Matthew Taylor: It's hard not to respect the Rays

The first-place Red Sox are coming to town this weekend, but I have the Tampa Bay Rays on my find. I've feared that the Rays are the biggest threat to win the American League East ever since David Price returned to form. Price came off the disabled list in early July and the Rays are 15-3 since his return. Overall, the Rays pitching staff has five complete games in July, which MLB.com tells us is the most in the month since the Mets had five in August 2010.

As I sat at my computer Thursday and read about Price's latest outing the night before - a complete-game victory versus the Red Sox to move within a half-game of the division lead - it occurred to me that my continuing concern was not accompanied by the usual frustration I experience when reading about the success of other AL East rivals, the Yankees and Red Sox in particular. So here's the question: Why don't I hate the Rays?

Let me be clear at the outset of this thought exercise that there is no team besides the Orioles that could win the division and leave me feeling happy. However, if the O's are going to come up short, I'd rather have it be to the Rays than any other team. Something about that doesn't seem right, but if I'm being honest with myself, that's how I feel. When it comes to the Rays, I tend to respect more than revile. But why?

I have a few thoughts, and I wonder if other Orioles fans feel the same. Here are some reasons I think my feelings toward the Rays differ from the ones I experience with other AL East rivals:

* A shared sense of misery: There's something to be said for having someone who feels your pain, and the pain of the Orioles fan through 14 consecutive losing seasons was fairly unique. Over time during that run of futility, I developed a fairly grumpy attitude toward most other fan bases, especially those whose teams spent their way into contention annually. "Second place? Playoff losses? Boo-hoo. You don't know what it means to lose." Ah, but the Rays and their fans sure did.

From their inaugural season in 1998 through 2007, the Rays experienced 10 consecutive losing seasons. They finished in last place in the AL East all but one of those seasons. They were the soft cushion at the bottom of the standings that kept the Orioles from hitting rock bottom. Not only did they know our pain, but we could point ever-so-slightly south in the standings and say, "At least we don't have it as bad as they do."

* Any enemy of my enemy is a friend of mine: Things changed in 2008. The Rays won 97 games and went to the World Series. The Orioles? Well, they still stunk. So much for that soft cushion and the someone-else-has-it-worse attitude. Yet for me, there was no sense of disdain. An ounce of jealousy, perhaps, but no disdain. To know the reasons why, you only need to look in the second- and third-place slots in the AL East standings that season where the Red Sox and the Yankees, respectively, sat.

Tampa's sudden ascendancy - the one that had the look of an overnight success, but was in reality more of a winter solstice, longest-night-type deal - broke the northeast hegemony at the top of the division. My celebration in front of the television as Price closed out the 2008 AMerican League Championship Series against the Red Sox was in part a release of frustration targeted toward all those fans who parked their bandwagon in the Camden Yards lot each year and delighted in taking over my team's ballpark.

By 2011, it felt like we were partners in crime with the Rays helping steal away a playoff appearance thanks in part to the Curse of the Andino. Overall, the Rays provided a balance of power in an AL East that had been owned by two teams whose rivalry was endlessly promoted as the only reason to care about AL East baseball. Plus, it provided a sense of hope in the "If it happened for them, why not us?" type of way.

* Pennies on the dollar: If all the losing wasn't enough to break an Orioles fan's spirit, baseball's financial outlook could have finished the job. Rather than the having the straw that stirs the drink, the Yankees, together with the Red Sox, could now represent the straw that broke the camel's back.

How could the O's ever compete in the new baseball economy? To this day, the the Orioles are the last team to have outspent the Yankees on payroll, which they did in 1998. But 1998 felt as distant and as quaint as 10-cent beer night in Cleveland. It was enough to make a fan want to riot.

Enter the Rays, winning for pennies on the dollar behind a whip-sharp manager and a savvy front office that maximized its limited resources. That 2008 team? They won the division and the ALCS with baseball's second-smallest payroll, one that was equal to roughly one-third of the Red Sox's spending and one-fifth of the Yankees' allocations.

Again, the Rays' example offered hope, but even more than that it provided some sense of justice, a feeling that this team was truly earning its place at the top. They weren't born on third base thinking they hit a triple; rather, they had taken a long, slow trot around every base on their way to becoming a winner.

* Fans: Set aside the theoretical stuff and you have the practical reality that we O's fans haven't had to listen to a lot of squawking from Rays followers. There are no ballpark takeovers. You don't run into Rays fan everywhere you go. And, for that matter, Rays news doesn't dominate your TV screen and remind you of that annoying guy who sat next to you at the ballpark.

In other words, the Rays aren't a nagging bunch. It sure looks like they'll be a headache as the Orioles try to win the division this year, but at least there's no hangover from years past. Give it time, though, and who knows, I may wind up hating that team after all.

What say you, my fellow fan? How do you feel about the Rays? Does your experience match mine? Do you have reasons of your own for liking or disliking the Rays? And are the Rays the team to beat in the AL East? This inquiring mind wants to know.

Matthew Taylor blogs about the Orioles at Roar from 34. His ruminations about the Birds appear as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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