Thom Loverro: Now seeing Rays of light

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Photo - After finishing in last place in the AL East in nine of their first 10 years, the Tampa Bay Rays have had four straight winning seasons. (J. Meric/Getty Images)
After finishing in last place in the AL East in nine of their first 10 years, the Tampa Bay Rays have had four straight winning seasons. (J. Meric/Getty Images)
Sports,MLB,Nationals,Thom Loverro

The Washington Nationals host the Tampa Bay Rays for the first time at Nationals Park for a three-game series starting Tuesday, and there's some thought that this American League franchise is the blueprint for baseball in Washington.

The formula -- stink and reap the rewards by drafting young talent.

The Rays finished last in the American League East in nine of their first 10 seasons. Then they turned the franchise around, winning the division title in 2008 and reaching the World Series. They have had four straight winning seasons, three playoff appearances and two AL East championships.

However, there is a difference between growing pains and self-inflicted wounds, and both the Rays and the Nationals suffered too much of the latter before reaping the rewards.

The plan in Tampa Bay didn't include 90-plus losses in each of their first 10 seasons. It didn't include at drop in attendance at the worst ballpark in baseball from 2.5 million to 1.1 million.

The plan wasn't to spend a lot of money on veterans like Fred Mc?Griff, Vinny Castilla, Greg Vaughn and Jose Canseco and still lose 92 games and finish last in the AL East.

No, the Rays got to this point because change at the top finally turned the losing into a purposeful plan for success.

Vince Naimoli was the original owner of the 1998 expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and his tenure was a reign of dysfunction, with stories of penny-pinching, erratic baseball decisions and some bad luck burying the franchise in its early years.

Chuck LaMar was Tampa Bay's general manager, and his tenure was marked by poor drafts and questionable trades.

It wasn't until the team was sold to former Goldman-Sachs executive Stuart Sternberg, who took over as managing general partner in 2005, that the direction of the franchise changed. Sternberg fired LaMar; named Matthew Silverman, one of his former Wall Street partners, the team's president; and hired unknown and untested 28-year-old Andrew Friedman as executive vice president of baseball operations.

In 2008, Friedman was named baseball executive of the year by the Sporting News.

The Nationals didn't have to wait eight years for the direction of the franchise to change. That happened in the spring of 2009, when general manager and franchise gravedigger Jim Bowden resigned in the wake of the Esmailyn Gonzalez and Dominican baseball signing scandal and Mike Rizzo took over the baseball operation.

Just like in Tampa Bay, the plan in Washington wasn't to lose nearly 300 games in its first three seasons in a new ballpark and along with it nearly half of its season ticket fan base.

So as both teams begin their series Tuesday, they can celebrate their respective plans for success -- and what put both of them on those paths.

Examiner columnist Thom Loverro is the co-host of "The Sports Fix" from noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on ESPN980 and espn980.com. Contact him at tloverro@washingtonexaminer.com.

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