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Time to give Rays their due as model franchise

Tampa Bay's consistency, class, innovative tactics shouldn't be overlooked @RichardJustice

ST. PETERSBURG -- Listen, people, the Tampa Bay Rays are one of the most efficient, best-run businesses in this country.

Got that?

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Need me to repeat it?

They're not just one of the best-run baseball teams. That's too narrow. The Rays can stand alongside businesses in almost any industry.

They hire smart people. They empower them to do their jobs. They encourage them to innovate, think outside the box, whatever you want to call it.

It's not just that the Rays do more with less than almost any other team in the game. That's where everything begins, but it's just part of the story.

I wouldn't be writing this column if the Rays hadn't averaged 92 victories over the last six seasons and made the postseason four times despite one of the lowest payrolls in baseball.

The Rays have won so much that they've begun to make it look easy. One Tampa Bay columnist referred to winning 90-plus games every season as getting "stale." Maybe that's the highest compliment anyone can pay the Rays. They do their jobs so quietly and so well that it just sort of seems routine when they have a season like this one.

People are beginning to forget the shape this franchise was in before Stu Sternberg took over as principal owner after the 2005 season. Before he bought the club, the Rays had averaged 97 losses a season. In his first two seasons, they lost 101 and 96, respectively. In his third, the Rays won 97 games and the American League pennant. They've been in the mix in the AL East -- baseball's toughest division -- almost every year since.

Still, there's more to this story than mere wins and losses. The Rays do almost everything right. They're good citizens of the community, giving millions to charities and nonprofits. They encourage their players to become involved.

Here's a side story on Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Michael Young. When he was with the Phillies last Spring Training, he showed up at a Phillies-Rays game to find Tampa Bay players, front-office executives and others lined up to get their heads shaved.

"What's that all about?" Young asked a Rays executive.

"That's something we do every year to raise money for the Pediatric Cancer Foundation," the guy said.

Young perked up.

"I'll do that!" he said.

And when he was pulled from the game that afternoon, Young went down and got in line to get his head buzzed. If you ever wondered why Young is revered by his teammates and managers, there's one for your file.

Back to the Rays. They do not have a great ballpark. Maybe you've heard that somewhere. They also don't have great attendance at their ballpark.

They would like to explore the possibility of building a state-of-the-art park on the other side of Tampa Bay. But inside Tropicana Field, the atmosphere reflects the Rays. That is, the game-day presentation is as good as any.

From the music and video to the concessions and customer service, the Rays do a tremendous job.

Over the last eight days, the Rays have won four elimination games in four cities. They'll play another one Tuesday in Game 4 of an AL Division Series. As a bonus, it'll be in the same city as their Game 3 victory on Monday.

Tampa Bay still trails the Red Sox, 2-1, in the best-of-five series. Before this series began, very few people expected them to beat Boston, which is about as close to a perfect team as baseball has right now.

But the Rays fought back from three runs down on Monday to win, 5-4, so who knows? As their manager, Joe Maddon, said, they'll show up Tuesday night and try to force the series back to Fenway Park for a deciding Game 5.

Regardless of what happens in Game 4 -- or Game 5 -- the Rays have had a tremendous season. Sternberg told reporters that very thing the other night. Maddon said his goal is to win the last game of the baseball season, but he, too, has to be proud that his team has gotten this far given a string of injuries, slumps, etc.

It's another season in which the Rays have reflected a winning culture. The Rays have so much that they expect to win and have confidence they will win. They have a clubhouse environment so good that players want to play for them.

In ways large and small, this is a franchise, a team, that's easy to embrace. It has the kind of players you root for. All of this is leading up to the fact that Maddon was asked an incredible, insulting, baseless question before Monday's game.

A local columnist asked him if the Rays maybe needed to step up their game a little. No, seriously.

"Do you think 90 wins without winning it all is getting kind of stale outside your clubhouse, it feels a little familiar to people?"

Oh, Lord. Maddon's head did not explode. He answered politely and emphatically. Considering how far the Rays have come since he arrived, maybe he should have considered affirmation of how much things have changed.

Anyways, here was his answer:

"I love the fact that all of a sudden you could be really good and then get stale. I don't know exactly. You have to look at the entire big picture of how this is all done and what it takes for us to get here on an annual basis. And then you look at the exact moments of the games themselves. The opponent, Boston being a very formidable opponent.

"If people are getting stale, if it does appear to be stale, I really feel badly for them, because I think this is an impressive group that you should support and really look forward to on an annual basis to see this organization going from a perennial 100-game loser, or something close to that, to the point where you're winning 90 games on an annual basis. Over the last several years, I think only the Yankees have more wins than we have in all of baseball.

"Of course, you do want to win the final prize, there's no question about that. In the latter part of the season, in short series, sometimes the matchups are tough and sometimes they just don't roll your way. But I really hope and believe that the people in the Tampa Bay area would not frown upon 90-plus wins on an annual basis. And a bunch of guys that come out and play with the kind of zeal our guys do on a nightly basis."

After he'd finished with the media, Maddon went back to his team, which rallied from three runs down and won an epic game. It was a game that players on both sides were proud to have been part of.

It was another magical moment in a season filled with them for these Rays. They've again done themselves proud, no matter how things play out. They're anything but stale.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Tampa Bay Rays