Winning spring changed Rays' fortunes forever
New name, attitude made organization winner after 10 years
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- As the Rays prepare to embark on the regular season, it was only four years ago they began their remarkable turnaround after 10 consecutive losing seasons.
The 2008 Grapefruit League champions suited up in Baltimore on March 31, 2008, to try and continue what they had begun in February.
Getting the regular season started on a high note meant everything to the Tampa Bay Rays, an organization that didn't have a winning season since beginning to compete in the American League East in 1998.
Leaving Florida with more wins (18) than the other clubs is a lightly regarded feat among most Major League teams, but for the 2008 Rays, they were looking to find some solid footing. They did not have the luxury of having a cavalier attitude toward winning and losing during Spring Training.
Although the Rays went 66-96 in 2007, there was a positive vibe throughout the organization after the season ended. Heading into '08, they had plenty of young players returning for the organization's initial campaign as the Rays instead of the Devil Rays, and a uniform change coincided with the transition.
W: Rodney (1-0) L: Rivera (0-1)
"I knew we had a pretty good squad," James Shields said. "The year before we lost 90-something games, but I thought we had a really good team, a really good pitching staff. We had some good vibes that spring.
"That Spring Training was completely different than all the other Spring Trainings I'd been at, because [manager] Joe [Maddon] said we're going to change it around that year. We led the Grapefruit League that year, which I thought was huge, because we had been losers."
Maddon wanted to build momentum during Spring Training to try and give his team an additional boost heading into the regular season.
"I thought it was imperative that we started well," Maddon said. "At that point, we were trying to establish ourselves as a force within this division. I thought to go out there and get behind Boston and New York with any kind of sizeable disadvantage, it's really hard."
Carlos Pena, who had been an integral part of the team's growth in 2007 by establishing club records with 46 home runs and 121 RBIs, remembered the atmosphere heading into the '08 season.
"[Winning in Spring Training] was very important," Pena said. "Especially the way we finished the year before, because we thought we finished on somewhat a positive note. So we came into Spring Training and we wanted to make sure there was no on and off switch.
"We wanted to get it going in Spring Training, so we just stayed consistent with our style of play in the spring, hoping to keep that style of play throughout the year. We took it seriously, basically setting our rhythm and our style of play."
On that fateful March afternoon, Shields started opposite Jeremy Guthrie at Camden Yards.
"That was my first Opening Day start," said Shields, who will make his fourth Opening Day start on April 6. "It was in Camden Yards. I was really nervous that day, anxious and I wanted to get going. I was ready to start the season off well. We all were."
A crowd of 46,807 huddled to stay dry in the drizzle that accompanied the 55 degree temperature at the beginning of the game.
Hitting second in the Rays' lineup, Carl Crawford stroked a single in the first to account for Tampa Bay's first hit of the season. One out later, the speedster stole second to put himself into scoring position. B.J. Upton then flew out to deep right field to end the threat.
In the Orioles' half of the first, Shields walked leadoff hitter Brian Roberts, offering a familiar vibe to Rays fans. Over the years, they had seen the team lose in more ways than an imagination could create. Nick Markakis then singled with one out in advance of Roberts and Markakis pulling off a double-steal. Kevin Millar drove home both runners with a double to left to put the Orioles up 2-0.
Had all the good work during the Grapefruit League been for naught?
Fortunately for the Rays, Shields didn't get rattled and followed the two-run first with six zeroes. The offense awoke in the third with a little help from third baseman Melvin Mora's error that allowed Crawford to reach and Dioner Navarro to score Tampa Bay's first run. Upton added a two-run single for a 3-2 lead.
Eric Hinske hit a solo home run in the fourth, and Navarro and Jason Bartlett had RBI singles in the sixth to put the Rays up 6-2.
Trever Miller, Al Reyes and Dan Wheeler shut down the Orioles in the final two innings, and just like that, the 2008 Grapefruit League champions were 1-0 in the standings.
"We obviously wanted to get a win and we got it," Shields said. "So that was special."
The Rays followed their 1-0 March with a 14-12 record in April and a 19-10 mark in May, validating the beliefs that began in Spring Training. The Rays were well on their way to their first AL East title, first trip to the playoffs and first World Series appearance.
"That win was important," Pena said. "How do you get validation? You have to do it. In the process of doing it, you start getting your confidence. You believe. You set forth your intentions, your dreams, your goals, your visions, but then in the doing, the everyday grind, the everyday doing, the everyday thinking that all of a sudden it starts to materialize."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.