ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Rays are hardly America's team. Even in their own neighborhood, people still stumble through introductions.
Jon Gruden, head coach of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, this week congratulated the "Devil" Rays for advancing to the World Series, which means he owes Rays president Matt Silverman a dollar for getting the name wrong, Silverman having established a buck as the fine for forgetting that the Rays chased the "Devil" away before the season.
Even after beating the Red Sox in a thrilling seven-game American League Championship Series, the general sporting public knows little about the Rays beyond the fact that they hit home runs in bunches – a record 16 in the ALCS – their manager, Joe Maddon, wears funny glasses, and they play in a dome, Tropicana Field, ringed by catwalks known to swallow baseballs like a high-altitude Bermuda Triangle.
Oh, and one other thing: They may be the most surprising entry in the 104 years the World Series has been played. No team with a more humble pedigree – or meager payroll – has ever advanced to baseball's championship round.
For that reason, Yahoo! – with an assist from Rays catcher Shawn Riggans, who is sidelined with a knee injury but willing to undertake this task – is offering a "Who Are These Guys?" guide to the Rays that goes beyond name, number and stat line.
A word about Riggans: When he graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he was 5-foot-5, weighed 150 pounds and had been a backup on the baseball team. No one, pro or college, was interested in him continuing to play. He walked on at Florida International, the same school that produced 2007 World Series MVP Mike Lowell, and was relegated to bullpen-catcher duty. He transferred to Indian River Community College and played well enough that the Rays took a flier, drafting him in the 24th round.
He has been in the system ever since, and this season, after cameo appearances in the big leagues the previous two seasons, won the backup job to Dioner Navarro. Riggans, like his team, has come a long way.
"America doesn't know too much about the Rays," he said. "The (AL) championship series was big, but I think in the World Series, people will find out that we're not just the team in Tampa that changed its name.
"People joke, 'Who are the Rays?' Before, we took it like a joke, but now we take offense to it. We want people to respect us. We understand ESPN loves the Red Sox and the Yankees, but we turn on the TV and our highlights come after the Detroit State (sic) football game. We've got a little chip on our shoulder."
They've also got so much more. Allow us to tell you about …
The Shuffleboard Players: That's right, Riggans said, "just like the game you see played at the retirement homes, except instead of using a stick, you use your hand and push the disks down a hard wooden surface, about 25 feet long, that has sand on it. Our guys who play – (Gabe) Gross, (Ben) Zobrist, Rocco (Baldelli), and (Grant) Balfour – they go at it like it's the seventh game of the World Series."
The Kegler: Cliff Floyd, the grand old man on this team (36 in December), has his own customized purple bowling ball that he calls "Purple Thunder." There were rumors that Floyd, like former pitcher John Burkett, might take a run at the Pro Bowlers Tour, but he killed that one quickly Tuesday. "Hell no," he said.
Don't let him fool you, Riggans said. The man is dangerous with his thumb lodged in a ball.
"If you saw the magazine from the Players' Choice awards," Riggans said, "Cliff was in there with his bowling shirt and customized ball. At the University Bowl, near where I live, he rolled a 300 game. His picture is up on the wall."
Floyd and closer Troy Percival, the other dominant veteran presence on the club, combined to unite this team like never before, Riggans said, and not for a bowling tournament. "They both shoot you straight," he said. "This team used to be a little cliquish; now we're one big family. Cliff and Percy have been huge for us."
The Motor Mouth: Carlos Pena, the slugging first baseman, "loves to talk," Riggans said. "He's the talker, man. He can go out for BP, take some ground balls and some swings, but just as easily he'll stand at first base and talk for an hour. It doesn't matter who it is. The PR man, the security guard, Joe Maddon. He'll call you over. If he calls you over to talk, you're going to be there for 20 minutes.''
Pena is also the Ray most likely to know a pas de deux. His sister, Femaris, danced with the Boston Ballet. She's now working as an executive in a Boston advertising firm.
The Aussie: Balfour, who played rugby in addition to baseball while growing up in New South Wales, Australia, gained notoriety during the division playoffs when White Sox shortstop Orlando Cabrera reacted angrily to Balfour dropping an F-bomb. Turns out Balfour, an emotional sort, regularly curses when he pitches, but it's not directed at anyone. But when Riggans says he has a language problem with Balfour, he's not talking about profanity.
"When I first met him," Riggans said, "I couldn't understand him. I'd ask him nine times to repeat himself; I'm sure he wanted to choke the hell out of me. (Troy) Percival, he can't understand the guy's strong Australian accent, either. But I've sat in the bullpen with him all year, so I'm getting there. He's hilarious. He says some of the funniest things. And the guy's tough. Reminds me of an Australian rules football player. He's a tall, lanky guy, but he's a real tough dude."
The Brainiac: "Fernando Perez, by far," Riggans said of the rookie outfielder, who graduated from Columbia with a degree in American Studies and creative writing. Perez, who is of Cuban descent, is the first-ever Latino Ivy Leaguer to make it to the big leagues, called up Aug. 31.
"He'll say words, you have to ask him, 'Tell me what that word means,' " Riggans said, the awe obvious in his voice. "He's super smart. My goodness, he likes to read. You talk to Fernando, he reads Shakespeare, stuff like that, and he's actually writing a book, too. He said there's a little in there about baseball, a little about everything.
"He's a funny guy, and an odd dresser. He wears odd things. Like, he'll wear an old-school vest from the '80s, with an undershirt and funky colored jeans and weird-looking shoes, but somehow he makes it work."
Then there's reliever J.P. Howell, who when he pitches wears three of everything – socks, underwear, T-shirts – because it reminds him of three strikes and three outs. Imagine what Maddon's 9 = 8 formula must have done to Howell's ordered universe.
The Confidence Man: Within weeks of Evan Longoria's arrival, Eric Hinske was calling him "the superstar" – and meant it. "For me," Riggans said, "he breathes confidence. He's so well-spoken. When he gives an interview, it's like he's been here for 20 years."
The Can-you-Top This Club: "Our starting pitchers, they're all young, and all huge competitors," Riggans said. "They all try to outdo each other, and they all keep getting better. It starts with James Shields. He's such a workhorse. But these guys, they compete in everything."
The Quarterbacks: Gross, an outfielder, played quarterback for Auburn as a freshman. Carl Crawford turned down a scholarship to play quarterback at Nebraska. "Gross probably has the better arm, he's got a cannon, but I'd probably have to go with C.C.," Riggans said. "That guy, you chase him out of the pocket, you'll never catch him. He's got world-class speed."
The No. 1 guy: That would be second baseman Akinori Iwamura. Iwamura, before coming from Japan, played for the Yakult Swallows, where superstars Tsutomu Wakamatsu and Takahiro Ikeyama both wore No. 1. Iwamura took the number when he came to the Rays. In 2007, his first season with Tampa Bay, Iwamura began his workouts on 1/11 at 11:11:11 a.m.
The Dancer: "Edwin Jackson, for sure," Riggans said. "He's always dancing and singing. He makes up his own rap songs. He'll freestyle off the top of his head. He's one of those guys like (Andy) Sonnenstine – he can try something once and get it right away."
The Video Game Monster: Gross. "We have an arcade in the clubhouse. Gross will play you in anything, it doesn't matter what it is. The arcade probably has like, 7,000 games. Gross has played 6,000 of them."
The Hockey Player: "Jonny Gomes," Riggans said. "He was my first roommate in pro ball. I've known Jonny from Day 1. He's like the guy a hockey team sends out when the other team is bullying you around. When things get a little hairy, you put him in there, and we feel good. When he got sent down, I didn't feel quite as safe. That's the type of guy he is. No nonsense, wide open all the time. That's how he plays, that's how he lives."
Riggans can tell you more, about how Sonnanstine plays big-time table tennis, how Zobrist's wife sings gospel, that Floyd, Hinske and Evan Longoria argue all the time about their card games, and that reliever Dan Wheeler married the daughter of the team's broadcaster, Dewayne Staats.
He can even tell you how B.J. Upton – whose given name is Melvin Emmanuel – came by his initials. They stand for Bossman Jr. The original Bossman was Upton's father, Emmanuel, a two-sport star at Norfolk (Va.) State who later became a college basketball referee.
And we'll tell you that if there was one player whose baseball card Riggans would place in his locker, it would be Willy Aybar, whom he considers the unsung star of this team. Aybar was jailed in January in the Dominican Republic after his wife filed assault charges, which she withdrew a week later. He also went through alcohol rehabilitation. Aybar asked for forgiveness, pledged to change his ways, and has appeared to live up to that pledge, stepping up in a big way when budding superstar Longoria fractured his wrist in August and missed a month. Aybar homered for an insurance run in Game 7 against the Red Sox. "To me," Riggans said, "he is a first-class dude, and a major piece of the puzzle."
And we'll let Riggans finish by telling you about Navarro, whom he calls one of his "bestest friends" on the team.
"Some guys, when they play the same position, they don't get along," Riggans said. "But Navie, he's a good ballplayer and a first-class dude. He has this incredible calm in any situation. We have a lot of great hitters on this team – B.J., Longoria, Carlos, but in a clutch situation in the ninth inning, when it's time to get a hit or put a ball in play, Navie's my guy.
"I can't really explain it all about him. His family is great people, his kids are good kids. I love the guy. I've told him, 'Buddy, where you go, I go.' "
Who are these Rays? Stay tuned, America, and check them out for yourselves.