For the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, every piece was in place except one: a working Double-A club to round out the new team’s farm system. They had already been outfitted with a minor league affiliate at the Triple-A, Advanced-A, and Low-A levels, and, on the brink of the 1997 expansion draft and their inaugural 1998 major league season, they would need another crucial stepping stone for incoming prospects.
It didn’t take them long to find an answer. Two months into the Double-A Orlando Rays’ 1996 season, Tampa Bay inked a deal to purchase the club from the Chicago Cubs. Under the new agreement, the Cubs would have control of the Double-A Rays through the 1998 season, with a few roster spots reserved for up-and-coming Tampa Bay players. By 1999, the Cubs would find a new affiliate to latch onto, and Tampa would assume complete control of the roster.
One year after the deal was struck, Tampa Bay found themselves making adjustments. The Mariners, nearly 700 miles away in Memphis, Tennessee, were left in the lurch when their Double-A Memphis Chicks packed up and left for Jackson, Tennessee. Rather than follow their affiliate an hour and a half north to Jackson, the M’s entered a one-year agreement with the Rays. In their stead, the Cubs drove out to Tennessee to become the first major league affiliate for the Chicks – later christened the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx.
It was a different lineup than the one the Mariners had been accustomed to in Memphis. At the helm was Seattle pitching coach Dan Rohn in his first managerial stint since 1996. He had seen mixed results as a manager in the lower tiers of MiLB, including an abominable 46-85 record by the 1992 Advanced-A Fort Myers Miracle and a playoff run by the 1995 Single-A Fort Wayne Wizards. He had never before been tasked with a team as advanced as the Double-A squad in his hands.
Per the agreement between Seattle and Tampa Bay, four Devil Rays rounded out the roster in 1998: right-handers Michael Callaway and Maximo Nunez, and outfielders Kerry Robinson and Luke Wilcox. The latter two had been plucked from the Cardinals and Yankees in the expansion draft the year before.
"I have four players from the Devil Rays I’ve never seen play before, but just looking from what I’ve seen, I like the power," Rohn told The Sentinel’s Scott Kauffman.
The Rays' power was put to the test during their season opener on April 3, 1998. Shawn Buhner, first baseman and doppelganger of his older brother Jay, muscled a two-run home run against Pittsburgh’s Carolina Mudcats. In the eighth, trailing 8-6, the 25-year-old infielder sent the ball flying past the outfielder’s head for his first game-tying triple of the year. The Jays topped the Mudcats in the ninth with a game-winning double off the bat of Tampa outfielder Luke Wilcox.
Much was made of the younger Buhner, who skirted a major league call-up while wearing "Jay Buhner Fan Club" t-shirts around the Rays’ clubhouse. He acknowledged his brother’s successes -- as well as a natural respect and competitiveness between them -- but refused to draw any significant comparisons.
"We’re two totally different people," Shawn was quoted in The Sentinel, citing his "babyface look" and laid-back, shy personality as distinguishing features from Buhner’s straightforward, outspoken vibe.
A week after their home opener, the Rays had their first match-up against the Cubs’ Diamond Jaxx. Just 555 fans turned out to watch the game, filling little over 11% of Tinker Field’s 5,000+ capacity. Granted, it wasn’t much of a contest for the first few innings. Tampa’s Michael Callaway held the Jaxx scoreless through the first five frames. When they finally broke through against Orlando’s bullpen, the Jaxx made off with six runs and the lead.
In the seventh, the Rays exacted their revenge. Outfielder Tarrik Brock scored the go-ahead run on a two-run shot, clinching a 9-6 win for the Rays and a few bragging rights, to boot.
"We battled back," Rohn told the press. "That’s the way it should be."
Unfortunately for Rohn and his Rays, the team’s luck in close games ran out. A lackluster pitching staff led the club to fourth place in the East Division by the end of September. Their 67-71 record, the best Orlando had seen in three years, was a meager four-win improvement on their win total in 1997. The power Rohn had keyed in on at the beginning of the year evaporated, leaving the Rays with the second-fewest home runs (90) and worst slugging percentage (.378) in the Southern League.
Perhaps mercifully, Seattle was released from their contract by season’s end. Tampa Bay regained control of the club in 1999, guiding their first full Double-A roster to their first Southern League title since 1991. With a championship in their back pocket, the team left the dusty confines of Tinker Field for the sparkling facilities of Champion Stadium in Walt Disney World. By 2003, however, attendance was still so dismal that the club was forced to terminate their lease and relocate to Alabama under a new heading: the Montgomery Biscuits.
- Notable Rays: Shawn Buhner, Rafael Carmona, and Joel Piniero.
- Less than two weeks into the season, right-hander Chris Seelbach carried a no-hitter through six innings against Atlanta's Greenville Braves, spoiled on a mammoth two-run homer from outfielder George Lombard.
- Tinker Field, home to the Rays and various Orlando-based baseball clubs since 1919, was inducted into the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 2004. It was esteemed not only for its long tenure as a sports complex, housing greats like Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Michael Jordan, but for hosting Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964 during his first and only trip to Orlando, Florida.
- Shawn Buhner never crossed paths with his brother on either the minor or major league circuits. His last season of professional baseball concluded in 1999 with a 43-game stint for the Tacoma Rainiers.