A Prayer for the Tampa Bay Rays
Sure, Cubs supporters have been suffering longer, but Rays fans have it much, much worse.
Throw a rock in Chicagoland these days, and you're liable to hit a mourning Cubs fan who's old enough to remember Gabby Hartnett's spry youth. "All of a sudden, I was sitting here, sobbing," 89-year-old Edith Konya told the South Bend Tribune, describing her mental state after the Cubs lost the second game of the National League Division Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers. If Edith and other aged Cubs fans are in need of comfort this week, they can consult with 96-year-old Inez Rishworth, 104-year-old Leo Hildebrand, 100-year-old Speedy Iavarone, and 100-year-old Richard Savage, all of whose long sufferings were chronicled in the papers this year.
With Boston's sudden surge to the baseball elite, Cubs supporters have become the poster centenarians for baseball's oldest cliché: long-suffering fandom. In baseball, more than any other sport, a long history of losing is seen as a prerequisite for winning. The Milwaukee Brewers, wrote George Vecsey last week, "have no right to win the World Series when it is so obvious that this is the perfect year for the Cubs to repair the slips and slights and full-fledged calamities of the past century." The Brewers, you see, have existed only since 1970, meaning their oldest fans have been without a championship for less than four decades. Considering that attitude, one would expect that Vecsey would pay the Tampa Bay Rays even less respect, and one would be right; he dismisses them as being in the line of the Florida Marlins and the Arizona Diamondbacks, "arrivistes" who "should have joined the queue."
Enough is enough: The poor, beleaguered Rays fan deserves a defense. The mistake here isn't to sneer at expansion teams—to be uncomfortable with a team whose color scheme involves teal or magenta hoisting a World Series trophy is just to be a baseball fan. Rather, it's to regard duration, rather than intensity, as the proper measure of baseball suffering. By a standard that holds that a team deserves to win in proportion to what it's endured, the Rays have as great a right to a trophy as anyone else. Cheering for the Cubs is like carrying on with a rotten tooth; cheering for the Rays has, until this year, been like being stabbed in the face repeatedly with a butter knife.
Consider the plight of the Tampa Bay baseball fan. For pretty much the entire 20th century, he didn't even have a team. If you don't count that as suffering, consider that in the 1980s and 1990s, his city was regularly used as a means to extort other baseball-having cities into building new stadiums—the Twins, White Sox, Rangers, Mariners, and Giants all teased Floridian fans with threats to move to Tampa/St. Petersburg, but none of those deals came to pass. When Tampa did finally get a team in 1998, they instantly became the worst franchise in baseball—and perhaps in all of American pro sports.
Since 1998, the Cubs fan has watched his team play in October four times; the Rays fan has watched his lose 90 games 10 times. While the Cubs fan has taken in games at Wrigley Field, the finest park in the major leagues, the Rays fan has trudged into Tropicana Field, the only park in baseball whose ground rules distinguish between four possible calls that can be made on balls that strike one of several catwalks suspended over the field. ("Batted ball that is not judged a home run and remains on a catwalk, light or suspended object: Two Bases.") Cubs right fielder Sammy Sosa hit 129 home runs in 1998 and 1999; former Rays right fielder Aubrey Huff is the team's career leader with 128. On a given game night there are probably 8,000 Cubs fans drinking on Clark Street; the Rays could muster only 8,000 fans to a recent rally celebrating their epic ascent to the postseason.