Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman speak to the press. Photo courtest of Jennifer Huber.

As the season of 2011 enters the sunset for the Tampa Bay Rays, memories of comebacks and clutch homers come to mind. But the sour taste of what could have been lingers. Rays manager Joe Maddon toasts his boys with whiskey, Ron Washington, manager of the Rangers, toasts his with sprays of champaign. It should be the opposite, shouldn’t it? They weren’t even supposed to be here, they didn’t fit in the “Yankees/Red Sox” picture in the richest division in sports history. The $40 million payroll makes former Rays like Yankees pitcher Rafael Soriano laugh, his salary equals half the Rays team salary as a whole. But that aside, our short term memory into what happened exactly one week ago and the disappointment that stings our hearts today are worlds apart. Many might remember Longo’s slam jam bam game ender over the lowest wall at Tropicana Field for weeks to come, but there will be that focus on the series let down for now. Maddon may just be the smartest man in baseball, but his decision to pitch J.P. Howell is the topic of discussion around the Bay, instead of what he has done for this team. Maddon’s focus on the “team” aspect should be copied by teams around the league (cough cough Red Sox calling?) much like the Tampa 2 defensive scheme in the NFL, because the team comes first and it showed for sure.

From Super Sam Fuld’s unbelievable catches, to Casey Kotchman’s career revival and the return of Dan Johnson, there was that thought. The thought that this team would go all the way, to the ALCS, to the World Series and possibly win what was just outside their grasp in 2008. But the heart and soul of this team will never die. Even if Johnny Damon never buttons up a Rays jersey again, even if BJ Upton wears the Phillies pinstripes or Nationals red the heart will live on. There will never be a magical run of 2008 again, there will never be a magical ending like 2011 again. There will be the memories in our minds, but that taste of defeat will stay in our mouth for a couple days, weeks or even months. But memories will never die. Here’s a toast of whiskey to Maddon and the Rays, the champagne however will have to stay on ice for the now.

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