Last year at this time, anyone who suggested that the Tampa Bay Rays would win the American League pennant would’ve probably been laughed at. Experts knew the Rays were improving, but no one expected the improvements to occur so quickly. After finishing last in the AL East for the majority of their existence, the Rays enjoyed their first winning season, clinched their first playoff birth and made it all the way to the World Series, and they did all in one year.
There were many factors that led to this accomplishment; even minor ones like the uniform changes and the removal of “Devil” from “Devil Rays.” There was also the infamous spring training brawl against the New York Yankees on March 12, 2008, which Yahoo! Sports’ Kevin Kaduk suggested was the moment the Rays “became a real, live major league team.” Naturally, the main factor was the convergence of a predominately young roster that finally had enough experience and skill to win 97 regular season games.
But as the Rays prepare for the 2009 season, they will also have to deal with something they have never experienced before: high expectations.
Expectations are a normal part of sports. However, expectations can also be a source of stress, especially if a team performs well, but not well enough to win a championship. Fans and players expect the team to go farther than they did the previous season. But there are many cases where a team tastes success, but ultimately underachieves and fails to meet expectations the following year. This leads to embarrassment and disappointment. Take for instance the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.
After capturing the 2006-07 Atlantic division title and making their first playoff appearance in five years, the Raptors and their fans were expecting more success to come. But after a mediocre 2007-08 season and a first-round playoff exit, there was a large sense of displeasure. The hopes of Raptors fans were picked up during the 2008 off-season when the roster was re-tooled. On paper, the Raptors appeared to be a contending team. But with just a handful of games left in the 2008-09 NBA season, the Raptors sit near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, infuriating fans and management.
So how will the Rays fare in 2009? Will they be able to meet the high expectations set out by fans, team management and experts? How will they handle the pressure?
Tommy Rancel, the Editor-in-Chief of DRaysBay, a partner of Yahoo! Sports, believes that fans and the people surrounding the Rays are excited for the upcoming season. However, he notes that these same individuals understand that many things have to go well in order for the team to repeat last year’s success.
“Some (fans) have lofty expectations,” says Rancel. “But I think in general everybody just wants the team to be competitive all season and have a shot at the playoffs come season’s end. Once you get in the playoffs, anything can happen.”
While parts of Tampa Bay’s fan-base have realistic expectations, there is still no escape from the pressure, whether it comes from outside the clubhouse or from the players themselves. But Rancel feels this stress could have positive effects.
“I feel that this Rays team can handle the pressure of being ‘the hunted’ this season,” he states. “They all know they will have the target on their back come opening day, and I think a lot of the players on this team relish that fact.”
It won’t be until early October when experts and fans will be able to determine how the Rays handled the pressure of being a contender. However, there are many aspects that will influence such a judgment. For the Rays, one such aspect is their overall health.
“The key for the Rays, as well as any team, is health,” says Rancel. “If you can keep your core group of players relatively healthy, you should be in good shape… They have depth at a lot of positions and I do believe they can repeat their success from last season. But it won’t be easy and health is the big key.”
Despite winning the AL pennant, the Rays were plagued with injuries in 2008. All-Star left fielder Carl Crawford missed the final month-and-a-half of the regular season due to a tendon problem in his right hand, Rookie of the Year third baseman Evan Longoria missed a month of action because of a fracture to his right wrist, and pitcher Scott Kazmir missed the first month of the season thanks to a left elbow strain, just to name a few.
When the Rays do take the field on April 6 against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, 2008 will simply be a memory. The team will focus on proving to everyone that last year wasn’t a fluke. They will be expected to contend and overcome tough division rivals, the Yankees and Red Sox. There will be pressure to complete this task, as well as to achieve the highest expectation: a World Series victory. With their talented roster, Tampa Bay does a have a chance to duplicate their past success. But whether they actually do accomplish this remains to be seen and will not be known until the final pitch of the Rays’ 2009 season is thrown.