Retired numbers: Tampa Bay Rays

Longoria and Maddon are obvious candidates, though they’ll have to wait

Most baseball fans think of the Tampa Bay Rays as overachievers.

The franchise is perpetually saddled with one of the smallest payrolls in the major leagues, yet it still managed to play .539 ball between 2008 and 2020, qualified for the playoffs six times over that 13-year span, and twice made it to the World Series.

But Tampa Bay hasn’t always known such success. The club, then known as the Devil Rays, wallowed in ineptitude during its first decade. Its winning percentage from 1998 through 2007 was a woeful .399, yielding nine last-place finishes in 10 years.

This is the 22nd stop on my club-by-club review of retired uniform numbers, an examination of each team’s all-time heroes.

It’s unsurprising that the Rays have retired only a pair of jerseys. The franchise is one of the two youngest in the majors, now playing its 24th season. The other toddler, the Arizona Diamondbacks, also have pulled only two numbers from circulation. (I’m not counting Jackie Robinson’s No. 42, which was retired for all big-league clubs by order of Commissioner Bud Selig.)

What’s strange is that both of Tampa Bay’s retirees have tighter links to the atrocious Devil Rays than to the recent (and resurgent) versions that carry a shorter nickname.

That disparity will probably be corrected a few years from now, with at least two men who played important roles in reviving the franchise likely to be singled out. But both are still active with other clubs, so you shouldn’t expect to see retirement ceremonies at Tropicana Field anytime soon.

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Rays’ numbers already retired

Both of Tampa Bay’s honorees arrived, as noted above, during the dark years of the Devil Rays.

No. 12 Wade Boggs spent only the final two seasons (1998-1999) of his 18-year Hall of Fame career in Tampa Bay. The third baseman played 213 games and batted .289 for the Rays, figures that were vastly overshadowed by his 1,625 games and .338 BA for Boston. (His No. 26 has been retired by the Red Sox.) But Boggs grew up in Tampa, and his arrival as a free agent gave the fledgling franchise a welcome injection of local cachet.

No. 66 Don Zimmer was a baseball lifer, a bald, feisty old-timer who seemed to know everybody in the game. Zimmer worked for 14 clubs as an infielder, coach, manager, and special adviser. His 11-year stint with the Devil Rays and Rays — the 11 seasons leading up to his death in 2014 — marked his longest period of employment with any of those teams.

Rays’ candidates for retired numbers

I have winnowed out a list of five candidates for jersey retirement. Let’s consider them in numerical order.

No. 3 Evan Longoria is the greatest homegrown star in Tampa Bay history. He played third base for the Rays for a decade (2008-2017) before being traded to the Giants. Longoria was American League Rookie of the Year in ’08, and he finished among the top 10 votegetters for Most Valuable Player three times. He ranks first for the Rays in games (1,435), runs (780), home runs (261), runs batted in (892), and wins above replacement (51.2).

Nobody has posted a higher career batting average for Tampa Bay than No. 13 Carl Crawford, who hit .296 in nine seasons (2002-2010). He made four All-Star teams and won a Gold Glove as a left fielder. Crawford remains the franchise’s all-time leader for hits (1,480), triples (105), and stolen bases (409).

No. 18 Ben Zobrist is the only player besides Longoria and Crawford to participate in more than 1,000 games in a Tampa Bay uniform. He played every position but pitcher and catcher during his nine seasons with the club (2006-2014). Zobrist ranks third in club history in runs (565), hits (1,016), and runs batted in (511), trailing only — who else? — Longoria and Crawford in all three categories.

No pitcher played as large a role for the Rays as the three position players above, but No. 33 James Shields (2006-2012) came closest. He posted double-digit wins in six straight seasons, finishing third in voting for the Cy Young Award in 2011, when he went 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA. Shields is the franchise leader for wins (87), starts (217), innings (1,455), and strikeouts (1,250).

The Devil Rays were absolutely terrible prior to the arrival of No. 70 Joe Maddon as manager, losing at least 91 games in each of their first eight years. Maddon (2006-2014) endured two more losing seasons before everything clicked in 2008. He led Tampa Bay to that year’s American League title, as well as three more playoff berths in the five following seasons, then departed for the Chicago Cubs.

The outlook

Two candidates clearly stand head and shoulders above the others.

Longoria remains the greatest player ever to take the field in Tampa Bay, still the club’s all-time pacesetter in most important offensive categories. Maddon breathed life into a moribund franchise, leading the Rays to the World Series in his third season, an achievement that most observers had considered impossible.

But there’s a catch. Longoria, who is 35 years old, is an important on-field cog for the San Francisco Giants, who acquired him in December 2017. The 67-year-old Maddon is still in the dugout, spending his second season as manager of the Los Angeles Angels after five years in Chicago, where his Cubs won the 2016 world title.

It’s easy to envision the Rays retiring both of their numbers, though perhaps not until their respective careers come to an end.

The others — Crawford, Zobrist, and Shields — all had nice runs in Tampa Bay and all played for the magical World Series club in 2008. They might eventually see their numbers added to the wall at Tropicana Field, or they might not.

But they’ll almost certainly have to wait until Longoria and Maddon are honored.

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