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All aboard the Tampa Bay bandwagon

By By Will Bardwell / sports writer
April 1, 2004
So what if it's April Fools Day? I'm dead serious I love the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and so should you.
Even though they're, well, terrible? Yes. Even though their stadium is a piece of junk and their uniforms aren't much better? Yes. Even though they've never won 70 games and have never finished any higher than dead last? Yes.
Little things like lack of talent and charisma haven't hurt the New Orleans Saints' fan base around here for years. Why should it matter for the Devil Rays?
Unlike the Saints' first two decades, the D-Rays are actually getting better. The worst team in baseball over the last few years suddenly doesn't look so bad. Hop aboard the Devil Rays Bandwagon before it's too late!
Remember these names n Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford, Tino Martinez and Aubrey Huff. These are your conductors on the aforementioned bandwagon. Hang on, it's going to be a bumpy ride.
Rooting for the Devil Rays came to me almost by accident. Back in college, I met the daughter of Tampa general manager Chuck La Mar and we became friends. I started pulling for the Devil Rays almost out of sympathy. Before too long, I actually gave a flip about what happened to them.
Even though the Atlanta Braves are my first love, for about three years now, I've kept my fingers crossed every morning I turn to the American League box scores in the newspaper.
Victories come few and far between for Devil Rays fans, but that has as much to do with geography as lack of ability. Unfortunately for an expansion franchise hoping to get on its feet back in 1998, Tampa Bay fit perfectly into the AL East the toughest division in baseball for the last few years, and even more so this year.
AL East rivals New York, Boston, and Baltimore all loaded up on free agent superstars this year. Toronto isn't exactly hurting with Roy Halladay, Vernon Wells and Carlos Delgado hanging around the clubhouse. To the casual observer, it looks like just another case of the rich getting richer, and the poor, poor pitiful Devil Rays staying poor.
Except a funny thing happened this offseason my main man Chuck La Mar convinced ownership to crack open the pocket books and get a couple of players who might actually help.
Whether or not Tino Martinez can re-adjust to the American League after a couple of years in St. Louis remains to be seen, but dude can still mash, as evidenced by his homer in the season opener on Tuesday morning. Newly-acquired Devil Ray Robert Fick is no one to laugh at either.
Next thing you know, Tampa pounds the Yankees 8-3 in the first game of the Major League Baseball season. For a day, my precious little Devil Rays were kings of the AL East and the baseball world at large 1-0 overall with a 1.000 winning percentage. It was the first day in their six-year history that the team sat alone atop the division. I openly wept.
Every dream ends, though. New York smoked Tampa 12-1 on Wednesday, scoring 12 unanswered runs and ending my hopes for the first 162-0 season in Major League history. So what? Look on the bright side. The Devil Rays are tied for first place and are still on pace for an impressive 161-1 record. Things could be worse.
Take a couple of hours this weekend to watch the only good Kevin Costner movie ever conceived, "Bull Durham." By the end of it, you'll be dying for a bag of peanuts and a small, intimate stadium with a struggling minor league baseball team to root for.
Such is the appeal of the Devil Rays. The team is inherently bad, but that doesn't mean it can't get better. Baldelli, Crawford and Huff are three of the best young players in the game. And they practically give away tickets. I just picked a random game on the home schedule June 11 against the Colorado Rockies and found two lower level seats on the 10th row.
I was in Florida last week and saw a television ad pumping up the first home series of the year. It said something like, "Come on out to Tropicana Field and see the New York Yankees play in Tampa!" Uh, don't forget that big league team you guys have down there that the Yankees are coming to play. As long as you go down for a series against someone besides the Yanks or the Red Sox, you can probably find the best seats in all of baseball.
Realistically, Tampa is probably headed for another last-place finish. They're going to be vastly improved and could finish close to .500, but the Blue Jays, Orioles, Red Sox and Yankees weren't exactly sitting on their hands this offseason. A fifth-place finish in the AL East could be more respectable this year than a third-place finish in another division. They may not make a pennant run, but count on the Devil Rays causing just enough trouble to raise George Steinbrenner's blood pressure a point or two on some nights.
Knowing that is reason enough to keep me interested.