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March 6, 2007 at 3:33 am ET
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Cinderella Rays, or Why believe in the Devil (Rays)?

Disclosure: this is my second straight post that won’t directly have anything to do with our Tampa Devil Rays until the sixth paragraph or so, but everything will probably tie together perfectly.

Remember, it’s spring training for the writers too.

These guys probably don't think the Rays have a chance.  But they've been wrong before. (Michael Conroy/AP)Does anyone remember George Mason?

I do, but I went to college there. It’s been almost a year since their miracle run to the Final Four, when they got their first ever tournament win against Michigan State and folllowed it up by beating North Carolina, Wichita State and UConn, before finally getting knocked off by the eventual champions, Florida.

Over the last four days, the Mason basketball team has made a similar run that reminded me of those glorious sixteen days, and reminded me that the best things about sports, and maybe life, are the things you want so bad but really think aren’t possible until they happen. So when people ask things like “Where the hell Arigato! It's just what I always wanted! (Tampa Bay Devil Rays)did we get a Devil Rays writer?” or “Is the Rays’ new Japanese superstar, Akinori Iwamura, serious when he says he’s happy to be in Tampa? Is he really glad the Phillies and Indians got outbid, or did something get lost in translation?” — well this story is for them, and for true believers and doubters everywhere…

Mason came into the CAA tournament with a lackluster 18-15 record and the 6th seed in the tournament, their only chance of making it back to the NCAA tournament to win four games in four days.

The first game was fairly easy, in the second half they pulled away from the eleventh-seeded James Madison Dukes (alma mater of Gary Clark, Gary Clark before he played for the USFL Jacksonville Bulls and won two Super Bowls in Washington (James Madison University)best wide receiver ever) and won by eleven.

But I was sure they would lose in the next round against the three seed, Hofstra (Wayne Chrebet’s school).

Now I wasn’t the greatest Mason basketball fan. Unlike maybe half of the school, I was aware that we had a team. I never went to a game, but I bought a T-shirt the one time we won the conference tournament and watched us get blown out in one NCAA tournament game and lose another tournament game in a pretty close contest.

Before last year’s tournament selection, when Billy Packer and Jim Nantz pooh-poohed the CAA’s first-ever at-large bid and said we didn’t belong, I had trouble remembering if the team’s name was the Colonials and we played in the Patriot League, or if we were the Patriots and played in the Colonial. (I was thinking of George Washington — my sister went there on a scholarship before spending her freshman year majoring in clubbing and dropping out. She eventually graduated from Mason too.)

So the point of all that was supposed to be that this was the first year I had actually watched a Mason regular season game. I saw them lose to Puke, ODU and Hofstra, and maybe win one other game. So, just like I had been before all those games in last year’s tournament, I was sure they would lose again to Hofstra.

Miroslav Satan believes in the Devil Rays. (Getty Images/NHL)I ended up having an entirely bizarre Saturday evening and as a dear friend and I sat watching muted ESPNEWS, discussing sports as he mocked me about how his hockey team, which might make the playoffs, had beaten my hockey team, that won’t, by four goals, the CAA tournament scrolled along and, wonder of wonders, we had beaten Hofstra.

Sunday, I sat in my living room recovering and writing about acupuncture and yoga, and feeling bad about writing a caption where I implied that Jonathan Papelbon was a prick (which, division rival or not, I totally don’t believe at all — it was just a sharp-witted acupuncture pun), I watched as again I thought my team would fall this time to the second-seeded ODU Monarchs. ODU had beaten #9 Georgetown early in the season before the Hoyas had really gotten going. I figured the bright side was I wouldn’t have to chose between TiVoing the championship game or 24. But we got out to a big lead early and held on there too.

So in the title game Monday night I finally thought we had a chance. We had beaten the two and three seeds, and all that stood in the way was beating the top seed Virginia Commonwealth on their home floor in Richmond (a very dirty city).

Mason was ahead for most of the game. They kept getting up five or seven points, and VCU would get close or take a small lead, but Mason would always respond — just like they did last year in all those games last March.

GMU's Gabe Norwood battling VCU's Eric Maynor in Monday's CAA title game (AP/Steve Helber)And I thought as I watched: this is all the Rays need to do — stay close, stay close, give yourselves a chance. Because that’s all Mason did last year, keep themselves in games, and then they got used to pulling games out against teams that everyone expected to beat them.

(Remember when the Rays won 12 straight that one year?)

So as the game went on, I was sure this was going to be the same way. I remembered the regional final against UConn. UConn is probably my least favorite college team after Duke. I was sure the clock would strike 12 and we’d be blown out — I said I’d be happy if we stayed within 15. As I watched and drank Crown Royal Special Reserve mixed with Gerolsteiner, they kept hanging on, and in the last two minutes, as I sat shaking and kneeling on the floor and pouring and drinking and as my vision blurred, they held on.

It was definitely one of the more euphoric sports moments of my life. I began dialing every number in my cell phone to share my euphoria, and ended up talking to someone in the media who unbeknownst to me just happened to be in the Mason locker room. That’s how I got to congratulate occasional Mason starter Gabe Norwood and listen to him tell me how the team just wanted to put Mason on the map.

Tonight the same Gabe Norwood set a record for most games played by a Mason basketball player. He made some very good plays in the second half, including two big three-pointers.

B.J. Upton had two of the Rays' six errors Sunday. (Chris O'Meara/AP)But like the Rays, Mason had just too many stumblefuck moments Monday night. (Our Rays, you’ll recall had the third most errors in the AL last season, and committed six just in Sunday’s exhibition against the Jays — on the same day, the Florida Marlins committed only five errors.)

Mason turned the ball over 16 times, but they had a five point lead with two minutes to go.

Then that Eric Maynor guy took over the game and scored nine straight points and that was that.

But that’s not to say that this can’t be the year that the Rays shock us all. And if it’s not this year, it will be some year soon. And for some of us, that will be a lot more fun than for others.

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One Response to “Cinderella Rays, or Why believe in the Devil (Rays)?”
  1. I like the George Mason article it’s a great story and likely to be repeated in part by another small conference team this year. I actually picked them to win their first two games last year, but not because I knew anything, I was just lucky, and then unlucky when they kept winning.

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