The 2008 Rays and the 1979 Bucs
I know Bucpower is a repository of Tampa Bay football information but I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the wonderful story that is my native city’s baseball team.

As of this writing, the Rays and Red Sox are getting ready to play Game Three. I like many others with Tampa Bay sports allegiances spent much of Sunday watching the Bucs rout of the Panthers through bleary eyes. With a come from behind, extra inning classic that didn’t finish until well after 1 am, Game Two of the ALCS was everything a fan wants.

Now I don’t really function well on minimal sleep, but if the Rays can make a World Series by winning three more marathon games, I think I will gladly trade in a few nights of shut-eye. In my sleep deprived stupor, I started to let my mind wander from the Bucs beat down of the Twits (I hope you don’t mind Lee, but I love your nickname for the Panthers!) to what I had witnessed the night before.

During my random thoughts I experienced a moment of clarity. The 2008 Rays are the heirs to the original “Worst to First” Bucs of 1979! The more I think of the 2008 Rays, the more eerie the similarities to the 1979 Bucs. Trust me they go far deeper than the fact that everyone is calling the Rays season a “Worst to First” transformation. The Rays remind me of the Bucs by:

• Having a leader that isn’t afraid to go against the conventional wisdom. Joe Maddon’s adherence to his belief that manufacturing runs is the way to beat power hitting teams such as Boston and New York has been proven true. That is similar to John McKay’s success at using a 3-4 defense and an I-Formation power sweep offense to win a title in 1979. They laughed at McKay. They laughed at Maddon. Who is laughing now?

• Having a highly touted prospect with a history of injury problems lead the team down the playoff stretch. Ricky Bell carried the Buccaneers on his back over the last half of the 1979 season. That performance put to rest once and for all that Bell was an injury prone slacker. Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli (in an admittedly smaller role) has come back from an array of injuries and illness to play a crucial role in carrying the Rays through an injury-marred playoff run. While it remains to be seen if Baldelli will ever be the player we hoped he would, no one can doubt that his contributions were key to helping the Rays overcome the temporary loss of Carl Crawford.

• Having a rookie burst onto the scene to provide much needed spark. Running back Jerry Eckwood spent the first few weeks of 1979 running wild. The rookie out of Arkansas provided the spark that got the Bucs off to a 5-0 start. Evan Longoria seemingly came out of nowhere to provide the Rays with both power and speed at third base. In an amazing case of coincidence, both men had to overcome arm injuries that sidelined them for a brief spell.

• Having a veteran unselfishly sacrifice a position to accommodate the above rookie. Ricky Bell played an awful lot of fullback during the first month of the 1979 season with Eckwood at tailback. While he still would start at tailback, Bell would repeatedly act as a blocker for Eckwood. On more than a few occasions, Bell would even leave the field to have Eckwood take over primary ball-carrying duties. A team-first leader, Bell gladly went along for the good of the team.

When Eckwood was injured, Bell re-established himself at tailback and had his greatest year as a pro. Akinori Iwamura was a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman for the Rays in 2007. When Longoria was called up, Iwamura dutifully moved to second base and became a Gold Glove-caliber player at that position. In fact, Iwamura practiced a great deal of second base over the off-season because he knew the team was thinking of bringing in Longoria. The “team-first” attitude of Iwamura went a long way to bringing the Rays to the brink of a World Series.

• Having a superstar enjoy a playoff run after years of loyal service to a bad franchise. Lee Roy Selmon had a coming out party in 1979. Earning a Pro Bowl berth and NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors were nice, but Lee Roy mostly enjoyed the chance to shine on the game’s brightest stage. Similarly, Carl Crawford has been a stellar player for the Rays for years. While his 2008 season has been sub-par by his standards, Crawford is now getting a chance to show the nation the speed, power and fielding ability that Tampa Bay has known about for years. I feel best for Crawford as most Buc fans felt best for Lee Roy in 1979.

• Having the confidence to overcome a mid-season and late-season dry spell. The Bucs raced out to a 5-0 record and then lost some games they shouldn’t have. They recovered only to lose three in a row during a late season swoon. With the country writing them off, the Bucs won their final game and then knocked off a powerful Philadelphia Eagle team in the first round of the playoffs.

The Rays raced out to a hot start but then lost eight in a row before the All-Star break, calling their ability into question. The Rays recovered but then had a losing record in September that led many to claim they backed into the playoffs. The Rays then knocked off a powerful Chicago White Sox team and displayed a mental toughness in doing so.

It is certainly my hope that the Rays will go further than the 1979 Bucs did. But if they do fall short of a World Series berth I have no doubt that this group of ball players will eventually become as beloved as McKay’s Men did. LET’S GO RAYS!