By ROGER MOONEY
The banners were lifted to the catwalk at 7:10 on Monday night with the help of the Joint Communications Support Element from McDill Air Force Base. There were two of them. Banners that is. One for winning the division in 2008, the other for being American League champions.
Both are 22 feet long and nearly 10 feet tall. They are white with Rays blue boarders.
There is nothing fancy about either. “AL East 2008 Champions” appears on one. “American League 2008 Champions” appears on the second.
Simply stated they represent the best year in Rays’ history. The year the Rays lost last place and found themselves in the World Series.
But Rays manager Joe Maddon wouldn’t mind seeing a few more numbers.
“My thoughts are more about 2006 and 2007,” Maddon said before the Rays’ home opener against the Yankees.
That’s when the heavy lifting was done.
That’s when owner Stuart Sternberg ordered the walls inside Tropicana Field to be painted and the bathrooms cleaned.
That’s when Sternberg told fans they could park for free and bring their own food into the building.
The roster was purged. Toby Hall, Aubrey Huff and Julio Lugo were dumped because of their salaries.
Some changes were little. Some were huge.
The biggest, though, took place on a practice field at the Naimoli complex, the Rays’ former minor league facility in west St. Petersburg.
That’s where in February 2006, during the first full squad workout of the spring, Maddon spoke what sounded like crazy talk.
He mentioned the word “playoffs.”
“First time ever heard that around here,” left fielder Carl Crawford said.
And Crawford had been around here since 2002.
“It was definitely a different attitude,” Crawford said. “Like we had something to play for.”
The roster changed and changed again.
B.J. Upton went from a third baseman to a second baseman to a center fielder.
Delmon Young went from a disgruntled minor leaguer to the right fielder to the Twins.
Pitchers were bought in. Pitchers were sent packing.
The bullpen was built and rebuilt and rebuilt yet again.
At times the Rays looked like one big mess. At times they were.
The seats were empty. The clubhouse was filled with nonbelievers. But not for long.
“They changed the philosophy around here,” Crawford said.
The losing continued. The Rays had the worst record in baseball in 2006 and 2007.
And now this.
“Something that seemed so much beyond possibility now seems like a given,” Sternberg said.
Two banners hang high above left field at the Trop. One is for the 2008 division title. The other is the American League pennant.
The Rays could add a third marker. Perhaps a sign such as those we find at historical sites.
Put it out at the old Naimoli complex on the exact spot Maddon stood that February morning and began twisting the impossible into the possible.
“That was a big step,” Crawford said.
Perhaps the biggest.