Unquestionably, the most compelling, surprising, and unexpected story of the 2008 baseball season was the rise of the Tampa Bay Rays, who advanced to their first World Series.
The rags to riches story of the Tampa Rays, who had previously been the doormat in the American League East in every year but one since their existence, is historical. But where does it rate in the annals of baseball history as far as Cinderella stories go?
Prior to the 2008 season, the Rays had never lost fewer than 91 games in any season. Only once, in 2004 under Lou Piniella, had the Devil Rays (as they were known then) finished out of the cellar. In 2007 Tampa lost 96 games, finishing 30 games back of the Red Sox. Hardly a sign that things were about to change.
But in the ’08 season, the Rays, with their new name, surfaced at the top of the standings. The transformation was made all the more remarkable by the fact that the Rays had the fifth-lowest payroll in the game (just over $44 million, or slightly less than what A-Rod and Derek Jeter earned by themselves in 2009). The no-name Rays, cute patsies of the AL East, punching bags for the Red Sox and Yankees, were certainly a Cinderella story in ‘08.
Here are a few more famous Cinderella teams in baseball history.
1914 Boston Braves
Over the previous five seasons the Braves averaged 100 losses, and were an afterthought compared to the team they shared the city with, the Red Sox, who had won the 1912 World Series and boasted stars Tris Speaker and Smoky Joe Wood. The Braves were very young: their first baseman was 24, their third baseman was 22, their shortstop was also 22, and Les Mann and Larry Gilbert, two-thirds of their outfield, were both 21. Their ace, Big Bill James, who won 26 games, was 22 years old. 26-year old Dick Rudolph also won 26, and the only other starter that manager George Stallings trusted was babyfaced 24-year old Lefty Tyler. The only veteran of note was second baseman Johnny Evers, a cocky little firebrand who had few friends in the National League because of his brash demeanor. Most of the umpires in the league hated Evers too, in fact manager Stallings was just about the only person who loved little Johnny, with the possible exception of Mrs. Evers.
Not only had the Braves been miserable for several years, they started the 1914 season with loss after loss. After being swept in a July 4th doubleheader by Brooklyn, the Braves were 15 games out in the National League race.
Same old, same old, right? Wrong.
The Braves went 57-19 the rest of the way. 57-19. They didn’t just come-from-behind, they came from behind and lapped the field. The Braves won the pennant by 10 1/2 games, and to make their point, they proceeded to defeat the heavily-favored Philadelphia A’s in the World Series in four straight. For their incomprehensible feat, the Braves are suitably known as “The Miracle Braves.” Based on how far behind they were at the midpoint of the season, the ’14 Braves are baseball’s most amazing single-season comeback story.
1969 New York Mets
This team really was quite amazing. In 1968 they finished in ninth place, and even though they had some promising young players on their roster (Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Cleon Jones), no one saw this coming. For the better part of a decade, the Mets weren’t just losers, they were laughingstocks. They were typified by their slapstick manager Casey Stengel, who said of one of his players in the early 1960s: “He’s 23 years old and in a year he has a real good chance to be 24.“
The keys to the Mets surprising success in 1969 under manager Gil Hodges were the hitting of Jones, the contribution of rookie starter Gary Gentry, the play of Tommie Agee in the outfield, and the dominance of Seaver, who was emerging as baseball’s best pitcher. The Mets really had two aces in Seaver and Koosman, one from the right and one from the left. The bullpen, anchored by Ron Taylor, Tug McGraw, Nolan Ryan, and Jack Dilauro, was fantastic.
After the Mets proved they could handle the test of a pennant race with the Cubs, they dispatched Atlanta easily in the playoffs. In the Series, Seaver and Koosman proved the saying that pitching can beat hitting in a post-season series. The Orioles, perhaps a little overconfident, were pushed aside in five games and the “Amazin’ Mets” belonged to the ages.
1991 Atlanta Braves
There was a time when the Atlanta Braves were dismal. That period was the late 1980s, following the exit of superstar Dale Murphy. But GM John Schuerholz orchestrated a series of trades and draft picks that stocked the team with potential stars. In 1990, the young Braves lost 97 games, finishing a three-year stretch in which they averaged 100 losses.
In 1991, manager Bobby Cox was in the first full season of his second stint as manager of the team, but like the 1914 Braves, things didn’t get off to such a great start. At the end of June, Atlanta was a game over .500, 7 1/2 games behind the Dodgers. But the Braves’ pitching was too good and it was those arms that catapulted the team in the second half. Behind 20-somethings Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, and John Smoltz, and veteran southpaw Charlie Leibrandt, the Braves caught the Dodgers and won the NL West by a single game. The offense, which ranked second in the league in runs scored, was paced by Ron Gant, David Justice, MVP Terry Pendleton, and a batch of youngsters and castoffs named Brian Hunter, Jeff Blauser, Otis Nixon, and Sid Bream.
After clinching the division, with the champagne flowing in the clubhouse, Schuerholz summed up the Cinderella story: “There is no feeling in the world like this, nothing, no way. It has to be one of baseball’s all-time great stories.” The Braves were defeated by Minnesota in seven games in the Fall Classic, but they are still remembered as one of the few teams to go from worst to first.
1967 Boston Red Sox
What is it about Boston and Cinderella teams? More than 50 years after the miracle Boston Braves, the Red Sox staged a stunning reversal of fortune and fitted themselves for the glass slipper. In ’67 the BoSox were under the guidance of rookie manager Dick Williams, who was untested but testy, unaccustomed to scrutiny but scrutinizing of his players, and possessed of an endless reservoir of determination. This was the first of many reclamation projects for the hard-nosed Williams, who years later fittingly titled his autobiography “No More Mr. Nice Guy.”
The Red Sox, like most teams on this list, were remarkably young: no one in their everyday lineup was more than 27 years old. Even though they had finished ninth in a ten-team league the year before, the Red Sox were a confident bunch, fueled by Williams’ fire. MVP Carl Yastrzemski carried most of the offensive load, leading the league in batting, homers, and RBI, while delivering what seemed like every clutch hit and making every game-saving catch in the outfield. Yaz’s performance ranks near the top of the single-season feats in baseball history, if not at the top. Outfielder Tony Conigliaro, a Massachussetts native and author of 20 homers, was immensely popular.
The pitching staff was led by 25-year old Jim Lonborg, who won 22 games. After him, there wasn’t much else, but Williams and his staff made it work. Plodding along a few games over .500 through June, the Sox caught fire in July and August, winning 39 games in those two months. They survived an tight four-team race that went down to the last day of the season, earning Boston’s first pennant in 21 years. The Red Sox won 92 games, a 20-game improvement, earning Manager of the Year honors for Williams. They lost in seven games to the talented Cardinals in the World Series.
Occurring two years before the Mets had their magical season, the Red Sox “Impossible Dream” team is overshadowed, mostly because they didn’t win the Series, and even though they had come from way down, the Red Sox had never been as miserable as the Mets. Nevertheless, the ‘67 Red Sox still hold a special place in the hearts of fans in New England.
1993 Philadelphia Phillies
Unlike the other teams on this list, the Phillies were a veteran club and they stayed in first place almost the entire season, after a 17-5 April. In ‘92, the Phils were a sixth-place team, winning just 70 games. Their roster was a mixture of young untested players and grizzled veterans with an attitude. These guys were rough around the edges, party-til-dawn types, with nicknames like Krukker, Nails, Dutch, Izzy, and Wild Thing. But between the lines they could play, and they played an all-out, hustling, brand of baseball.
The Phils had the most potent offense in the National League, sparked by catcher Darren Daulton, outfielders Lenny Dykstra and John Kruk, third baseman Dave Hollins, and slugging outfielder Pete Incaviglia. The team had power and was aggressive on the base paths too.
No-nonsense manager Jim Fregosi used a rotation that featured Curt Schilling and Tommy Greene from the right side and Terry Mulholland and Danny Jackson from the left. Out of the bullpen was the “Wild Thing” – mullet-wearing closer Mitch Williams who saved 43 games while giving the fans a heart attack nearly every time he toed the rubber because he usually walked a few batters between his frequent strikeouts.
With their tobacco-stained uniforms, unshaven faces, and confident swagger, the Phils rolled to a 27-game improvement, winning 97 games and their first division title in a decade. In the playoffs they stunned the Braves in six games to win just the fifth pennant in franchise history. Their loss in the World Series, punctuated by a dramatic home run surrendered by Williams, did little to spoil a Cinderella season. Unlike most of the other teams on this list, the Phillies weren’t a young team launching themselves into an era of prosperity. On the contrary, after 1993, they had seven straight losing seasons.
“We were just a bunch of maniacs who played baseball hard every day,” Kruk said of the ‘93 team. For one season, these maniacs got it right.
2007 Colorado Rockies
Where did these guys come from? In one of the most shocking turnarounds in history, the Rockies ended up in the World Series after years of frustration and hapless play. After the debacle of 1999, when manager Jim Leyland retired following one season in Colorado, the franchise dove into a funk the size of the Rockie Mountains. The Rockies found themselves in fourth and fifth place every season between 1999 and 2006. Free agent signings, trades, draft picks – they tried everything to restock the roster, but nothing worked. Invariably, a few hitters each season would put up awesome numbers because of the thin air and small dimensions at Coors Field. It was great for selling a few tickets and jerseys and getting guys into the All-Star Game, but not so good when the pitching and defense were so abysmal they couldn’t get anybody out.
Then, gradually, Clint Hurdle and his coaching staff started to make some headway, and in ‘07, after a mediocre 76-86 season in ‘06, there were some expectations, though a second place finish was an optimistic projection. An eight-game losing streak in late June left the Rockies eight games out and in their customary fourth place looking up at the rest of the National League West.
Much hadn’t changed nearly three months later – on the morning of September 16, manager Clint Hurdle saw his Rockies 4 1/2 games back in the wild card race, with several teams in line ahead of them, including their division rivals, the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks.
But starting with a 13-0 shellacking of the Marlins on September 16th, the Rockies just kept winning. With the big bats of Matt Holliday, Todd Helton, and Brad Hawpe leading the way, the Men in Purple averaged nearly seven runs per game the rest of the season, winning 11 in a row, and 13 of 14. During the streak they swept a three-game series against the Padres in San Diego and another three-gamer at Chavez Ravine against the Dodgers. Their amazing late-season push vaulted the Rockies into a tie for the wild card spot with the Padres. Colorado won the wild card playoff game 9-8 over San Diego in 13 innings in walkoff fashion and advanced to the playoffs as Cinderellas.
Amazingly, Colorado added seven straight wins in the NLDS and NLCS, giving them victories in 20 of 21 games. The Rox advanced to the World Series to face the Red Sox, but the magic was over and they were swept aside in four straight games. Still, in Colorado that September and October are remembered by fans for “The Streak.”
During the 15 games to end the regular season (including Game #163), Holliday hit a scorching .442 with ten extra base hits, including five home runs, 17 RBIs, and 16 runs, posting an OPS of 1378 (532 OBP and 846 SLG); Todd Helton hit .377 with four homers, 15 RBIs, and 1098 OPS (458 and 639); Brad Hawpe hit .423 with eleven extra-base hits (four homers), 20 RBIs, and a 1316 OPS (508 and 808); Garrett Atkins hit .414 with a 1089 OPS (469 and 621) with three homers; and Ryan Spilborghs batted .356 as he filled in for the injured Willy Tavares in center field. It was the Rockies incredible offensive firepower over those two weeks that launched them to one of the most unlikely pennants in baseball history.
Holliday, by the way, stayed red-hot in October, as he clubbed five more homers in the postseason. In all, counting the last two weeks of the regular season and the postseason, Holliday hit 10 homers with 22 runs, 27 RBIs, a .763 SLG and a .392 batting average in 24 games. Few players in history have ever been as solely responsible for a team’s success late in a season. If the Rockies were Cinderellas, Holliday was wearing the glass slipper.
1987 Minnesota Twins
Since the late 1970s, the Twins organization had been producing good young ballplayers, but they had nothing to show for it. In 1984 they flirted with contention in the AL West but slipped in September. Two years later they lost 91 games and finished in sixth place, ahead of only the woeful Seattle Mariners.
In 1987, stocked with several of those players from their farm system, the Twins enjoyed a Cinderella season, jumping all the way to first place and a 14-game improvement under calm manager Tom Kelly, who seemed to push all the right buttons that year.
Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Frank Viola, and Kirby Puckett were the core of the team, and all of them came from the Twins system. Timely hitting and good pitching led the Twins to a shocking five-game win over the heavily favored 98-win Detroit Tigers in the playoffs. The underdog Twins captured their first pennant in more than two decades.
In the World Series, Steve Lombardozzi and Tim Laudner (two more Minnesota draft picks) were clutch with the bat, and veteran Bert Blyleven, in his second stint with the team, starred on the mound as the Twins defeated the favored Cardinals in seven games. As a result, the Twins went from sixth place to World Champions in a single season.