The Tampa Bay Rays play ball the way America should operate. They maximize the mind and shun the ego. They won’t suffer cheats or fat cats. They waste no money, seeking efficiency by passing along their stealth DNA to identified castoffs, homegrown talent and modest free agents. They don’t bully with exit velocity, preferring finesse and earthy methods not common in a homer-or-whiff era: airtight pitching, circus catches, scratch-and-sniff run invention and deep preparation.
They are seen but not heard. The pandemic doesn’t faze them because they’re used to almost no one watching them, stuck inside a dated dome in a sleepy, forgotten town that still needs a state attached to the dateline. You inspect them for nine innings and wonder how in the hell they won the game. And even if you follow sports fairly closely, I bet you can’t name five of their players without Googling and might not know who manages them.
Yet here they are, just the small-revenue, no-pretense franchise around which this nation can rally. Having eliminated the haughty Yankees and their bulging payroll and needing one more win to purge the scandalous Astros and their unrepentant smugness, the Rays are stalking the World Series. If you don’t care, ask why you’d prefer football when the NFL and major college conferences are losing to COVID-19, to the point Nick Saban, arguably the greatest of college coaches, contracted the virus. The Rays are anything but a fluke, winners of 17 of their last 22. And after Houston star Jose Altuve struggled with a case of the throwing yips in the American League championship series, you wonder if this is the work of the baseball gods, exacting karma and justice that benefited the type of smart, honest, humble, industrious team appreciate by the purists.
“We have guys that play the game the right way,” said the acrobatic centerfielder, Kevin Kiermaier, the one player you might know. “We don’t have a whole lot of household names, but we have plenty of well-above-average major-league players in our clubhouse. We know we can play, and we are thriving on the big stage.”
If nothing else in this disjointed season, October is providing fresh material for viewers who are too immersed in pre-election drama to watch sports. The Rays are worth watching. The Dodgers would be, too, if they’re finally serious about winning a championship for the first time in 32 years. But even after dropping a 15-spot on Atlanta, we still aren’t sure, their fate again dependent on the health and performance of Clayton Kershaw, whose tragi-dramas are as predictable as Halloween. Are they back on track? Or are they setting up their fans for more misery? Besides, America doesn’t want to see Los Angeles — a place it can’t stand anyway — win a World Series and NBA Finals in the same month. It feels right that an unassuming spot such as Tampa Bay might claim a pandemic double, the Rays possibly following the NHL’s Lightning while, over at the Buccaneers facility, Tom Brady is still holding up four fingers and pleading for another down. The people won’t riot in St. Petersburg, Fla., the way the clowns did the other night in L.A. That wouldn’t fit the pervasive aesthetic: the Rays’ Ways.
Who cares if Fox Sports is dying about a likely Series between the Rays and Braves? So what if the games could be played in a peanut field on the Florida-Georgia line? The Rays feast on their arcane identity, thrilled to have buried a Yankees behemoth described as TV’s “golden child” by reliever Pete Fairbanks. Was he wrong?
“We may as well ruin their day up in Connecticut,” he said, referring to ESPN. “We’re fine with it. We love it. We’re a good club, and we’re trying to go out there and win no matter how big the market is for the team we’re playing across.”
Hopefully, viewers will abandon marquee bias and give the Rays a shot. They are a welcome changeup in a sport that could use the antithesis of big-city arrogance and blueblood wealth. Unlike the Yankees and Dodgers, they don’t have the financial freedom and market size to throw $324 million at Gerrit Cole or commit $365 million to Mookie Betts for 12 seasons. This has been the story in Tampa Bay forever: a franchise hamstrung by local politics that prevent a deal for a new ballpark, forcing the Rays to explore playing half-seasons in Montreal as a two-nation franchise while stuck with the usual abysmal crowds in dismal Tropicana Field. Only two MLB bottom-feeders, the Orioles and Pirates, had lower payrolls this season, and in recent seasons, the Rays have been dead last. Instead of succumbing to a plebeian baseball status, they have refused to settle. They are convinced that their mantra of outworking and out-strategizing the competition is failsafe, with no better proof than their record in one-run games: 15-5.
“Oh, I feel we have it. And I think the guys in our clubhouse feel we have it — that knack,” said manager Kevin Cash, someone else with whom we’re beginning to familiarize ourselves. “The one thing you learn with our club is, we’re in a lot of tight ball games. And tight ball games are going to teach you — or you’re going to have to teach yourself — how to win those. And that’s mistake-free. Playing clean, doing things that just don’t allow the extra 90 feet or the extra baserunner. … There’s no margin for error. And I think our guys take that approach every night when they take the field. Hopefully, it’s relentless. We show that we can do it in all facets of the game.”
“We want to be that complete team,” Kiermaier said. “We want to be able to hit, pitch, play defense, run the bases, do it all. I think we’re pretty close to all those at the elite level.”
So how did they get here?
Al Gorithm got them here. That is my hybrid nickname for the analytics geekery that took over baseball front offices years ago, but the Rays are the true “Ivy Leaguers” — as Alex Rodriguez grudgingly calls them — who have mastered the art of accomplishing the most with the least by being smarter than the pack. Major-market franchises have poached Tampa Bay for executives and managers, but here’s where the success story turns fascinating. Andrew Friedman leaves for the Dodgers, with their unlimited resources, and keeps falling short. Chaim Bloom leaves for the Red Sox, helps the high-heeled owners downsize by trading Betts and dumping other big salaries — and has been targeted by a tough New England crowd as a small-timer. Joe Maddon left the dugout for Chicago, where he won the unthinkable World Series with the Cubs, then was fired before landing in Anaheim, where his first season was another disastrous waste of Mike Trout’s prime.
Meanwhile, inside a 1989-built relic that looks like a Campbell’s soup can with its lid caved in, the same constants simply carry on — owner Stuart Sternberg, top executives Matt Silverman and Brian Auld — while Cash arguably is an upgrade over Maddon as baseball boss Erik Neander continues the work of Friedman and Bloom. We’ve seen other franchises with self-styled blueprints, from the Cardinals to the Dodgers to wherever Theo Epstein works, but the Rays’ Ways have been remarkably sustainable. This is about more than hatching trends such as an opener to replace the traditional starting pitcher and defensive shifts that drive us nuts but work within the Cash machine. This is about still using scouts — remember them? — to do investigative legwork on potential acquisitions and make sure a player’s character translates to winning. Notice how the Rays deftly unearth and project specific players for their system, don’t give up much for them, then optimize them once in uniform. That’s why the Yankees and Dodgers are seething. They spend for the Lamborghinis and Bugattis when the Rays are getting to the finish line first with Audis and even a few Kias.
“We know we have enough information about how those players can match on the field,” Cash told ESPN, “but how do they match in the clubhouse?”
“Our front office, they understand our formula,” Kiermaier said. “If you’re going to sit here and bring in all these great pitchers, acquire guys through the minor leagues and through trades, you’ve got to have the proper guys to play behind them. We have the perfect roster for just that.”
Their best everyday player, Kiermaier was drafted in the 31st round. MVP candidate Brandon Lowe was a third-round selection. Their Cy Young Award pitcher, Blake Snell, was a first-round smash hit. Otherwise, this is cutting-and-pasting as an art form. Mike Brosseau, the Yankee killer, was undrafted. Consider the shrewd trades: 6-foot-8 ace Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows arrived in a deal for Chris Archer, who has lost his way in Pittsburgh and missed 2020 after arm surgery; Willy Adames came in a three-way deal involving David Price, Yandy Diaz arrived in another three-way. While the Yankees were throwing the Bank of America at Cole, the Rays were signing playoff-seasoned Charlie Morton for two years and $30 million. What looked like minor pickups became finds — Joey Wendle, Ryan Yarbrough, Nick Anderson, Ji-Man Choi out of South Korea, Yoshi Tsutsugo out of Japan.
But three startling maneuvers have defined the Rays this postseason. When the Cardinals deemed Randy Arozarena expendable after he filmed a clubhouse speech by manager Mike Shildt, the Rays gladly absorbed him — and watched Arozarena become Mr. October after a quarantine period with COVID-19. When productive outfielder Tommy Pham blasted the lack of fan support, the Rays shipped him to the Padres for Hunter Renfroe, who has been a better culture fit while Pham was hospitalized in San Diego this week after being stabbed outside a strip club — definitely not one of the Rays’ Ways. And Manuel Margot? You know, the right fielder who dominated Game 2 of the ALCS with a three-run homer and a tumbling catch over a right-field railing that left him sprawled on a concrete aisle in his former home, Petco Park? He arrived last offseason for reliever Emilio Pagan and now is the inspiration for a t-shirt — “I’m good! I’m good’’ — that quotes him when his teammates rushed over to make sure he was OK, bleeding leg and all. Margot could have quit on the play. He has experienced a difficult year, after all: his father’s coronavirus-related death in the Dominican Republic and a rental car that “exploded” in Florida — his word — with his family inside, requiring bystanders to rescue his three children. “Luckily, I’m able to tell you guys about it,” he said.
So what’s a little scrape in the first of numerous spectacular catches that symbolized the ALCS? “He sold out,” Morton said. “Those guys are all in for each other and they put their bodies on the line. They’ve been doing that all year.”
Often, the Rays are outhit. Cash changes the batting order and lineup so often, he’s out of ink. You’d think the Braves or Dodgers would overwhelm them with their murderous lineups, but that’s what the Yankees and Astros thought. Whoever prevails in the National League Championship Series, the World Series won’t pull America from the next haywire presidential debate and all the accompanying cable news prattle. Like all sports leagues in 2020, NFL included, the ratings will crater and only the diehards and a few thousand fans — masked and otherwise in the venerable baseball hub that is Arlington, Texas — will be participating.
It’s just as well. No one knows who the Rays are or why they’re here, except those of us who appreciate minimalism. They are the Marie Kondos of sports, and if you aren’t sure what that means, you shouldn’t be watching anyway.
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.