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10/20/08 4:01 AM EST

Rays: 7 wonders of the World Series

Tampa Bay completes unprecedented turnaround

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays didn't simply win the American League Championship Series. They stole it.

The 2008 World Series will have a "St. Petersburg" dateline. The last time such a seismic event happened in St. Petersburg, the Russians changed the city's name to Leningrad.

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Anyone in favor of Garzagrad?

By surviving the most unstoppable force in baseball -- the Red Sox charging from behind in an ALCS -- the Rays raised the bar for miracle turnarounds not only in baseball, but in American sports.

We're not talking just numbers, although their total of 104 season-plus-playoffs victories represent a quantum leap of 37 over 2007, a Major League record topping the 36-game improvement by the 1946 Red Sox, appropriately.

But plateaus, from the very bottom to the very top.

As Spring Training dawned, respectable Las Vegas oddsmakers' World Series list had the Rays at the bottom at 200-1.

From the Majors' worst record one year to the World Series the next -- it has happened only once, but when there were four fewer teams to "bottom" out. By taking this giant leap, the Rays provided tangible proof of what many had already felt, that their breakout from a 10-year morass was unprecedented.

In MLB's rapidly-spinning neo-world, four previous World Series participants had been worst in their divisions the prior season. But only one -- the 1991 Atlanta Braves -- reached the Biggest Stage the year after having the Majors' worst record.

And in North America's three other major sports leagues, only three of the 36 NFL, NBA and NHL teams to reach the playoffs the season after having the worst record made it to the ultimate event. One of them was the 1958-59 Minneapolis Lakers, who reached the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Boston Celtics.

Minneapolis? The Twins in 1991 became the only team to win the World Series following a last-place finish. Boston? Tampa Bay just took care of that.

Karma, anyone?

It was almost as if, in the court of public opinion, the haughty Boston Red Sox got to appeal their AL East conviction. And the verdict returned again was: "Not supreme."

Modern sports and culture condition us to stunning developments. We become jaded by miracles, whether it's an Eli Manning pass from the grave or a Hannah Montana franchise. In short, we've become darned hard to impress.

Last place to the Fall Classic
The Rays are the sixth team to go from last place to the World Series in consecutive seasons.
2008RaysFacing Phillies starting Wed.
2007RockiesLost to Red Sox, 4-0
1998PadresLost to Yankees, 4-0
1993PhilliesLost to Blue Jays, 4-2
1991TwinsBeat Braves, 4-3
1991BravesLost to Twins, 4-3

Thus, a heretofore sad-sack baseball outfit wins a division title, and we politely applaud and accord them proper historical perspective, then move on.

"We've seen your kind of act before," seems to be the overall reaction.

Aw, sorry ... but we had never seen anything even like the Rays' opening, regular-season act. Now the New Kings on the Block follow that up by dispatching two venerable AL franchises -- Sox, White and Red; any argyles out there? -- and their legend grows.

This isn't just magic by the Rays, but sorcery. Their starting point wasn't just bad, but worst. For 10 amusing years, the rest of baseball definitely laughed at, not with, them. Their peak was 22 games below .500.

Then they go out and win a title in arguably baseball's toughest division, the AL East. And they keep going, picking up steam.

In old Salem, people were brought up on witchcraft charges for a lot less.

The Rays keep winning fights they picked. Rather than sneak up on the Yankees and the Red Sox, they called both out early. Let sleeping dogs lie? The Rays turned on the vacuum next to their ears.

Early in Spring Training, Elliot Johnson leveled Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli and New York manager Joe Girardi said sarcastically, "He was playing hard. Great. That's just not the time to do it." A few days later, after a Grapefruit League reunion turned into a rematch highlighted by Johnny Gomes' takeout of Shelly Duncan, Reggie Jackson scoffed, "I don't even know who this guy Gomes is."

But the Rays had made their early point: We're gonna stay in your faces all season. And they made the same point to the defending champion Red Sox in an early June fracas at Fenway Park sparked by James Shields' pitch off Coco Crisp.

This isn't a defense of spikes-high slides or of blind-side tackles or of brushback pitches. But an endorsement of not being intimidated, and of confidence.

"I don't know," Carl Crawford said during the Rays' first of three champagne baths, "if people understand how big this is."

They don't. They can't. They have nothing to measure it against.

Rays join Fall Classic club
With their victory in the ALCS, the Rays became the 12th American League team to advance to the World Series. Only the Mariners and Rangers haven't won an American League pennant.
Blue Jays1992Won
Red Sox1903Won
White Sox1906Won

The nearest thing we've seen in baseball -- a team with a history for only ineptitude turning majestic -- came with a few "Yeah, buts ..."

The 1969 Mets won a World Series after averaging 105 losses in their first seven seasons ... yeah, but they'd climbed out of the National League cellar a couple of times; yeah, but in 1968 they were only the fifth-worst team in the Majors; yeah, but in '69 the game split into divisions, giving them a lower hill to climb; yeah, but it was an expansion season, and the Mets fattened up at a 24-6 rate against the new kids (the Padres and the Expos) ...

In 1999, the second-year Arizona Diamondbacks improved by 35 games to win the NL West ... after an offseason shopping spree for, among others, Randy Johnson, Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez.

The Rays' biggest get? A 37-year-old relief pitcher who had formally retired two years earlier. Whoop-de-doo. And who, due to injury, isn't even part of their postseason cast.

Troy Percival and his words of encouragement -- words that had the backing of his rich experience -- had an early effect on burying the old mind-set. That new attitude, in turn, enabled a series of early-season wins over tough foes and in difficult circumstances that fed the faith.

Joe Maddon knew well Percival's clubhouse presence, having spent all that time around him while an Angels coach. You suspect that was one of the main elements that moved the Rays manager to push for signing him.

Maddon needed someone who made him seem less nuts for talking so optimistically about the prospects of a team that had amassed 972 losses in its first decade. And Tony Robbins wasn't available.

While Maddon was committed to turning the Rays around, some of the Rays felt he should be committed, period.

"I was worried about him being so positive," admitted pitcher Andy Sonnanstine. "But positivity kind of ran through the clubhouse, and he's a very infectious person."

As underdogs tend to do in their hour of triumph, the Rays spoke of the satisfaction of having repeatedly overcome the doubts of the consensus.

The Rays are the second team in Major League history and just the fifth in the four major sports to advance to its league's championship series the year after having the worst record in the league. None has won a title.
Lge.YearTeamPrev. yr.Opp.
NHL'49-50Rangers18-31-11Red Wings
NHL'58-59Maple Leafs21-38-11Canadiens
What was there not to doubt?

When the Rays reached a record of 14-11 on April 27, it represented a franchise high-water mark that "deep" into the season.

At 21-16 on May 11, they found themselves five games above .500 for the first time in their history.

It went on from there, through tribulations and obstacles, physical as well as emotional. The Rays had plenty of convenient excuses to fold, and rejected every one of them.

None was as opportune as a seventh consecutive loss that dropped Tampa Bay into second place on July 13 -- the final day of the pre-All-Star-break schedule, which gave people a four-day license to riff on the Rays' coming fade.

The Rays climbed back on top with a 2-1 win over Toronto out of the second-half gate, and never slipped again.

When they were one misstep from doing so, Dan Johnson took Jonathan Papelbon into the dark Boston night. Six months after Elliot Johnson had inadvertently set the tone.

And a month before David Price finished the job.

The baseball gods, too, work in mysterious ways.

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