Next chapter looking brighter for Rays

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Back up the interstate, where the Tampa Bay Rays used to hold spring training, they're sure no one misses them more than their favorite canines.

That's because, for this team, the dog days of spring training used to be, well, every day.

Just beyond the gates of their not-so-beloved Raymond A. Naimoli Baseball Complex in St. Petersburg, they could hear their neighbors -- in the Walter Fuller Dog Park -- woofing their way through a whole different kind of spring training.

"I used to hear those dogs barking out there," said Rays left fielder Carl Crawford on Thursday. "You know, the dogs were cool. They left a mess, though."

But when you think about it, that's kind of fitting, because that's not the only mess the Rays have left behind this spring.

Yes, they've left it all behind now. The doggies. The antiquated spring-training home. And most of all, the stench from their first 10 seasons, when they nearly became the first franchise in history to lose 1,000 games in their first decade in existence.

Now they're a team with an authentic, state-of-the-art spring-training complex all their own.

Now they're a team you can actually mention without a laugh track busting out.

But more than any of that, now they're a team. A real team.

A team that finished eight games ahead of the Yankees in the standings. A team that beat the mighty Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. A team that played in the World Series a mere four months ago.

A team whose new spring ballpark, the Charlotte Sports Park, has a sign out front that reads: "Spring Training Home of the American League Champions."

"Man, I didn't know if I'd ever see the day when that happened in Tampa Bay," said Crawford, a fellow who was drafted in this franchise's second season on earth (1999), and a man who has spent more time as a Ray (seven seasons) than anyone on the roster.

"To actually see it, in front of my eyes, was something totally different. When we were celebrating last year [after beating the Red Sox], I was like, 'Are we really celebrating? We're going to the World Series?' I had to pinch myself, like I was dreaming or something. And when I pinched myself, I found we were going to the World Series. And it was the truth. We actually did it."

Yep, they did it, all right. Feel free to Google it if you don't believe it. Or you can take our word for it and Carl Crawford's. They did it. And because they did, what we're witnessing now is Chapter 2 in the life of the Tampa Bay Rays.

We don't know exactly where that chapter is leading, obviously. But we can guarantee one thing: With the talent oozing out of every level of this organization, the next chapter definitely won't resemble Chapter 1.

"I think everyone in this organization thinks of this as Chapter 2," said GM Andrew Friedman. "And the exciting part about this is that everybody in this organization has a chance to shape the history of this franchise. And not many other organizations can claim that. It's a great responsibility, for all of us."

Life is never the same, of course, for any team that does what this team did last October. But rarely in the history of sports have the people responsible been happier to leave behind their former lives than this group.

"Just having one year like we had last year erased all the bad stuff that happened, many years of bad things happening," Crawford said. "I don't even think about those things anymore."

And neither, he's finding out, are the people who witnessed all that.

"I was always embarrassed to go out before," Crawford laughed. "So I just stayed in a lot. I always looked at things from a fan's perspective. When we lost 100 games, I didn't want to be out [in the community]. And I thought, 'They don't want to see us out. They want to at least see us practicing or something, to get better.'"

But now, he's discovering already, it's OK. It's safe. They can walk the Florida streets. Now, he said, "I feel free. It's nice to go to Subway to get a sandwich now."

For some reason, when we measure what winning means, we never measure it in the places it matters most. We should measure it in the joy a man suddenly feels in just sauntering down to the local sandwich shop as a winner.

And we should measure it in the way the world listens to these men when they speak.

"When you win," said manager Joe Maddon, "more people pay attention to what you say. All of a sudden, you become pretty bright, because you win. They think you know what you're talking about now."

We should also measure what winning means, however, in the special bond these men develop after sharing the season of a lifetime together.

"When I first got here," said closer Troy Percival, who arrived last spring, "I'd be the only guy at the park until about 3:30."

But by the end of the season, with the magic carpet in full flight, that clubhouse was packed with players by 1:30 in the afternoon.

"I think it went from guys coming to the park, expecting to be miserable at the end of the day," Percival said, "to, 'I want to get to the park because we expect to win every day, and it's going to be a great day.'"

Above all, though, we should measure winning by the way it changes the lives of everyone involved. And when you come from where the Tampa Bay Rays came from and wind up in the World Series, your life will never again resemble life as you used to know it.

"The phrase I like to use," said the ever-philosophical Maddon, paraphrasing a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, "is, 'A mind once stretched has a difficult time going back to its original form.' So [the players] can never be the same. They'll never be satisfied not playing to the level of going to the playoffs and getting back to the World Series.

"Nothing will satiate that appetite anymore, whether it's personal achievement, winning a batting title or an ERA title or whatever. I think we understand the concept of 'team' right now. So we've been stretched to the point where just participating is not good enough anymore."

And that brings all of them to the dawn of Chapter 2. When life as a Ray has never felt more upbeat.

They've sold out every reserved seat in the ballpark for their entire spring-training schedule. They just drew a record 30,000 people to their annual February Fanfest. Ratings are up. Web hits are up. Season-ticket sales are up.

And never in franchise history have they put a more complete, more talented team on the field than this one.

They deepened their bullpen with the addition of Joe Nelson and Brian Shouse. They added badly needed right-handed thump in Pat Burrell and Gabe Kapler. They traded Edwin Jackson to the Tigers for highly regarded young outfielder Matt Joyce. And they're ready to unleash a full season of baseball's next great left-handed monster, David Price, on the rest of the American League.

"And the thing people haven't even paid much attention to," said one AL executive, "is that a lot of their key players didn't even have great years. If you said to me that B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria would all be even better this year than last year, I wouldn't be surprised. They have the kind of players who could take huge leaps forward."

Now add in the journey these men have all taken in their minds and you have a much more dangerous team than the rest of the Yankees-and-Red-Sox-centric universe has fathomed yet.

But there's also a reason most of the planet is still picking them third in the AL East, behind, uh, guess who.

The Rays are still a team whose entire payroll ($61 million) will make $17 million less than the Yankees will just pay their starting infield. And the Rays are still a team that forgot to sign any $180 million free agents, for the 12th straight winter. Their entire starting rotation figures to be 27 or younger. And maybe their biggest challenge -- besides the division they play in -- is this:

Is it even possible to duplicate the magic of a season as enchanted as the one they just finished?

"Absolutely not -- but I don't think we're looking to," Friedman said. "We don't want to. It was a magical season in a lot of ways. And it's something we'll all look back on fondly. But this is a completely different season."

There's no feeling in sports like winning the first time. But this group gets that. So this is a team trying to change the subject, not the outcome.

"Our hope and expectation is to get back to where we got last year," Friedman said, "through a completely different road."

And that's where the local philosopher-king, Maddon, comes in. He thought all winter about how to communicate the psychology a team needs to repeat. But just talking about wanting to win again wasn't enough, he decided.

"Of course we want to repeat," he said. "Of course we want to do this again. We want to be back in the World Series. Anybody can say that. But for me, I thought it was important to give them something to think about beyond 'We just want to go back.' That's way too easy. So I thought about it a lot. And it came down to two words: 'gratitude' and 'humility.'"

"Gratitude" means: Savor what you've already accomplished. But "humility" means: Never lose sight of how little you've already accomplished.

So those are the words now rattling around the brains of a clubhouse full of men determined to prove that 2008 was The Beginning for this team, not an aberration.

"There has never been a more opportune moment to shape the future in the history of this organization," Joe Maddon said. "And if we let this moment pass, we're foolish."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.