Sixty-six wins, 96 losses. That was the story for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2007, a team that finished with the worst record in not only the American League, but in all of baseball.
Coming off their third straight last place finish in 2007, the franchise's future was grim in an uninviting American League East that boasts the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. A dilapidated fan base only added to the woes of the Rays, whose small-budget franchise sat on the heels of bankruptcy.
But with 2008 came a new outlook on the game with newly acquired talent in veteran Cliff Floyd, pitcher Matt Garza and rookie third baseman Evan Longoria. Rays manager Joe Maddon instilled in his players a work ethic which was unmatched by any team in baseball in an era of eight-figure salaries.
Maddon's approach was simple: know your role as a team player, execute it, and put everything you have on the line every game. With a team payroll of only $46 million, however, all 30 players on the Rays opening day roster combined to earn only a fraction more than that of Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who made $28 million alone.
With other rosters boasting high profile, highly paid players, the question remained: Could such a low budget franchise be competitive?
Two months into the season, it looked possible - the Rays were atop the AL East for the first time in franchise history and it appeared their hard work was paying off. As the season continued, highlight reels displayed the Rays' all-too-rare qualities of hard work, hustle, and determination.
The unwavering resilience of the Rays brought the team from worst to first place as they finished in the AL East with a 97-65 record.
The Rays have continued their success in the postseason. They ended the playoff hopes of the Chicago White Sox with ease, while knocking off the Boston Red Sox in a hard fought, seven game series.
The Rays now focus on the Philadelphia Phillies as their final obstacle en rout to a World Series crown; an accomplishment that would complete the deliverance of a franchise from a harsh past that has never before put together a winning season. My pick? The Rays will win the series in six.