By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.comThey say that winning in the Minors teaches players to win in the big leagues. If that's the case, then several members of the American League champion Tampa Bay Rays received their master's degrees while they played for the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits.
Eight players on the Rays 2008 postseason roster at one point called Montgomery, Ala., home. Of those who donned the Biscuits uniform, three were part of back-to-back Southern League championship teams from 2006-07.
"There have been a lot of people who have asked me, 'This is really, really far from Montgomery, huh?'" said outfielder Fernando Perez, who played for the Biscuits in '07. "My response is no, it felt really similar. Each and every one of the guys wanted to win that [championship] game in Montgomery as much as we wanted to here. There are just more strangers interested in the outcome of the game now we're in the Major Leagues."
Montgomery became a part of the Rays universe in 2004, when the organization relocated its Double-A affiliate, the Orlando Rays, to Alabama. Since then, it's been a lovefest, with terrific attendance and two titles to help the cause.
As much as the club's winning ways bred success at the gate, it was the players themselves who really rallied the community behind the team. Over the years, Biscuit fans have seen B.J. Upton, Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Evan Longoria, David Price and Perez show off their skills.
The Biscuits may have only been baking since 2004, but the people of Montgomery are well aware that their players often quickly become big leaguers. And not just any big leaguers, but ones who are World Series contenders.
"It's a grassroots enterprise a lot of people are eager to support," Perez said. "I saw that in all the places I played. People were excited in the direction of the Rays and were excited to have one of their teams because they got the sense they were seeing guys up close who were on the way to doing something special in the Major Leagues."
Once a Braves haven, Montgomery is tilting toward the Rays these days."It's inevitable," Tocco said. "If you're a fan of the Biscuits, you have to be a fan of the Rays now." Tocco recalls Longoria's triumphant stay in 2006, when he arrived in August and helped drive the team to the Southern League title. The big moment, said Tocco, came in the first round of those 2006 playoffs, when Longoria's two-run walk-off homer in the ninth broke a scoreless tie and sent the Biscuits to the finals.
"There was no doubt he was the heart and soul of our team, and he hadn't been with us for more than a month," recalled Tocco. "[He] had been a pro for only half of a summer."
Then there's Price, who came to Montgomery inJune 2008 after just six professional starts. The hard-throwing lefty went 7-0 with a 1.89 ERA in nine starts for the Biscuits before moving up to Triple-A. It was a brief stop, but one Biscuit fans won't forget anytime soon.
"When he came to us, no one could believe how talented he was, even being the No. 1 pick," Tocco said. "No one could believe he had pitched only six games as a pro."
Seeing him do that for the Biscuits and now for the Rays, it's no wonder Montgomery has been transformed. Regardless of the outcome of this World Series, the city's ties to Braves nation have long since faded.
"You see more Rays caps and jerseys every time you go out to the park," Tocco said. "Montgomery has become an unofficial hotbed of Rays fans."
Jonathan Mayo is a Senior Reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.