Money Can’t Buy Playoff Berth

    If you go to the Tampa Bay Rays’ Web site, you’ll find ads all over your computer screen asking you to “Sign Up for the Opportunity to Purchase Rays Postseason Tickets.” Postseason — yes, as in playoffs.

    Those ads can mean only one thing. For the first time in their franchise’s history, the Tampa Bay Rays are in the playoffs — and the Yankees aren’t.

    Let’s just take a moment and think about how ridiculous this is. How does a team that posted a major-league worst record last season clinch a playoff spot and, as I write this, hold a 2 1⁄2 game lead over the Boston Red Sox in the American League East? How have the Yankees, who have not missed the playoffs in 15 years, been reduced to merely playing out their final games in September?

    Like many, I saw that the Rays had been slowly improving, developing young talent and moneyballing their way to a pretty nice lineup with Scott Kazmir, a clear star, in their rotation. But not even when the Rays shocked baseball with their sweep over the Red Sox early this season, was I ready to jump on the bandwagon — mainly because I liked it better when they were called the D-Rays.

    But here we are, almost into October, and Tampa Bay is about to play its first postseason game ever. Meanwhile, the Yankees just played a meaningless final game in the House that Ruth Built and will be absent from the playoffs for the first time since 1993, a time when the Rays didn’t even exist.

    So while Jeter and the rest of the pinstriped boys sip on their Hatorade and watch the postseason on their giant TV screens, the Rays will try to repeat what they’ve been doing all season — win ballgames.

    In 2007, the then D-Rays boasted a young and potent offense, third in the AL in both home runs and stolen bases. It was a lieup backed by the resurgent Carlos Pena, who played only 18 games in 2006 with the Red Sox. The Rays’ young lineup of Carl Crawford, BJ Upton and bat-throwing extraordinaire Delmon Young kept the offense going.

    The problem in 2007 for the D-Rays was that they couldn’t get past the sixth inning, crumbling late in games and surprising no one with their major-league worst record.

    Over the offseason, the Rays took a page out of the Yankees’ gold-plated playbook and spent some money. Upping their payroll from $24.1 million to a whopping $43.8 million (about one-fifth of the Evil Empire’s payroll), the Rays extended the contracts of their young talent and signed free agents.

    Shaking things up even more, the Rays made a giant trade that sent Delmon Young, Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie to the Twins for Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza and Eduardo Morlan.

    Finally, the front office that brought Kazmir to the glorious Tropicana Field struck gold a second time with rookie Evan Longoria, who earned a spot on the all-star team in his first major-league season and has started 110 games for the Rays.

    Despite all the success, Tampa Bay has struggled of late, only pulling an 8-11 record in September, due in part to an injury-plagued roster. Still, overjoyed Rays fans have reason to believe Tampa Bay can keep up the magic.

    They’ve fared well against the White Sox, taking six of 10 games in the regular season while winning six of nine against the Angels. A Boston and Tampa Bay match-up would be the most difficult for the Rays, as the two teams have held some hard-fought battles this season. (It would also be the most difficult series for Steinbrenner, who might keel over if forced to watch two AL East teams not named the Yankees play in the American League Championship Series.)
    So where do the Yankees go from here? Next season they’ll move to the House that Steinbrenner Built after buying a few more players and banking on their proven stars, because that’s what the Yankees always do.

    Still, something strange is happening over there in the AL East. First, the curse on the Red Sox was broken. Then, the rolling-in-cash Yankees played out their last games in historic Yankee Stadium. Finally, the second-to-last in payroll Rays made the playoffs for the first time in history. Some people might call it greater parity in baseball. As for me — self-respecting, Yankee-hating baseball fan that I am — I call it justice.

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