As each of the division champions and wild-card teams are determined, Big League Stew will ask World Series hopefuls to issue a formal acceptance speech and explain why they're the team that will be hoisting The Commissioner's Trophy in late October. Next up to bat are the Tampa Bay Rays, who clinched the AL East early Saturday morning when the Yankees completed a 19-8 victory over the Red Sox. This is their address.
Mr. Commissioner, Principal Sternberg, Baseball Operator Friedman, Jedi Master Hunsicker, Manager Maddon, Manager Maddon's Glasses, Zim and Mrs. Zim, my fellow Floridians, Gulf Coasters, Hillsborough Countessas, Tampa Baywatchers, St. Petersburgers, Residents of Wisteria Lane, Retirees, Empty Nesters, Snowbirds, Grandmas and Grandpas and Other Seniors in their Golden Years.
(Pause so straggling octogenarians can find their seats)
We must first begin by thanking The Devil, for without the generous assistance and understanding of El Diablo — that Old Serpent, Beelzebub, First Among the Fallen, Mr. Mephistopheles, O' Desolate One, the Prince of Darkness -- the Tampa Bay Rays would not have been able to exorcise the modifier "Devil" from their nickname. Lucifer is a big baseball fan and it just wasn't working out. He knew that, we knew that. Thankfully, it's working out now, and we graciously accept this, the first American League East Division championship in the brief but arduous history of the franchise! Thank you, and damn you, Satan!
(Pause for "Hail Satan!")
Many of you know our story. The first decade of this club was wrought with famine, disease, pestilence and nearly 1,000 defeats. Teammates brawled with each other on the team plane and one left an obscenely violent message on the mobile phones of his estranged significant other. Managers openly complained about how ineffectual ownership was and the owner picked fights with fans, reporters, a scout from another team, potential ticket-buyers and a department store trying to move sickly D-Rays merchandise. Armageddon always appeared closer than a winning season.
(Pause for "harumphs!")
We're glad to announce the results of the 2008 season has been much, much different. The team's young-but-skilled players, savvy veterans and prepared coaching staff — led by the ocularly fashionable Joe Maddon — have repeatedly surprised the pundits to produce one of the best records in Major League Baseball. Although the contributions of Hollywood beauty Evan Longoria surely deserve the AL Rookie of the Year Award, no one player shined brighter than the next. In fact, if the team's MVP came up to you tonight, you might slip him a $5 bill and ask him to take care with your car as he parks it.
(Pause so folks can begrudgingly rifle own pockets for cash)
If one moment stands out, it is the game of June 5 at Fenway Park, when pitcher James Shields defended the honor of Tampa Bay by gently reminding Coco Crisp that the Rays have been bullied long enough by opponents. Crisp didn't learn his lesson, saying the Rays "fight like girls," and Boston's closer said that payback would be "a b!#(%." We congratulate the Red Sox on clinching a spot in the playoffs, even if it's not the AL East title as they planned.
(Pause raucous applause)
This title has been hard-earned, and we had to beat far more than just the Red Sox to do it. The AL East, by far the toughest division in baseball, tested our club repeatedly. The Yankees aren't what they once were, but Hank Steinbrenner tries hard to make an ass of himself like his father did, and that attitude trickles down to the rest of the ball club. A-Rod will bounce back if he stops trying to put a perfect Kabbalah swing on the ball during clutch situations. Joe Girardi did quite well in his first season managing considering he had a rotation filled of seventh and eighth starters. Jorge Posada, in his first power play to someday become manager, planted that seed about Jawbuh moving back to the bullpen. The Yankees won't be in the middle of the pack for long.
(Pause for clapping by elderly Yankees fans in the stands)
The Rays know all about the bottom of the barrel, having actually to play their home games in the bottom of one. But in the AL East, even the bottom of the barrel is dangerous. The Blue Jays can pitch with anyone and the Orioles appear to have touched bottom. We can tell you this, our Feathered Friends. The rise to the top can be quicker than you expect sometimes.
A question has been raised, now that we've reached the top: Just what will we do to stay here? Our playoffs are just as uncharted for us as they were for, say, the 1991 Braves. But they can be the model upon which we approach our postseason experience. We have a young but extremely talented core of starting pitching and a remarkably steady bullpen. Our offense was never great this year, but it's better when the third baseman and Carl Crawford are in the lineup. We scored enough runs to win in the regular season and we can do it again in the playoffs.
(Pause for trip to bathroom)
Besides, our team motors on the likes of Jason Bartlett (the valet), Dioner Navarro (the catcher) and Jonny Gomes (the sucker-puncher). On Crawford (the hair-puller, face-scratcher) and Iwamura ("Iron Groin"), along with a bunch of guys with funny names like Aybar, Zobrist, Ruggiano, Sonnanstine, and BallFour. Just try to write a poem with that!
(Pause for agreeable laughter)
Keeping this thing going into late October hinges on whether Scott Kazmir can keep it going late into the seventh inning, and if the back of the bullpen can hold leads as well as it did in the front of the season. Does a remote joy buzzer need to be attached somewhere on the person of B.J. Upton, or can he remind himself to run everything out?
Rays fans — and there's more here than the dozen or so of you reported to exist in the wild — you don't need joy buzzers to get charged up about what lies ahead. Tampa Bay Rays baseball is Satan-free — he's dead, Dawg, his kids, too — and we're heading for the playoffs!
May God bless the Tampa Bay Rays, and may God bless the hand rails you'll use upon exiting!