Orlando Rays

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Orlando Rays
Orays-logo-9800.gif
Team name:  Orlando Twins (1973-89)
Orlando SunRays (1990-92)
Orlando Cubs (1993-96)
Orlando Rays (1997-2003)
Affiliation:  Minnesota (1973-92)
Chicago (NL) (1992-97)
Seattle (1998)
Tampa Bay (1999-2003)
Location:  Orlando, FL (1973-99)
Lake Buena Vista, FL (2000-03)
Class:  Double-A
League:  Southern League
Ballpark:  Tinker Field (1973-99)
Cracker Jack Stadium (2000-03)
First organizational game
April 8, 1999 vs. Knoxville
Last organizational game
September 1, 2003 vs. Carolina

The Orlando Rays were Tampa Bay's first minor league affiliate at the Double-A level. They operated both as an affiliate of other teams (1997 with the Chicago Cubs and 1998 with the Seattle Mariners) and as a Devil Rays affiliate (from 1999 to 2003). The team was relocated to Montgomery, AL before the 2004 season as the Montgomery Biscuits.

Contents

Franchise History

Before the Rays

The Double-A Orlando Rays of the Southern League can be traced to the Minnesota Twins-affiliated Charlotte Hornets of Charlotte, NC. The Hornets relocated to Orlando's Tinker Field as the Orlando Twins in 1973[1], replacing a Florida State League team (operating in Orlando since 1963) with the same name.

Shortly before the end of the 1989 season Carl Pohlad, then-owner of both the Minnesota and Orlando Twins, unable to secure public financing to renovate Tinker Field (which also served as Minnesota's spring training home), and who for some time had been rumored to be looking at relocating the Orlando franchise[2], announced the sale of the club to a group led by William duPont III (Minnesota then relocated their spring training operations to Ft. Myers, FL). The sale was completed shortly after the end of the season (requiring the formality of approval by the Southern League's board of directors) and the team name was changed to the SunRays[3] (ostensibly reflecting the nature of the weather in the area), but the affiliation with Minnesota was retained.

duPont's purchase was part of his larger attempt to land a Major League team for the Orlando area, and it followed his pursuit of a National Basketball Association franchise (which he was successful in acquiring, and would start play in the NBA's 1989-90 season as the Orlando Magic[4]). His group submitted an application for the 1993 Major League Baseball expansion that resulted in National League franchises being awarded to Colorado and Miami, and had briefly inquired about the possibility of purchasing and relocating the Montreal Expos[5]. duPont's brief tenure as owner of the franchise came to an end following the SunRays' 1991 Southern League Championship season when, as part of a package deal for the Orlando Magic, Richard DeVos acquired the team[6].

DeVos didn't retain the team for long, however. During the 1992 season, the Tribune Company (owners of the Chicago Cubs) came to an agreement to purchase the SunRays (including territorial rights for Major League expansion or Spring Training in the Central Florida area)[7]. The sale to Tribune subsequently marked an affiliation change to the Chicago Cubs. It was the first affiliation change for the franchise since the Charlotte Hornets' one-year affiliation with the Boston Red Sox ended after the 1935 season; in 1937 the team had affiliated with the then-Washington Senators and remained so through the parent club's move to Minnesota in 1961. The team name was changed again, this time to match the parent club's Cubs moniker.

Becoming the Rays

On June 10, 1996, Tribune announced an agreement to sell the Orlando Cubs to Vince Naimoli and the new Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Naimoli hoped to use the team as a marketing tool to expand the Major League club's fan base into central Florida.[8] Rather than completely take on the identity of the new owners as expected, the Cubs were re-branded as the Orlando Rays (notably sans-Devil) before the 1997 season, even though the affiliation with the Cubs remained in place.

Catcher Cesar Devarez and pitcher Rick White became the first Tampa Bay minor leaguers to play for the Orlando Rays, taking the field to open the season with their Cubs counterparts (featuring the Cubs' pitching phenom, Kerry Wood).[9] As the team was not scheduled to become a full Devil Rays affiliate until the 1999 season, they were allowed to place a limited number of their own minor leaguers on the roster until then (up to two in 1997 and as many as four in 1998).[10] At the home opener, Vince Naimoli not only threw out the first pitch for the newly rechristened Rays, but also started throwing out overtures to have Tinker Field replaced.[11] Following the end of the 1997 season, the Cubs changed their Double-A affiliation to the new West Tenn Diamond Jaxx in Jackson, TN. In 1998, the O-Rays operated under a one-year Player Development Contract with Seattle[12].

Neither the 1997 or 1998 season were particularly notable from the perspective of wins-and-losses; the O-Rays were a combined 130-146 during that span. However, there was a considerable amount of activity around the Devil Rays' effort to move the team, as the City of Orlando appeared unwilling or unable to either upgrade Tinker Field or build a new facility. Officials from Tallahassee, FL and Montgomery, AL remained in the mix to land the team in the increasingly likely event of a move, even though the Devil Rays publicly maintained that they didn't want to relocate the team if possible.[12]

In March, 1998, Tampa Bay executives confirmed that developer DeVoe Moore offered to build a new $10 million stadium in Tallahassee,[13] and they eventually came to an agreement to move the O-Rays to the state capital (potentially as early as the 1999 season). If the the move to Tallahassee had occurred, the relocated team would have been renamed to the Capital City Rays, and the Advanced-A St. Petersburg Devil Rays of the Florida State League may have been relocated to Orlando in their place.[13] The Tallahassee contract was contingent on the Rays moving with no strings attached, so when the Southern League imposed a $1 million relocation fee the Rays backed out of the deal. By the time DeVoe Moore offered to pay the entirety of the fee in order to complete the deal, the Rays were already in discussions with Disney World to move the team into its Wide World of Sports complex[14] (which opened in 1997 and was already being used for Spring Training by the Atlanta Braves).

Affiliation with Tampa Bay

1999 marked Orlando's first season as a full affiliate of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and the first season when Tampa Bay fielded affiliates at all levels of of the minor leagues.[15] The O-Rays were in the last season of their contract to play at Tinker Field. Although they held an option to extend their stay at Tinker another five years, there seemed little doubt that the team would not be returning to the historic stadium for the 2000 season.[14] Some officials from the city suspected that the Devil Rays were "never really interested in staying in Orlando" in the first place.[13]

On April 9, 1999 Vince Naimoli and Disney finally announced formally what had been suspected for some time: a 10-year agreement to move the O-Rays to Cracker Jack Stadium on the grounds of Disney's Wide World of Sports complex, beginning in the 2000 season. Even in announcing presumably good news, though, Naimoli continued to make antagonistic remarks toward the Orlando community and what he perceived as a lack of support for both the minor league team and baseball in general.[16]

The O-Rays made their last season at Tinker Field a memorable one, though, riding a strong second-half performance to win the second-half title for the Southern League's Eastern Division. They eventually won the Southern League Championship, despite such obstacles as the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx (the heavy favorites, who won both the first- and second-half Western Division titles) and Hurricane Floyd (which forced a scheduled Rays' home game in the championship series to be moved to the Diamond Jaxx' home field).[17] They won the best-of-five championship series 3-games-to-1, with the final game coming at Tinker Field.[18]

Orlando Rays 2001–03 logo

Disney's state-of-the-art Cracker Jack Stadium officially became the Orlando Rays' new home in 2000. Although the move provided vastly upgraded facilities for both the players and spectators, it also appeared to alienate many local fans.[19] Season attendance for the O-Rays had been over 140,000 in each of 1997 and 1998 before the move to Disney was announced, but it dipped to barely more than 80,000 for their last season at Tinker and slipped even further to less than 62,000 in 2000, both last in the Southern League. On the field, the O-Rays never posted a winning record at Disney. Attendance improved to nearly pre-move levels by 2002.[20]

Even though the Orlando Rays were already unusual in being owned by their parent club (most minor league teams are owned independently), the move to Disney made the situation even more unusual. Where Disney provided the facilities and corporate management, it had no hand in the team's day-to-day operation, which were handled exclusively by Tampa Bay.[20]

The Move to Montgomery

On February 4, 2003, Tom Dickson and Sherrie Myers (owners of Professional Sports Marketing), along with officials from the City of Montgomery, AL, announced their acquisition of the Orlando Rays from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, officially unveiling what they referred to in the press conference as "the worst kept secret in the history of professional league baseball." Approval from the Southern League had already been secured, and because Dickson and Myers already owned two Class-A franchises at the time (in Lansing, MI and Charleston, WV), necessary approval from Major and Minor League Baseball seemed a foregone conclusion. They would begin play in 2004 in a then-unnamed and to-be-constructed ball park (including a 20-year lease with "no escape clause"), and the name, logo, uniforms, etc., would be announced during the summer.[21]

In the mean time, the O-Rays would still have to play out the 2003 season in Cracker Jack Stadium. They did so by finishing out their final season with a mediocre 65-72 record and attendance that finally reached 150,000 again.[22] In the mean time, their new stadium and identity were being built, and they would move toward a larger fan base and better on-field success in the coming years as the Montgomery Biscuits[23].

References

  1. Solano, Javier (July 26, 1998). "Defunct Franchises". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1998-07-26/sports/9807260243_1_southern-league-continental-football-football-league. Retrieved June 10, 2011. 
  2. Finocchio, Paula J. (August 27, 1987). "Orlando Twins Good To The Last Out". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1987-08-27/sports/0140230075_1_twins-chip-hale-paul-abbott. Retrieved June 10, 2011. 
  3. "O-twins To Become Sunrays Dupont's Group Selects Name For Baseball Team". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. August 29, 1989. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1989-08-29/sports/8908293087_1_dupont-group-orlando-sunrays. Retrieved June 10, 2011. 
  4. Goldaper, Sam (April 23, 1987). "The National Basketball Association decided yesterday in a surprise move to expand by four franchises rather than the three originally planned.". nytimes.com (New York Times). http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B0DE6D61631F930A15757C0A961948260. Retrieved June 10, 2011. 
  5. Povtak, Tim; Bell, Maya (August 7, 1990). "Expansion Groups Have Applications". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1990-08-07/sports/9008070224_1_expansion-team-dupont-group-expansion-application. Retrieved June 10, 2011. 
  6. White, Russ (September 20, 1991). "Rich Devos Gets His Baseball Team". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1991-09-20/news/9109200861_1_rich-devos-sunrays-team-in-orlando. Retrieved June 10, 2011. 
  7. White, Russ (July 7, 1992). "Tribune Co. Purchasing Sunrays From Devos". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1992-07-07/sports/9207070147_1_chicago-cubs-chicago-tribune-class-aa. Retrieved June 10, 2011. 
  8. Russo, Rick (June 10, 1996). "Sale Of O-cubs Set To Be Official Today". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1996-06-10/sports/9606090600_1_chicago-cubs-bay-devil-tinker-field. Retrieved July 19, 2011. 
  9. Hoggard, Rex (April 8, 1997). "O-rays Bring Out New Look". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1997-04-08/sports/9704071032_1_bay-devil-rays-tinker-field-cubs. Retrieved July 19, 2011. 
  10. Kauffman, Scott (April 20, 1997). "Orlando Rays' Ownership Presents Unique Situation". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2003-02-06/sports/0302060420_1_orlando-rays-minor-league-baseball-southern-league. Retrieved August 10, 2011. 
  11. Kornacki, Steve (April 9, 1997). "O-rays Opening Night Starts With Pitch For New Stadium". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1997-04-09/news/9704090139_1_tinker-field-naimoli-tampa-bay-devil. Retrieved August 10, 2011. "Tinker Field is going to be obsolete [...] A new stadium has to be built. The cost of refurbishing it would be comparable to building a new one and makes no sense." 
  12. 12.0 12.1 Kauffman, Scott (April 2, 1998). "O-rays Will Have Seattle Flavor". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1998-04-02/sports/9804020392_1_tampa-bay-devil-devil-rays-rays-players. Retrieved August 10, 2011. 
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Cunningham, Dave (March 14, 1998). "Rays Might Move To Tallahassee". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1998-03-14/sports/9803150508_1_orlando-rays-tampa-bay-devil-devil-rays. Retrieved August 10, 2011. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 Cunningham, Dave (February 19, 1999). "Disney Likely Next Home Of O-rays". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1999-02-19/sports/9902190385_1_rays-tinker-field-tallahassee. Retrieved August 10, 2011. 
  15. Romano, John (March 5, 1999). "Minor changes for minor teams". sptimes.com. St. Petersburg Times. http://www.sptimes.com/Squeezeplay/training99tab/minors.html. Retrieved August 10, 2011. 
  16. Cunningham, Dave (April 10, 1999). "O-rays Banking On Disney Magic". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1999-04-10/sports/9904100271_1_vince-naimoli-orlando-rays-devil-rays. Retrieved August 10, 2011. "What that city doesn't recognize is that baseball looks at attendance figures like that." 
  17. "Minors: Orlando 4, West Tenn 3". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. September 16, 1999. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1999-09-16/sports/9909160118_1_tinker-field-hurricane-floyd-diamond-jaxx. Retrieved August 10, 2011. "The game was supposed to be at Tinker Field but was moved because of Hurricane Floyd. The Rays were considered the home team, though." 
  18. Gisondi, Joe (September 18, 1999). "O-rays Win League Title". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1999-09-18/sports/9909180206_1_diamond-jaxx-orlando-rays-tinker-field. Retrieved August 10, 2011. 
  19. Johnson, L.C. (August 30, 1999). "Tinker's Last Stand". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1999-08-30/sports/9908300116_1_tinker-field-orlando-rays-devil-rays. Retrieved August 10, 2011. "They're mad at the city's failure or unwillingness to fund Tinker Field improvements. They're also mad at the Devils Rays for flirting with the idea of moving the team to Tallahassee and subsequently moving to Kissimmee." 
  20. 20.0 20.1 Shelton, Shannon (February 06, 2003). "Orlando, Yer Out!". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2003-02-06/sports/0302060420_1_orlando-rays-minor-league-baseball-southern-league. Retrieved August 10, 2011. 
  21. Hendrick, Dave (February 5, 2003). "City gets Orlando baseball team". montgomeryadvertiser.com. Montgomery Advertiser. Archived from the original on February 20, 2003. http://web.archive.org/web/20030220001043/http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/NEWS/StorySportsball05w.htm. Retrieved August 15, 2011. 
  22. "2003 Orlando Statistics - The Baseball Cube". thebaseballcube.com. The Baseball Cube. http://thebaseballcube.com/teams/stats.asp?Y=2003&T=10335. Retrieved August 15, 2011. 
  23. Robbins, Josh (May 15, 2004). "Hot New Team In Montgomery Is Orlando's Former Aa Squad". orlandosentinel.com. Orlando Sentinel. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2004-05-15/sports/0405150409_1_montgomery-biscuits-orlando-rays-southern-league. Retrieved August 15, 2011. 

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