Rays are an organization to be emulated
We could sum up the difference between baseball now and baseball in the last decade of the 20th century with just four words:
"The Tampa Bay Rays."
This club is the standard-bearer for baseball's increase in competitive balance. After a decade of futility in which this team finished in last place nine times, averaging about 97 defeats per season, the Rays have transformed themselves into one of baseball's elite teams.
They have reached the postseason in three out of the last four years. They have won two division titles, one American League pennant and had a World Series appearance. They cannot be the Yankees when it comes to generating revenue, so they have relied on tried and true baseball values, becoming a model franchise in the areas of scouting and player development.
Even when they were forced to cut salary after the 2010 season and suffered serious personnel losses, the Rays were good enough, diligent enough, astute enough, and loaded with enough outstanding, home-grown starting pitching to still win the AL Wild card berth in 2011.
The Rays have become the only team in Major League history to average 90-plus victories over four consecutive seasons after having 10 straight losing seasons.
All of this was brought to mind Monday when Rays manager Joe Maddon won his 500th game, a 1-0 decision over the Red Sox. Maddon won 368 games over the last four seasons alone, and was named AL Manager of the Year in 2008, the Rays' World Series season.
Maddon, who has been the Rays' manager since 2006, was suitably and typically modest about his role in the emergence of this team.
"It really speaks to the quality of the players in the organization, whereas the first couple of years spoke to the lack of quality," Maddon said. "All of a sudden it got better in year three. I just happened to be standing in the corner of the dugout.
"It's just the ability, the skill level, the way this group cares. All that stuff has really increased on an annual basis. So the 500 wins, I'm just happy to be the steward of this group and I've reaped the benefits of their play.
"Better baseball players make you a lot smarter."
It is not all roses in for this operation. The Rays, stuck with a stadium that has not become a popular destination point, have not been able to consistently draw the kind of crowds that their performance on the field would merit.
The Rays need a new ballpark to generate the kinds of revenues that would give them long-term financial viability. What this franchise has accomplished becomes all the more remarkable in light of the fact that its core revenue problem remains unresolved.
But on the field, this franchise has managed to overcome its built-in disadvantages and become, not just competitive, but one of baseball's best organizations. It is a role model for teams that cannot match the resources of the large-market clubs, but have to compete directly against those clubs, anyway.
"I've said it before: This is the best place in the Major Leagues to be as a manager, and I really believe we've become a destination spot for the players," Maddon said. "I know we don't pay the most money, but as a place to participate and as a place to grow and feel free as a Major Leaguer to take your game to the field, I think it's a great place to play."
The record continues to support that kind of comment. The Tampa Bay Rays stand on their own merits as an organization that has overcome long odds. But in a larger sense, they also represent the increased competitive balance that has made baseball a healthier sport.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.