The King is Gone, Long Live the Team

In the span of five months, the sports scene in Florida has lost three premier players, players who were at the top of their position in their respective sports. But while Marty St. Louis, LeBron James, and now David Price wear new uniforms for different reasons, the teams they leave behind must soldier on, persevering through the marathon of sports seasons without the talent of their lost teammate.

As fans, we’ve come to expect these moments. Rays fans, Heat fans, and Lightning fans braced themselves, held on tight to the good times, and remembered when they didn’t have to worry. They remember championships, when life was easy. Before the end crept up on sucked their favorite player to an opposing squad.

For Rays fans, the memories started the day David Price made his debut, September 17th, 2008 in Yankee Stadium in relief of Edwin Jackson. Price pitched 5.1 innings that day, keeping the Rays in a game they would eventually lose. But striking out four in five innings against a powerful veteran Yankees lineup opened our eyes to what we had and what we could look forward to.

During the rest of 2008, we saw little of David Price, as he was used exclusively in the bullpen and rarely at home. He was our secret weapon, an asset few had scouting reports on, and one Joe Maddon used only when needed. Maddon knew he had an ace in Price and he wasn’t about to overplay his card.

Then Game 7 of the ALCS. The eighth inning, bases loaded full of Red Sox, J.D. Drew at the plate. Joe Maddon calls for his equalizer. The rookie.

Price struck out Drew, ending the eighth. Then instead of bringing in Grant Balfour, Troy Percival, or any of other veteran arm in the 2008 bullpen, Maddon stuck with Price and Price, without knowing any better, stuck it to the Sox. In the ninth, after walking Jason Bay, he struck out Mark Kotsay, struck out Jason Varitek, and then got Jed Lowrie to hit a beautiful groundball to Aki Iwamura for the out that made history.

Ironically, the losing pitcher in that classic game was Jon Lester, the new Oakland hired gun that forced Detroit to bolster its arms.

Most of us nod in approval and say this is the business. We understand when and why these things happen. It’s baseball.

To paraphrase the great Ty Cobb, “Baseball is a cold-blooded business for cold-blooded businessmen. It’s no pink tea, and mollycoddles had better stay out. It’s a struggle for revenue, a survival of the financially fittest.

Then again, Cobb made millions investing in a small soft drink operation called Coca-Cola, so perhaps he understood the business of the American pastime as well as any.

As for the rest of us, those who are emotionally attached to the team, to players, and to immediate outcomes, we have our ways of coping. We mourn for a moment, take a deep breath, and go about our day, hoping the daily routine will numb the pain. At least until we can accept it and pull our Price Rays jersey from the closet without breaking down in tears.

That’s the way baseball has been for years, we remind ourselves. Longevity is the exception, hardly the rule. It’s rare for a player to stay with one team, and even rarer for a moundsman to call one stadium home. Things change, and people come and go.

It’s life. And we celebrate the moments we can when we can.

But somewhere someone hasn’t learned this yet.

That’s who I feel bad for.

Somewhere there is a kid whose favorite baseball player is no longer with their favorite team. A kid who doesn’t know about payrolls, super-2s, arbitration, or even top prospects. But by now they know David Price is no longer on the Tampa Bay Rays.

We don’t teach kids about the business of baseball – the trades, the free agencies, and the other bad stuff. For good reason. When we teach them baseball, we teach them to catch the ball, to throw the ball, and “watch it, wack it, and hit the snot out of it”, as I say to my 6-year old nephew every time we play.

We teach kids to love baseball because we love it.

We don’t teach them how it will hurt when their favorite player gets traded.

Over the last five years, the Rays have made a lot of fans. Three-year olds have been become eight-year olds, seven-year olds have been 12-year olds, and fandoms have developed around the reality that every few days, the Rays best pitcher, their all-star left-hander, will take the mound.

But now he is gone.

Now an unknown lefty takes his place, and perhaps someday someone will take the number 14 uniform number. For the laundry, it will be as if David Price never existed. But we will still have our pictures and our memories.

We’ll move on. We always do. We trust that there is a bigger plan in place. We have faith in the unknown. We understand things about arbitration and free agency and top prospects and the fact that sometimes the sun shines again after the rain.

But if you see a kid today, especially a young Rays fan, smile at them. Talk to them about David Price striking out Red Sox batters in 2008 and how the crowd was so loud they almost had to take the rook off the Trop (a small exaggeration, sure, but it sounds good). Tell them that even when Price didn’t pitch well, as in 2011’s Game 162, Evan Longoria would hit homeruns and save the day.

Finally, when you talk to this young Rays fan, mention how Raymond makes people laugh, recall the first time you went to the touch tank, and remind them how after a win you can see the top of the dome glow as you drive home on I-275. And if you feel up for it, and really want to go the extra mile, maybe buy the youngster a new Rays shirt or a new TB hat.

But there is no need to tell them their favorite game can sometimes be a cold, heartless, calculated business.

They already know.

(Pic from this David Price toy.)

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