feeder chain) to replace their departed talent.
Of course, this cyclical talent development process has been used by state football programs for decades. While fans root for the name on the back, the name on the front of the jersey is far more important. Florida sports fans need to understand this is the way the Rays must operate under the current climate of Major League Baseball. While the Rays can try to circumvent a few departures by signing a select group of cornerstones to team friendly contracts, they and their fans have to prepare for a majority of their talent to depart, just as a university athletic team would.
The Rays starting pitching staff presents possibly the best example of this college athletic talent development process. With the Rays emphasis on drafting and developing young starting pitchers, their rotation slightly resembles the usual quarterback cycle of college football teams. The “ace” is usually the number one starter and also the most senior talent. Behind the ace lines up each other quarterback respective of their experience. Then after each season, the departing senior begets a younger leader, as Chris Leak begat Tebow, Casey Weldon begat Ward, and Jim Kelly begat Bernie Kosar who begat Vinny Testaverde.
Although David Price (Class of 2008) is considered the ace, one could also make the argument that it could be James Shields (Class of 2006). Behind them is Andy Sonnanstine (Class of 2007), Jeff Niemann (Class of 2008), Wade Davis (Class of 2009), Jeremy Hellickson (Class of 2010), and Alex Cobb (Class of 2011). As the Rays traded Matt Garza, fans shouldn’t be surprised to see Shields, Sonnanstine, and possibly Niemann moved to make way for younger pitchers such as Matt Moore or Chris Archer (Class of 2013?).
So by being stuck in a home they don’t like, shucking their schlocky past, developing for the future, and using a process of cyclical talent development, the Rays should be understood and welcomed by a vast majority of everyday, average Floridians. They are a team most Florida residents can identify with.
And last but definitely not least, there is one final bond the Rays share with many long time Florida residents: while Florida old-timers do things to purposefully antagonize Northerners such as drive slow or say “y’all”, the Rays do one thing that ruffles the feathers of their own friends from the North: they win AL East titles.