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Maddon, Longoria and the rest of the Rays are OK with transforming from underdog to top dog

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. – The lady on the roof was waiting for the radio show to end so she could start singing. She had in her mind she'd begin with The Platters, then Adele and then the Rolling Stones, but she was flexible on that.

The radio guys were on the roof, too, interviewing Luke Scott, the ballplayer with the Tampa Bay Rays. He was saying something about "honing my skills" when she came over and introduced herself. She was tall, but that may have been the high-heeled boots. And she had crazy black curly hair that she finally gave up on in the breeze and pinned back.

"Diamond," she said and handed over her business card.

"Diamond-Ina-Skye," it read. "Singer, songwriter."

She grinned and said in all earnestness, "That's not my real name."

Then she thought for a moment and decided it would be OK.

"It's Donna," she said in a half-whisper.

Early in a muggy gulf coast evening, the rooftop bar was full. The people there, mostly dressed in khaki pants, blousy shirts and Top-Sider shoes, bid on various Rays merchandise, most of it autographed. Scott moved from behind the microphone to behind the bar to help raise money for charity. Don Zimmer stood off to the side and laughed at third-base coach Tom Foley's jokes.

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has a piece of the hotel, too, a fancy spot where from a wicker chair on the roof you can watch the sun set or the twinkling headlights come over the bridge from Port Charlotte.

It all got me to thinking the Rays aren't really the Rays anymore. They aren't the puppy-dog Rays, the pipsqueak Rays, the think-I-can Rays, at least not for this season, and presumably a handful more.

You wouldn't have to search long to find someone predicting them to win the American League East, which is different than actually going out and doing it, which they've done twice in the past four years.

Our shy, demure Donna has grown up to become bam-pow Diamond-Ina-Skye: "Powerhouse, Pitcher Factory."

That, of course, carries the potential to change everything. It's one thing to ride along as the girl next door, another to show up in look-at-me pumps, big hair and candy red lipstick.

Expectations change, if not necessarily the view of oneself. Wear it, or it wears you.

"It entails not running from it," manager Joe Maddon said. "It entails not the false humility thing. I want us to embrace it. We've earned it."

Funny, but the Rays got good about the time they changed their name, too. They've won 368 games in four seasons since. The New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies won 384. The Boston Red Sox won 369.

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So with as sturdy a starting rotation as there is (and with depth beyond the first five), an offense that was average last season and has added Carlos Pena, a full season of Desmond Jennings, and, they hope, end-to-end health from Evan Longoria, along with possibly the game's best defense, the Rays could have the most complete team in their history.

In about the span of the Obama administration, the Rays have changed their image, their reality, and the notion of how – and even if – an organization of ordinary means can contend in a Steinbrennerian (and Henry-ian) generation. All those draft picks they didn't miss on. All those trades that went their way. All that solid ball they played.

This is where it goes, to a season where they don't need calamity in New York or Boston, where it may not matter what those clubs do, because man for man, the Rays could be better both in reputation and deed.

And that could be something to live with.

"We've put ourselves in a situation over the last four years to be where we are," Longoria said. "So, it doesn't put any undue pressure on us."

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If it did, chances are they'd live with that, too. It's the nature of who they are now, what Maddon has made them and what they've made of themselves.

Pena played four seasons in St. Petersburg, where he was among the last Devil Rays and the first Rays. After a year in Chicago, he eagerly returned to Tampa Bay, to a place that looked more like home, and felt more like it the moment he set down his duffel bag.

"There's a freedom you feel from when you get here," he said. "It's crazy, but Joe's got this renaissance way of doing this. His ability to let go has allowed him to direct this ballclub the way he wants it to go."

Pena, who thinks about these things, grinned at the apparent conflict in that.

"He cedes control," he tried again. "Thus, he gains it. It's like that Eastern philosophy stuff. He lets go and what he wants, happens."

There was glory, Pena said, in being those other Rays. The small-market, funny-uniformed, bad-ballparked, dirt-poor Rays. The team nobody ever saw coming.

It was OK to be just plain ol' Donna.

As he said, "We don't play baseball with our purse."

Or, for that matter, with their rep.

The Rays became very good at that, at operating from behind, at making more out of less. They're still underfunded, of course. But, their talent plays. Their brains play. It did last year, when the Red Sox collapsed and they didn't.

It will again, only this time as something other than the underdog. Not better or worse, just different.

"I don't miss those days," Longoria said. "I enjoy being a feared opponent, and a worthy one."

Back on the rooftop, she plugged in her microphone, let down her hair, and announced, "My name is Diamond-Ina-Skye. It's a long story."

She laughed to herself, then sang, "Only You."

And her voice was good. Really good.

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