On the subject of my weird fascination with the MLB's unloved St. Petersburg expansion franchise:
I have no idea why I started watching Devil Rays games on TV last season. Not a clue. I work from home, and I'm the sort of person who utilizes the Extra Innings package to watch three games a day during the season (and TiVos games on the rare occasions I actually leave my apartment). Even though I broke up acrimoniously with the Cubs after the 2003 postseason, I still end up watching a ton of Cubs games because, well, they play during the day. With the spread of digital cable, live Internet streams, and satellite radio, a smart small-market team could boost its national profile immensely just by scheduling more midweek day games. Of course, money from these sources is pooled among the 30 teams and ticket revenues and local media advertising money aren't, so there's little to no short-term benefit involved. Still, the Devil Rays could do it. I don't think they could possibly go any lower as far as attendance and regional TV ratings are concerned in a market where local radio still broadcasts many Yankees games. There are a lot of bizarre things the Devil Rays might as well try, since it can't possibly get any worse. Or can it?
Maybe that's the source of my interest in Tampa Bay. While the remaining Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Lions fans know that bad basketball and football teams are simply hideous to watch, baseball gone wrong has a car accident, "Twilight Zone"-like quality to it. Year before last I went to a Marlins-Expos game held at Comiskey Park due to hurricane activity in South Florida. There were maybe 5,000 people there. It was eerie. Every Devil Rays game, except when they play Boston or the Yanks, is like that. Plus there's the field itself. Tropicana has the worst artificial turf since the Vet in its heyday, with these unsettling dead grey spots. It looks for all the world like one of the obviously indoor planet surface sets of the original "Star Trek." I can't not mention the uniforms, either, which change slightly every year yet only manage to inch ever closer to a pure, idealized ugliness. Teams can transcend outdated stadiums and ugly uniforms. The Metrodome used to be a cool place to be. The Diamondbacks won a World Series donning a color scheme that looked (and still looks) like a laundry accident. In St. Pete, however, the pockmarked "lawn" and neon lettering only serve to throw a truly dire competitive history into sharp relief.
There was the expansion draft period. The desiccated slugger period. The "all young players are not necessarily prospects" period. And, most recently, the Lou Piniella period, which definitively settled an age-old question: Can you get all the way to third place utilizing only a) the stolen base and b) yelling? (No.) Astoundingly, this entire history was overseen by one singular figure: Chuck LaMar. The new breed of thirtysomething GMs tell their nieces and nephews horror stories about this guy. For the longest time, though, it was comforting to have LaMar in place, because no matter how many thorny baseball issues there were that kept you tossing and turning during the dark nights of your soul, you knew there was one question that always would be a total softball when lobbed out at cocktail parties: "Who's the worst GM in baseball?"
So, somehow drawn to this bizarre legacy as to those bioluminescent lures certain deep-sea fish use to attract prey, I started tuning into Tampa Bay games last year at 5:00 mountain time, after the Cubs finished but before the Rockies usually started at 7 or 8. I began to appreciate the low-key D-Rays broadcast team, who have no illusions whatsoever about their team's immediate prospects for contention. (Unlike the Royals' guys: "If the R's take 3 of 4 here, they pull within 19 1/2!") Tampa, perhaps due to LaMar's obsession with drafting players right out of junior high school, has a lot of guys who "look good in a uniform," as my dad would say. If you watch one of their games beginning to end, it's likely you will see a spectacular catch in the outfield. And you'll also see several singles played into triples, misplayed hops off the surface of Iotia Prime, and airmailed cutoff men. Hey, that Scott Kazmir is good, though.
Not sure what exactly inspired this lengthy reflection on one of the few teams in baseball with a less impressive portfolio than Colorado's. It does give you a certain insight into the psyche of this page's author, who claims to be only the person in attendance at Wrigley Field wearing a Devil Rays hat on June 3rd, 2003. It also will prepare you for what's to come here. Readers of my page last year may remember my occasional digressions on the subject of the Brewers, who I had tabbed in the preseason to finally snap their long-running streak of losing seasons, which they did, hitting .500 dead smack on the nose. With new ownership and management (and free parking) in St. Pete this year, I think I'm going to likewise adopt the Devil Fishes as my 2006 Third Favorite Team, after (of course) the Rockies, and the A's, who I have been rooting for intently since reading Catfish: My Life in Baseball in 1988 and don't plan on abandoning any time soon. It's a new dawn in T.B. You can't see it, because of the roof, but it's rising, and it's as many-colored as that famous logo.