BALTIMORE -- When I started looking for answers this week about precisely why the Tampa Bay Rays, once again, find themselves among the best teams in the American League, I figured that asking Sam Fuld -- the guy reading the August double issue of The New Yorker in the clubhouse -- was a decent place to start.
"I think it's several factors," Fuld said, putting aside Zadie Smith's latest. "I think at the big league level, it starts with the environment that we play in. Beyond just being able to bring in really good free agents on a limited budget, everybody here is put in an environment to thrive. I think about 90 percent of it is how comfortable you feel here."
Exactly what comfortable means varied greatly depending on who I talked to this week. But even that variation makes sense for an organization urging its players to "Be Yourself," a mantra I heard repeatedly flows from manager Joe Maddon on down, and one that's been taken in different directions throughout the roster.
The Rays supplement their roster with wise free-agent acquisitions, but the heart of their team comes primarily from developed players, or minor leaguers they acquired before those players had even debuted, often for players who'd become too expensive to keep. So they need to be comfortable because they need to produce right away -- either on a short-term free agent contract, or before they waste their pre-arbitration years.
The Rays, as an experiment in limited budgeting and shifting windows, wouldn't succeed without getting elite performance out of very inexperienced players. But they often do, and are doing so again in 2013 -- they are just one game out of first in the AL East going into Thursday, and on pace to win at least 90 games for the fifth time in the last six years.
Vince Naimoli's failed franchise is now succeeding every year. It's no longer a surprise when the Rays contend, the way it was when the 2008 team reached the World Series.
"2008 was really the turning point," Rays outfielder Matt Joyce said as he prepared for batting practice on Wednesday. "After doing it that second year, that third year, it was almost a surprise not to make it."
Evan Longoria, the team's best player, made the jump to the major leagues during that World Series year, and has seen all the young talent that's come up to surround him since. He believes the Rays scout well, which is certainly true. But he credits a particular patience on the organization's part with helping to make certain that once a player graduates to the majors, and his pre-arb clock starts, he'll provide on-field value.
"I think they probably wait a little bit longer than normal, than other teams," Longoria said of the Rays' talent pipeline, as we chatted by his locker on Wednesday. "I think they really make a guy earn his way up. You've got to produce for a good amount of time, and become comfortable, in professional baseball, and at a high level, Double A or Triple A, before they get called up. You don't see a lot of guys make huge jumps, only play 15 or 20 games... the pitchers make a lot of starts. The hitters get a lot of at-bats."
The results have been pretty consistent: A Rays graduate of the farm system is ready. There's Longoria, who posted a 127 OPS+ in his first season. Outfielder Desmond Jennings put up a 127 OPS+ in 2011 in his first extended big league time. Wil Myers is doing it now. Matt Moore, Chris Archer, Alex Cobb -- all rotation members for the Rays now, and each one succeeded right away.
So sure, comfort is part of it. But what exactly does that mean?
For Moore, it was all about the t-shirt.
"You talk about a loose clubhouse," Moore said of his surroundings. "Well, that's the least you could say about it. It's way more than just loose. There's acceptance there. There's things certain guys wouldn't do to go about their business and get ready, but that's what's important -- what it takes you to get ready for 7:00."
As it turned out, for Moore, when he started Game 1 of the 2011 ALDS against the Texas Rangers, he wore a t-shirt to the game, not knowing any better.
"Just a Calvin Klein t-shirt, undershirt," he said. "And I remember, [former Rays catcher Kelly] Shoppach said something about it, but that was the end of it. I think a lot of it is, we try to have fun with a rookie, but at the same time, make him feel part of the group."
Ultimately, it didn't matter to the Rays, and it sure didn't matter to Moore's pitching that night, which concluded after seven shutout innings.
And lest you think this question of clothing or accessories isn't tied into making the Rays feel comfortable, Moore was far from the only one to cite it. Myers, unprompted, talked about how much he enjoyed wearing gym shorts at Tropicana Field. Alex Torres' earring flashed at us Wednesday night, when he talked about how he escaped a bases-loaded, no-out situation for the third time this year. David Price, another '08 Ray who was drafted in the first round in 2007, one year after Longoria, immediately echoed this sentiment.
"First full day of spring training, he [Maddon] told us his lone rule, which is: run a hard nine," Price said, his light blue Rays undershirt offering views of his many tattoos to illustrate his point. "Play the game hard. That's all he expects from us. He doesn't care if we wear earrings to the field, he doesn't care about tattoos. He really presses the point of being yourself."
It's fascinating to think that a team run in such a disciplined fashion financially, which takes care to make sure that every player is more than fully developed before ascending to the major leagues, and whose manager is famously guided by a stat-driven approach, spends no time whatsoever on clothes or other actions beyond the field.
It's probably worth it for other teams to notice that one of the smartest teams around considers such policing wasted motion.
And what do the Rays spend time on?
"Maybe I failed, and maybe I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed, and there were a lot of times when he was just like, 'Hey, just relax. It's a game, and you're putting too much pressure on yourself,'" Joyce said. Everybody had a story like that, of Joe Maddon calming them down.
Or as Moore described the result of Maddon's low-stress atmosphere: "I think a lot of what it is, we try to find a way to have fun here."
About that manager, who every player discusses, right away, and in such grateful terms: Maddon hasn't created 25 stat-driven mini-Maddons.
"No, not me personally," Price said when I asked him if he looked at the numbers much. "Not a lot of the guys in here. We just go out there and play. I don't think about what a certain hitter has against me. I don't even ask for those sheets to be put on my chair."
That isn't to say that Price, and other Rays, are skeptical of relying on statistical evidence. They're just confident in Maddon's ability to use that evidence to best guide the Rays through each game.
"I feel like it changes the way he manages," Price said. "I mean, it doesn't change the way he manages, that's just the way that he does it. And all the matchups, and all the splits, and if the guy's a switch-hitter, and he hits the ball on the ground against left-handers, stuff like that, he has that play into decisions he makes."
Seeing them work, again and again, Price added, has allowed everyone on the roster to trust Maddon's moves, even if they don't like them at the time. It's easy to see why, when one encounters Maddon holding court on an afternoon before a ballgame.
His trademark in-game horn-rimmed glasses forsaken for wraparound sunglasses, Maddon eagerly discussed his rationale for every lineup change, and which bullpen members he's most concerned about. When I asked him whether his statistical focus was just another way he manages to take pressure off of his players, he treated the question like a new problem to solve.
"I never really thought of it in those terms," Maddon said. "But it sounds like your initial take from it is they trust us, and me, and that's a good thing. If they can just show up and understand when we do different things, it's pretty much well thought out, I appreciate that.
"You know, we've been doing this for several years. It's been relatively successful since 2008. And when we put this team together, there's a lot of thought that goes into it."
Would this approach work in another market? Would Maddon's thoughtful, detailed answers get sound-bitten to death somewhere with more media around the team? Would rookies find it quite so easy to play loose in front of crowds that don't draw the condemnation of both Bud Selig and the Rays' ownership group?
"Sure," said Joyce, who went to high school just 20 minutes from Tampa, of the reduced pressure inherent in playing in the area. "I don't think the limelight is for everybody, and all the things that come along with it aren't for everybody. Tampa's a great place to play, for me, especially, being home, and being from there."
No one knows whether what the Rays are doing can be replicated anywhere else. But this particular mix of players, team, manager, development system and market is thriving yet again, on the field at least. And that has virtually every player I talked to in that clubhouse thinking about what it would feel like to finally win that World Series. Unsurprisingly, they didn't fall back on the usual August clubhouse talk about "one game at a time," pretending that they lack the ability to daydream.
"Yeah, of course!" Joyce told me. He's just another Rays acquisition, brought over from Detroit in the winter of 2008 with three pre-arb years left, posting a 124 OPS+ over what turned out to be four years. He's still hitting in this, his first arbitration-eligible year, making $2.45 million. How much longer he'll be a Ray, therefore, is unknown.
He was chatting with James Loney, yesterday's failed Dodger prospect, today's bargain free agent, posting a 123 OPS+ and playing elite defense at first base for $2 million.
"I think you have to," Joyce said of picturing winning the ultimate prize. "I think you have to believe that you can do it before you actually accomplish something. We want to be there, we expect to be there, and we look forward to that opportunity.
"We've had so much fun already," Joyce continued. "I don't want to say it's going to be pandemonium, but --"
Loney jumped in. "It's gonna be crazy!"
Joyce smiled. "It's gonna be crazy," he agreed. "That's a good word. It's gonna be a lot of fun."