Up until the '90s, Florida's sole connection to professional baseball was spring training. The Sunshine State's perma-summer temperatures had long made it an ideal locale for players to report and warm up in anticipation of the upcoming season. In 1991, Major League Baseball awarded Miami an expansion franchise, and seven years later, placed a club in St. Petersburg. Since then, the Tampa Bay Rays have fought valiantly to win the hearts of baseball fans in the South while also trying to keep their American League foes at, well, bay.
Before ever having played a regular-season contest, the Rays made a splash in the winter of 1997 when they acquired native son Fred McGriff via trade and signed 12-time All-Star Wade Boggs in free agency. The aggressive moves signaled that the club was serious, and the fans bought in to it, as more than two million would pass through the gates during the inaugural 1998 season. However, competing in the American League East proved to be easier said than done, and the Rays were forced to settle for a fifth place finish.
The team tried adding instant offense again in the following offseason by bringing in boppers Vinny Castilla and Greg Vaughn, but the end result was the same. Eventually, the franchise discovered that the path to ascension would be found in the amateur draft. Making his big league debut in 2002, outfielder Carl Crawford emerged as the organization's first true-blue, locally sourced superstar. A blazingly fast ball player, "The Perfect Storm" led the league in triples three times and stolen bases four times over the course of his first five full seasons with the club.
Following Crawford in the line of in-house developed talent was third baseman Evan Longoria. Selected in the first round of the 2006 draft, "Longo" would join the senior circuit in '08 and take Rookie of the Year honors while also guiding the Rays to their first-ever postseason. The fairytale season would end at the Fall Classic, and while victory went to the Philadelphia Phillies, optimism in the Tampa Bay area would reach an all-time high.
Playoff appearances in 2010, '11, and '13 would help establish the team as front-runners, much to the delight of fans. At Tropicana Field, supporters began to act like a certain member of Blue Oyster Cult and provide plenty of cowbell. In 2013, the team would take inspiration from another classic rock hit, T. Rex's "Bang A Gong (Get It On)," and install an actual gong in the outfield for "gladiators" to bang when the team won.
You have to walk before you can run, and there's no denying that the Tampa Bay Rays have made great strides so far. It's hard to say what's next for the franchise, but with this being Florida, the forecast is undoubtedly sunny and bright.