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Rays players celebrated clinching a playoff berth by beating the Twins 7-2 Saturday.

Steve Nesius, Associated Press

Tampa team emerges after decade in the dark

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE
  • Star Tribune
  • September 21, 2008 - 12:38 AM

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — Arizona and Tampa Bay raised the number of major league teams to 30 in 1998. The Diamondbacks went to the National League and debuted in a new retractable-roof stadium in downtown Phoenix. The Devil Rays went to the American League and moved into a fixed-roof stadium that already was as behind-the-times for baseball as the Metrodome.

The Diamondbacks defeated the New York Yankees in seven dramatic games and won a World Series in their fourth season. The Devil Rays rapidly became a blight on the grand old game.

They had horrendous ownership in the group led by Vince Namoli. They finished 51 games out of first place in their first season and came only marginally closer in the years that followed.

In a decade of existence, the Devil Rays had finished fifth (or last) nine times and fourth once in the AL East. The club record for victories was 70. The average record was 64-98 and the average number of games behind was 34.

The traditional end of baseball conversation came in the Tampa Bay area when the Yankees went north at the end of March.

Stuart Sternberg, a New York financier, headed an ownership group that took over the Devil Rays in October 2005. In November, he hired Andrew Friedman as his general manager, veteran baseball man Gerry Hunsicker as an adviser, and Joe Maddon as the manager.

The only incentive Sternberg had to offer the public for 2006 was free parking. The Devil Rays had the worst record in baseball at 61-101. They repeated that at 66-96 in 2007.

Free parking wasn't the answer, so Sternberg came up with another marketing ploy for 2008. The team would now be called the Rays. The Devil that had cursed the franchise for a decade was vanquished.

Obviously, that was the answer, along with a bevy of prime draft choices garnered with all those last-place finishes.

"They haven't just been picking at the top of the first round," said Steve Liddle, the Twins bench coach. "They have been picking at the top of every round. That means you're taking a player in the 30s, not the 50s or 60s, in the second round, and on and on.

"Eventually, you're going to have too many good players to keep losing."

That eventuality surfaced this season, and the celebration came on Saturday, on the final day of the Rays' first sweet summer:

Tampa Bay again crushed the Twins, 7-2, and when it was over, the Rays were guaranteed a first appearance in baseball's postseason.

The Rays were such a non-entity for a decade that the baseball IQ remains very low in these parts, even with Saturday's sellout crowd of 36,048.

J.P. Howell retired the Twins in the eighth. That meant the Rays needed three more outs to reach the playoffs. Hundreds of fans responded by heading through the aisles, more interested in beating traffic than watching the first meaningful moment in their team's history.

Others were so bored they occupied themselves trying to start The Wave.

The bush-league behavior continued in the immediate aftermath of the final out. The players were allowed to celebrate as a group near the mound for several minutes, and then a clownish character named Rich Herrera was screaming into a hand-held microphone, pleading with fans to buy division series tickets and also to purchase hats and T-shirts as playoff souvenirs.

A few Twins stayed in the dugout for the start of the Rays' celebration. The odds increased they will be watching another playoff celebration by an opponent -- the White Sox and old pal A.J. Pierzynski -- later this week in the Metrodome.

The latest thumping put the Twins at 3-6 for the road trip and 9-18 going back to Aug. 23. Manager Ron Gardenhire answered questions for a small group of reporters, then slumped back in his chair and sat silently.

There are seven games left, and the Twins need them all to join -- and probably play -- Tampa Bay in the playoffs.

"Without a doubt," Gardenhire said. "We're down to the end here. We have to figure out a way to get one here, then go home to our Dome and get things going our way."

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. • preusse@startribune.com

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