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Monday, Sep 15, 2014
Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Rays feeling hungry this season

Published:   |   Updated: February 16, 2014 at 09:38 AM

Eating last is very important,” Joe Maddon said Friday.

So is eating first,third, fifth and eighth, as far as I’m concerned, especially when there’s pie.

Alas, Maddon was talking about the World Series, winning it, something the Rays, for all their wonders, have never done.

I get what the Rays manager means, though brother Joseph, who always goes for it, naturally wrestled the quote to the ground and added a Bible choke hold.

“That would be kind of cool to enjoy that last supper at the end of the season,” Maddon said.

Ah, The Last Supper.

Yeah, but who’s the fifth starter?

Hey, I get it. So do Maddon’s players,a good thing, because 2014 is as big as it gets or will ever get for the Rays.

“Hopefully we can take it a step further, because getting to the playoffs, that’s not enough around here anymore,” David Price said. “Winning 90-plus games is obviously very good, but if you can’t finish those games in October, it really doesn’t matter.”

Welcome to The Hunger Games.

Winning 90 times is very good. The Rays have done it four seasons in a row. They’ve made the postseason four times in six seasons, on a popgun payroll. They remain baseball’s pride and joy, an acclaimed magic show.

And they need to do more.

It’s the biggest season in Rays history, on and off the field.

It’s about the World Series.

“There’s no ducking it,” Maddon said. “There’s no hiding it, there’s no ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk about that, it’s going to jinx us.’ ”

They didn’t trade Price. They didn’t let James Loney walk. They didn’t pass on Grant Balfour.

Instead brought a very good infield back.

For what?

To lose another division series?

The payroll is at a franchise-record $80 million, even if it’s still what you’d get if you held up the Yankees or Red Sox by the ankles and shook.

It passes for big doings in Tampa Bay, not done flippantly, but with a target in mind, though we smile when owner Stu Sternberg says “We’re spending a little more than we can afford,” as he did after Balfour signed. Has any team ever played the We Really Shouldn’t Be Doing This card like the Rays? Lucky for this franchise, and this baseball town, if it really is one (still a debate), Sternberg and his team have always made it go.

Now it’s time to go further.

It’s a big season, a season to keep the buzz going, start to finish.

It’s a big season off the field, too, a season where the inertia has to end over a new stadium.

There’s a new mayor in St. Petersburg, a receptive mayor and county leaders on the other side of the bay. Something has to give, soon.

At the moment, what’s the soonest there could be a ballpark in Tampa? What, 2019? 2020?

There will be a new stadium. Whether it’s with Sternberg as owner, or with a stadium in Florida, is the question.

The bottom line is winning, winning now, has never mattered more.

Actually, just think: If the Rays had been awful the last six years, I figure St. Pete would just say “Get off our land!”

Yeah, success might be this franchise’s worst enemy.

Is this the best Rays team? I liked 2008, Maddon and the Miracles, so shiny and new and in that World Series. I thought the 2010 Rays were a powerhouse, but someone forgot to tell Cliff Lee in the playoffs. No, I don’t think this is the best Rays team, not when I look at this lineup, even with Evan Longoria and Wil Myers in the middle. But this club always finds a way, to pitch and bob and weave, to stick around.

It’s a big season, bigger than all the others. The stadium clock ticks.

Eat hearty. Eat last.

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