Updated at: 10/04/2013 7:35 PM
By PAUL NEWBERRY
They play in a lopsided dome from a best-forgotten era in stadium construction.
Their payroll is a throwback, too, hardly suited to go against teams willing to spend what it takes to run a small country.
And fans? The good folks along Florida’s Gulf Coast clearly prefer the Early Bird Special to a day at the ballpark.
None of that matters. The Tampa Bay Rays are the best franchise in all of sports.
For the last six years, the Rays have defied all logic, putting together one winning team after another for a fraction of what it costs the big-money clubs.
Here we are in October, and the Rays are still alive despite a payroll that ranked 28th out of 30 teams on opening day. They won three straight elimination games in three different cities _ the regular-season finale at Toronto, a tiebreaker at Texas, the wild-card game at Cleveland _ to advance to the AL division series against the Boston Red Sox, a franchise that has everything the Rays don’t.
A proud history and glorious ballpark. Raucous fans and a lot of money.
Tampa Bay didn’t even join the big leagues until 1998, and the actual coming-out was delayed another decade, when they dropped "Devil" from their nickname and became the plain ol’ Rays.
It may have seemed like divine intervention when they suddenly became one of baseball’s biggest winners, but the credit actually goes to financial analyst-turned-GM Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon.
The Rays rely on a deep farm system, wily trades and under-the radar signings to keep up with the big guys. This season, they traded a couple of starting pitchers for Wil Myers, a star in the making despite his outfield snafu in Friday’s 12-2 loss to Boston in Game 1 at Fenway Park. They filled the gaps in their rotation with Alex Cobb and Chris Archer. They signed first baseman James Loney on the cheap. Just as important, they made no effort to re-sign B.J. Upton, who landed in Atlanta for $75 million and had one of the worst seasons ever by a big-money free agent.
While it was the Oakland Athletics who launched "Moneyball," and still play that game about as well as anyone, the Rays perfected it. They had to, given they play in the AL East, a division where the New York Yankees always dole out an obscene amount of money and the Red Sox are nearly as loose with their checkbook.
The Yankees started this season with a payroll of more than $230 million. The Red Sox were fourth-highest at nearly $158 million. The Rays spent just over $59 million.
Of course, they don’t keep score with dollar signs.
While Boston pulled away to win the division title, the Rays claimed a wild card. The Yankees are watching the postseason at home.
"The guys that we get," ace David Price said before Friday’s game, "they want to be here. They might take a little bit less money to come play for the Rays, to come play for Joe Maddon and be a part of our family."
The us-against-the-world mentality is more a necessity than a motivational tool.
There are surely times when the Rays must wonder if anyone cares about them. The push to build a new stadium in St. Petersburg has gone nowhere, leaving the team stuck at hideous Tropicana Field, where scaffolding hanging from the roof is part of the ground rules. The locals have shown no inclination to show up, no matter how many games the Rays win. This season they ranked dead last in attendance at just 18,000 per game.
What a pity. Since the start of 2008, the Rays have 550 regular-season victories _ more than any team but the Yankees (564). Tampa Bay has put together six straight winning seasons during that span, a distinction shared only by the Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals. Four trips to the playoffs are matched only by Yankees, Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies.
How much bang does Tampa Bay get for its buck? The Yankees have spent more than $1.2 billion on salaries over the last six seasons _ which averages out to about $2.2 million per win. The Rays have spent a total of around $350 million _ an average of $627,000 per win.
Maddon believes stricter drug testing has leveled the playing field, making it possible for small-market teams such as Tampa Bay, Oakland and Pittsburgh to all make the playoffs this season.
"To me, the money is important for the middle range guy, not necessarily like the guy that’s going to get the 200 or 300 million bucks," he says. "I’m not worried about those guys. It’s the guys that get lost in between, maybe the guy that makes 12 million over three years or 15 million over three."
If those players were putting up chemically enhanced numbers, the Rays would have no chance of landing them.
Now, they’re in play.
A personal note: We took our then 8-year-old son to a game at the Trop in 2007, and he declared the Rays his favorite team (basically because of the tank beyond the right-center wall where you can touch actual rays).
I jokingly promised to take him to a World Series game if they ever made it that far. The next year, they stunningly did.
Today, our high schooler doesn’t care much about baseball anymore.
But he was right on the mark about the Rays.
Paul Newberry in a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
AP Sports Writer Howard Ulman in Boston contributed to this column.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)