The Ray way

The Baltimore Sun

The Tampa Bay Rays know what it feels like to be the Orioles, and Rays manager Joe Maddon knows what it feels like to be Dave Trembley. Perhaps that should provide some consolation around here as the Rays prepare to pour champagne over one another and celebrate their first American League East title sometime in the next few days.

If you don't think so, you might want to set the Wayback Machine to one year ago today and take a look at the standings. You would find the pre-exorcism Tampa Bay Devil Rays in their normal perch at the bottom of the division standings with a grand total of 64 victories. They would go on to win two more games and finish with the worst record in the major leagues, which is why they should be the envy of the Orioles and an object lesson.

"You've got to take the body blows," said Maddon, who must have felt as if he were sparring with Lennox Lewis his first two years as manager. "You do some things that set you back in the short term to get better over the long term."

And you hope everybody buys into the program and you get a few breaks and things eventually turn around. That's what happened to the Rays, though you had better be hooked up to a polygraph before you try to tell me you knew they were going to go from last to first in one year. What you and everybody else knew was that they had shepherded their great young talent well and were positioned to make a move in a division that still seemed to be in the grip of its two major-market teams.

What has happened should serve as an inspiration to all the downtrodden teams in either league. The lesson to be taken from the Rays' success is obvious: If they can do it, after finishing last in all but one of their 10 previous years of existence, then any team - regardless of payroll or market status - can do the same if it is committed to the hard, thankless work necessary to overcome its limitations.

Maddon quickly dispelled a popular misconception about that. Everybody talks about the Rays and their terrific player-development system as if this unlikely playoff team were grown entirely from magic beans in the organization's backyard. Not true.

"Everybody looks at us as having this tremendous farm system, and we do," he said, "but we've got some veterans. It has been a potpourri of things within this organization - good scouting, yes, but also some perceptive acquisitions and some nice trades. We've utilized all the components of how to make a team better."

The Orioles are doing some of the same things, though it remains to be seen whether they can get the same results. The Rays caught lightning in a bottle last year with Carlos Pena (a player the Orioles had an opportunity to sign) and have created a strong clubhouse chemistry with a combination of top-flight youth (Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton), solid organizational pitching depth and key acquisitions such as starting pitcher Matt Garza, shortstop Jason Bartlett and outfielder Eric Hinske, who was invited to spring training as a nonroster player.

The Rays didn't have the budget to go after big-ticket players on the free-agent or trade market, so they concentrated on finding affordable veterans to flesh out their young roster.

"We went with guys like Gabe Gross, Hinske and Pena," Maddon said, "relatively young guys with high ceilings who still have some goals they wanted to reach."

Look for the Orioles to do something similar to shore up the starting rotation this winter. Fans are hoping they go further and make a big play for free-agent slugger Mark Teixeira, but Maddon said they can also find productive position players at bargain prices if they do their homework.

"I'm not going to say there are a lot of Carlos Penas out there," he said, "but there are going to be some this winter. You have to get them and play them and be patient with them."

Maddon is a lock to be named American League Manager of the Year, but there were the usual whispers at the end of last season that he might not be the right man to lead the team to the promised land. The Rays put an end to any such speculation last September by picking up a contract option that extended him through the 2009 season. Similarly, the Orioles recently exercised the option for 2009 in Trembley's contract to reaffirm the organization's commitment to club president Andy MacPhail's rebuilding program.

Trembley and Maddon are not similar personalities, even if they have been placed in similar situations. Trembley is an intense guy who takes every loss personally and is proud of it. Maddon has navigated two painful years of rebuilding with a surprising calm that borders on tranquillity.

"You can't take things personally," he said. "That's why I was talking about taking the body blows. You know you're not good enough, but you don't go out and say it because you don't want those guys [in the clubhouse] to hear you say it. That's just my personal belief."

When the Rays finally pop the corks and celebrate their magical season - whether it happens here tonight or in Detroit this weekend - the meaning of it all should not be hard to divine.

The pain is all part of the plan.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Saturdays and Sundays.

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