They gathered in front of the dugout, doing the familiar embrace of victors.
And in the first moments of a celebration, with their joy evident and their jerseys removed, they were almost indistinguishable from each other.
When you think about it, that is precisely how the 2020 Tampa Bay Rays should always be remembered. Arm in arm, side by side, forever moving in unison.
For if there was one characteristic that defined the Rays more than any other it was that they were always better together.
So, yes, the franchise without stars, without money and without pretense, finally has something in its possession that will set it apart from every other team in this year of a worldwide pandemic:
The American League pennant.
Live it up Tampa Bay, just 19 days after the Lightning won the Stanley Cup your Rays are going to the World Series. They withstood one of the most furious comebacks in postseason history to beat the Astros 4-2 in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series Saturday night.
And even their near collapse eventually revealed the special quality of this group:
The Rays are the first team in MLB history to blow a 3-0 series lead and still come back to win in seven games.
It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t without moments of panic. For the second game in a row, manager Kevin Cash pulled a starting pitcher with a shutout going in the middle innings. In Game 6 with Blake Snell, it was justified but didn’t work. In Game 7 with Charlie Morton, it was mystifying but managed to end happily.
And, as if on cue with this team, the offensive stars were a pair of guys who were on no one’s radar barely a month ago. Randy Arozarena, who wasn’t on the active roster in late August, hit his seventh home run of the postseason in the first inning, and catcher Mike Zunino, who hit .147 with four home runs in the regular season, hit his fourth homer of the postseason, along with a sacrifice fly.
In a world of narcissism, social media and reality stars, these guys bring an old-style charm to the game. They put trust above ego, and winning above individual achievement.
There is absolutely nothing business-like about them except for their results. It’s like taking the best Little League team you’ve ever seen and fast-forwarding past the egos and riches to come up with a team that seems to understand the joy of a child’s game.
Kevin Kiermaier? Class president. Willy Adames? Mr. Congeniality. Ji-Man Choi? Class clown. Their hitters willingly share playing time and their relievers swap save opportunities.
“We’re not playing just for ourselves and our family and friends,” Kiermaier said. “We’re playing for our community, all the Rays fans out there. We want to take that final leap into playing on that biggest stage of the year.”
You love them if you’re a baseball fan because you appreciate their style of play. And you love them if you’re not a baseball fan because they play with style.
They’re an odd group by MLB standards. No major stars, but no obvious weaknesses. The defense is excellent, the pitching deep and the hitting is just good enough. They win with balance, they win by attrition.
There hasn’t been a team like this in the World Series since, well, since the Rays in 2008.
That’s not a joke. The 2008 Rays were 29th in payroll, the lowest of any World Series team since free agency arrived in the mid-1970s. These Rays are 28th in payroll which, naturally, would be the second lowest for any World Series team.
Everything we supposedly hate about Tampa Bay’s financial restraints should be everything we love about this team. They aren’t here because they’re being paid like mercenaries. A lot of them are here because no one else wanted them.
Choi was designated for assignment by three different teams. So were John Curtiss and Aaron Slegers. Mike Brosseau wasn’t drafted, Aaron Loup had his contract bought out by the Padres and Joey Wendle was removed from Oakland’s 40-man roster.
There isn’t a Mike Trout or a Justin Verlander in the bunch.
Yet they beat the fancy pants Yankees and the resilient Astros.
Team MVP Brandon Lowe was 6-for-52 for a .115 average. And it didn’t matter. Their starting pitchers have barely seen the sixth inning in the past two weeks. And it didn’t matter.
The world will say this was the night the good guys won. That may be the proper conclusion, but it will be for the wrong reasoning.
A year-old cheating scandal has made the Astros baseball’s favorite whipping boys, and it set the Rays up as the guys in white hats. And that’s fine. It’s a clean, simple storyline that everyone can comprehend.
But you’ll know better. You’ve watched these guys play, you’ve watched them grow. You see them for who they are.
A lot of pretty good ballplayers who came together to become the American League’s best team.