Don't be surprised this month if baseball fans from Baltimore, Kansas City and Pittsburgh root for the Tampa Bay Rays like pilgrims saying prayers at the feet of a saint.
From 1998 to 2007, no franchise seemed more lost than the Rays, who peaked with a 70-91 record during that stretch. Their veteran signings never found the old magic, their pitchers never got anybody out and their fans never cared a lick.
But something wild and magical happened this season in baseball's bleakest wasteland. Young players met their promise en masse, a revamped defense made pitchers look good and retreads played their best ball in years. Not even injuries to their best pitcher and two best offensive players could stop the Rays from surging past .500 to a division title in the big, bad American League East. Now, they're set to play the Chicago White Sox in the postseason.
"It's fun for baseball," said veteran outfielder Cliff Floyd, who signed with the Rays (97-65) before this season after stints with five teams. "So many people can look to a team like us and maybe have some hope."
Floyd acknowledged that he had no grand expectations when he signed with Tampa Bay. "I saw the talent," he said. "But as far as going to the next level, I'd be lying if I said I thought we'd be in the playoffs this year."
Longtime Rays almost can't believe what's happening.
"It's definitely exciting to have everyone talking about us," said outfielder Carl Crawford, one of the few bright spots in the Rays' universe before this season. "For a long time, it was hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Players from other teams appreciate the transformation as well.
"I know that's who I'll be rooting for if I'm watching the playoffs," said Orioles slugger Aubrey Huff, who remembers how bad it was in Tampa Bay, where he played the first 6 1/2 seasons of his career. "If they could do it, why couldn't we? We've got a lot of young talent here, too."
Huff, who still lives in the Tampa, Fla., area, said it's remarkable to see people walking the streets in Rays jerseys. "You would never have seen that two years ago," he said.
Frankly, the Rays never gave fans a reason to don their colors.
They took an unconventional approach to building an expansion team by loading up on recognizable names such as Wade Boggs, Jose Canseco, Greg Vaughn and Vinny Castilla.
Records of 63-99, 69-93 and 69-92 robbed the Rays of any instant credibility they had sought. Attendance plummeted, and Tropicana Field gained a reputation as the most tepid home environment in the sport.
Even as the club tried a more traditional building plan centered on draft picks and young trade acquisitions, it often encountered terrible luck. Josh Hamilton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft, is an All-Star these days, but only after drug addiction forced him out of the game and caused the Rays to give up on him. With such unsteady blocks, the Rays' structure continued to teeter.
"It was pretty bleak, man," Huff remembered. "Every year was a fight just to win 70 games. The crowds were dead. There's only so much you can take as a player when you're so desperate to compete and win. You start to lose your mind."
There's no simple answer to how it all came together for Tampa Bay.
They never drafted lower than eighth from 1999 to 2008, and two of those high picks, Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton, are among their stars. They parlayed another top prospect, Delmon Young, into their No. 3 starter, Matt Garza, and their superb defensive shortstop, Jason Bartlett.
But since Andrew Friedman took over baseball operations after the 2005 season, the Rays have done far more than sit back and wait for high draft picks to pan out. They have excelled at finding fallen prospects such as first baseman Carlos Pena and starter Edwin Jackson, whose talents blossomed later than anyone expected. They have accumulated one-time regulars such as Floyd and Eric Hinske and plugged them into productive part-time roles. They have revamped a defense that had been terrible for years into one of the best in the league.
The blend has worked so well that players feel almost bulletproof.
"It usually takes only one thing to spark it, and then it's [smooth sailing] for us," Longoria said after spurring a comeback win over the Orioles with a long, two-run homer and several great plays at third. "I think it's just a belief in each other and belief in our team. We all just feed off each other."
The Rays' miracle train seemed to be coming off the tracks before the All-Star break, when they lost seven straight. So manager Joe Maddon called a meeting.
"Did you really think we'd go through the whole season without a bump in the road?" he asked the players.
Said Floyd: "It was like, you're right, that was our bump. We just stayed together."
They did it through injuries to Crawford and Longoria, going 21-7 in August as a different player seemed to drive in the winning run every game.
"Winning is just like losing," Floyd said. "When you lose, you can get comfortable. But when you win, like we are, you get comfortable with that, too."
Easy camaraderie dominates the clubhouse. Most of the players have gotten mohawks (in seemingly endless variety, from Longoria's neatly shaved 'do to the half-mullet monstrosity atop 6-foot-9 reliever Jeff Niemann). Before a recent doubleheader against the Orioles, one Ray asked why two jerseys hung in each locker.
"I think we're just that good," quipped starter Andy Sonnanstine.
Crawford noted: "It's pretty loose in here. We play music, play cards together. We don't hang up on one loss."
Maddon deserves much of the credit for the relaxed, confident vibe, Floyd said.
"He expects a few things every day," the veteran said. "You have to come on time and play hard. But other than that, he's very informal. He's convinced every guy in here that he believes in them when he puts them out there."
Maddon developed a credo for the season which he boiled down to the equation 9 = 8. It means that if nine Rays play hard for nine innings every day, Tampa Bay will be one of the eight teams in the postseason. It might sound corny, but the players bought into it.
"Last year, we had a good team," Crawford said, explaining why Maddon's message worked. "But we blew a bunch of games. We figured that if we could keep it together and win those, we'd be in it."
Floyd has played on many types of teams, and to his mind, the Rays' winning brand is easier to maintain than most because it's not dependent on a few star hitters or pitchers. For Maddon, it all comes down to the mound. "Pitching drives the machine," he said. "If you don't have that, you don't sustain."
The Rays have one of the best starting trios in the league in Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Garza. But their biggest improvement has come in the bullpen, where the ERA dropped from a league-worst 6.16 last season to 3.55 this year.
Asked whether he has any doubt that the Rays will rise to the playoff challenge, Floyd said: "I have none. It's amazing to go from where we've come from to feeling the way we feel. It's dangerous for other teams."