We don't yet know whether the Tampa Bay Rays, fatigued by free agency, will be any better in 2011, with a couple of aging "idiots" in Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez on board. But we do know that they'll be more entertaining. And maybe that's just what's needed for a Rays team that, even when capturing the American League East twice in the past three years, struggled to generate adequate interest in its own market.
The first St. Petersburg chapter meeting of the Idiot Alumni Association took place Tuesday at The Trop, and the news conference officially announcing the acquisitions of Ramirez and Damon was as lively as you'd expect. "We're baaaaaack," said Ramirez, who is equal parts extraordinary talent and extraterrestrial. "Back together." Of course, Ramirez and Damon are a long, long way from 2004, when they were two of the poster boys for the World Series champion Red Sox. That was back when Damon had caveman looks and was one of the most explosive leadoff men in the big leagues, and Manny had enough fireworks in his bat to justify his antics. Both Ramirez, 38, and Damon, 37, are a shell of their former selves on the field. That's only to be expected with their age, and Manny, in particular, looked like a fine candidate for the Major League retirement home last season. But with relatively low-risk one-year contracts, the Rays brought them aboard in a pair of simultaneous signings that add veteran experience to a youthful club and, perhaps just as importantly, a seductive subplot for a fragile fan base to latch onto. Those of us who appreciate the finer points of team construction and are suckers for a good underdog tale have had reason to love Tampa Bay for a while now. To see the Rays slay the beasts of the East with a team built largely on homegrown talent and a modest budget is one of the best feel-good stories in Major League Baseball -- and, for that matter, all of professional sports -- in recent years. Yet the difficulty endured by the Rays in getting folks in their own market to embrace that story has been well-documented. Aside from their inaugural season in 1998, the team has never drawn two million fans to Tropicana Field in a single year. And that general lack of support helped precipitate the long list of losses endured by the club this winter. The window of contention often closes on clubs that can't retain their core players when they hit free agency. But anybody who expects the Rays to fall off the face of the earth this season might not be paying close enough attention. Because while the bullpen is undoubtedly an area of concern after the losses of Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler and Randy Choate, it doubles as the game's most unpredictable area, even when teams retain all of their relievers. While the lineup is undoubtedly impacted by the loss of Carl Crawford (to a division rival, no less), Damon is a palatable placeholder until top prospect Desmond Jennings is deemed ready. Above all else, it's simply impossible to prematurely count out a club with Evan Longoria in the lineup, David Price at the front of the rotation and a wealth of young arms -- most notably, Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and Chris Archer -- either on hand or on the verge. "I think the demise of the Rays is greatly exaggerated," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein told ESPN.com the other day. "Even before [the Damon and Ramirez additions], we never erased them at all from our radar. I think they're uniquely positioned to lose some really good players and keep their status as one of the best teams in baseball, given the strength of their farm system and the players they have ready to step in." Obviously, there is some measure of diplomacy being offered there on the part of Epstein, whose Red Sox clearly have the edge over the Rays on paper. The Yankees, who swiped Soriano and will make him a setup man, have that edge as well. But similar edges were existent before the 2008 and '10 seasons, too. You just never know. What we do know is that Manny and Johnny bring some swagger to the situation. "It's a young group," manager Joe Maddon said, "so it's nice to have not only veterans who have been to the World Series several times, but have won it. That'll have a tremendous impact on the entire group." Where the Rays could really use some help is in fan interest, and Damon and Ramirez both have the personalities to help out. It's little wonder that Damon has a $750,000 attendance clause tacked onto his $5.25 million base salary (and not just because the Orlando, Fla., native has a lot of friends and family). If the fans turn out, they'll see Damon in left and Ramirez, mercifully, at designated hitter. That's the plan, anyway. "You better be ready," Ramirez told his new and former teammate. "Because if you're slacking off [in left], I'll be there." Damon, of course, is not prone to slacking off. His work ethic sets a fine example to young players. And while his speed and power are both in decline, he remains a durable and dependable presence in the lineup, having logged at least 141 games in each of his 15 full seasons. Manny? What can you say? The guy's a flake, and his much-heralded return to the AL last September turned out to be a waste of $4 million for the White Sox. All that investment bought them was two extra-base hits and a pair of RBIs. For the Rays, though, the investment of $2 million for a season's worth of services is much more responsible. If Ramirez, who claims he dropped a dozen pounds, still has something left in the tank, it's a steal. "I've been working hard," Ramirez said, "and I want to show people that I can still play." And if not? No sweat. This in no way resembles the embarrassment of bringing in Greg Vaughn and Vinny Castilla to join Jose Canseco and Fred McGriff. The Rays won't have their hands tied with these contracts. They're not digging themselves a hole that it will take years to climb out of. To be sure, combating their sizable losses with the additions of Damon and Ramirez isn't a solution for the stat sheet, but that wasn't the Rays' sole intent with these moves. At its core, baseball is an entertainment business predicated on stirring up interest and excitement from its fans. And while we don't know if Tampa Bay is a better team with Manny and Damon on board, the experience and the entertainment they bring has value.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.