- Associated Press - Friday, October 4, 2013

They play in a lopsided dome from a best-forgotten era in stadium construction.

Their payroll is a throwback, too, hardly suited to go against teams willing to spend what it takes to run a small country.

And fans? The good folks along Florida’s Gulf Coast clearly prefer the Early Bird Special to a day at the ballpark.

None of that matters. The Tampa Bay Rays are the best franchise in all of sports.


For the last six years, the Rays have defied all logic, putting together one winning team after another for a fraction of what it costs the big-money clubs.

Here we are in October, and the Rays are still alive despite a payroll that ranked 28th out of 30 teams on opening day. They won three straight elimination games in three different cities _ the regular-season finale at Toronto, a tiebreaker at Texas, the wild-card game at Cleveland _ to advance to the AL division series against the Boston Red Sox, a franchise that has everything the Rays don’t.

A proud history and glorious ballpark. Raucous fans and a lot of money.

Tampa Bay didn’t even join the big leagues until 1998, and the actual coming-out was delayed another decade, when they dropped “Devil” from their nickname and became the plain ol’ Rays.

It may have seemed like divine intervention when they suddenly became one of baseball’s biggest winners, but the credit actually goes to financial analyst-turned-GM Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon.

The Rays rely on a deep farm system, wily trades and under-the radar signings to keep up with the big guys. This season, they traded a couple of starting pitchers for Wil Myers, a star in the making despite his outfield snafu in Friday’s 12-2 loss to Boston in Game 1 at Fenway Park. They filled the gaps in their rotation with Alex Cobb and Chris Archer. They signed first baseman James Loney on the cheap. Just as important, they made no effort to re-sign B.J. Upton, who landed in Atlanta for $75 million and had one of the worst seasons ever by a big-money free agent.

While it was the Oakland Athletics who launched “Moneyball,” and still play that game about as well as anyone, the Rays perfected it. They had to, given they play in the AL East, a division where the New York Yankees always dole out an obscene amount of money and the Red Sox are nearly as loose with their checkbook.

The Yankees started this season with a payroll of more than $230 million. The Red Sox were fourth-highest at nearly $158 million. The Rays spent just over $59 million.

Of course, they don’t keep score with dollar signs.

While Boston pulled away to win the division title, the Rays claimed a wild card. The Yankees are watching the postseason at home.

“The guys that we get,” ace David Price said before Friday’s game, “they want to be here. They might take a little bit less money to come play for the Rays, to come play for Joe Maddon and be a part of our family.”

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