- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. - In the annals of David Letterman’s top 10 lists - a place usually reserved for mocking philandering politicians and childish celebrities - 12 jokes have been made about the Tampa Bay Rays (nee Devil Rays) since Carl Crawford was drafted in 1999.

They’ve come in topics directly related to baseball: Aug. 23, 2002, Top 10 Complaints of the Average Baseball Player - “No. 6: A certain percentage of us have to play for the Devil Rays.”

They’ve come in topics with no connection to baseball at all: May 12, 2005, Top 10 Good Things About Being the Mother of Someone Famous - “No. 5, Derek Jeter’s mom, Dot: Sometimes when they’re playing the Devil Rays, Derek lets me come in for a few innings.”

And then there was this gratuitous gem from May 16, 2002, the No. 2 entry in the Top 10 Signs You’re Dumb: “You’re a Tampa Bay Devil Rays season-ticket holder.”

Crawford hadn’t heard most of the jokes. In fact, the outfielder couldn’t even remember the punch line of the one that irked him the most. But he remembered how it made him feel.

On June 16, 2003, Letterman brought Roger Clemens to the Ed Sullivan Theater to present the top 10 things baseball had taught him. The No. 4 item on that list: “The best practical joke? Tell a teammate they’re traded to the Devil Rays.”

“At the time, I didn’t find that funny,” Crawford said. “I wasn’t laughing at all the jokes that were being made at the time. Now it’s kind of nice to be on the other end.”

The other end means no more jokes. It means a lot of folks thinking what Reds manager Dusty Baker said last month - the Rays’ 2008 World Series appearance has “given a lot of midrange payroll teams hope.”

Essentially, it means the Rays have gone from comedic fodder to championship blueprint.

There isn’t likely to be a more frequently copied model for building a winner than the reigning American League champions, who reached their first World Series the same year they had the top pick in the draft for the second year in a row, completing a turnaround so drastic it’s become a rallying cry for downtrodden teams everywhere.

The simplistic nature of “the Rays did it” mentality doesn’t account for the decade of losing that allowed Tampa Bay to stockpile prospects. It does provide some vindication for Crawford, who’s endured as much losing before scant crowds at Tropicana Field as anybody.

This spring, he played before capacity crowds at the renovated Charlotte Sports Park, the jewel of a spring training facility that housed the Rays for the first time this year. Its spacious clubhouse, replete with flat-screen TVs and dotted with national media last month, is just another manifestation of how much is different.

“The thing about this team is, we like [expectations],” Crawford said. “We like when the stakes are high, attention, all that kind of stuff going on. We’re fine with it.”

There is much about the Rays’ blueprint to inspire losers looking for a way out.

Two of their impressive young starters, James Shields and Andy Sonnanstine, came after the 10th round of the draft. Cleanup hitter Carlos Pena was a minor-league free agent. Tampa Bay hit on a couple high draft picks - third baseman Evan Longoria, center fielder B.J. Upton and pitcher David Price - and flipped Delmon Young, the top pick in the 2003 draft, for pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett in a five-player trade with Minnesota in 2007.

When Andrew Friedman took the general manager’s job in 2006, he assembled the roster like the portfolios he used to study in the investment banking world, pulling talent from every corner with a focus on the future until it was time to shift strategies toward cashing in now.

The turning point? A 2007 trade with the Astros for right-handed reliever Dan Wheeler - a seemingly innocuous move that, in reality, signaled the Rays were ready to start concentrating on the present.

“In years past, it wouldn’t have made a whole lot of sense for us,” the 32-year-old Friedman said. “He had one more year of [club] control [before free agency]. We would have either focused on acquiring another player or traded him for other players. That was the first move where we said, ‘We need to remake this bullpen for ‘08 - we feel like we can play competitive games in September.’ We didn’t know what that meant, whether that was early September or late September.”

It wound up being late October. The Rays kept the Yankees out of the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. They withstood the Red Sox’s annual frantic playoff comeback and won their first American League pennant. And now they start a new season having fundamentally altered baseball’s toughest division and sent the game’s pre-eminent franchise scurrying for expensive upgrades.

Friedman, whose greatest season as a GM came in the same year his former employer (Bear Stearns) collapsed, is keenly aware that the perception of him as a wunderkind who can do no wrong might change quickly.

He and manager Joe Maddon still talk as much of the future and the process as they do about getting back to the playoffs, almost like they’re running a major college program where players will graduate sooner or later. That concept might not be too far off.

The day will come when Upton, Longoria and Shields are due raises that the Rays, who had a $44 million payroll last year, might not be able to afford. That means the Rays’ best chance of continued success - a “survival tactic,” as Friedman calls it - is to perpetually stress the future.

“If we focus all our energies on 2009 and we get to the point where we fall off the cliff, it may take us 10 years to build back up,” Friedman said. “Just like work that we did in 2006 and 2007 is benefiting the 2009 team, the work we’re doing right now hopefully is benefiting the 2011 and 2012 Rays.”

If it seems like there’s still a concerted effort to keep the team from falling into the abyss, it’s because the Rays aren’t that far removed from being the subject of a joke. The sting is still recent enough that those who have been with the organization for a while, like Crawford, can still feel it.

That’s why, as much as the Rays enjoy being the envy of baseball, they spend so much time working to stay there.

“It’s very complementary. This is just 2009. I’d like them to be saying that in 2019, 2040, et cetera,” Maddon said. “At the end of this century - none of us are going to be here to hear about it - I want us to be considered one of the best organizations in baseball by that time. It has to start somewhere.”

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