The Orlando Rays of Orlando, Florida, played seven seasons in the Southern League. In that time period, they served as the Double-A affiliate of three major league teams–the Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners, and Tampa Bay Devil Rays. There are many unusual qualities about this short-lived team, and they are, in my opinion, one of the weirdest minor league teams of all time.
In the early nineties, there was a Southern League team called the Orlando Sun Rays, who played their games in ancient Tinker Field. Though this team sometimes called itself the Orlando Rays, using sort of a nickname for their nickname, this is a separate team identity from the focus of this DIA entry, despite it being the same franchise. The SunRays switched affiliations to the Chicago Cubs and took on COTOB identity for four seasons. Following the 1996 season, the Orlando Cubs’ ownership changed their nickname to the Rays, despite remaining affiliated with Chicago. This was a strange situation all around. I wish I had more detailed information, but I can relay what I know and speculate about the rest. Some time in 1995, after Tampa Bay was awarded an expansion team, they announced the Devil Rays nickname and unveiled their uniforms–all this despite not beginning play till 1998. Apparently, there was a handshake agreement that Orlando would become Tampa’s Double-A team down the line, and Orlando went ahead and, in a very rare move, preemptively changed their identity. They took on an abbreviated (and prophetic) nickname, and even used altered versions of Tampa Bay’s yet-to-see-the-field uniforms and logos.
There are so many questions that bubble up here. It makes sense that both Orlando and Tampa Bay would want to team up, as the regional affiliation surely bolstered both brands. Orlando benefited from the expansion marketing buzz, and Tampa Bay was able to spread brand awareness in a large, nearby city. But which team drove the early identity switch? Why did they go with just Rays instead of Devil Rays? Was it for the same reasons that Tampa Bay changed their nickname ten years later? Should I consider the Orlando Rays to be a DimDer? So many questions.
The Cubs affiliation with the Rays only lasted one year, though in that year, you had Kerry Wood in proto-Tampa gear, with future Tampa Bay Ray José Molina serving as battery mate behind the dish. Let’s remember that they were still a Cubs affiliate. However, even though Tampa Bay began playing in 1998, Orlando signed a one-year PDC with the Seattle Mariners. Neither the Devil Rays nor the Diamondbacks had Double-A teams that year, so I’d venture that the delay was due to either the time lag in Double-A expansion or a lack of players needed to fill out minor league rosters. The Mariners year didn’t add much to Orlando’s alum list, unless you count future unsuccessful Mets’ manager Mickey Callaway or one game played by Joel Piñeiro.
Finally, in 1999, Orlando was fully affiliated with their namesake. The Rays-Devil Rays connection lasted for five years, and yielded future standouts like Aubrey Huff, Carl Crawford, Josh Hamilton, Melvin “BJ” Upton, and Jonny Gomes. Also, pitcher Jim Morris, for whom the movie The Rookie was based, warmed up in Orlando before making his big-league debut in Tampa Bay. In the movie, Dennis Quaid, playing Morris, suits up for Orlando.
In 2000, the team moved out of Tinker Field and into Champion Stadium, part of the Atlanta Braves’ spring training facility in the Walt Disney World Resort. By all appearances, the Orlando Rays would seem like a team set up for success. One would think that a minor league team playing in a state-of-the-art stadium in a high-traffic tourist area in a large city within the geographic footprint of a regional MLB team would be vital and draw well, but alas, this was not how the cookie crumbled. Attendance lagged and interest dwindled. After all the preparation to become Tampa Bay’s pre-made COTOB, the team was moved to Alabama following the 2003 season. The Montgomery Biscuits remain affiliated with the major league (just) Rays to this day, and we will never forget the Orlando Rays, one of the weirdest minor league teams ever.
Post-script: There’s one posthumous story to share from this team. In 2016, following the Orlando nightclub shooting incident, the Tampa Bay Rays paid tribute by wearing Orlando Rays caps in a game against the Giants, more than a decade after the minor league team went belly up. A patch reading “Orlando” was placed above the existing Rays on the team’s jerseys, and for that one day, the Orlando Rays played again. It was a brilliant and heartfelt tribute, and it left me wondering whose idea it was and where they got all those defunct caps on short notice.