By Pete Williams
ST. PETERSBURG – This site is about endurance sports: running, cycling, stand-up paddleboarding, triathlon. Tampa Bay is the endurance sports capital of America, but no Ironman, marathoner, or obstacle mud runner can top what a bunch of anaerobic athletes known as the Rays did Wednesday night.
I’ve covered Major League Baseball for 20 years and never have I seen a sequence like what unfolded tonight. The Boston Red Sox should be headed to the playoffs in Texas on Friday. The Rays were down to their final strike against the Yankees here at Tropicana Field, just like the Orioles were against the Red Sox in Baltimore. But in a crazy flurry of split-screen events, the Red Sox unraveled and the Rays completed an improbable comeback.
It culminated in an eight-minute sequence. At 11:57 ET, the Red Sox collapsed in Baltimore. At 12:05, Evan Longoria hit a walk-off home run to send the Rays to the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.
This is what Tampa Bay needed. This market gets ripped routinely by outsiders for not supporting its sports franchises. No doubt some of them will note that the Rays drew just 29,518 fans tonight, a modest number for such an important game and far short of a sellout.
What people in New York, DC, Boston and elsewhere don’t realize is how Florida, especially Tampa Bay, has been pummeled by the economy. It’s not about a lack of passion for sports. It’s about struggling to find a job, deal with a home that’s worth far less than what you paid for it, and insure it for $5,000 or $6,000 a year, which is what homeowners insurance costs around here these days.
I can’t tell you how many families I know struggling to make it, with one or both parents either unemployed or underemployed. So they – we – slash expenses further, entertain ourselves at the beach or at home, and somehow press forward.
Sports tickets? We no longer have that luxury. Most of us are trying to find a way to remain in this wonderful, quality-of-life market that’s arguably the toughest in America to make the finances work. Sinatra was wrong. If you can make it in Tampa Bay, you can make it anywhere.
That’s what makes the Rays the perfect representatives for Tampa Bay. Just like all of us around here who compete with less income and greater expenses than much of America, the Rays compete with a payroll that’s a fraction of those in New York in Boston. Last winter, the Rays watched the eight highest-paid players from last year’s roster depart. Two ended up with the Cubs, who still stink. Two ended up with the Red Sox, who pulled off one of the biggest choke jobs in baseball history.
Poor Carl Crawford, a stand-up guy and the greatest player in Rays franchise history, to say nothing of the hardest worker in baseball when it comes to conditioning. He went to Boston for a nine-figure contract and seemingly forgot how to play. At least he can take October off for only the second time since 2007.
This morning no superlative seems like an overstatement for what transpired here Wednesday night. Rays manager Joe Maddon compared Dan Johnson’s last-chance home run in the bottom of the ninth to the most dramatic in baseball history. He invoked names like Bobby Thomson and Joe Carter.
Rays pitcher James Shields, who we profiled earlier in the week for his offseason workout regimen at a North Pinellas gym we frequent, went so far as to say tonight was bigger than 2008, when the Rays went from worst-to-first and reached the World Series.
“I’ll never forget this moment,” he said in a beer-and-champagne soaked Rays clubhouse. “It’s amazing what we did in 2008 but nothing can ever top this. If we go on to win the World Series, I guarantee this will go down as one of the greatest moments in baseball history.”
None of which will solve Tampa Bay’s economic problems, but maybe it can provide a much-needed distraction. The Rays’ run in 2008 coincided with the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and the official start of an economic downturn that continues, especially in this part of the world.
We didn’t realize then how our world was changing.
This time, we know. We’ve dealt with it for three years. Maybe the Northeast and other parts of America are enjoying the beginnings of a recovery, but we’re not seeing it here.
Maybe that’s what makes this seem so much sweeter.