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The Tampa Bay Rays are an American professional baseball team based in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Rays compete in Major League Baseball (MLB) as a member club of the American League (AL) East division. Since its inception, the team's home venue has been Tropicana Field.
Following nearly three decades of unsuccessfully trying to gain an expansion franchise or enticing existing teams to relocate to the Tampa Bay area, an ownership group led by Vince Naimoli was approved on March 9, 1995. The team began play as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 1998 Major League Baseball season.
The team's first decade of play was marked by futility; they finished in last place in the AL East in all but the 2004 season, when they finished second to last. Following the 2007 season, Stuart Sternberg, who had purchased controlling interest in the team from Vince Naimoli two years earlier, changed the team's name from "Devil Rays" to "Rays", now meaning both a manta ray and a ray of sunshine; a manta ray logo appears on the uniform sleeves while a sunburst appears on the uniform front. The 2008 season saw the Rays post their first winning season, their first AL East championship, and their first American League pennant (defeating the rival Boston Red Sox in the ALCS), though they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in that year's World Series. Since then, the Rays have played in the postseason six more times, winning the American League pennant again in 2020 and losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in that year's World Series.
The Tampa Bay Rays' chief rivals are the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, which also play in the AL East. Regarding the former, there have been several notable on-field incidents. The Rays also have an in-state interleague rivalry with the National League (NL)'s Miami Marlins (originally the Florida Marlins), whom they play in the Citrus Series.
Through 2021, the Rays' all-time record is 1,826–1,958 (.483).
The Tampa Bay area has a long association with amateur and professional baseball. Tampa and St. Petersburg were among the first hosts of Major League Baseball spring training in the 1910s, the Tampa Smokers and St. Petersburg Saints were two of the founding members of the minor league Florida State League (FSL) in 1919, and several other communities in the area also hosted FSL teams in the following years. However, it was not until a period of explosive population and economic growth after World War II that the area was considered as a possible location for major professional sports.
The push to bring major league baseball to the Tampa Bay area can be traced to the late 1960s, when civic leader and St. Petersburg Times publisher Jack Lake wrote a series of editorials arguing that St. Petersburg could and should support a franchise. However, though Tampa was awarded the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers by the National Football League in 1974, the region suffered through many unsuccessful attempts to acquire a major league baseball team through expansion or relocation in the 1970s to the early 1990s. The Oakland A's, Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals, and Seattle Mariners all seriously considered moving to either Tampa or St. Petersburg, but they all elected to remain in place, usually with the enticement of a new publicly-funded ballpark. In response, the city of St. Petersburg decided to build the Florida Suncoast Dome (now called Tropicana Field) in the mid-1980s for the express purpose of luring a major league team with a move-in ready facility. The building opened in 1990, but it would be several more years before the area gained a major league franchise.
When MLB announced plans to add two expansion teams for the 1993 season, it was widely assumed that one would be placed in the Tampa Bay area, most likely St. Petersburg. However, the region's effort was split into two ownership groups with competing applications: the "Tampa Bay Whitecaps" group led by Roy Disney and the Kohl department store family that proposed hosting the franchise at the Florida Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg, and the "Florida Panthers" group led by former Texas Rangers part-owner Frank Morsani that planned on building a new ballpark adjacent to Tampa Stadium, home of the Buccaneers. The league declined to award a franchise to either group, and instead placed franchises in Denver (Colorado Rockies) and Miami (Miami Marlins). Morsani sued MLB, claiming he had been promised an expansion team in exchange for dropping his plans to relocate the Twins or Rangers to Tampa. Ultimately, he sold the "Panthers" trademark to Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga, who would later use it for his Miami-based professional hockey team.
Tampa-based investor Vince Naimoli had negotiated a deal to buy the San Francisco Giants and move them to St. Petersburg in 1992, but MLB owners unexpectedly voted to block the deal. Naimoli sued major league baseball for tortious interference for intervening, and in part to settle the suit, MLB awarded his ownership group a new expansion franchise on March 9, 1995, the same day that the Arizona Diamondbacks were awarded to Phoenix. The new franchise would take to the artificial turf of St. Petersburg's newly rechristened Tropicana Field during the 1998 season.
Naimoli initially planned to call the team the "Tampa Bay Sting Rays" but the naming rights were already held by the minor league Maui Stingrays. The Maui club offered to sell the name for $35,000, but rather than make the deal, Naimoli opted for a different species of rays, and the new franchise was introduced as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The name was not welcomed in all quarters; the devil ray is not nearly as common in waters near Tampa Bay as the ubiquitous cownose stingray, and several pastors of local Christian churches told the Tampa Bay Times that the inclusion of the word "devil" offended them. However, fans approved the name in a telephone poll set up by Naimoli, who had offered to change the name to the "Manta Rays" if the public chose the alternative.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays named Chuck LaMar, the former assistant general manager of the Atlanta Braves, as its first general manager; Larry Rothschild, a former pitching coach for the Marlins and Cincinnati Reds, was named the team's first manager on November 7, 1997. In the Expansion Draft on November 18, 1997, the Devil Rays acquired their first player in pitcher Tony Saunders. Among the team's 34 other draft picks was future star outfielder Bobby Abreu; however, Abreu was soon dealt to the Philadelphia Phillies for utility infielder Kevin Stocker in a trade generally regarded among the worst in recent MLB history. The team acquired several veteran stars in trades or free agent signings before their first season including pitcher Wilson Alvarez and two Tampa natives in first baseman Fred McGriff and third baseman Wade Boggs, a future member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Devil Rays played their first game on March 31, 1998, against the Detroit Tigers at Tropicana Field, before an opening day crowd of 45,369. Wilson Álvarez threw the first pitch and Wade Boggs hit the team's first home run, though the Devil Rays ended up losing 11–6. The next day, the Devil Rays won their first victory, defeating Detroit 11–8, thanks to rookie pitcher (and future All-Star) Rolando Arrojo. Despite briefly being over .500 in their first 19 games (a first for an expansion team in their inaugural season), the team would go on to lose 99 that year, ending with the second-worst record in the league (just above their neighbors, the Marlins, who lost 108).
The Devil Rays continued to struggle in their next few seasons, with many of their veteran players, including the "Hit Show" of sluggers (McGriff, Vinny Castilla, Jose Canseco and Greg Vaughn), being past their prime—though Wade Boggs would mark his 3000th career hit, a home run, against the Cleveland Indians on August 7, 1999. Having led the Devil Rays through two last-place, 69-wins seasons in 1999 and 2000, Rothschild was fired partway through the 2001 season and replaced by Hal McRae. Despite the change, the team continued to decline, and the 2002 season would lead to a franchise-worst 55–106 record, despite the emergence of key players like Aubrey Huff, Toby Hall, and Carl Crawford. However, the 2002 season would prove to be the worst in franchise history to date. McRae was moved to a front office position after the season.
Lou Piniella, a Tampa native who had previously led the Reds to a World Series, replaced McRae as manager for the 2003 season, winning 63 games. The next year, Piniella's Devil Rays finished with a 70–91 record, just above the Toronto Blue Jays to claim in 4th in the American League East—the first time in franchise history the team was out of last place. Crawford established himself as a breakout star, leading the American League in triples (19) and, for the second year in a row, stolen bases (59). In the 2005 season, Crawford's production at the plate was matched by newcomers Jorge Cantú and Jonny Gomes, though the team was let down by its pitching staff (despite the arrival of Scott Kazmir) and finished 67–95.
Tensions between the owners and management came to a head after the dismal 2005 season. Piniella became frustrated with the ownership group's lack of commitment to the team, stating that they were "not interested about the present" but "about the future." He took issue not only with Naimoli (whose repeated promises of payroll increases had not been met), but with a new group of investors led by Stuart Sternberg. After the 2005 season, Sternberg purchased a controlling interest in the team and released Piniella, buying out the last year of his contract for $2.2 million.
For the 2006 season, Sternberg hired Joe Maddon, formerly of the Anaheim Angels, to replace Piniella as manager. Sternberg also fired LaMar and most of the front office, replacing him with Andrew Friedman (as Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations). Nevertheless, the team continued to struggle for the first two years of Maddon's tenure, finishing 61–101 and 66–96 in 2006 and 2007 season.
Over the years, the word "devil" in the team's name had drawn "countless phone calls pleading with the team to change the name."
The team was rebranded before the 2008 season, abandoning its nickname and green-white color scheme for a new existence as the Tampa Bay Rays. Dropping the "Devil", the new Rays name referred to a ray of sunshine (for the Sunshine State of Florida), and the team adopted a navy, Columbia blue and gold color scheme. Sternberg finally delivered on his promises to increase the team's payroll, raising it to $43 million (still the lowest payroll in baseball). The team, anchored by Crawford, Kazmir, and pitcher James Shields, was bolstered by new additions of pitchers Matt Garza and David Price (a first round draft pick), outfielder Ben Zobrist, and third base prospect Evan Longoria. The Rays started the season strongly with their best record in franchise history, and became the first team in modern Major League history (since 1900) to hold the best record in the league through Memorial Day, after having the worst record in the league the year before. The Rays briefly fell behind the Boston Red Sox but, with the best home record in Major League Baseball, manage to qualify for at least the AL Wild Card on September 20—the team's first-ever postseason berth. The Rays would ultimately end the season two games above the Red Sox in the AL East, their first divisional title.
The 2008 American League Division Series was the Rays' first playoff series victory, defeating the Chicago White Sox in 4 games. Besting the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series in 7 games, the Rays advanced to the World Series for the first time. However, the team's good fortunes came to an end, and they were defeated four games to one by the Philadelphia Phillies.
Going into the 2009 season, the American League champions again posted a winning record, 84–78, but was unable to return to the postseason, in part due to injuries to Longoria, Akinori Iwamura and Carlos Peña. The Rays performed much better the following year, a season that saw Matt Garza throw the franchise's first no-hitter (against Detroit) They again won the AL East, finishing with the best record in the AL, but were eliminated in the ALDS by the Rangers.
The Rays lost veterans like Garza, Peña, and Crawford in the 2010–11 offseason, but nevertheless finished the 2011 season with the AL wild card, having just barely beat out the Red Sox with a 12th-inning walk-off home run by Evan Longoria against the Yankees. The team was again eliminated by the Rangers in the ALDS. The Rays missed out on the postseason the next year despite a 90–72 record, though David Price became the first Rays pitcher to earn the Cy Young Award. The team returned to the postseason in 2013 (after a Game 163 tiebreaker against Texas), in part thanks to new additions Wil Myers and Chris Archer. However, they were again defeated in the ALDS, this time by the eventual World Series champions, the Red Sox.
After 2013's failed championship bid, the Rays entered a period of decline; 2014 saw their first losing record (77–85) since 2007. Price was traded away to the Detroit Tigers, though the Rays received prospect Willy Adames in return. GM Andrew Friedman left Tampa Bay to for a front office role with the Los Angeles Dodgers; this activated an opt-out clause in Maddon's contract, who also opted to leave Tampa Bay despite efforts to re-sign him. Maddon finished his tenure with a record of 754 wins and 705 losses.
The Rays named Kevin Cash as Maddon's successor on December 5, 2014; he would be the youngest manager in league. Cash's first season in 2015 saw strong performances from Chris Archer, who became a Cy Young contender, and center-fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who won his first Gold Glove Award; however the team ended the season with a 80–82 record. The team fared more poorly the next year; they finished last in the AL East for the first time since 2007, winning only 68 games in a season marred by injuries (including to Kiermaier) and a 3–24 stretch between June 16 and July 16. 2017 again saw strong performances from Archer and Alex Cobb (returning from Tommy John surgery the year before), and the team rebounded to match its 2015 record.
The 2017 season also saw Erik Neander take over as general manager from Matthew Silverman, and he would continue the Rays' strategy of aggressive trade moves. Heading into 2018, the Rays traded Evan Longoria, long considered a franchise player, to the Giants, and starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins. More trades would come as the season went on, as Matt Andriese was dealt to Arizona; Archer was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Tyler Glasnow, outfielder Austin Meadows, and prospect Shane Baz. Despite the departure of much of their existing rotation, Glasnow and Blake Snell anchored the teams pitching staff; Snell, who led all AL pitchers in wins (21) and ERA (1.89), won the franchise's second Cy Young Award. The team also pioneered the concept of the "opener," by which the pitcher who begins the game only pitches an inning or two before being relieved by the "bulk man" who often pitches into the late innings. Though criticized by some baseball traditionalists, the innovative strategy helped the Rays finish the year with the second-best team ERA in the American League. Though the Rays won 90 games in 2018, they did not qualify for the playoffs.
Cash led the Rays to his first postseason in 2019, building off an impressive 19–9 start to win 96 games. The pitching staff, anchored by starters Glasnow, Snell, and veteran Charlie Morton as well as relievers Nick Anderson and Diego Castillo, led the American League with a 3.65 ERA. They defeated Oakland in the 2019 AL Wild Card Game, but they were defeated by the Houston Astros in a five-game ALDS.
Despite the postseason defeat, the Rays retained much of their core going into the 2020 season, which had been shortened to 60 games as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a 5–7 start, the Rays rebounded to win 35 of their last 48 games, thanks to the rotation, the bullpen (Anderson, Castillo, and Pete Fairbanks), and an offensive breakout from Brandon Lowe. At the end of the regular season, the team posted an AL-best 40–20 record, winning its first divisional title since 2011 and again advancing to the postseason.
The Rays went on to defeat the Yankees in the five-game ALDS, thanks to Mike Brosseau's go-ahead eighth inning home run off Yankees pitcher Aroldis Chapman; during the regular season, Chapman had instigated a bench-clearing altercation by throwing over Brosseau's head. The postseason was dominated by Randy Arozarena, who set new records for postseason home runs (10), hits by a rookie and by any player in a single postseason (29), and total bases (64). In a rematch of 2019, the Rays defeated the Astros in the seven-game ALCS, and went on to meet the Dodgers in the World Series. The Rays won Game 4 of the series in near-miraculous fashion; down 6–7, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and down in the count 1–2, Brett Phillips singled off LA closer Kenley Jansen for his first career postseason hit, scoring Kiermaier to tie the game, and Arozarena to score the winning run and tie the series at two. Despite the heroics, the Rays lost the next two games to the Dodgers and were defeated in their second bid for a World Series.
In the offseason, the Rays unloaded much of their pitching core; Morton was lost to free agency and Snell was traded to the San Diego Padres. The roster would change even more after opening day; Willy Adames was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers and Glasnow underwent Tommy John surgery that would place him on the injured list through 2022. Nevertheless, the team welcomed many rookies, including starting pitchers Shane McClanahan (who had debuted in the 2020 postseason) and Luis Patiño (acquired in the Snell trade), as well as baseball's No. 1 prospect Wander Franco. Filling Adames' role at shortstop, Franco quickly established himself in the lineup; he managed to reach base safely in 40 consecutive games, tying Frank Robinson's record for players under 21 years old. The Rays finished the season with a record of 100–62, the third-best record in baseball, and won the AL East for the second consecutive year. However, the team were eliminated by Boston in the ALDS in four games.