Rays earn top marks in chemistry

Rays earn top marks in chemistry

ST. PETERSBURG -- This isn't normal, and Cliff Floyd knows that.

The Rays' designated hitter is sitting in front of his locker at Tropicana Field, trading witty barbs with B.J. Upton, who is sitting several feet away and contemplating getting a Mohawk haircut.

"B.J. makes fun of me because my lips are big," Floyd said, loudly making a claim about Upton's hair before moving on to another subject, Troy Percival, who's sitting at a table a few yards away with a recently shaved head.

To his credit, Percival -- a seasoned Major Leaguer like Floyd -- who was signed as much for his closing abilities as for his veteran leadership, continues his solitary card game as if nothing was said.

Floyd laughs. A 13-year veteran, he has been on young and inexperienced teams before, and has been subject to some of the worst clubhouses imaginable. With a World Series ring with the Marlins in 1997, he's also been a part of some pretty great locker rooms.

"This isn't normal," Floyd said of the Rays' unique clubhouse chemistry. "You want it to be normal. But it doesn't always happen that way."

The 35-year-old slugger looks around the cozy confines of Tropicana Field, just hours before the Rays-Yankees finale. Following the game, Tampa Bay will board a chartered flight to Toronto in matching Ed Hardy designer T-shirts, purchased by Floyd and Scott Kazmir. The shirts, while a substantial wardrobe upgrade from the cotton "9=8" shirts manager Joe Maddon handed out this spring, still carry the same familiar undertone: this is a team united.

"It's funny, because everybody brags about how Minnesota has this camaraderie and that's why they win," Jason Bartlett said. "And this is a lot like it. Everybody here is having fun. We are energetic, and [guys] are not afraid to express themselves."

The Rays' starting shortstop, Bartlett was acquired from the Twins in the offseason, along with right-hander Matt Garza. And while Bartlett acknowledges Minnesota's uncanny cohesiveness, he believes what's going on inside the walls at Tropicana Field is even better.

"Because obviously, we are winning, and no one expected us to do what we are doing right now," he said. "We are kind of out here to prove everybody wrong."

"I've been around teams where you go in, you put your uniform on, you leave. Like, punch in and punch out. Nothing negative, just people are taking that kind of approach. But here, it's impossible to take that kind of approach, because you love this place."
-- Carlos Pena

And with each win, the American League East-leading Rays aren't just stunning opponents, they are defying long-assumed baseball truths. Sure, big money and big names may reign supreme, but never discount the potency of teammates who not only believe in themselves, but in each other.

"We always had guys that got along well," said Rocco Baldelli, one of the longest-tenured Rays. "But I think we got a group of guys now that probably take that to a different level."

Baldelli's case is one of the best examples.

The 26-year-old was sidelined until August after being diagnosed earlier this year with a rare mitochondrial disorder that causes extreme fatigue. While on the 60-day disabled list, Baldelli grew a beard and vowed not to shave until he rejoined the big league club.

Several other Rays, most notably pitcher Andy Sonnanstine, took to the cause by growing beards in support of the outfielder's comeback quest.

And when Baldelli connected for Aug. 30's walk-off double -- in just his seventh start back with the Rays -- a mosh pit of bodies stormed the field to celebrate their newest, and beardless, hero.

"I think we're all glad we got the win," Upton said after the on-field celebration had ceased. "But it makes it a little bit better that he got the winning hit."

The genuine willingness to share the spotlight isn't just winning the Rays' games; it's generating an enthusiasm that is helping to reshape the once-beleaguered franchise.

"It's unbelievable," Carlos Pena said. "I've been around teams where you go in, you put your uniform on, you leave. Like, punch in and punch out. Nothing negative, just people are taking that kind of approach. But here, it's impossible to take that kind of approach, because you love this place."

"As far as clubhouses go, I think we are like the perfect combination," he added. "Just the way the personalities are. Everyone is responsible for it and really blending together."

The equal importance placed on each jersey has allowed the Rays to withstand injuries to starters Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria -- posting an impressive 17-11 record -- with hardly a hiccup.

And the egos-aside mantra has trickled down through all levels of the organization, where it is on daily display in Triple-A Durham.

"[Durham's veteran players] said this is the first team they've ever seen that so carefully and positively watched the big league club," recent callup Fernando Perez said.

And in a world where injuries and abysmal Major League play can lead to promotions, Durham's enthusiastic rooting is hardly standard Minor League fare.

"Overall, I believe that in a good organization, you want that group to do well," Maddon said. "And I think you always believe, 'There is room for me also.'"

A lofty goal? Perhaps.

But veterans like Floyd believe that if Maddon has his way, that line of thinking will become the norm.

"If Joe and the organization keep this team together, this team's not a fluke," Floyd said. "And we look forward to winning 80-plus games a year."

With some oft-needed ribbing in between.

"That's the mentality of the team -- learning not to take ourselves too seriously, but at the same time being able to do what we are supposed to do," Pena said. "It's a pretty simple combination. But it's very rare to have a great clubhouse, guys having fun, and at the same time playing well."

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.