The wins came at them last season the way lovebugs come at your windshield on a back road. Whap. Whap. Whap
Seven games above .500 in May.
Ten games above .500. Twenty games. Thirty.
All the way to a team-record 97 victories for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Nearly all were celebrated.
“It was as if every win was a milestone,” first baseman Carlos Peña said.
Um, Carlos? That’s because they were.
Not this year, Peña said.
This year, he said, the victories will be like the mile markers along the side of the interstate, numbers you hardly notice as you near your exit.
The exit, of course, is the World Series.
“That’s the only milestone,” Peña said.
The Rays open their home season tonight against the New York Yankees at sold-out Tropicana Field. Win or lose, it will be a milestone evening.
Before the game, a 2008 American League pennant and a 2008 American League East championship banner will be lifted toward the catwalks.
A pennant for the Rays.
Who really thought one would hang in the climate-controlled air at the Trop?
This is the most significant home opener in team history and will be until the day the Rays are introduced as World Series champions.
That inaugural game back on March 31, 1998? Significant at the time, yes, but you knew once Tampa Bay had been awarded a franchise they would eventually play a game.
There was a lot of hype surrounding the 2003 season opener played at the Trop. Lou Piniella had come home to turn the fortunes of the local team. Rocco Baldelli, the center fielder of the future, was in center field. Carl Crawford sent Rays fans happily into the night with a walk-off home run against the Boston Red Sox.
That vibe didn’t last long, did it?
The 2008 home opener against the Seattle Mariners had a good feel to it. You knew the Rays were going to be a better team. Of course, we didn’t know they would be historically better for another few months.
Then Matt Garza grabbed his arm and was removed because of an injury, and the Rays lost.
See, you can’t really tell much off one game.
They have been raising pennants around baseball since baseball began.
They have raised them in places like Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park and, yes, even Wrigley Field.
The Florida Marlins raised a couple pennants. So have the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies and Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates and San Diego Padres.
Every team has raised a league championship banner except the Mariners, Texas Rangers and Washington Nationals.
Some were expected. Some were believed to be possible when the season began. Some, like the AL pennant being raised tonight, are filed under “W” for “WOW.”
This is a significant night in Rays history, as significant as the first game of all three postseason series last October. The banners represent possibilities; what can be achieved with a little ingenuity, good pitching and solid defense.
It’s a sign of hope to fans in Pittsburgh and Baltimore and Kansas City.
And it’s a sign of hope to fans in Tampa Bay.
They did it once. They can do it again. Right?