Are the Rays bad for baseball?


Like it or not, the Tampa Bay Rays will be in attendance for Tuesday night’s World Series opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers. And it seems many in the sports media field don’t particularly like it. The Rays are no doubt a different breed, a small-market club with a shoestring budget and few discernible stars. But what the Rays lack in household names and celebrity fans, they more than make up for in innovation, transforming the league’s approach to defense and bullpens.

Tampa Bay versus Los Angeles is the David and Goliath showdown baseball has long been waiting for, pitting the scrappy, relentlessly resourceful Rays against their polar opposite, a star-driven Dodgers squad comprised of A-listers Mookie Betts, Clayton Kershaw and Cody Bellinger (all former MVPs). This is Mercedes against Subaru, James Cameron versus the Duplass Brothers.

The Rays, who dispatched the Yankees and Astros (first and fourth respectively in payroll) en route to their second American League pennant and first since 2008, should inspire hope for every underdog, every would-be giant slayer with dreams of shocking the world. But apparently famous curmudgeon Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe doesn’t see it that way.

Shaughnessy calling the Rays “loathsome” could be his Red Sox bias showing—they do play in the same division (the AL East) after all. But the veteran columnist’s thinly-veiled Rays hatred runs deeper than that. Shaughnessy’s beef isn’t with the Rays players themselves but rather what they’re doing to the sport he holds near and dear, embracing quirks like openers and four-man outfields. “I hate them because they are run by analytics guys. They play spreadsheet baseball,” the 67-year-old remarked in a column published earlier this week. “Tampa’s geek-driven hedge-funders had me rooting for the cheatin’ Astros.”

Shaughnessy made it abundantly clear who he’ll be pulling for in the Fall Classic. “The Rays are good for parity. They are good for small markets. They are good for truth, justice, and the American way. But they are bad for baseball,” wrote Shaughnessy while further acknowledging that a Dodgers triumph would “put a dent in the game-killing Rays’ way.”

Some of Shaughnessy’s criticisms are valid. This year’s World Series likely won’t break any ratings records and the Rays’ reliance on the game’s three true outcomes—strikeouts, walks and home runs—doesn’t make for the sexiest brand of baseball. Tampa Bay’s lack of continuity (Shaughnessy notes only five Rays remain from their 2017 roster) can also be a drain on fans while Shaughnessy’s assertion that breakout star Randy Arozarena, who was just crowned MVP for his performance in the American League Championship Series, will have to leave the organization for his big payday is probably accurate.

Similarly, the longtime Globe scribe decries the Red Sox, who recently hired former Rays exec Chaim Bloom as their new Chief Baseball Officer, for trying to be “Tampa Bay by the Charles.” “Go Dodgers,” he writes. “The innovative, soul-sucking, smarter-than-you-are Rays will only move us one step closer to the death of baseball.”

Shaughnessy’s Rays venom may seem like the usual “get-off-my-lawn” grumblings of a baseball purist resistant to new ideas like launch angles and infield shifts, but he’s not the only one turned off by Tampa Bay’s disruptive, death-by-a-thousand-cuts (or 1,000 relievers) MO. Bill Thompson, who penned “The Aesthetic of the Rays” for SB Nation, offered many of the same critiques, questioning the sustainability of Tampa’s unusual approach.

“The way the Rays use their pitchers slows down the game and it stops fans from forming any sort of attachment with the never-ending cavalcade of pitchers the Rays use on a daily basis. This isn’t a problem for hardcore fans, but it is a major issue for casual fans who want and need recognizable faces to draw them back,” argues Thompson, who also accuses the Rays of being “cheap” and treating players as disposable parts. “The players are nothing more than prototype player X fitted into his slot this year only to be replaced by a cheaper version of prototype player X in 2021 and on down the line.”

So the Rays use a lot of pitchers? So their best player is a 25-year-old rookie most people had never heard of until two weeks ago? So Dick Vitale is their only well-known fan and their home games are held in a cavernous, concrete relic that should have been leveled years ago? Can’t we, for once, give credit where credit is due, admiring the Rays for toppling the Yankees and Astros’ evil empires, figuring out a way to win with smoke and mirrors while others insist on throwing money at their problems?

Maybe the Rays aren’t your go-to watch on MLB Extra Innings and maybe you can’t name their closer (spoiler: they have several). But after posting the AL’s best regular-season record and then finishing the job with series victories over the Blue Jays, Yankees and Astros, haven’t they at least earned your respect? Three-time Cy Young winner and first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Jim Palmer (as quoted by Shaughnessy) may have put it best when he said, “The Rays are overachievers, closely-knit, hungry underdogs and they are fueled by exactly what bugs you—winning boring.”

The Rays may be boring to some, but I’m not ready to make the leap that they’re “ruining” baseball just because they’ve chosen to evolve when other teams, including 28 who will be watching Tuesday’s Game 1 from their living room couch, haven’t.

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