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Former Rays not surprised by success

Rays alumni not surprised

ST. PETERSBURG -- A rough ride covering 10 losing seasons preceded the Rays' rise to baseball heights this season, which has made this year's leap to the World Series even more impressive to some of those who were along for the early years.

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Wade Boggs started at third base for the team known as the "Devil Rays" in 1998 and 1999, collecting his 3,000th career hit while wearing a Tampa Bay uniform. Based on watching the Rays in Spring Training, the Hall of Famer wasn't surprised to see the Rays do well.

"I knew they were a pretty good team coming out of Spring Training, you could see the nucleus was there," Boggs said. "The question was whether they could sustain it over the regular season.

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"I liked the way the pitchers handled themselves. They threw strikes and were like, 'Here it is, hit it.' When you shore up the defense like they did, the pitchers didn't have to worry about striking out guys as much -- you rely on defense. The team's hitters have quality at-bats. They've got their table setters, but they can hit home runs, too, like they have during the postseason. They did the little things that enabled them to come back late in the game -- driving in runs with two outs."

Boggs grew up in Tampa, so civic pride is a part of his rooting interest.

"Winning the World Series would be great for the Tampa Bay area," Boggs said. "We've won a Super Bowl, a Stanley Cup, now the Commissioner's Trophy to Tampa Bay. There aren't many areas that can say they have all three."

Boggs likes the Rays in six games in the World Series.

"I think this will be a hard-fought Series, scrappers on both sides," Boggs said. "Bullpen favors Philly, but if you jump on them early, that negates the closer. That's one way to leave [Brad] Lidge on the bus."

Fred McGriff started for the Rays at first base in their inaugural season and played three years for the team. A native of Tampa, McGriff still lives in Tampa and follows the Rays while also working in the local media.

"What they've done this season is a great accomplishment," McGriff said. "But it's kind of funny. You didn't see it coming because of the way they played last year. You figure they might get 86 wins this year, or whatever, and take it from there the year after that. Even when they played well during Spring Training, it was like, 'It's just Spring Training, nobody's playing their regular players.' You have to wait and see what happens in the regular season. Once the regular season began, they just continued to win."

Looking back at the beginning, McGriff said the team the Rays put on the field was competitive, contrary to popular perception and the way the record looks.

"The one thing about it, and what I try to tell people, they think [the Rays] are finally competitive," McGriff said. "Even through the early years, when the team was losing 90 to 100 games, it was still a competitive team. If your definition of competitive is all about whether your team is winning ball games, that's one thing. But if your definition is every night when I step on the field you think you have a chance to win, that's something else. You may lose that game, but being a competitive team, the Rays have always been competitive. Just this year they've won more games."


"Yeah, the other night, everyone is partying and celebrating in here [after Game 7], and I snuck out the back door. And somebody stopped me and said, 'Where are you going?' I said, 'I'm going to go home and go to sleep and wake up and see if this is really happening.'"
-- Rays third-base coach
and former rookie league
manager Tom Foley

McGriff hopes the success of this year's team will bode well for the long-term health of baseball in the Tampa Bay area.

"I just want to see the people in the Tampa Bay area to realize and see that baseball is a great sport," McGriff said. "You go watch baseball up north. You're in Yankee Stadium and you see how involved the fans are. How they get into it. Or in Boston, they live and breathe the Red Sox, the Yankees, or whoever that might be. That's hasn't happened yet in Tampa. It takes time. But I think this year will help."

McGriff said the Rays will win the Series.

"I believe so, yeah," McGriff said. "People don't realize that they're a good team, because they're down in Tampa/St. Pete. They've got four games in Tampa, and I still think the American League is a better league."

Jim Morris played for the Rays during parts of the 1999 and 2000 seasons before his well-documented story grew even more through the Disney movie "The Rookie," which starred Dennis Quaid as Morris. Based on the high profile gained from his journey, which saw Morris debut in the Major Leagues at age 35, and the fame gained through the movie, Morris is now a motivational speaker. He has continued to follow the team and said he is "so proud of them."

"They're so young, and talented, and healthy and they have been getting after it," Morris said.

Morris still has ties with the team.

"I know Scott Kazmir from coaching him in the Wood Bat National Championship when he was 16," Morris said. "And Dan Wheeler, who was on a baseball card with me. He was the youngest and I was the oldest at the time. And so when I went back to FanFest, I said, 'Dude, now you're the old guy.' He was laughing at me, and we had a good chuckle about it."

Morris is a baseball purist and praised the style of baseball the Rays have played this season to reach their exalted plateau.

"Whatever Joe Maddon has done with those guys, they are playing hard," Morris said. "I love hustling baseball. Baseball's my love so to watch people get out there and play the game the way it's supposed to be played, and they can have fun doing it. It's just a blast. These kids have battled through a lot of injuries this year and they've stuck to it. Rocco Baldelli is a great story. And [Carl] Crawford, and I saw [David] Price pitch in Game 7, that kid is unbelievable."

Morris said the climate around the Rays is much more positive than when he was a member of the team.

"I think there were some very high expectations with some of the veterans when I was there," Morris said. "One year I was there, Wilson Alvarez got hurt right before the season, and that hurt us in starting pitching. Injury here, injury there, and all these high promises turn into not high."

Morris will forever have a warm spot in his heart for the Rays.

"I'm able to do what I'm doing because of that chance and opportunity they gave me," Morris said. "And I appreciate it. I tell everyone that in all of my speeches. If it had not been for Tampa and my high school kids, this is something I never would have done. But I did, and it worked out. It's been a great time."

Morris likes the Rays to win the World Series in six games based on the Rays having more momentum than the Phillies.

"They've knocked off the world champs [Boston], and that was a big bear to tackle, but they did it," Morris said. "The talent they have, and I think they are better than they realize they are, which is a great point to be at."

Morris is now 44, so the question had to be asked: One more comeback?

Morris laughed.

"I would have to put a 'No' on that one, sir," Morris said. "These kids are too strong and fast -- I'm done. I'm enjoying watching these kids play the game of baseball and having fun doing it."

Current Rays third-base coach Tom Foley served as the Rays' field coordinator in 1996 and oversaw the first mini-camp in club history that June following the Rays' first amateur Draft. That summer he also managed at Butte, Mont., for the Rays rookie-level entry in the Pioneer League.

"The first half of the season in Butte we were the Bad News Bears," Foley said. "But then the second half of the season, we played pretty well and we made the playoffs. This is something you work for. Obviously, back then you look down the road and you want this to happen. We've had a lot of tough years. When I was in the Minor Leagues, we were working to put players up here and try to get them to where they're ready to make an impact and stay up here.

"Throughout the years they've done that. You've seen the guys up here that came up through our organization. And they're producing. They're contributing, and now we're winning. It's been a long road, obviously. But we're here now."

Foley still has to pinch himself to believe the Rays are in the World Series.

"Yeah, the other night, everyone is partying and celebrating in here [after Game 7] and I snuck out the back door," Foley said. "And somebody stopped me and said, 'Where are you going?' I said, 'I'm going to go home and go to sleep and wake up and see if this is really happening.'"

Dave Martinez, who serves as Maddon's bench coach, played for the Rays from 1998-2000 and was the team's starting right fielder in each of the Rays' first three seasons. He recorded the first hit in team history when he singled off Detroit's Justin Thompson in the third inning of the franchise's inaugural game on March 31, 1998.

"It definitely didn't look like this back then," said Martinez, surveying the media scene at Tropicana Field the day before Game 1 of the World Series. "The very first game, it had that kind of playoff atmosphere and it was a lot of fun. But this has been magical all year long.

"These guys have really truly stepped up and handled everything in front of them, and here we are today ready to play the World Series. That first game, all the cameras going off. Getting the first hit in Rays history. I look back at that, and when I see all these people, it reminds me of that first game."

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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