Because the Rays have seemed to lose a bit of the fight in them the last few days, I decided to revisit my favorite moment from 2008 and try and get some of the “Playoff Fever” rhythm back again in the Rays House. I do not have all the answers, believe me, I want to have the answers to get this team back into that fighting and hungry mode again. There is a different vibe on this team this year, and it doesn’t have the same feel to it. So I am revisiting this moment that is etched deep within me in hope that the team, the fans, and the community can again remember what 2008 really meant to all of us.
Everyone remembers the magic of your first time. The first time you had a bubbly ice cold soda, or your first adult beverage. Or maybe it was the first time you finally go the courage and finally decided to try that scary ride at the fair that has terrified you to death your entire life. The fascination and excitement of trying something, or achieving something for the first time can be a rush that can not be beat. There is a burst of energy that you can never have again. And last, but not least, a sense of accomplishment for finally hitting the finish line with gusto and pride. You always remember your ” first” anything, but this one will stay with me until the day I meet St. Peter at the pearly gates and he asks what I am most proud of in my life. My answer will be pretty simple, my answer will be unexpected to most people. My honest answer is my All-Time favorite” first” was when my home town team finally got to go to “the Show.”
It is for that reason that I feel I have to revisit my “Top Moment for 2008” one more time. As I said before, we always remember our first time entering the ballpark, checking out the sounds, smells and the atmosphere of this game that excites us from the television screen or in-person . You still think about the first Batting Practice or your first foul ball catch. And how special was getting your first autograph, and didn’t that player become a favorite of yours instantly. And who could ever forget the taste of that first stadium hot dog. I know all of these are still fresh in my mind, and it has been over 40 years since my first game at Al Lang Field watching the St. Petersburg Cardinals. And the bag of peanuts in front of me still taste better at the ballpark.
So it is with great pleasure that I re-introduce to the MLB community my number one memory of 2008. The realization of the 2008 playoff finally came to light on September 20, 2008 with 36,048 other “9 = 8” believers in the stands who had spent most of the game jumping up and down like maniacs. It was a time for celebration and rejoicing. It was a time to remember all the things we loved about the 2008 Rays. Not only did the team play a hard fought 7-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins, but the team secured its first EVER playoff berth. And that moment seems have been buried lately because this group of players want to make their own memories, which is fine, but sometimes you have to embrace the past to secure your future.
Considering the 2008 Rays squad pushed the envelope from the first Spring Training game and fought long and hard to finally get this team over that “wins hump” that has kept prior teams from achieving this goal. This was a team before 2008 who had NEVER won more than 71 games a year, and for the first time in this franchises history, they fought and sweated daily to keep themselves in the top spot in the American League East. September 20,2008 was a blessed moment of celebration for the fans both inside Tropicana Field or at home, plus it was a perfect moment for the players to salute a great season, and a unique event for both sides to celebrate together. This moment was so personal to me. I got to celebrate with a few baseball buddies both with hugs and fist bumps to swigs of champagne and cheers of excitement as the entire team wandered and cheered around the stadium.
I made sure to remind a select few of them that the journey has just began and they made sure I knew that it was us, the fans that drove this bus to the playoffs as much as the players. And I got to drink from the champagne bottles and taste that sweet nectar that went down like cool rainwater and tasted like spun honey. It was one of the biggest moments for me as a fan of the Tampa Bay Rays…………….and hopefully you got to enjoy it too that day…………….
It might have looked like a mob scene out of your favorite sports movie, but believe me, the energy in that place on that September afternoon was so severe that it sometimes seemed to choke you from the intensity in the air. From the energy and the explosion of emotion in the stadium atmosphere, this game seemed to have been in the cards even before the Rays stepped on the turf. There was a wild feeling in the air that day. Most of that might have been nervous energy knowing they were within a whisker of franchise first and an event that would explode throughout the Tampa Bay community.
Seriously folks, after that celebration in the stands and on the field, I felt so drained emotionally and mentally just a wreck. I was literally crawling out on my hands and knees, but I had a huge Cheshire Cat grin when I finally exited the Trop around 9 P.M. after celebrating in the stands, near the clubhouse with a few friends, and in the Budweiser Brew house having a few brews with the old crew from the last 11 years. This was a night where everyone in Tampa Bay would have a peaceful nights sleep more induced by exhaustion than by excitement. But that was fine, because that night we all dreamed the moment again and again and finally awoke knowing OUR team finally had a date to play in the postseason.
This was an entire weekend that will sit up there with the best memories I have involving sports in my life. I have been to a few wild celebrations, like the Baltimore Ravens victory party in Ybor City after they won the Super Bowl in Tampa, or even a late night cocktail party at Reign after the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup with a few ex-Rays players. I was so spent that next morning from sheer excitement and celebration that I did not even feel I was walking on the turf when I arrived at the Trop for the annual Season Ticket holder Picture Day with the players. Well, the ones who are awake at 10 am. and did not have that emotional and physical body and mind hangover from all the celebrations.
TWO more times these guys got to pay as much attention to their team partying as they do out with us, the fans. From interview to interview that night, the Rays players to a “T”, talked about the Tampa Bay Rays fans. And to show their respect to those fans, they included all of us in their celebrations. There were wild scenes of players like Akinora Iwamura and Carl Crawford getting up on the dugout and spraying the masses with champagne and beer. Throwing 9=8 playoff hats and T-shirts to outstretched hands, and basking in a moment that will live in this franchises history books and our collective memories forever.
The picture above means so much more to me now that all three have moved onto other opportunities away from this Rays team. All three of them had a unique personality that helped this squad in different ways to achieve this goal in 2008. It was also was the first time all three of these old teammates got to celebrate something like this in a Rays uniform. You know they will always remember their first time. You remember where you were, Who you were standing with, and what you were doing at that exact moment. When the guys came running down towards the Bull Pen Cafe area , I was standing on the railing waiting for them. I can not remember how many of those guys came by there and how many times I slapped their hands and gave them a fist bump.
But the memories that are really were the energy that produced Hugs from J P Howell, Jonny Gomes, Chad Orvella and Scott Kazmir. I have chatted almost daily with a lot of these guys on their way to the Bullpen, or back in the right field area, and they are some of the best guys you will ever want to meet. But that night on and off the field I got to know and see other sides to these guys that only their teammates get to see daily. And that is a moment that was not lost in my mind. Even today as I remember that September afternoon, the images are still crystal clear and the emotions still swirl within me. It was a time I again want to feel in 2009. It will be another awesome moment for this second generation of Rays. This years squad do not have the “jokers” and some of the big personalities that the 2008 squad had, but they are still the reigning AL Champs.
Some of these guys have been transformed by the moment. And success can do that to a player. It gives them a vital self realization that they are winners. Take J P Howell for instance. He used to be one of the quiet guys on this team. When he was a starter, he was a bit moody and never seemed to want to talk with anyone near the field level. But now he has been transformed since he has found his calling in the bullpen He now one of the friendliest people I have ever encountered on the Rays. Dan Wheeler is not known to smile a lot, but he does when we chat back and forth during the games. There is a unique bond there between the Bullpen and the fans here that I have never seen before in my life. But then again, they are living the dream in 2008.
From the first champagne bottle out of the clubhouse that day, to the two champagne bottles Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos had ordered for himself and the close fans down there near the Bullpen, it was a magical night. The parade around the Trop outer perimeter was a show of the love and respect these guys have for the fan base. I have been lucky enough to know a few of these guys off the turf in private. And I have to tell you this in total confidence, not one time this year did any of these guys take this responsibility to the fans or to the community as a job or work.
On that September afternoon these guys actually enjoyed interacting with the fans. From the time they walked out at the Spring Training complex in mid-Feb. to now has been a long and rewarding journey. There have been injuries to key members of this pitching staff early in the year, but the team bent like a rubber band and did not break. This season players have come and gone from the roster, but the core of this team has been strong, mentally tough and been an inspiration to the fans. Not many groups have a tie to the fans that these guys have. The Rays community can honestly say the have the team’s back at any moment.
The funny thing about that celebration is that about 50 percent of it was outside the locker room on the same field where these guys have toiled and struggled and left themselves bleeding and wounded some nights. To say this battle towards a playoff spot did not end with a fairy tale ending is totally inaccurate. I really need to hit the sack for a few hours before I fall down, but the adrenaline is still pumping hard in me right now and I have tossed and turned for about 5 hours since I got home.
I am a emotional wreck right now, but I would do it again in a New York moment. If you have never been to one of these defining moments, you know how the Rays Republic is now feeling. If you have not, I truly wish it upon yourself and your team sometime in the future. It is a roller coaster ride fitted with some great ups and downs that is not even over yet.
I just want to repurchase my “E” ticket so I can climb aboard the coaster again and roll through another three of these celebrations with the Rays and this truly spectacular group of guys. I actually now know what other team’s fans have talked about when the y remark about the feelings and the intensity of the moment. I can see why New York Yankee and Boston Red Sox fans yearn and seek thin moment in their lives yearly. But I have to almost admit, I do not want to share it with them anytime soon.
So As I finally slink out of the stadium, and check out that bright orange roof, I am reminded of all the glory and the sweat and tears that have blanketed this great dome in the past 10 years. But tonight they all seem like a distant memory as we have a new found tradition of winning and are celebrating the success of our boys’ tonight. I can’t wait to get back into my seat tomorrow and see how much of the energy is still trapped in this building…………….9 am is coming fast to me tonight.