Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Why I'm Rooting for the Rays

I was talking to a fellow Yankee fan the other night, and we were discussing the ALCS. I mentioned that I was cheering for the Rays to win it all this year, and the answer I got back was "I hear you. I root for two teams: the Yankees and whoever is playing the Red Sox." It got me thinking, because that wasn't what I was feeling. The moment the Yankees were eliminated, my loyalties shifted to the Rays. It would have been that way if the Angels had beaten the Sox in the ALDS, and it'll continue to be that way if the Bostonians pull some of their 2004 voodoo to dig themselves out of the 3-1 hole they're in in this series. The Rays are the postseason for me now.

It's not that the other contenders to the crown don't have legitimate claims. The Phils have more history and longer-suffering fans. The Dodgers have Joe Torre, and all the warm feelings I have for him and his coaches, particularly (sigh) Donnie Baseball. The Red Sox have...well, my respect, at the very least. They're all good teams, and the Sox are possibly a great team. But my pick, for reasons more emotional than logical.

It's because they play in the toughest division in baseball. Because they've built their team intelligently, and a couple of my former Baseball Prospectus colleagues (Chaim Bloom and James Click) have helped them do it. Because their fans range from displaced Expos loyalists to Cubs fans who've been kicked in the cojones by their team a few too many times. Because, basically on a lark, I wrote an article in 2007 (which I mentioned in this space) about how the Rays could win it all, back when that prospect wasn't even a twinkle in PECOTA's eye. Now I want to see it become reality.

And because, with the Rays being a rising power in the AL East, the sooner they win it all, the sooner complacency and bad decision making will set in, hopefully derailing the whole venture before the Yanks spend the rest of the decade sucking their exhaust in the standings. Hey, just 'cause I'm on your side for one postseason, doesn't mean I'm not still a Yankee fan.


Sadly for Donnie Baseball, the Phils also hold a 3-1 lead in the NLCS against the Dodgers. Joe Torre's team had an excellent chance to even the series in Game Four, until Torre's uncertain management of the bullpen in the eighth inning opened the door for Charlie Manuel's squad. As manager of the Yankees, Torre was a good postseason bullpen manager, because he knew that he had one guy (Mariano Rivera) who was much better than everyone else in the 'pen, and possibly the whole staff. Torre was never afraid to extend Rivera to multiple innings, where needed, in pursuit of those World Series rings. In Monday's game, Torre had an opportunity where he probably should have used his closer Jonathan Broxton, the way he used Rivera back in the day. Instead, the Phils tied the game against setup man Cory Wade, and won the game on a two-run homer by the Power Hamster, Matt Stairs, against a closing-the-barn-door-after-the-horse-is-gone Broxton.

Again, while the Dodgers being in the playoffs while the Yanks cool their heels at home will invite comparisons between Torre and Joe Girardi, there should be caveats. Torre was always a better big picture manager than a strategic one: his big achievement as a Yankee was helping to professionalize the organization, so that things didn't degenerate into chaos the second that anyone experienced adversity. More importantly, the decision on who would manage the Yankees in 2008 was never really between Torre and Girardi. It was between Torre and Torre--whether to continue the then-current administration. Then, when the Yankees wouldn't come to terms with Torre, it was between Girardi and Mattingly (and a few other interviewees who never really seemed to be in the picture). So the question isn't whether Girardi is better than Torre--I doubt even Girardi himself would claim that to be the case--but whether Mattingly would have handled the Yankees better than Joe did. Given the personal problems that delayed the start of Donnie Baseball's coaching career with the Dodgers, the short-term answer was likely no. The long-term answer...I don't know. What do you think?