Big League Stew - MLB

Since entering the league in 1998, the Tampa Bay Rays have played 1,617 regular season games, called four different men "manager" and attracted some large crowds to Tropicana Field (at least when the Red Sox and Yankees were in town.) They've had everyone from Wade Boggs to Jose Canseco on their roster and you might have even seen them play in person in your neck of the woods. Heck, even their uniforms were licensed by Major League Baseball and you could have found their web page on MLB.com. All signs suggested they were a professional baseball team.

Yet I'm going to say that it wasn't until today's brawl with the Yankees in St. Petersburg that the Rays became a REAL, LIVE major league team.

Until Shelley Duncan slid into Akinori Iwamura with his spikes high, the Rays were just an afterthought ... a throwaway series on your team's pocket schedule.

And until Jonny Gomes came to Iwamura's defense by releasing his inner-Merriman and tackling Duncan, the Rays were a no-contest 30th out of 30 teams, a franchise that not even the locals took seriously.

All of that's changed now. You don't fight fierce against the sport's spotlight franchise one day and then go toe-to-toe with them a few days later and not walk away without a great deal of respect.

Already the Rays occupied a spot as one of the up-and-coming teams in baseball, but now that they've picked a fight with the school bully, they can strut around with a little more cred. I'm already looking at them in a different light. 

And considering that Duncan was the aggressor today (B.J. Upton called the play "flat out dirty") the bully has taken a bit of notice. It's time to take Tampa more seriously.

(For those of you saying "What about the Pedro Martinez-Gerald Williams fight in 2000 or the other fights the Red Sox-Rays have had over the years?" I think the Rays' improved status changes things a little bit.)

The Rays and the Yankees play twice more this spring and then 18 times during the regular season, so it's hard to imagine the bad blood between the two teams dying down any time soon. Finally, the Rays have a rivalry that doesn't involve fighting the Marlins for fan indifference. They've also attracted the attention of the larger baseball world. 

So welcome to bigs, Tampa Bay.

Sure took you long enough. 

(As an aside, why couldn't this have happened to the Yankees one day later? Wouldn't it have been great to see if Billy Crystal would have left the bench with fists flying?)

• Yankees, Rays brawl in Florida / Newsday
• Rays: Duncan play "flat-out" dirty / Rays Report
• Duncan on pace to be most hated Yankee ever? / Surviving Grady

Got tips and such for 'Duk? E-mail bigleaguestew@yahoo.com.

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