Sugar Rays don't mind a fight

Tim Brown
Yahoo! SportsJune 11, 2008

ANAHEIM – So the Tampa Bay Rays fought the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, and then, having run out of signature big-league franchises to roll around in the dirt with, themselves.

Since outfielder Jonny Gomes generally gets suspended for these things (two games Yankees, five games Red Sox, zero games intra-squad), he seemed like the man to talk to.

Gomes is built like an igloo, low to the ground and sturdy. He shaves his head and wears a thin beard. He looks angry even when he’s not, and he’s usually not. He browsed the lineup card, if for no other reason than to remind himself that Bob Watson had granted him another evening off.

“Another day in the penalty box,” he sighed.

Look around the clubhouse, and Gomes won’t be alone. For that little dust-up in Boston, James Shields got six games, Edwin Jackson five, Carl Crawford four and Aki Iwamura three. Look around the clubhouse, and understand these are a different bunch of Rays entirely, unwilling to be manhandled like the Devil Rays that came before them. Right is right, as they see it, even amongst themselves. So, even as Gomes swooped in from right field to take down Shelley Duncan in spring training, even as Shields let Coco Crisp have it last week, even as Gomes went all UFC on Crisp, Rays catcher Dioner Navarro gave his own pitcher – Matt Garza – the what-for Sunday in Texas.

“I don’t think in the past this was really a band of 25 guys that was worth scrapping over, whether with ourselves or another team,” Gomes said.

He was standing in a hallway just off the clubhouse. Teammates passed on the way to the food room or the weight room. B.J. Upton wandered by. Crawford. Scott Kazmir. Troy Percival needed some sunglasses. Iwamura and his translator. “Hi, Japanese guys,” somebody shouted, and the Japanese guys smiled and waved back.

“It’s always been here,” Gomes said. “The talent. The aggressiveness. The knowledge of the game. It’s always been here.”

He paused and lifted a hand for emphasis.

On paper,” he said. “It’s always been on paper.

Now, suddenly, it’s in the paper (there are still newspapers, right?), and in the standings, and in the way they play the game and stand up for themselves. A veteran scout at Angel Stadium watched Rays batting practice and said, “There’s something different about these guys, the way they carry themselves. They believe it.”

Well, yeah, that’s evident.

“I’ve been in a couple scraps (in previous seasons) and they were almost not worth your time,” Gomes said. “It wasn’t worth the suspension or me getting hurt down there. Now …"

Now they win. And now they serve their time in Watson’s witness protection program, a dangerous place for an organization that doesn’t necessarily have the payroll for roster-wide depth. The dugouts and bullpens empty and the Rays risk the most glorious half-season in their history, one that probably still needs a big left-handed bat and a veteran starter to hang in the AL East all summer. But, the Yankees were wrong in spring, just as the Red Sox were wrong in June, and the Rays had to do what they had to do.

They respect the Yankees and all those championships, Gomes said. And they respect the Red Sox and what they’ve done since 2004.

But, he said, “In between the lines, nobody wears their World Series rings. Nobody carries their contracts around. In between the lines, may the best 25-man team win. Who wants it that day?”

The Rays have waited the 11-year life of the franchise for this, for competence, for something to play for. So far, it’s brought them a lot of enjoyment, a little fame and, it turns out, a few purple abrasions.

They are the trappings of relevance.

Just as once the Rays weren’t worth fighting for, neither were they worth fighting. In less than 2½ months, however, they have come to threaten the natural order of the East. They still can’t win in Boston (0-6), but they’ve scored more runs than the Yankees (by one) and have outpitched everyone but the Toronto Blue Jays in the division. They don’t draw at The Trop, but they are 24-10 there, with the second-most home wins (the Red Sox have 26) in the league. They’ve committed the fewest errors in the league.

Along come the six-month expectations. Along comes resistance from elite teams who only know the Rays as an easy weekend in St. Petersburg. Along comes uneasiness with losing, and an edgy conversation on a pitcher’s mound, and a catcher who’s just about had enough of this, and a manager who was raised on accountability in his final years as a coach with the Angels.

“That’s all good,” Joe Maddon said. “That creates the natural edge. When you have that relevancy, you don’t have to create the artificial thing of getting up. It’s there. All those things, they become a natural part of what’s going on.”

As a result, Maddon said, “We can’t sneak up. We’re not sneaking up on anybody anymore.”

To a man, they’ve invested in every moment so far. Over 65 games, it’s an effort. Over 162, it’s a grind few of them have known.

So Gomes leaned against that wall and watched everyone else get ready for a baseball game. He was dying to play, but would not. He smiled.

“There are things in life,” he said, “worth fighting for.”