Rays will be last team standing in '14

"This is one of those places where you get to be yourself," says DeJesus, who played for five teams before getting traded to Tampa Bay in August, then couldn't wait to sign a two-year deal with the Rays over the winter. "You get to let your skills shine out there, and you can be yourself. Joe always encourages you to have other passions off the field. He wants you to come to the field prepared to focus for three or four hours and then go get your mind off the game. I never had a manager like that. And that's probably why he wins year after year after year."

Well, it isn't the only reason he wins. But it is a reason a team with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball has become almost a cult baseball destination.

How often do you hear it said, about a previously troubled player like Yunel Escobar, that if he can't play for Joe Maddon, he can't play anywhere? Well, that's by design, a bonus even Friedman admits he factors into roster construction.

"We get a tremendous amount of respect and discipline because we give them so much freedom," Maddon says. "You can't give a bunch of fifth graders that kind of freedom. I'm talking about a professional, accountable group of people. But when you give them freedom to be themselves, to express themselves ... I believe you're going to get so much more in return, as opposed to dictating to these people all the time, telling them how to do things, how to wear the uniform, how to wear their hair, you can't have a tattoo, whatever, how you dress getting on an airplane."

In a related development, this is a team that always seems to outperform its projections year after year. So one of these years, doesn't it seem logical that it's going to outperform itself all the way to the top of the World Series mountain top?

Well, why not this year? Why not this team? Even in the mighty AL East, there's no reason this Rays team can't be The One. And the players who have to make that happen already sense it.

"I don't want to jinx anything," says Cobb, "but this has a magical feeling already."

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