The sixth consecutive winning season, officially achieved this week, puts the Rays in very exclusive company. In terms of current streaks of consecutive winning seasons, the St. Louis Cardinals also have six. The New York Yankees have 20.
For the Rays, this has meant more than merely finishing slightly north of .500. They have qualified for the postseason three times over those six years. They are in a position to qualify for a fourth postseason with a Wild Card berth this September. They regained the lead in the American League Wild Card race with a riveting 4-3, 12-inning victory over the Texas Rangers on Wednesday night.
Over the past six seasons, Tampa Bay has also won two AL East titles and one AL pennant. And over those six seasons, the Rays have the second-best regular-season record in baseball. Only the Yanks, again, have a better record over that period.
If you looked at the first decade of the Tampa Bay franchise, with just one finish better than last place and only one season with as many as 70 victories, there wasn't much evidence to suggest this kind of leaps and bounds improvement.
But a top-shelf management team, from principal owner Stuart Sternberg to team president Matt Silverman to executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman to manager Joe Maddon, has made this a winning organization. Commissioner Bud Selig, in fact, refers to it as "a model professional sports franchise."
And the Rays succeed against considerable odds. They don't have the resources that their opponents do. Despite their success since 2008, the Rays, who have been unsuccessfully seeking a new stadium, have not been able to consistently draw the kind of crowds that their record would seem to merit. They are last in the Major Leagues in attendance this season.
Yet, when you watch the Rays, you typically see a team that is strong in pitching and defense. Tampa Bay relies on a core of homegrown starting pitching talent, and the club has supplemented its talent base with astute trades. There were two trade acquisitions on display Wednesday night, slugging outfielder Wil Myers, obtained in a trade with the Royals, and starting pitcher Chris Archer, acquired in a trade with the Cubs. Both are legitimate candidates for the AL Rookie of the Year Award.
The Rays utilize the latest and best statistical metrics available, whenever, wherever, however possible.
But the Rays also have a humanist as manager. Maddon does everything possible within the considerable scope of his intelligence and imagination to create an environment in which his players can, while being part of a collective effort, also be comfortable being themselves.
"I want to believe being yourself really matters," Maddon said Wednesday. "I'm not the controlling type. If I want to control anything, it's that you feel good in your own skin and you don't feel that you have to act, dress or be a certain way.
"If you really want to get the best out of anybody, I don't care how old they are, it's that. Of course, you have to have accountability on their side of the line, too. If you're dealing with a group of guys who aren't accountable, you have to be more strict, but when you have a highly motivated group and they're young and accountable, you do set them free. When you do that, you're probably going to get a stronger return. I'm not a micromanager. Never have been, never shall be. Thinking the opposite down here permits these young players to flourish."
Major League Baseball does its bit for this franchise through a revenue-sharing system that is aimed at increasing competitive balance. The economic playing field in baseball is nothing like level, but it is at a point where the Tampa Bay Rays can do more than compete. They can be named among baseball's elite teams.
This franchise stands as a model for the idea that a club with relatively small revenues is not doomed to lose, not hopelessly limited on the field. There are only three clubs in the Majors who can say that they have been a winning team over each of the past six seasons. OK, this is not like winning the World Series, but it is also an accomplishment of no small significance. This Tampa Bay club represents one part of what is best about baseball.