If you watch a Rays game this October, you may find yourself alternating between two thoughts: Wow, that guy is really good! And: Who is he? Tampa Bay is the best team in the American League, and also the most overlooked.
This is not a new problem. In the decade that MLB has tracked such things, exactly one Ray has ranked in the top 20 in jersey sales: third baseman Evan Longoria, who finished 20th in 2010. The players say that they draw motivation from being ignored. But as they progress this October–opposing the Yankees in the ALDS–baseball fans won’t ignore them much longer.
With help from the inimitable Rays media guide, the Baseball Reference Stathead tool and the Rays themselves, here is a comprehensive viewer’s guide to the Rays:
If you see a player standing on second base and waving his arms: He has hit a double. “Somebody just did it the first game,” says super-utilityman Mike Brosseau. “We were all like, OK, this is what we got this year.”
If you see two players pretending to shoot arrows: Shortstop Willy Adames and first baseman Ji-Man Choi are celebrating something. It’s not clear how this started or what qualifies for this celebration.
If you see a young player following around a veteran: that veteran is probably third baseman Joey Wendle. “He’s the ultimate professional,” says Brosseau. “Everything he does is the right thing to do.” Wendle is only 30, but Tampa has the fourth-youngest lineup (average age 27.1) in baseball, so he qualifies as a father figure. The kids are always trying to impress him.
If you like fashion: Your favorite Ray is Adames. “Willy loves the camera and the camera loves Willy,” says Brosseau. “It’s a great relationship.” Adames can often be seen sporting a top hat on road trips.
If you like video games: Your favorite Ray is ace lefty Blake Snell, who has a gaming room in his house. He streams Fortnite, Call of Duty and MLB: The Show on Twitch, where his channel, @classiclyfamous, has more than 33,000 followers.
If you like eating: You have many options for your favorite Ray. Start with Choi. “That guy absolutely powers through food,” says righty Tyler Glasnow. “Choi crushes the [postgame] spread.” Rumor around the Tampa Bay clubhouse has it that Choi once ordered 16 sushi rolls.
Another good choice is Glasnow himself, who, according to the Rays media guide, “keeps a WiFi-powered toaster oven in his locker and uses it to cook small meals.” That’s not exactly true, says Glasnow: He used to keep a WiFi-powered toaster oven in his locker and use it to cook small meals. “It was a quarantine thing,” he explains. “It was when we were here for training and everything was closed. I could lift and then eat right away.” His go-to was “boring-ass athlete food” such as salmon and sweet potatoes. (Yeah, it’s an impressive toaster oven.)
And then there’s second baseman Brandon Lowe, whose wife, Madison, owns Sweet and Lowe Bakery. She specializes in intricately-decorated cookies, sometimes with a Rays theme, and sometimes delivered to the Rays clubhouse. Brandon contributes by taste-testing and washing dishes.
If you like Renaissance men: Your favorite Ray is righty Charlie Morton. He can’t read music but taught himself to play the guitar and has written a dozen songs, sung at a friend’s wedding and performed at bars in several minor-league cities; he has been known to spend 14 hours barbecuing; he built his family’s kitchen table.
If you like college football: Your favorite Ray is outfielder/first baseman Hunter Renfroe, whose name sounds like that of Clemson hero and current Raiders wide receiver Hunter Renfrow. Renfroe got so many messages after Renfrow had 88 receiving yards in the 2016 national championship game that he reached out; the two are now friendly.
If you like childhood dreams: Your favorite Ray is lefty Ryan Yarbrough, who grew up 60 miles east of Tropicana Field, in Lakeland. When the Mariners traded him to Tampa Bay in 2017, he dug through his parents’ house and found his old Scott Kazmir jersey and ’08 World Series gear.
If you like heteronyms: Your favorite Rays are Brandon Lowe (rhymes with now) and first baseman Nate Lowe (rhymes with go). It’s very confusing, and also very delightful!
If you need a yoga teacher, you want: lefty Ryan Sherriff, who grew up in Los Angeles and conforms to some of that city’s stereotypes. “He’s a spiritual kind of guy,” says Glasnow. “He meditates,” says bullpen coach Stan Boroski. “He talks about his blessings—which I think is wonderful.”
If you need someone to help you move, you want: righty Aaron Slegers. “He might be the nicest person on the face of the earth,” says Boroski. “He would do anything for anybody at any time. He’s that guy you call when you’re stuck in the mud on Christmas Eve in a snowstorm and he says, ‘Where are you?’”
If you need someone to join you in a foxhole, you want: righty Diego Castillo. He grew up the youngest of 10 siblings in Cabrera, Dominican Republic, and did not sign until age 20—positively ancient in a country where many prospects are on teams’ radar at 13. He’s listed at 6’3”, 250 pounds, but he smokes most of his teammates in agility drills. “He’s the caballo,” says Glasnow. “He’s a grownup. In a fight, I want Diego Castillo with me.”
If you need a partner for bar trivia, you want: the relief quartet of Slegers, righty Ryan Thompson, righty John Curtiss and righty Peter Fairbanks. (Especially Curtiss, whose teammates call him the Doctor because he graduated from Texas in three years with a double major in history and English.) The Rays’ coaches daily notes list obscure Rays facts, and Boroski poses the questions to his relievers as they idle in the bullpen. Last year, Morton had the lowest opponents’ batting average with runners in scoring position in the league (.179). Which two starters in Rays history had a lower opponents’ batting average with runners in scoring position?* Sometimes he gives them clues, but generally those four figure out the answer.
*Victor Zambrano, 2004, .157
Jeremy Hellickson, 2011, .167
If you need someone companionable to talk your ear off, you want: righty Oliver Drake. He owns the record for most teams pitched for in one season, with five in 2018 (the Brewers, the Indians, the Angels, the Blue Jays and the Twins). Maybe he learned his garrulousness there, or maybe he picked it up as a kid in Worcester, Mass.; in any case, he keeps the conversation going. “Anything from politics to palm trees to which benches are most comfortable in the bullpens to sunsets,” says Boroski. “You bring up a subject, he’s got an opinion on it. The loud New Englander who goes on and on—that’s Oliver. He’s a devil’s advocate, counterpoint guy. You’ve gotta have one of those.”
If you need to strand some runners, you want: Thompson or righty Nick Anderson. Thompson was one of three pitchers this season to inherit at least 10 runners and strand them all; Anderson inherited 14 and stranded all but one.
If you need some two-strike magic, you want: infielder Yandy Díaz. He had a .351 on-base percentage with two strikes this season, fifth-best in the AL.
If you need a clutch hitter, you want: Brandon Lowe, who gets better as the stakes get higher. When games were not late and close—which Baseball Reference defines as the seventh inning or later, with the batting team either tied, ahead by one or with the tying run on deck—Lowe slugged .522. When they were late and close, he slugged .706.
If you hear uproarious laughter: DH Yoshi Tsutsugo may have just weighed in. His English is improving but still limited, so he often shocks his teammates by cracking a joke when they did not realize he understood the conversation. If it’s not Tsutsugo riling everyone up, it’s probably Brosseau, who likes to stare at a teammate until he notices, then pretend the teammate has been staring at him. He will also occasionally greet a friend by looking him over, then shaking his head. “No,” he’ll say. “I don’t like it. I’m out on you today.” Says Glasnow, “He’s the mojo maker.”
If you hear a sound you don’t immediately recognize as uproarious laughter: Someone has told right fielder Brett Phillips a joke. Phillips, for whom the Rays traded shortstop prospect Lucius Fox at the deadline, has long been famous in baseball for his unusual, multi-stage laugh, which transitions from a screech to the sound a duck might make as it expires to silence. “He actually locks up when he laughs,” says Brosseau, sounding a little worried. “He can’t move. There are stories about times he’s driving and his friends make him laugh and it’s really dangerous. So I don’t know if we should make him laugh, because he’s paralyzed for two minutes.”
If you hear screaming coming from the home clubhouse after a win: Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier is involved. Kiermaier, the longest-tenured Ray, appointed himself leader of the post-win celebration earlier this year, and the ceremony has become progressively more absurd as the season has gone on. Against a backdrop of strobe lights and loud music, he begins by congratulating everyone who pitched that day. Then he runs through defensive gems, which he calls “show plays.” He acknowledges each player who hit a home run. He crowns a player of the game. And then he begins a freestyle, call-and-response chant. If someone hit a dinger to give Tampa the lead, for example, he might yell, “He’s got that GAP!” “What’s that?” his teammates chorus. “That’s that go-ahead pop!” he shouts. He improvises a few more lines, then leads the team in a cheer of “We ballin’” on three. “I didn’t do it justice,” Brosseau says apologetically, “But it’s actually really fun.”