Now they're not only contending, but they've spent more days in first place in the division standings than anywhere else in the pecking order. They could be categorized as baseball's feel-good story of the summer, and not surprisingly, they're well represented at this year's All-Star Game.
It's only fitting that the three Rays players, all under the age of 25, contribute to the team in vastly different ways. Scott Kazmir, a hard-throwing lefty, brings youth and stability to a starting rotation considered to be one of the best in baseball; Dioner Navarro is a steady hand behind the plate who has one of the highest caught-stealing ratios to complement one of the highest fielding percentages among AL catchers; and Evan Longoria is a jack-of-all-trades third baseman who is as good as advertised as the total package -- speed, average, power and defense.
Contending teams need to be diverse, and all players must contribute. In that vein, the Rays' All-Stars truly are representative of all that's good with their club this year.
"That's one of the reasons why we're winning so many games," said Navarro, who was picked by AL manager Terry Francona. "Everybody's been doing their stuff, whatever they have to do. Kaz, when he gets on the mound, we know that he's going to give us a shot to win games. Longie, when he comes to the plate or whatever he's doing, you know he's going to help us. He's been great.
"I think this is the first time that three players have gone [to the All-Star Game] from the organization, and that says a lot for what we've accomplished."
It's easy to separate the All-Star veterans from the first-timers. The younger players tend to carry themselves with wide-eyed enthusiasm as they take in the All-Star scene. The All-Star players' hour of media availability is somewhat of a free-for-all -- players sit on platforms, by themselves, forming a large circle around a gigantic conference room. When the doors open, hundreds upon hundreds of reporters descend upon the players.
As expected, the usual suspects are mobbed -- Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, et al. The Tampa Bay players may not be quite as recognizable, but they weren't ignored, either. The Rays are one of the best stories of the first half, and they received plenty of attention from a steady stream of reporters who are just now getting to know the young talent comprising their roster.
For Longoria, the secret to success is all about diversity -- the contributions are wide-ranging, from speed to lights-out pitching to steadiness behind the plate.
|"I think this is the first time that three players have gone [to the All-Star Game] from the organization, and that says a lot for what we've accomplished."|
|-- Dioner Navarro, on Scott Kazmir, Evan Longoria and himself making the Midsummer Classic|
"When we were going good -- I think we won 16 of 18 at home and we were winning games in any way possible -- if it wasn't a walk-off home run, it was a game-winning bunt," said Longoria, the winner of the AL Final Vote. "We were just doing things that teams don't do. It shows how diverse we are. We can win ballgames in any way."
Kazmir, who won an All-Star spot by the players' ballot, views the number of Rays All-Stars as validation. The team is being recognized for having a tremendous first half, an even bigger feat considering the franchise has never produced a winning record in its decade-long history.
"I'm just glad that we have more guys representing the team in the All-Star Game," Kazmir said. "That's mainly what we were looking for. The season that we've had, we all felt like we deserved more than one guy. It's an honor to have three of us here."
For first-time All-Star Navarro, playing at Yankee Stadium will carry a little extra meaning. He was born and raised, so to speak, by the Yankees after he signed with them as an amateur free agent in 2000. He spent just under four years in the Minor Leagues before making his big league debut with the Yankees in 2004, but in January '05, he was traded to the Diamondbacks, along with Brad Halsey and Javier Vazquez, in exchange for lefty Randy Johnson.
Navarro said it was his lifelong goal to someday play for the Yankees, which he did, and he feels no animosity toward the organization for trading him. But the thrill of participating in the All-Star Game at his former ballpark is not lost on the young catcher.
"Coming back to this stadium for the last time and being around players that are in the Hall of Fame, or players that are going to be there, when I see myself right next to those guys, it's pretty special," Navarro said. "I'm just a little kid in the candy store. I'm going to try to enjoy myself and try to have a blast."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.