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Rays' road to success paved by stability at top

Rays' road to success paved by stability at top

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Rays' road to success paved by stability at top
ST. PETERSBURG -- Andrew Friedman and Matt Silverman were just assuming their new positions as executive vice president of baseball operations and team president, respectively, when the pair met in a conference room at a Houston hotel with a white-haired dude from Pennsylvania via California.

Once that meeting ran its course, the fate of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays would forever be altered, and the foundation for the team's road to respectability began to gain traction.

Any Rays fan would have guessed that the white-haired dude was then Angels bench coach Joe Maddon. New owner Stuart Sternberg already had held his memorable news conference announcing that the organization would be under construction to fix everything in the way of becoming more fan and community friendly. Meanwhile, Friedman and Silverman were establishing themselves while looking to make the right choice in finding a successor to Lou Piniella as the manager of the team.

"We had prepared our questions and we had conducted a couple of interviews already with other candidates, and that had helped," Silverman said. "The first interview was certainly the most difficult one. We were looking for someone who had a perspective on how long it might take to turn around the team, and someone who had the patience to see it through. And Joe was someone, with his development experience, that we thought matched the time frame that we thought it would take to turn this thing around."

Silverman recalled that Maddon brought in some information contained within a notebook.

"Some things he had looked at historically and talked about how he prepared for games," Silverman said. "Everyone parked their ego at the door. We challenged each other with questions and had a spirited debate about different topics.

"Some managers came in and talked about immediate results. Joe talked about the process. Joe talked about the culture and the changes that needed to take place before we could win. And that matched up with our beliefs on what we thought it would take to turn around the organization."

Silverman credited that meeting for setting the tone for the relationship the trio has enjoyed since Maddon was hired on Nov. 15, 2005.

"It's just a very cooperative relationship, and one where we're all working toward the same goal," Silverman said.

Maddon never let on, but he knew the Devil Rays would have to take their lumps before the tide turned. And that's exactly what happened. The team lost 101 games in 2006 and 96 in '07, setting the stage for what might have been the best move in the organization's young history: not making a move to find new leaders for the organization.

Sternberg showed patience in handling his management team, and that patience paid rich dividends.

"There are owners who would look at those first two years and say, 'Things aren't going right, we have one of the worst records in baseball, we need a new general manager, we need a new team president, we need a new manager,'" Silverman said. "And Stu said the exact opposite.

"He recognized that things were going in the right direction. And that this was the beginning of a long-term process. We all had the confidence that Stu would have patience in the process, and that allowed us to do our work without that pressure of scrutiny."

During the first two seasons of Friedman's tenure, most any deal made involved trading established players for prospects. That changed midway through the 2007 season, when the Devil Rays made two moves that Friedman credited for accelerating the team's growth.

"In my mind, the '07 Trade Deadline was absolutely critical, as we added two important pieces of our 2008 bullpen -- Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler," Friedman said. "The Wheeler trade was especially important. At that time, we had generally not looked to bring in talent to help us in the near term. We always have to keep at least one eye on the future, but in trading for a veteran like Wheels -- a guy with a proven track record -- we were turning the other eye toward the present. It was becoming time to take a collection of talented athletes and transform it into a competitive team that could compete in the AL East.

"Dan was one of our first steps in that process. We felt not only that he could help stabilize our bullpen, but that his example would offer the right kind of leadership for our young team. The moves we made throughout the following offseason were all intended to further those same goals."

Following the 2007 season, the Devil Rays became the Rays, and the team also changed its main color from green to blue. More important than the cosmetic changes, the Rays continued to improve, completing a deal that sent Delmon Young and Brendan Harris to the Twins for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. While Garza and Bartlett gave the team another solid arm in the rotation and a much-needed shortstop, the signing of three veterans -- Cliff Floyd, Eric Hinske and Troy Percival -- added an intangible element.

"They were unbelievable guys," Evan Longoria said. "To have the combined years of experience that they had and to be as down to earth and cool, and they were excited to help a young player. That really made my career, I think."

Prior to the 2008 season, the team had leaders, but they didn't "know how to command the whole team," according to James Shields.

"Percy was that kind of guy," Shields said. "It didn't matter if you were a pitcher, a position player, a water boy -- it didn't matter. He was the kind of guy who really got everybody together on the same page. That was really important."

B.J. Upton credited that trio of veterans for giving the team's youngsters "some direction."

"We were so young at the time and we had never done anything," Upton said. "And all of a sudden we have three guys who have all won World Series. Having them in the clubhouse with a young team and have them kind of guide us through is always a good thing. I don't think we get to where we did that season without those guys on that ballclub. I think they were definitely vital to what we did."

Of course, the Rays charged from last place in the American League East to division champions, parlaying that accomplishment to the 2008 World Series.

"The 2008 season came upon us and took us a little bit by surprise," Silverman said. "We knew things were changing. We knew the organization was heading in the right direction. We just didn't expect success that quick."

Equally as impressive as coming from nowhere to reach the World Series has been the way the Rays have maintained their level of excellence. Since taking part in the Fall Classic, Tampa Bay won the AL East in 2010 before again making the playoffs in 2011 as the AL Wild Card representative.

"The challenge was to maintain that success we had in 2008 and build upon it," Silverman said. "And that's something that until you get there, you don't know how it's going to happen. And we've been fortunate to have been able to maintain that success. We look forward to even greater days ahead."

Much of the credit for staying at the top belongs to Friedman and his staff for making shrewd deals, signing key free agents and knowing which free agents to let go.

"I think Andrew's done a great job, as far as the moves he's made, the trades he's made," Longoria said. "You kind of look at a lot of the deals he's made through the course of his tenure here. I mean, almost all of them have worked out in our favor. I can't look at one and say we didn't get the better end of the deal."

In the background, the scouting and development arm of the organization is recognized as one of the best, if not the best, in baseball. For example, the team has used a starting pitcher it drafted for 194 consecutive games, a Major League record.

"Obviously, the system in place in huge," Longoria said. "The scouts, people who have drafted guys like me, David Price, [Matt] Moore, guys who are now, pretty much all of us in here that have come through the organization. And the Minor League staffs have done a great job in bringing us up and making us into Major League players."

Over the past four seasons, the Rays have averaged 90-plus wins after averaging 90-plus losses the four previous seasons. Only four other teams in Major League history can make that claim: the 1987-94 Braves, the 1971-78 Phillies, the 1964-71 Athletics and the 1997-2004 Twins.

Intelligence, talent and a much-needed change in the culture of the organization are most responsible.

"We talked about the accountability factor when we first moved in. It wasn't there," Maddon said. "The wins definitely weren't there, and over the course of the last several years, we've got a bunch of self-starters who care, and self-starters who not only want to participate, but win."

Upton is one of the remnants of the Devil Rays. The Rays center fielder wore the green and experienced everything wearing the green is remembered for. Could he ever have envisioned the organization becoming what it has?

"I mean, if you had told me after the 2007 season that I would have been to the playoffs three times in the next four years, I would have said you're crazy," Upton said.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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