First of all, this is my first opportunity to be a true bandwagon fan. I think I deserve it, because in my lifetime, the teams I have supported have basically sucked. For the sake of comparison, I'll use 1994 as a benchmark. I was 5 years old, old enough to be a fan in my book. In that span, the Redskins are 100-123, with 3 playoff appearances (2-3 record) and 1 division championship. They hold the only sports title of any of my favorite teams in my lifespan, but it came in 1992 when I was 3 years old. The Cubs are 1147-1216 since 1994, with 4 playoff appearances, a 6-15 playoff record and 3 division championships. They were swept 3 of 4 times in playoffs and choked majorly in the 2003 postseason. The Caps are my 'winners': 443-436-97-51, 7 playoff appearances, 25-33 playoff record, advanced to Stanley Cup Finals once, 3 division championships, 4 playoff series wins out of 12. Then come the lowly Nats, who have gone 284-363 and laid goose-eggs in all of the other categories. Total: 14 playoff appearances (1 per year), 33-51 playoff record, 7 division championships (1 per every 2 years), moved to the next round of the playoffs 7 of 19 times, 1974-2189 total record (including Caps’ OT losses as L, ties as nothing). Throw in the Hokies' relative success (134-42 record, including 5-7 in bowls) and I've got a decent 2108-2231 record, but still little postseason progress.
I think that since my life has been filled with the trials and tribulations of these teams, I am entitled to "adopt" the underdog as my new third favorite team. I will not purchase any Rays clothing or say I've been a fan since 1998 (although I did buy a Devil Rays hat from the Reebok store at the Williamsburg Outlets when I was 9), but will undoubtedly root for them to defeat the hated Red $ux, AngelO's and Bankee$ (and especially now the Phailles).
You have to love the underdog story, but that's not all there is to the Rays' cinderella season. Catcher Dioner "Little Pudge" Navarro wears number 30 in honor of his wife, who on their first wedding anniversary had a brain aneuryism. She was given less than a 5% chance of surviving her surgery on September 30 (hence, #30), but beat the odds.
First Baseman Carlos Pena was cast aside by the Rangers, Athletics, Tigers, Yankees and Red Sox before his breakout 2007 season, where he hit .282/.411/.627 with 46 home runs.
Second Baseman Akinori Iwamura was (in my opinion at least) a huge catalyst to the Rays' turnaround, not necessarily because of his actual play. Simply signing a semi-big name international free agent was huge. It showed me that the Rays were dedicated to their future success.
Shortstop Jason Bartlett was one of four former Minnesota Twins known as "the Pirhanas" by Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. Guillen gave them such a nickname because of their hard-nosed play. Bartlett isn't much with the bat, but his glove, speed and clubhouse presence remind me of a more-talented Jamey Carroll.
Evan Longoria is the real "star power" guy on the team. The rookie third baseman had as many homers as Cubs star Aramis Ramirez (27) in 27 fewer games. And Eva Longoria (the actress, no relation) sent him a bottle of champagne to congratulate him on his (and the team's) 2008 success. He's one of the few centerpieces on my keeper fantasy baseball league (along with Jay Bruce and Dan Uggla).
In the outfield, there are a bunch of high-energy, athletic outfielders that Jim Bowden would love to get his paws on. I've always been a fan of Carl Crawford, the longest tenured Ray, and his skills as a stolen base/extra base hit threat, as well as a legitimate threat to reach 3000 (and probably a lot more) hits. B.J. Upton hails from the great Commonwealth of Virginia, so I have to be a fan of him.
The pitching staff is young and exciting. It features Scott "Thank God Steve Phillips is a moron and traded him for Victor Zambrano" Kazmir, James "I fought the Red Sox and nobody won, but look at this brawl!" Shields and Matt "I am better than Delmon Young" Garza.
I just can't stand but love this team, but there is one reason: They are what the Nats could become. They give us a Ray of hope (har har har) that one day the Nats will ditch their inept GM for a superstar young executive (and yes, I know the Mike Rizzo link is that of a DJ, not the awesome Mike Rizzo).
That's all I've got for now. Let's Go Rays!
(Picture is via Yahoo! Sports)