There's Joy in The Mudville That is Tampa Bay...

I am at an utter loss as to who would consider themselves a fan of the Tampa Bay Steve Irwin Killers. Granted, I'm not from Florida, but the people I know who make the Sunshine State their home usually follow other teams. Often, people will root for, say, the New York Yankees, catching a few spring training games here and there or heading to the other dome to watch the Rays get smacked. This hapless franchise, "celebrating" their tenth anniversary (and what memories those must be), must have some kid, somewhere in the bay area, cheering for 'em.

I imagine some suburban kid, picked on by Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans in his grade school, pasty-faced from too much time indoors and especially at Tropicana Field (what a cruel joke that is), keeping score and hoping against hope that the Rays will have a good season, someday. I imagine him at home this beautiful Sunday afternoon, ignoring the entreaties of his parents to do something productive for a change, like playing GameBoy or watching Animal Planet. But he refuses. And today, there's a brief burst of joy when his Rays split a four-game series against the heralded Twins, winning game four of the set 6-4. Look, look, he tells his indifferent parents, the Rays beat two of the finest pitchers in baseball! Who woulda thunk they'd hand Johann Santana his first loss at home in twenty four games, and Joe Nathan his first loss since '05 and blown save since sometime last year (and no, I don't know what game he blew--you tell me). Our boy will cling to some futile hope that perhaps these guys can actually compete this year. His innocence is not yet lost.

The Devil Rays are just the kind of club that forces fans to seek the small blessings in life, and today they were there in this close game. The Rays fell behind early, when Cuddyer singled and Morneau cracked a double and then Torii grounded out to send Cuddy home easily. The Rays were trying at least, stealing twice in the first two innings, getting nabbed both times (in part due to heads-up playing by both Mike Redmond and Jason Bartlett, the latter keeping his planted feet in the way of both runners). The Rays wouldn't score until the fifth, when Mr. Dioner Navarro scored on a Jonny Gomes single to tie the game. And so our Florida fan's eyes widen, only to watch the Twins go ahead in the bottom half of the same inning.

Down 2-1, the Rays reward his faith: Boof was hit hard in the sixth inning, that frame opening with a Brendan Harris solo homer in right field. Three batters later comes yet another blast, this time a Delmon Young two-run shot that took the score to 4-2. The Twins were doing their level best to comply, giving our mystery kid a new hero in Jae Seo, the South Korean pitcher who thus far was sitting on a fat 9.64 era but kept the Twins bats cold.

Sure, the Twins came back to tie the game in the seventh. In that inning, Torii Hunter, wearing the sacred number 42, seemingly conjured up the spirit of Jackie Robinson and raced from first on a Jason Kubel double, sliding under the tag of catcher Dioner Navarro. It was spectacular, and later, Jason Bartlett, who went 3 for 3, sent Kubel home with a nice hot single. This kept Boof from taking a loss--he actually looked very good, striking out eight, four on nasty curves that broke perfectly.

But the Rays didn't give up, knowing that somewhere, some kid was watching, and just praying for his team to win just once so he could go to school on Monday without getting tormented by his bandwagon schoolmates in their Mets garb. The Rays were patient today, biding their time until the ninth, when they appeared utterly unimpressed by the normally masterful Joe Nathan (who really hasn't been up to his usual speed thus far). Akinori Iwamura, Dioner Navarro, and Carlos Pena--their sixth, seventh and eighth batters--hit two doubles and a single, respectively, to go ahead 6-4, which would be the final score of the game. Take that, predicted-to-be-first-place Twins!

This was a contest between two teams that play in domes, but two teams of such contrasting fortunes it's depressing. We've got a stadium underway and a number of good years. The Rays have... well, they have virtually nothing to show for ten years of play. But this is baseball, and in baseball a team as perpetually lousy as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays can still beat a team as good as the Twins.

This year's Rays are a fascinating bunch, some good hitters and near-awful pitchers, and a bunch of bizarre cases. Aside from their unpleasurable losing ways (they can't even channel the good feeling of the Senators, Mets or Cubs in their inability to win), the Devil Rays carry some baggage. One of the players, Johnny Gomes, has suffered a heart attack and wears the initials of a deceased friend on his skin. The catcher, Dioner Navarro, wears the number 30 to commemorate September 30, the day his wife "was supposed to die" from a brain hemorrhage. She didn't, thank God, but eesh, what a story.

I bring all this up because, frankly, while I can't feel sorry for anyone who plays baseball for this much money (and who will, if they're any good, end up with another club), there are the suffering fans out there who deserve better. Who want a home-town club that wins once in awhile, for Gosh sakes! Now, I didn't want The Rays to beat us, but Jesus, that kid who grows up in the sunshiny wasteland of Tampa Bay and has to sit through season after season looking at the aqua-marine walls and hanging on news like Lou Piniella becoming the manager has to get a bit bent over time, or at least a little cynical. Makes you wonder what would've happened had the Giants left San Francisco for the bay all those years ago. Perhaps Barry Bonds would be chasing his record in Tampa Bay.

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