Another first, another Rays celebration
After clinching in Chicago, Tampa Bay rocks visitors' clubhouse
CHICAGO -- Evan Longoria wasn't sure what to do. The final out of the American League Division Series had been recorded, clinching a victory for the Rays, but the young third baseman hesitated before celebrating on Monday night.
After White Sox center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. struck out to end the game -- officially sending Tampa Bay to the next round -- an eerie silence swept over U.S. Cellular Field. Longoria peered across the diamond, where Rays first baseman Carlos Pena was grinning wide and running toward the mound.
So, Longoria joined in the fun, sprinting at reliever Grant Balfour in what quickly became a mob scene in front of the mound. After fanning Griffey, Rays catcher Dioner Navarro bolted from behind the plate and leaped into the pitcher's arms, setting off a party that is sure to last long into the night.
"I wanted to jump up and throw my hat off and do all that," said Longoria, soaked in champagne after the Rays' 6-2 win in Game 4. "But it was silent -- dead silent. I looked at Carlos and he turned his hat backwards and started jumping around.
"So I was like, 'All right, I might as well follow him.'"
As the local fans stood in a stunned quiet, the Rays cheers could be heard on the field below. Tampa Bay took the best-of-five series, 3-1, and will advance to the AL Championship Series, representing the sixth expansion team in baseball history to win its first playoff series.
It's been a long road from the Rays' birth in 1998 to the champagne-drenched visitors' clubhouse in Chicago. Tampa Bay endured 10 losing seasons before this Cinderella campaign, in which the club kept the AL East crown out of the hands of the Yankees and Red Sox and has now notched 100 victories.
The Rays are loving every second of it, but the team also wants to wait until this season is over before really taking stock in the long path it has traveled.
"It's gratifying for everybody," said Andrew Friedman, the Rays executive vice president of baseball operations, smiling and sipping a beer while the players celebrated on the other side of the clubhouse.
"At the same time," he added, "when you're mired in it every day, it's hard to step back and gain that perspective. Once we've played our last game of the season, we'll get a chance to step back and really soak in the 2008 season."
As the party shifted toward him, Friedman moved across the room and hugged Stuart L. Sternberg, principal owner of the Rays. Sternberg, with the hood of his sweatshirt over his head to guard against sprays of champagne, believes his team might be gaining new fans as they continue to defy the odds.
"As a fan, if you look at it objectively, you're rooting for us," Sternberg said. "Tonight in Chicago, we've got all the Cubs fans rooting for us, because the Cubs are out. We've got the Yankee fans rooting for us, because, obviously, we might play the Red Sox.
"Quite frankly, I think the rest of the country is looking at us right now as an underdog and I love rooting for the underdog. Hopefully, everybody gets behind us."
Only a couple hours after the Rays clinched, the Red Sox beat the Angels at Fenway Park, taking their Division Series. Tampa Bay will host Boston in Game 1 at Tropicana Field.
Not long after the Rays moved the celebration from the field to the clubhouse, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen -- at the helm for Chicago's World Series run in 2005 -- headed over to the visitors' side and offered his congratulations to Rays manager Joe Maddon. This was after the Rays players popped the corks and doused their skipper in champagne.
|"We're really grateful to be here and there's this feeling: we must celebrate. ... This never gets old. We want to do it as many times as possible."|
|-- Carlos Pena|
"And it's just the beginning. Again, it's just the beginning of great things to come in the future. We had to begin somewhere and it's the beginning right now."
The Rays players echoed that sentiment.
They've mastered the art of the postgame celebration -- Rays center fielder B.J. Upton said this latest party topped the playoff-clincher on Sept. 20 and the division-winner on Sept. 26 -- but the players aren't ready to call it quits. They're hoping there's more champagne in their future.
"If you stick around, there might be a little bit left," said Pena, a pair of goggles pushed up on his forehead while alcohol dripped off his face. "You'll see. We're not done yet. We celebrate, man, because, you know what? We feel it in our hearts. We're really grateful to be here and there's this feeling: we must celebrate. This is great.
"When we got into the playoffs and we clinched out division, we wanted to celebrate one more time. And then one more time. This never gets old. We want to do it as many times as possible. We're going to enjoy tonight -- I'm telling you. We're going to celebrate until we can't celebrate no more."
Rays outfielder Jonny Gomes, sporting a pair of ski goggles, took it upon himself to work his way around the visitors' clubhouse, yelling "Wear it!" as he sprayed champagne on his teammates. That included Upton, who launched a pair of home runs in the decisive win over the White Sox.
"I can't wait to get on the flight to see what this plane ride is going to be like," Upton said with a smile.
For Longoria -- 22 years old and in his first big league season -- he'll just have to take his teammates at their word when they talk about the 10 losing seasons before this one. All Tampa Bay has done since he's been around is win, and he's making sure he soaks in every second of it.
"I might not ever have the chance to be in this situation ever again in my career," Longoria said. "I hope I do it 10 years in a row, but the reality is it's tough to get to this spot as a player. I'm going to enjoy it now and whenever this run is over, we'll get to Spring Training next year and work toward this whole experience again."
If the Rays do keep this up, Longoria will be better prepared to celebrate in a quieted ballpark. It was a strange feeling, but a memory Tampa Bay's players are sure to look back on with a smile.
"It was definitely weird," Pena said. "Then I remembered we were playing in Chicago, so I understand."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.