Far worse than any of this, though, is the dignity gap. To be a Cubs loyalist is to assume a certain air of nobility. Watching the best lineup in the National League score six runs in three games against a Dodgers team that finished the year four games above .500 is wretched, but it's also a historic event—another line in the team's glorious record of losing. While the Cubs fan has the pity of national baseball writers and the consolation of a fraternity of similarly deluded millions, Rays fans are seen as a possibly spectral phenomenon. Dick Vitale is the team's only celebrity fan; a great proportion of the typical Rays crowd shows up wearing a Manny Ramirez or Derek Jeter shirt. In enemy territory, even at home in Florida—that's the life of a Rays fan.
The Rays fan's agonies are considered, if they're considered at all, to be a fitting reward for poor taste. He has attended games at a park featuring fake grass and an aquarium in right field. He has watched his team run up one of the 10 highest payrolls in baseball while running the powdered remnants of Dwight Gooden and Jose Canseco into the field. He has even bought and proudly sported teal jerseys festooned with fish. But so far as the broader baseball-loving world is concerned, all those evenings spent perched next to the radio living and dying with each Ryan Rupe start don't count at all.
If you think that Rays fans don't understand pain, just take a look at the club's history with outfield prospects. Rocco Baldelli, the Rays' first-round pick in 2000, somehow contracted a mysterious disease that makes his "muscles stop working." Delmon Young, the top overall pick in the 2003 draft, became famous for throwing a bat at an umpire in a minor league game. Elijah Dukes, a 2002 third-rounder, made his name last year by texting his wife a picture of a gun and leaving her a voice mail that started out: "Hey, dawg. It's on, dawg. You dead, dawg." (Both Young and Dukes now play for other teams.) And then, of course, there's Josh Hamilton, whom the Rays picked over Boston ace Josh Beckett with the first overall pick of the 1999 draft. After establishing himself as a top prospect, Hamilton went on a yearslong crack binge and played all of 98 games in Tampa Bay's minor league system from 2001 through 2006. After straightening out and being snared away in the 2006 Rule 5 draft, he promptly had two years that wouldn't look out of place in Ken Griffey Jr.'s prime.
I could go on here—did I mention Toe Nash? or that the Rays took a 23-year-old Bobby Abreu in the 1997 expansion draft and then traded him for Kevin Stocker?—but the point is that this is a history of unmitigated disaster, with a sprinkle of soul-searing catastrophe mixed in. I still maintain that the team that deserves to win the World Series is the one that wins 11 games in October, but if we're going to invoke any criteria that involve shame and misery, the Rays have a compelling claim. A goat, a black cat, and a Steve Bartman game are awful. A Steve Bartman game every day for 10 years—unrelieved by any such amenities as playing your home games in the most beautiful city in America, being consistently good, or having an owner willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over two winters—is worse.
Those who know it best are doubtless those elderly Floridians who, like their Chicago brethren, have been waiting their entire lives for a World Series victory. Given demographic reality, there has to be at least one Tampa centenarian whose last, burning ambition is to see a flag raised over the Trop. Do it for him, Rays. You owe him.