The Indians and the Rays - A tale of two franchises
Tonight, two teams will battle for the wildcard and earn the right to play in the American League Division Series this weekend at Fenway Park. I thought it would be insightful to compare and contrast those two teams from a slightly different perspective. So I found the one person who has actually worked for both the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cleveland Indians organizations.
I didn’t have to go far… my daughter, Alyssa, spent a magical year in Tampa working for the Rays in 2010 and then returned to her home state in 2011 to work for her favorite team growing up, the Cleveland Indians.
To prepare for their upcoming one-and-done playoff game, here is a comparison between these two talented American League Wild Card teams.
Cleveland became part of Major League Baseball as a charter member of the American League, joining the so-called junior circuit way back in 1901. Cleveland remains one of only four charter teams to play continuously in one city (the others are Boston, Detroit, and Chicago). The Cleveland team carried multiple nicknames (Blues, Bronchos, Naps), finally settling on the “Indians” in 1915. Cleveland has a proud history as a sports town and even today the sports media provides an extensive amount of coverage about the Indians year-round.
Tampa Bay entered the American League as an expansion team in 1998… the year after the Indians played in their last World Series. Tampa Bay’s original nickname was the Devil Rays (really?) and was summarily shortened to the “Rays” when new ownership bought the team and wanted to establish a new image… apparently, references to evil spirits and superstitious baseball fans do not mix.
The Tampa area does not live and breathe sports, certainly not like in Cleveland. There are way too many diversions (beaches, boating, and great weather, to name a few). It seems that no one living in Tampa was actually born there. Most citizens are transplants who have carried their allegiance for their prior home team down to South Florida. This is obvious whenever the Rays host the Red Sox or the Yankees, as attendance is inflated and the stadium is filled with fans cheering on the opponent.
The Indians’ struggles since being one win away from the World Series in 2007 are well documented. One could complain about ownership not spending enough money on free agents, or poor drafts, or even bad luck, as a rash of injuries decimated their rosters.
The Tampa Bay Rays front office does not submit to excuses. Based on their results, they are simply baseball geniuses. Competing in the AL East, arguably the toughest division in Major League Baseball, Tampa has thrived, winning at least 90 games four years in a row. Only the Texas Rangers have matched this feat in the American League. The Rays have won two division titles, earning the moniker the “Beast of the East”.
If the Rays played in the Big Apple or Beantown, they would be heralded as one of the most consistent franchises in recent memory.
It seems that the Rays don’t rebuild… they reload. They know that their small market financial situation makes it impossible to keep their top players. They are resigned to the fact that their stars will be gone to free agency during their peak years. When Carl Crawford opts for free agency, they shuffle their roster to replace Crawford’s speed and hitting prowess. When they trade “Big Game” James Shields for prospects because he is nearing the end of his contract, they reach down into their strong farm system and replace him with another strong arm. They supplement their roster with role players who can contribute in a number of ways. They grind out wins by playing smart baseball, highlighted by good pitching, strong defense, and good situational hitting.
There are also rumors that this offseason, the Rays will entertain offers for David Price, their Cy Young award winning left-hander. Price remains under Rays team control until 2015, but rumors run rampant that he will be dealt well before then so that the Rays can maximize their returns and keep a steady flow of talented prospects.
Five years later, some Tribe fans are still bemoaning the loss of Cy Young award winners C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee. And sluggers Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome before that.
Progressive Field is a jewel and one of the best ballparks in baseball. In its twentieth year, the home of the Indians still has the look and the style of a new ballpark. There aren’t many bad seats and the access and amenities are top notch.
The Rays play their home games at Tropicana Field, a domed stadium in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Trop is about a 30 to 45 minute drive for most Rays fans, and this causes grief among fans when traffic is snarled around the stadium or on the bridges that provide access to St. Pete.
The Rays play indoors because it would be nearly unbearable to play in an open air stadium in South Florida. The heat and humidity can be brutal in the summer. And it seems that every day, between 4PM and 9PM, a thunderstorm rolls through.
Tampa city planners are talking about building a new stadium in downtown Tampa, but the Rays are locked into a long-term lease in St. Pete.
The “Trop” is often panned as a less than ideal venue for baseball. I disagree. I enjoy watching baseball games there. The sight lines are very good, and due to poor attendance, good seats can always be had. The Trop also has some really nice amenities. There are sections for groups that have a resort-style feel. Housed inside the stadium is a mini-Hall-of-Fame Museum and an area that honors Red Sox slugger, Ted Williams. Live sting rays can be seen swimming in a salt-water tank near the right-center field bleachers. This is both a favorite of fans and curious, visiting ballplayers.
The Field Generals
Terry Francona is unquestionably an outstanding manager. The way he handles his players, his pitching staff, and game decisions places him in the top echelon of Major League skippers. It is great to have Francona in the Tribe dugout. Clearly, he will get the maximum effort from his entire roster.
Rays manager Joe Maddon is a talented leader and definitely knows how to push the right buttons, whether it be lineups, or defensive alignment (playing five infielders and only two outfielders in a bases-loaded, two out situation in the last inning). Maddon also keeps his team loose by staging themed road trips, where the team will don clothing appropriate for the trip: all-white Miami Vice suits; hard hats and blue collar gear in Detroit; being decked out in geeky plaid; and wearing pajamas on the red-eye flight back from Seattle.
Both managers command total respect from their players and demand maximum effort at all times. They are also not afraid to get into a heated argument with the umpires to show their support for their players, even if it usually means being sent to the showers early. Both are very good interviews, and have a good relationship with the press, even after a tough loss or losing streak.
While the Rays and the Indians franchises rank among the lowest in attendance, both teams have very passionate fans… they just need more of them.
Even though the Browns seem to be the favored team in competing for the attention of Cleveland sports fans, the Tribe has a very loyal following. There is definitely a buzz around the lakefront… and it’s not from the nearby casino.
I attended an American League Division Series playoff game in Tampa in 2010. The Rays hosted the Texas Rangers, and the contest matched up the best left-handers in the game: David Price vs. Cliff Lee. While there was a good crowd on hand, it was not a sellout. I was sure that would never happen in Cleveland. It turns out that several thousand seats in the upper deck were covered with a tarp to give the illusion that those were not really empty seats.
Rays fans range from the very trendy, where some fans dress like they are heading to a nightclub after the seventh inning stretch, to homespun fans who ring cowbells whenever their team stages a rally. This is reminiscent of the Columbus Clippers games in years past (queue the music: “Columbus Clippers, ring your bell… ding-a-ling-a-ling”).
The Indians have not been able to duplicate the attendance records the team set in the 1990s. But the Cleveland of today is not the same city that experienced those record-setting sellouts from back then. Economic factors and a flight from the city both in terms of corporations and population have had a substantial impact on the potential fan base for the Tribe.
What This Proves
Seven of the top ten franchises in terms of total payroll did not make the postseason. This proves that teams don’t need to stack their roster with the All-Stars who command outrageous contracts, and often, outrageous, entitlement attitudes.
Teams can win in Major League Baseball without carrying $150M payrolls. Both the Rays and the Indians have proven that as they each carry roughly half of that payroll number.
How can they do it? Low payrolls, smart drafts, opportunistic free agent signings. Great personnel evaluators to find the hidden talent… this is the small-market team formula for success. The Tampa Bay Rays figured this out years ago. Let’s hope that the Tribe has discovered this same magic formula and can duplicate the Rays’ level of success.
To date, 2013 has been a magical season. From the Cactus League games in Goodyear Arizona, to the Opening Day festivities, to the fireworks, dollar dog nights, and walk-off wins.
Here’s to all Tribe fans, who can celebrate the resurgence of the Cleveland Indians. Regardless of the outcome of tonight’s wildcard game, it has been an exciting year, one full of great comebacks, watching a team that never quits, and following a bunch of good guys who exhibit great team chemistry on a daily basis… and how we long to keep it going for just a few more weeks.