August 2009

Rays are Truly Affordable!


The more I looked underneath the Jumbotron, the more I wanted to go up there with my camera and save this moment forever. Shining under that jumbo picture of Ben Zobrist was a mountain of aluminum casting light prisms all over the rightfield outfield. Tonight was a special night of celebration for the Tampa Bay Rays. It was the night for the fans to feast on the accolades thrust upon the team by ESPN,The Magazine , which made the Tampa Bay Rays franchise the “Most Affordable” sports option in sports.  So the Rays decided to have a festival with their fans and made last night the “Even More Affordable Night” to celebrate with the fans, and we got the treasures.

That is right, the most affordable team in sports in the United States, which included data obtained from every NHL, NFL, NBA and MLB teams.  From sea to shining sea it would be the Rays all day and all night for that honor. This was given to the Rays in combination with all their great ticket options and special pricing to induce fans to come on out to the ball park this season. Yes, it was .50 cent hot dog night, which was also expanded to include $1 Cracker Jack and $1 8 oz. Peanuts. And this was not a scaled down “kid-size” hot dog or Cracker Jack, but the regular size that would set you back at least $4  for each item any other night of the season.

Have to admit I did take in $4 of the fun last night, which included a bag each of Cracker Jacks and Peanuts, and 4 steaming hot dogs. But there were other fans who went by me with a mountain of dogs and headed for the condiment trays to even add further weight to their trays. The success of the event might have been induced a bit by hunger, but the numbers last night are a bit mind boggling. The concession booths at Tropicana Field on a normal day sells 3,000 of those ballpark classics during every game. 

But last night that number topped over 24,000 hot dogs with the stadium still selling and counting them after they did an initial count after the seventh inning. With that total rising even higher before the end of the game, I think we can say that the crowd of 18,474 took full advantage of the event and chowed down to their hearts content. I am so glad I was not a part of that cleaning crew last night picking up that sea of discarded aluminum foil scattered into all regions of the stadium.

In July, ESPN the Magazine’s seventh annual “Ultimate Standings” ranked the Tampa Bay Rays as the No. 1 professional sports team in Affordability, out of 122 Major League Baseball, NBA, NFL and NHL franchises.

Affordability was one of eight categories analyzed in the Ultimate Standings, which were compiled based on fan feedback. Other categories included Bang for the Buck, Fan Relations, Ownership, Stadium Experience, Players, Coaching and Title Track (championships already won or expected in the lifetime of current fans).

Overall, the Rays finished No. 3 among the 30 MLB teams and No. 16 in all of professional sports. Teams were measured on how much they “give back to the fans in exchange for all the time, money and emotion the fans invest in them.” Among MLB teams, the Rays ranked No. 3 in Bang for the Buck and No. 4 in Fan Relations. This is not a huge move up in the poll for the Rays, who in 2008 ranked third among all franchises in Affordability in ESPN the Magazine’s 2008 rankings and 75th overall.

But the Rays are not the only team to have some great option available for fans this season. The Milwaukee Brewers have a special value way up in the cheap seats(Upper Deck) where they sell 200 “Uecker Seats” that sell for only $1 seats only on game day.  The event is to honor the old 1980’s Miller Lite commercials featuring Bob Uecker with binoculars sitting up there enjoying the game and a Miller Lite. And considering the park is named Miller Park, it seems only natural to honor Uecker and the bubbly adult beverage.

If you head to Petco Park to watch the San Diego Padres play, you can get a “5 for $5” deal that includes a hot dog, 22-ounce soda, medium popcorn, small bag of peanuts and a large cookie (hopefully chocolate chip) for only $ 5 on game days.  And if for some reason might like a bigger boost than soda, you can add a frothy beverage for an additional $5.

The Minnesota Twins even took advantage of one of are darkest days in the stock market to come up with a “Black Monday” promo where the cost of a Home Run Porch ticket would be based on how the Stock Market closed the previous day. For example, if the Dow closed at 8,000, then tickets to this section would sell for $8 the next day.

On special date throughout the season the Toronto Blue Jays hold a special section in the stadium for stroller parking, a private changing area, diapers, wipes, and juice and snacks for all the kids–all at no additional cost to the parents. Only thing needed now would be a babysitter to watch the kids as you take in the game from your seats.

And if your group needs to be a bit older and you have a huge list of friends in your cellphone program, you should head down to a Florida Marlins game where on Mondays the team gives out $ 25 vouchers for every carpool of at least 4 people. And every Monday through the end of August, if you are unemployed, you can get up to 4 complimentary tickets. So if you have four unemployed friends, and one with a car, you can make a night of it out in the sweat-inducing heat of South Florida on Monday nights.

Oh, and onto that special section I spoke about before at the beginning of the blog. It seems that the Cowbell Posse last night decided to dig into their collective piggy banks and bought a steaming mountain of meaty goodness (120 hot dogs) and even tossing one to Baltimore Orioles starter Jamie Guthrie during Batting Practice. Well the legend of cowbell followers during the game handed out hot dogs to anyone who wanted them, taking down the wall of aluminum sitting on the back wall of the Trop.

Leaving the stadium I saw a huge amount of people looking for antacids and even Pepto to calm down their inner food binge actions last night. I have to admit I did feel a bit fuller than usual, but I am chalking that up to the 4-game win streak and not the hot dogs. Check with your local team for their exclusive savings days or special pricing plans throughout the season.

Every team in the MLB knows that times are tough for a lot of their faithful fans, and each team has exclusive events and pricing that could fir your budget for an enjoyable night out at the ballpark before the end of the 2009 season. So with only about 4 1/2 weeks left in the regular season it is time for you to again make a pilgrimage to your local ballpark and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells that make baseball the best sport on earth.

Maddon has gone to the Dark Side

You knew it was coming up and you had an odd feeling someone was going to do a wild antic to celebrate the next road trip,which had been dubbed the “Ring of Fire” Johnny Cash tribute tour by Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon. When they boarded that plane this Sunday it was to be an all-black extravaganza, no blues, reds or even whites, just plain, simple black-on-black. But you would have never expected the silver fox himself would be the one to trump everyone in the locker room with his actions.

Or should we say the new “Clark Kent” of the Rays clubhouse went to the dark side. I really think Maddon went above and beyond the call of duty on the Rays day off and took an extreme turn with his silver locks and transported his folicles to a place that they had not been since his 20’s. He went totally black. Yes,black as the night in a tunnel. As dark as the black letters being typed on this blog.

And some outside of the Rays fandom might think this might be too much of an extreme measure to be taken at such an important and critical segment in the Rays season,but if you are questioning it at all,then you have not been paying attention to the savant skipper. The guy is a walking encyclopedia of witty sayings, optimistic quotes. Maddon recently told the St Petersburg Times:

“I was going to wait until Sunday night to do it, then I thought why not in advance just to get it out there, loosen things up a bit. I think we’ve been playing hard, we definitely careI’ve been looking for an avenue to lighten things up a bit. So I went with darker hair to lighten things up bit.


Chris O’Meara / AP

 The Rays have never had such a thinker as a player or manager before Maddon stepped into this clubhouse. Sure former Manager Lou Pinella did sport blond locks on the side of his head for a while after the team fulfilled a promise of a 3-game winning streak in 2003,but if this little experiment works,if those 25 guys in that clubhouse follow the lead and continue onward and upward in the Wild Card standings then maybe the Mensa society of Tampa Bay should have a chat with the Rays skipper.

And to really think beyond the box here,this could be this season’s Rayshawk”. Think about it for a moment,most of the current Rays already sports dark hair,but there are a few holdouts with the golden locks or reddish tints to their hair follicles. But could it only be a matter of time before they to, follow the skipper and make it a massive statement or show their pride in the “2009 Rays Way” of thinking.

Maddon did it to drum up confidence and excitement in the clubhouse. B J Upton did his  initial mohawk in 2008 as a change of pace to pump up the energy level a notch and show his support for the team heading towards the playoffs last season. Others quickly followed on the team and soon we had an army of  finely sculptured hair challenged fans and players who sported the “Rayshawk” look all the way into the World Series. This darkend hair statement could be the 2009 version.

For some it might take a bit more commitment than others. Rays reliever/closer J P Howell might be one of the guys to next take the ultimate “Sharpie” inspired coloring to his head along with uber-infielder Ben Zobrist. Maddon has chatted with both of them, and knowing the commitment to this team of both of them, I am expecting darker beards and hair by tonight’s game. If Howell did go “dark” he might look more like a cast member of “Grease” than a baseball player,but it would be an outward statement to the team and the fans.

For Zobrist, it would just be another evolution in the “Zorilla” persona and might bring him back to his earlier season glory at the plate. The one guy who the look might fit perfectly would be catcher Gregg Zaun. It would transform him into an instant band member of ‘Seether” or “Metallica” if he took his reddish-brown locks and went into the dark with the tint. But the one true test on the team, the one that would stand out the most might be with the guy you would never expect it from……..Gabe Gross.

Chris O’Meara / AP

Gross is that All-American,apple pie and Chevrolet kind of guy. Back home Americana reeks off of him. For Gross to go the “Goth way” would not only send shock waves through rural Alabama, but send a rush of excitement and energy into the crowd at Tropicana Field. There is no doubt tha
t the mental image of Maddon taking a chance like this with his hair, and the Rays trying to boost themselves back into a tight Wild Card race do notseem to have parallel paths.

But Maddon is a genius with motivation and leading by example and by showing his own personal level of commitment by altering his hair, it might be the perfect visual key to unlack the Rays potential right now. It is the motivational process in its simpliest forms. Maybe it took only a smattering of hair dye by Maddon’s new blushing bride Jaye, but it was a huge outplaying of total commitment by the skipper to his team, and to their goals in 2009. In the end, it would be a fitting tribute to Johnny Cash who wrote a song entitled “Man in Black” in 1971. In the song is the following line that just might fit the reason Maddon took this chance:


“We’re doing mighty fine I do suppose/In our streak of lightning cars and fancy clothes/But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back/Up front there ought to be a man in black.”

Gameworks Shindig was a Total Blast!


What better way to celebrate a series ending victory than take a group of 10,000+ of the Rays biggest supporters to a place in Ybor City that celebrates the kid in all of us. And boy, did we all have a great time and also get a few great moments playing game with and against some of those same guys who took the field that very same afternoon. It is an event I have been looking forward to every since the invitation hit my mailbox, and the Rays Email system must have gone nuts with how fast I responded to the RSVP.

Yesterday was the Second Annual ( hopefully more) Season Ticketholder event at Gameworks in Ybor City. Now if you have never been in a Gameworks, think Dave and Busters on PED’s with a gleaming polished metallic finish that would send anyone into “Kid Mode”. Now I have been to both of these events, and let me tell you this season’s events kicked some royal booty. Missing were some of the Rays stars, but the entire rotation of James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, David Price and Jeff Niemann hit the event to show their support to the fans.

But they were not the only ones to come on out and see the masses in this crowded but truly spectacular event put on by the Group Sales Department of the Tampa Bay Rays. The Bullpen was also very heavily represented with Randy Choate, Lance Cormier, Grant Balfour, Brian Shouse and J P Howell holding court near the racing games and near the “Dance, Dance Revolution” platform. But not to be forgotten was some of the guys who also play out in the field for the Rays who made the journey over to Ybor City. Ben Zobrist and Dioner Navarro came on out to represent the guys who play in the infield, and Gabe Gross and Gabe Kapler also made the event along with B J Upton last night to show the love from the Rays outfield. 


But even with people clammering (myself included) to get personal pictures and autographs from the fans, I could see that the guys truly enjoyed their time out with the fans last night. Shouse and Choate were even able to blend in and play a few games before some people noticed they were there last night. But some of the true hits of the night were delivered by the Group Sales Department as they again put on a first class event. From the photo opportunity area where you could be put into a Rays photo, to the awesome stuff given away as door prizes, the event sparkled from the first fan entering the building. And it was great seeing these guys out and about not in uniform and enjoying themselves.

And some lucky fans even got to race or play against some of the players during the night festivities. I remember seeing Kazmir in the back of the Game Room playing an NBA game against a fan and it was a highly contested game with a lot of great plays by both until someone had to lose. But the true hit of the night for me was the fact that 6 foot 9 inch Jeff Neimann got up on the “Dance, Dance Revolution” stage and strutted his stuff. I was in such awe of the event I forgot to pop my camera into video mode and film the entire wild and crazy event. But I have to tell you, once he got the hang of it all, the guy held his own on the dance floor, or platform.

I did not see Rays Manager Joe Maddon, but Rusty, the Rays game day host was remarking (joking) that he was holding a wine tasting seminar in the corner of the bar area. From seeing people like Matt Silverman, the numero uno of the Rays, to Andrew Friedman, the Vice President of Baseball Operations out in the crowd was fantastic. Oh, and Andrew, I truly loved the photo of the top of your head in my picture with Ben Zobrist, but I laughed out loud when I saw it. Some days I have wanted to pick your brain about the team, but never thought I would get a photo of the “brains” of the Baseball Operations group.


But what makes this such a great events is the milling of the Front Office guys and the players and the fans themselves just discussing everything from baseball to the chocolate fountain that is always the highlight of the event. I got lucky enough to be photographed last season at the fountain, but this year I kept an eye out for the camera. Just to see that light blue, dark blue and yellow chocolate flowing out of the top of the fountains crowned with a triangle of baseballs was tremendous.

And again, the food was one of the true stars of the evening. From the beautiful ladies handing me pot stickers or small wrapped tasty morsels, to the cute and personable bartenders, this was a night to celebrate everything Rays. From the hot stations in the front area of the party, to the temporary apps station piled upon the ticket counters, it was a feast made for a king. And if you did not try the roast beef, you missed out on some fantastic meat with a juicy and succulent au jus.

But the evening had to end sometime, and even as it neared 10:30 pm Garza was still laughing and holding court near the back game room. Gabe Kapler had left by then with his two boys, but he was the perfect doting Dad last night. By the time I left, or my card read only 100 minutes left on it, there was a light rain falling outside, but it felt great on the skin after all the sweating I did beating some unnamed pitcher on “Dance, Dance Revolution” score 1 for the old jock. I know I had a tremendous time, and the Group Sales guys and gals have to feel great about this event.


The sheer fact that so many people fit into that small place and left with smiles should be a great indicator of the event. And my ticket rep, Craig Champagne was there from start to finish. I have to tell you a wild story about that night concerning Craig. My game card did not work and I asked him if anyone else had that problem. Well, instead of making me plow my way back to the front, he took the card and return within minutes with a
new one for me to use.

A small minor flaw that night was quickly fixed and repaired like new by one of the Group Sales best guys. Seriously, me not playing shooting and alien-killing games might have put a damper on my night. Then I would have had to sample a few more intoxicating beverages, and enjoy the view. But in the end, I was physically exhausted and sore, was full of great food and spirits and did not want to leave. But as I walked to my car parked in the Centro Ybor Parking Garage I was already flipping through the memories and the sights of the night in my mind.


This season there have been some changes in the Season Ticket realms. Some things have been scaled back,some things have changed,but all in all,this event is still a benchmark of the dedication and the commitment of the Rays to the fans who attend so many baseball games. It was a great environment to see so many people you knew, and would get to know have a great time by themselves and with their kids. I know I am already with a red marker ready to circle the 2010 date to do it all again.

Trop renamed “Love Shack” for 24 hours

I was a lot younger guy in the early 1980’s,when Southern regional bands like the B-52s,Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and REM would come into local joints and arenas and set my future musical tone while I was attending the University of Florida. These bands always seemed to be encircling the Gainesville area and would play long and extended sets of great music that we all danced and sang to late into the night. It was that same vibe that hit me Saturday night during the Tampa Bay Rays Saturday Night Concert Series when one of my all time favorite bands,the B-52s came to send us home with songs in our heads and more memories of the group.

But what amazed me most was the fact that throughout all those years and all those countless albums they have put out, the same great sound and energy still came flowing off that stage. Sure Cindy and Ricky Wilson, and the ever present Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider have aged,but  their voices are still the sounds of my generation. Sure all of them might have changed a bit, but so have I. But in reality, when the voices began ringing in the Trop., I was transformed back to one of those local beer points in G-ville that proclaimed a huge sign out side telling us they had a ” LIVE BAND“.


One of the greatest moments of the concert was hearing the high feminine harmonies of  Wilson and my favorite redhead belting out vocals like they were still in her 20’s. They say that music can make you feel young, and that night I was again a feisty 19-year old kid wanting to hear some great music spending some quality time with other people dancing. I took another huge collection of pictures and spent most of Saturday night in a friend’s bar editing and deleting multiple shots and out of focus shots because of my dancing with a few fans in the stands and on the field. Or maybe it was the energy of everyone on the stage that put some of them out of focus.

Another highlight of the evening to me was the fact Fred became a member of the Rays Republic that night when he took a black Latin Percussion cowbell with a Rays logo and a pink bat on stage and used it during two songs. The cowbell might have been drowned out a bit by the great electric guitar riffs by Ricky Wilson and  and the drums, but the sight itself was amazing to see from the crowd. Gone were the old mile-high beehive hairdos that might have sparked the creation of Marge Simpson’s hair, but the girls still had that late 70’s-80’s vibe going on with their stylish gowns to Pierson’s great mini skirt.


It was a chance for me to get back into that early 80’s groove that I miss so much unless I hit Itunes or pop a CD in the car on the way to a game. I know most of the people who read these blogs were either not born,or very young when the B-52s first came out with their first album,but hearing my favorites “Own Private Idaho” and “Roam” played again live was instant ear candy to me. And to see the 29,000+ fans turn Tropiciana Field into a dance club was beyond words. There was dancing all over the outfield stage area and even in the stands as their songs rang throughout the stadium. I even heard people chanting and signing on the way into the parking lot to the songs that still echoed in their ears and minds.

I do have one complaint, but it is not a big one,or one that will ruin the night. I was really hoping to hear “Channel Z”,but it was left off the set list. I know it did not get onto the set list because a woman sitting near the 146 section of the stadium after the concert had it taped to her chest. She had gotten one of the guys on the B-52s sound board to give it to her as a memento of the evening. He son even got a current copy of their CD up to them and Pierson and Schneider signed it for him. How awesome is that for that young fan!


I am going to let you in a little bit of B-52s trivia right now.  the correct name of the band for most of their careers was “The B-52’s”,but in 2008 they dropped the apostrophe with their website and their new album “Funplex” showing the new name of the group. I have also put their name throughout this blog in their new name to also promote the fact for the public. Some people consider them a soft rock and roll band, but I think of them as just a Southern New Wave band that came out of the Athens, Georgia area and changed a generation.

I do not think every stadium does this type of musical event, but they should. Not only does it get fans who usually do not attend baseball games a taste of the sport, but it gets fans more excited to come to Saturday night games. I know in the past I have seen or heard of concerts after games at Safeco Field and Royals Stadium in Kansas City,but for some reason it just feels better and sounds amazing when I am at my home field. 


The sound coming off the stage did not seem as crisp and as fresh as the “Daughtry” show, but I found out it was a smaller set of speakers and the sound was directed more towards the vast parts of the stadium. Even if some in the stadium did only get muffled sounds,but the B-52s lived up to their hype and turned this old dome into a true “Love Shack” for everyone to enjoy and celebrate the Rays winning, and the essence of great 80’s music. When you have groups of people still singing your songs on the way out of a baseball stadium……….You know you still got it as musicians.

I could Never be a Mascot!


Renegade’s Note:

I know I have been a bit intense the last few posts, so I am going to venture into my light-hearted side today and see if I can bring some joy and smiles back into my blog today. I look forward to the next few days to write about some more positive adventures that hopefully will be a relief to the muck and mud we are experiencing right now.

You see them every game doing unusual things and even driving those crazy motorized vehicles allover the field and you wonder to yourself, just how  hard a  job could  that be?, or that a trained monkey could do that job. And I admit it, I have wondered if I could do a better job, or might have a better dance routine or skit in me that I could perform in that furry costume.

Sure we all think, and some of us know we are funnier, more athletic, and certainly more friendly to kids than the people currently in those big, bulky suits.  But little do we know that according to a recent poll, that being a team mascot is one of the ten worst jobs in sports. And in baseball, most of your time is spent in the stands and not on the sidelines like during a football game. If you have a phobia with people, or touching, this will not work out for you, no matter how funny or personable you are in real life.

And we have all collectively wondered why this would be considered a hard job? Come on entertaining kids and frolicking around in a suit incognito would be fun. You can insult the opponents fans in the name of game humor, you can spray silly string into the mugs of sarcastic and beer-induced adults, and you even get paid for it. But before you go all gung-ho looking in your local paper or team website for a want ad seeking a mascot, you might want to consider a few things.

First off, I think you have to be pretty secure with being “yourself” to know you are not going to do anything to ruin the illusion of your  team’s character.  That might include something as simple as not speaking at all while you are in a costume. Seriously, even if the guy in the third row gives you a perfect line and you have the perfect response, you have to grin and bear it, or in this case, non-verbally get him back maybe with that silly string. Ahhh, got to love props! 

And that in its own rights might be an art form. I know that might be a  really hard thing for me to digest at certain times.  I see the Rays mascot Raymond doing head nods and hand gestures like he is chatting with the crowd, but in reality is is just motions and no sound.  You also see Raymond doing weird and wild dance routines and crowd inducing skits to get the crowd into the game not thinkig of the time it takes to master those simple movements in that furry suit.

And just like you, I would think I could do a lot of things better, faster and with more personality than the current occupant of the furry wondersuit. But there are a some really big hazards to worry about before you hit the sunlight and cheers of the fans. If you have even the smallest hints of claustrophobia, you will be in really big trouble. You can be in that suit pretty much for most of the game, or maybe only 15 to 20 minutes at a time with people all around you calling your name and you have a tunnelvision view of the world. Voices seem to come from everywhere and you might not even hear the small voice of a child just underneath you at times.

Plus people forget that since you are enclosed in a huge furry suit, your body heat will accumulate and build up and you will end up with sweat on sweat before the night is over.  So dehydration will be a constant enemy of yours, and you will have to fight it again and again  even at nighttime. And those game days in Texas must be murder on your body considering it might be 100 degrees outside, but maybe approaching 150+ in that costume for just a few minutes jaunt in the stands.

 Plus, if you are like me and not a huge “touchy feely” person, the constant barrage of fingers and hands pulling you and touching parts of your costume might freak you out a bit during your job. And kids do not know that you are getting tugged from both directions at the same time. And with your tunnel vision, sometimes you might turn away from a small child wanting a hug or a autograph from you. And you do not want to upset your littliest fans, for they go tell mom and dad, then you have bigger problems.

And  all of this is just a small sliver of what is your job. You might think it is just a fun fest with fur, but with all the joy and the happiness you can bring to the crowd, you are always just a step away from maybe even getting hurt yourself. I remember Raymond, the Rays mascot a few years ago was in rightfield getting the crowd into the game and Raymond stepped onto the top rail to get above the crowd. Raymond slipped and fell 12 feet to the turf and hurt himself badly, but he never went out of character as Raymond sprinted towards the sidelines and his waiting handler.

And other people, including the baseball players do not always take into consideration that you are there for fun and games. Some take you taunts and mannerisms to heart and get offended. None really try to hurt you, but you do not need the odd baseball smacking you in the costume headpiece because you upset a team’s shortstop. It is a huge give and take job with everyone outside the costume. And some people get with the program, and others lose their sense of humor in a flash.

But it might be a reality of the job that on any given night no matter what you do, someone will be upset with you that night. You might not have seen the cute little girl tugging on your costume and barreled over her by accident. Or you might have someone wanting a picture, but you are in an area that any picture taking will block the field view of fans, and they do remind you that you are blocking their view of the pitch 250 feet away. Or something as simple as a popcorn prank could backfire and you get a fan complaint to the front office.

And all of this is done for what, the money? Only a small handful of mascots get paid really great money. Most do it more for the rush they get when the crowd follows their lead, or even shows some affection towards their costumed persona. And some mascots really have to change themselves and their “game time”  personalities during their time in costume. And the costume can be its own drug, with a rush of adrenaline and a need for the attention even after you take the sweaty, musty costume off for the day/night.

But most of all, you have to remember that most people can not even know who you are, or what it is you do for the team.  You might walk around the stadium with that “All Access” badge, and  some will question why you have tht right and they do notno one will every know why you get such treasured rewards. You have to stay unknown to the fan base. You can not do interviews in costume because your character doesn’t speak in real life. It can be a hard adjustment to make, and few people can pull it off without a hitch.  It is a busy and silent world within a hectic, frantic world that can not tolerate any slight deviation from the plan.

It is a job we all think we can do better, faster and with more excitement. But the reality is that we have no idea how we would even begin such a journey. I know it is a job I  personally could not do because of some of the physical requirements now. I know the touching from behind by tons of kids and fans would drive me personally nuts, and tasting my own sweat while working is no longer in my job description.

So if you are a Major League mascot and I come up and I shake your hand, it is not for a photo op, but because you do a job I know I can not do in real life. You do your duties under circumstances and conditions that would totally freak me out. But most of all it is a simple handshake to tell you I understand a bit more now of what you do for a living, and the care and preparation you go through to do just a 5 minute bit in front of the crowd. So if  you really think you can do it……..Go for it!  Myself, I am happy in my corner front row seat watching the mascot do his magic and wondering what they are going to do next.

Ending to the Percival Drama



When the Rays visited the Los Angeles Angels this past week they got some good or bad news depending on how you see the situation. During their 3-game series, Rays closer Troy Percival finally admitted to the media and his teammates what most of us knew the moment he went on the Disabled list on May 22,2008 with shoulder tendinitis. I take it as no huge surprise that he did retire, but I am so curious on why it took so long. And adding to that is the fact he has not started his retirement papers, probably waiting to see what might happen with the Rays in their chase of the postseason in 2009.

I know he can not and will not be added to the roster for the playoffs even if they make it again this season, but the fact he might be holding out for the last crumb of his 2-year $8 million contract might just be added incentive to delay the paperwork a few months. And this can finally end the speculation and the drama involved in why we have seen him only once since he went on the disabled list in late May. The only other time I have seen him in uniform for the Rays was on Saturday, June 1st, the same night as the Rays post game Three Doors Down concert. I got some exclusive photos of the recluse closer as he came back into Tampa Bay to discuss his rehab plans with the team.

But I guess with a guy like Percival, you have to take the good with the bad. But there are a few situation that rubbed me the wrong way about the feisty closer. Believe me, I appreciate the 28 saves he got the team in 2008, and that the team posted a 34-1 record when he hit the mound, but some of the negatives should also be sounded out today. Those 28 saves were the fifth largest amount in Rays history, but Percival also only had 1 save after August 13th. Add onto that the fact he collected 19 of those saves and posted a 3.54 ERA before the All Star break. After the All Star break, he only saved 9 games and posted a 6.11 ERA for the Rays.  

And that 34-1 record can be a bit deceiving at times. Sure they won 34 games when he hit the mound, but people forget he did blow three saves during that stretch and the Rays offense ended up getting him off the hook for the loss. The only loss suffered in that span was during a September 6, 2008 game in Rogers Centre, in Toronto where current Ray Gregg Zaun hit a grand slam home run off Percival to seal the Blue Jays win. But another situation might keep Percival’s name on Trivial Pursuit games for the rest of time. 

Anyone sitting in their seats on September 3, 2008 at Tropicana Field will not forget this game any time soon. In that contest against the New York Yankees, Percival took the mound in the final inning and faced Alex Rodriguez. what ended up happening will keep the Rays and Percival on the tips of people tongues for a long time. Percival threw a hanging breaking ball out over the plate and Rodriguez  hit the ball high and over the leftfield foul pole. The umpire crew could not effectively call the shot and went to perform the first Instant Replay decision in MLB history. The replay result ended up upholding Rodriguez’s 549th career home run in the game.

Chris O’Meara / AP

Strike One

But some of Percival’s action both on the mound and around the Rays in 2008, and this season did get me to question is commitment to the Rays seasons and their ultimate goals. The first might have been after his last DL stint with his injury to his right knee he seemed to disappear from sight from the Rays.  This does not mean he just did not come out to the Bullpen, or even consort with his team, but disappeared totally from sight right after the season ended. Sure he was left off the Postseason roster because of his injuries, but his value to the team then should have been as a clubhouse leader to this pack of guys who had never made it to the playoff before this season.

He could have done some work in the Bullpen just sitting there chatting with your relievers Grant Balfour and J P Howell and mentored them a bit of the difference in postseason and regular season late game strategies. Instead he was probably home in Southern Cali relaxing in the leather recliner watching TBS. And because he did not have his knee operation until after the playoffs were concluded, there was no reason he could not have still been there for his teammates.

Jonny Gomes and Chad Orvella also were not on the post season rosters, but both were there in the dugout with their team mates all throughout the playoffs.  It seemed a guy who was a former coach and also a veteran of playoff games would know his expertise would be a true treasure to the Rays relieving corps, but he was not there for them.

And that was only the first thing that upset me about Percival. The second was the way he used to disrespect his manager Joe Maddon on the mound. I understand passion and a fighter’s mentality of not backing down, but to be focused in by television camera and you can read the words coming off his lips to his manger are unacceptable. The only that has stayed in my mind was this season in Baltimore when Maddon went to the mound and did not even get to Percival before the argument had started and both men were seen jawing at each other in heightened voices until Maddon ended up taking the ball from Percival.

Strike Two

Add that to the public display that came after the Sunday May 4th game in which a fan did not see Rays third baseman Evan Longoria coming into the third baseline seats just beyond the visiting dugout for a foul pop up. The ball ended up only going about three seats deep and Longoria did come over for the ball and did not voice a peep to his intentions. A fan in that area then made a play on the ball not hearing any vocal announcements and kept the ball from Longoria. Now you have to consider that first, the guy was not looking at Longoria and was trying to get the ball for his 6-year old son. Granted, if Longoria had made some sound, the guy might have pulled back from the ball and this sutation might not have happened at all.

Well, Longoria is throw a few choice words at the guy and gave a few stares after the play, but it was forgotten by Longoria. Not to be outdone, after the last out of the game, Percival again began to yell at the guy with a few choice blue words towards that area of the stadium.  The fits of rage towa
rds the fan by Percival as uncalled for as a professional athlete. Sure the guy made a mistake, but you just saved the win for the team and the guy might have gotten the message. But for Percival to deliver gestures and a few blue-colored words is beyond professional. But what did I expect out of a guy who says the same thing to his team manager.

Strike Three

But since Percival had left the team in 2008 after going on the DL late in the season, why would I think the situation would change in 2009/ When the team did put him on the disabled list on May 22, I like so may other Rays fans knew that he would not be back. Something told me that moment that the closer was not going to be able to rehab his back situation in time to be productive for the team in 2009.  He appeared in only 14 games this season garnishing 6 saves and a 6.35 ERA. Now we all know this is the second year of his $8 million contract, and even if he was put on the DL, he would get that contract fulfilled by the Rays.

But from the moment he went on the DL, to his announcement on Tuesday, we never knew 100 percent where he was headed, or what he might do in the way of rehab or trying to get back to the Rays roster. “I still wish I was out there playing and what have you,” he said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, ” but at least my mind is clear that I know I just physically can’t do it.” Adding to that statement was the fat that up until a month ago he had not even comtemplated any Bullpen sessions to see if he might indeed  have to finish his dreams of retuning to the mound. Percival said he began Bullpen session about a month ago after a call from Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, but after 6 sessions over a Friday-Sunday schedule he knew what the outcome was going to be for him.

Chris O’Meara / AP

He would throw on Friday with little or now pain, then on Sunday would be in extreme pain and finally realized he could not help the Rays again in 2009. “Every Sunday was just awful,” Percival added in a story by Marc Topkins of the St. Petersburg Times. “I could throw okay on Friday but the Sunday one was bad. So it’s just not going to work.”  And so the idea of retiring again as a player resurfaced in Percival’s mind. “I’ve got so many ailments now I don’t see that I can go out an compete at this level anymore,” he said. “I can do it once in a while, maybe once every four or five days, but that’s not good enough at this level.”

But even with the announcement that he will not be back with the team again in 2009, Rays Manager Joe Maddon think the team should have a special day for Percival to ‘celebrate what he has done for the club.”  What? Are you serious Joe? You want me to celebrate a guy who will not put in his retirement papers until after the season to garner the last $1 million on his contract. You want me to again show some sort of hand clapping for a guy who has now abandoned his team twice in two years.

You truly want me to celebrate the ‘Tampa Bay” career of a guy who berated a man and his son after they made an honest mistake during a home game. Most of Percival’s player success happened even before he put on the Rays jersey. Maybe he needs to be celebrated in Anaheim and not Tampa Bay, where he made his reputation. Sorry Joe, I know you had a front row seat to the post season records set by Percival when he was with the Angels, but here in Tampa Bay, I still see his legacy as an unfinished story. If you really want an ending, maybe he should submit those retirement papers and release the Rays from holding a 40-man roster spot with his name on it.  I know he has a million reasons to not consider that option. But, I think that is what you would expect a true professional to do.

Feeling Uncomfortably Numb


Jim Prisching / AP

Sometimes there are moments in a season that make your team and yourself question just what it is you have done all that sweating and work for that season.  Some media minds think that the Tampa Bay Rays did a boatload of overachieving in 2008,and that this season, the true reality is beginning to set in that they are not the same unit. That the team intensity and chemistry is a bit off. That the Rays do not have the same team consistent belief that they can return to the World Series.

And as a fan, you get short glimpses of that team chemistry and that missing hint of cohesion when the team takes the field,and it gets displayed when they react to loss and adversity. Coming into this season’s last West Coast excursion, I felt that the team might be riding a huge wave of emotion and confidence that could pace them for the rest of the season. I really thought it was a time for the team to make a statement and show the Seattle and Los Angeles of Anaheim fans that the American League Championship will again flow through Tampa Bay.

But  something is missing right now. After the fourth loss in a row by this squad last night, I am uncomfortably numb right now. And it is not from the 4 nights of 10:10 pm PST game times,or the fact that it has induced a bit of sleep deprivation right now in me. I am numb to the fact that I might have to accept to the fact that this team is not as good,or as emotionally vested as their 2008 counterparts. I do not question their skills or even their abilities,but I am beginning to question something beyond just the gamesmanship of the Rays.

I am beginning to sense a loss of purpose from this team. From the  player rifts posted in media sources,to the feeling of abandonment both by field players and pitchers alike,this team might be questioning themselves right now. The talent is truly there,the skill levels are going through an ebb and tide, but they are still  seem partially committed to the prize. But my weird gut feeling of a team tearing itself apart from inside their own heads is beginning to materialize to me. And good teams have suffered this before and come out on top,but this has to stop with this afternoon’s game.

Finite,The End, final conclusion. Call it what you want,but it has to have an ending today. It could be a simple fact that this team is just mentally tired and the season’s stress and pressure is gaining a foothold on their minds. Or it could be the realization that some members of this team lack the heart and soul of the Rays Championship team. Baseball seasons  sometimes are viewed as a long, drawn out affair. But in reality, the season flashes by at breakneck speed and September can be too late to fix a leak in a sinking ship.

Right now,at this very moment, the team is doing their pre-game rituals and conditioning drills in preparation for today’s battle. But my concern is the battle each of these guys might be having inside their heads right now. Some are battling inner demons of frustration,and feel under the microscope. Others are struggling with the fact they might have let too much of the season go by before buckling down and getting back into the groove. While others are showing haste and over committing at the plate,where before there was discipline and patience. 


This is not the same squad that took the field and walked that 2008 American League Championship banner to the middle of leftfield and saw it raised to the rafters in Tropicana Field. Oh it has the same team members,but it is not the same committed unit. There are hints of self doubt and a true lack of team confidence flowing from the dugout to the Bullpen. There have been no outward chants or bursts of frustrations beyond a few Gatorade coolers taking a beating, but there are signs. This is a team that is a real need of a bonding moment right now. 

There were several of those key moments in 2008. But the vibe of energy from the guys on the field and the pitchers on the mound have seemed to drift in different directions right now. The team is no longer traveling in a  true straight line. Not that the teams divided path looks like a Etch-a-sketch drawing,but some are showing signs of inner fighting with themselves,while others are voicing out the wrong message. I am not saying they need or have to have a team oriented exercise,but a bowling night or a BBQ besides a pool just might be more conducive to them reconnecting right now.

You see starters trying to pitch above their abilities right now to counter a lack of confidence in the defense behind him. You see another starter trying to use his defense and getting mixed results,which only foster more doubt in the “pitch-to-contact” system. And then you have a player who is beating himself up and can not seem to forgive his shortcomings and maximize his strengths. And below all of this,is a growing sign of the team’s goals slipping away from their fingertips. It is numbing to me to see all of this from a front row seat and can not do anything about it.

I have played on teams like this before,and I do not have the perfect answer. I truly wish I did for this situation. The combined potential on this team is staggering to me at times. But the true fact is that this team doesn’t seem to have the same vibe as the 2008 squad. Last season,during that disaster in Cleveland where the Rays reached a season high 7-game losing streak,you saw guys talking and trying to figure it out. The last few games I have seen down faces on the bench,even when something great happens,there is not that collective “high” or excitement felt by everyone on the bench.

I guess with my emotional attachment to this team I want to have the answer to give to Rays Manager Joe Maddon,but I do not have that magic potion. I want to have that missing puzzle piece that has fallen off this team. That will again make them whole,but the piece is absent right now. I want to see this bench excited,ready to go,and willing lay down a drag bunt to get on base. No one has mailed in this season. No one has quit on their teammates,but the confidence flow seems clogged for some reason.

Elise Amendola / AP

To paraphrase the Jack Nicholson Joker character, maybe this team needs an enema. Not a physical one,but a mental flushing of the doubts,mis-guided moments and flukes that can clog and push
doubts in people’s minds and team chemistry. Maybe they simply need to re-acquire the mindset of a kid playing the game. Sometimes a team can get so into their professional approach that the game gets bogged down in techniques, procedures and scripted plays that they forget to just enjoy playing the game. Oh,I wish it was that simple. 

This last game against the Angels could be extremely important to this team’s mental psyche. Right now they have seen themselves fall off the pace for their goals. They have seen a several games slip through their fingers without grasping it hard and tight. That can mentally wear down your squad and make them begin second guess the team concept. Right now these guys just need to re-commit to themselves first. Re-institute the team challenge to right the ship and take it full steam ahead. Simply,they may need to manufacture their own 2009 “Kumbaya” moment. They might just need to  vocally and collectively again show that they are all on board and re-unite this team with a dose of extreme high voltage energy.

Dear B J ,

Steve Nesius / AP

Hey there B J,

Got to tell you dude, lately you have doing some everlasting damage to your professional credibility here with your present boss, the Rays. Now we have known each other since  you first got called up in September 2001, when you were 17 and a few of us hit a local nightspot after a Yankees/Rays game and danced, chatted and got to know each other. I hope I can write to you as someone who has seen you grow as a ballplayer and offer some advice on your current problems. So take what I am about to say as a buddy just speaking to another buddy from heading towards a dangerous place.

No, it is not like you are attempting to go out on a building ledge and we need to talk you down, but you are in a very critical stage in your professional life where anything said from you right now is taken as gospel.  Now to even speak out of turn until your Batting Average and your fan approval  begins to again go north would be a very critical detour in your career. Seriously dude, when all that garbage came down a few years ago  from the local Durham fishwrap about the “Three Amigos” (Delmon Young, Elijah Dukes and moi) while with the Bulls, I was the guy fighting with Rays fans to see the words did not come from the “true” BJ, but from an “off the record”  BBQ conversation.

You rebuilt those bridges within the organization and showed you were a team player and you rebuilt your image to be sturdy and capable of taking on almost anything. But I have to level with you guy, right now the glaring games with the Umpires and the jawing after called third strikes along with the half efforts at flailing at balls outside the zone are making you look like a shadow of your former self.

E-man, I got to tell you this honestly, for a while there it looked like you were finally crawling out of that deep hole and were again showing that you loved hitting in the lead-off spot, but something suddenly died within your swing. Something zapped that energy and that strong will to strike that small white ball around like a toy.

Why is it that you got so upset about going down in the order? Dude, Joe Maddon has stood by and deflected the daily pot shots at you for so long that maybe he finally decided you needed to show some spunk and intestinal fortitude, and the 7-spot was a chance to sort it all out and still play every day.

Instead we got an entitlement attitude and a sense of lost focus at the plate. Dude, I know you still got it in you. Going down in the order sucks, but you are still living the dream and patroling the center fields of the MLB. And this latest bruhaha about you being moody about going to number 9 spot, Well stop it. I have to go with Maddon on this one dude. You forgot who B J Upton was there for a bit. You forgot the guy who the the opposition  nervous and sweaty while on base.

But If you truly want to know something……. Jason Bartlett did not like or want that lower spot in the either, but he smacked that ball and produced the hits and  drove in those guys in scoring position when you forgot how to play the game for a bit. Through him focusing  all his negative emotions onto his hitting, he got the desired spot he wanted. But he also thought of the nine hole as a “second lead-off” guy. And maybe that is where your mental state should sir right now. You get on base, you got guys coming up right behind you who have your back……everytime.

Chris O’Meara / AP

Understanding that was a move made for the team, not to punish you. It gives you an honest chance to readjust and refocus yourself to become the fiesty outfielder the fans have gotten to know and love. The actions that need to be taken were simple. You just need to now just chill a bit and accept things at the plate. Let Maddon go ot there and argue the balls and strikes.

Right now the more you whine to the guys in blue, the wider the strikezone might get before the end of this season. Smile, walk away and surpise everyone. Right now you are hiding within the shadow of a emerging star. You have not snuffed out the limelight, but it is growing dimmer. By showing maturity at plate, and towards the umpire crews, you will gain back that simple strikezone. Right now, I do not believe the umpires consider you a model citzen of the kingdom of MLB.

Secondly, get over all the chatter and ramblings about C C . I understand he is your sidekick, or vice versa. You guys will always be friends no matter if he plays here for in China. Look at the way CC is handling it, like a professional. He knows baseball is a business and he is hitting and playing like a fiend right now. He knows that the team could re-load the farm system with a trade for him. He is not happy about it, but both of you have seen enough guys come and go from the Ray to know it is not in your hands.

Come on guy, you are better than this B S. you truly know you got the stuff, or you would not be getting the chatter about your  “Web Gem” plays in Centerfield. You are within a whisper of getting your name mentioned with some of the best right now, and you might ruin it by sulking at the plate. Dude, they do not consider guys for the Rawlings Gold Glove Award who whine and sink at the plate. They do not give that beautiful Rawling trophy to guys who hits under .250 and does not look like they are leaders. That award is more than a defensive award, it recognizes the best of the best.

So the decision is yours dude. You know what this team needs right now is another bat to spring out and take control. Pat “the Bat” is beginning to find a small groove. The team has made a trade to get more production, and you now have got to carry your outfield weight. I am not asking you to hit .600 the next two months, but I am asking you go get on base, make pitchers nervous and be the B J we all came to watch play the game.

I got your back no matter what. I know how far you have sunk, and I know it is a tough road. But you got the goods to beat it and go forward from here. So why not take tonight’s game as a “coming out. part 2” party and prove to some of the grumbling factions around the Rays Republic that you might be down, but you are not out.

Gail Burton / AP

Dude, just like the team, you are in a “must win” situation to garner  back the respect and the accolades you have sweated and labored for since that first call-up in 2001. It is time to take the Junior off your name is spirit and play like a man, take it like a man, and if defeated take your licks like a man. You know me, I will fight with words or fists to proclaim you are not a bum.

You have got to show these people the fire is still lit inside you. They think the flame is gone. It is time E-man. Time for you to show why we have been behind you for so long. It can be done with something as simple as a little more concentration and effort. So just think about what I am saying here. Think of what you are tossing to the side with those comments and outward anger. The number 9 slot is still in the lineup, you are not sitting on the bench watching Gabe Kapler or someone from the minor leagues play your spot.

Time to put childish things away like pity parties and temper tantrums and play like a professional again. You wanted this kind of attention and admiration since you were a young kid. Do not throw it all away on an attitude problem that will label you for the rest of your career. Tampa Bay has had this situation before, and his name was Jose Guillen.  Like you, he could play a fantastic outfield, could get the ball anywhere on the field. But he lacked plate discipline and focus. And that is the issue with you right now.

Not a lack of class, but of attitude and disbelief they would drop you down in the order. Remeber BJ, Guillen was here until his contract was up. After that he was free to go and became someone elses worry. I do not want to see you go down the same road. He was a great defender and could play the RF corner better than anyone who has ever put on a Rays jersey, but the drama with him on the team finally got to much. Young and Dukes are also gone because of their internal and external issues and frustrations surfacing at the wrong times.

Dude, all I am asking you to do it be that old BJ. The kid who could not wait to go to the ballpark and play baseball again. I am asking for that guy who used to grin when he got on base, smirk when he stole a base, and pump his fist when he scored a run.  want to see the guy who smiled before, during and after the game again. If not, then all I can say is I told you so.

Spoilers could Ruin the Rays Playoff Party


I am a sucker for those movie teasers. You know the ones I am talking about. The segments taken from the movie that in one minute are better than the 130 minutes you spend sitting in that theater wondering why you spent $ 6 to see this junk. Sometimes I think that baseball has its own set of teasers throughout the season,and that you never know who or what might be playing that spoiler role until after it is all said and done.

Who would have guessed that the teams making a run to take that spoiler role this season would be located beyond the Continental Divide. Who would have believed that the 2009 edition of the Tampa Bay Rays would find trouble on the other side of the country. Even though we are now beginning to turn and burn our way through the 3rd act in the season,there have been a several huge spoiler moments that have been ignored by the Rays fans.

And those shortcomings might be brought back into focus in the next few weeks. I have heard it a few times this season that, ” A loss in April is the same as one in September”, or my new favorite, ” A season is not lost with a loss in April”. I have to say I totally disagree with both of those quotes. A loss anytime is the year will effect you in the end…..period.

The first set of quotes might be true in some people’s minds,but right now with us chasing the pack of New York and Boston in trying to defend our American League East crown, the West is getting mighty testy with the Rays. Having the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners focusing their collective attentions on us to get some wins and boost their own chances in the A L Wild Card race,those April through August losses to this division are beginning to playing out bigger and bigger every day.

Elaine Thompson / AP

It is not to say that the team will not re-right the ship and cruise to a divisional or Wild Card playoff slot,but some of the key losses of the past could come back to sink the Rays ship before October 1st. Take for example our season opening 7-game home stand where the Yankees took 2 out of 3 and the Chicago White Sox took 3 of 4 to put us at an early 2-5  home record to begin the season. It has been forgotten that we let the Yankees take a series from us at home, where in 2008 we  seemed to own everyone in baseball.

In the month of April,the Rays won their first series of the year against the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park,but did not win another series until the Red Sox made their first 2009 visit to Tropicana Field. In that time,the Rays dropped 6 straight series and went 9-14, including going 5-5 against their own AL East foes.

I have always been of the mindset that if you lose one game to your divisional opponent,it will take 2 wins to get back that initial loss. Now that can be spread out over the entire season,but you need those critical rival losses back at some point before the end of the season to compete for that playoff berth. And that same scenario is beginning to play out in the Rays chances for the 2009 playoffs.

If you take their current record of 23-15 against the AL East,it looks like they are within my simple formula for getting to the playoffs. But for some odd reason I forgot to include the spoilers in all of this,the American League West division teams.  It might have been a simple case of out of sight, out of mind, but this division now holds an important key to the Rays playoff hopes. 

I know that seems odd with the Rays having to still play 31 games against their divisional rivals and I am sweating about the 11 games still to play against the AL West squads. But if you think about it,the Rays currently holding a losing record of 8-14 against this division,which includes a 3-game sweep of the Rays by the Texas Rangers during the July 4th weekend.

Steve Nesius / AP

The Angels currently lead their division and look like the team to beat in the West again. But with two of that divisions teams,Seattle and Texas still battling the Rays to stay in the Wild Card Race,every contest against Seattle and Texas will take on New York and Boston importance right now.  I have always boasted a importance in winning our divisional games, but for some reason I lost sight of the guys out West. We are done with one member of that division with our seasonal series against the Oakland A’s completed. But the A’s did take the yearly series 6-4  from us this season.

That only illustrates the fact that we need to win against the West as well as the East the rest of the way. The West could hold the trump card for any of the three getting into the postseason this year. If Texas sinks us in their 6 remaining games against the Rays,it would be a huge blow to any Rays hope for the playoffs. But, we also can not lose sight of the odd mid-week 2-game series against the Mariners at the Trop. either here. Those eight games could mean the difference in a Wild Card berth, or watching on television this October.

The truth be told, we have to worry about the AL East,but we also have to respect what the AL West could do to our playoff dreams. The only team we have a winning record against in 2009 is the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim,who we begin a 3-game series tonight @ 10 pm. It is also the last stop of our 6-game road trip. We have already gone 1-2 on this trip,and might need a sweep to keep us within fighting range in the AL East and put some cushion between us and Seattle in the Wild Card.

And to think of a sweep here in Anaheim is a tall order since the Rays are 1-10 in Anaheim Stadium. The Angels are also playing some pretty fired up ball right now and could be a true test for the Rays. With the Red Sox opening a 4-game series tonight against the Detroit Tigers in Fenway,then heading to Texas and Toronto for 3-game series. And the Yankees beginning a 3-game series against Toronto before they embark on their own “West Coast excursion” to Seattle and Oakland. Now is the time for the Rays to put an end to the AL West dominance this season.

Everyone has said that this race might be decided before the beginning of September. Right now for the Rays it is critical that we get as many wins as possible before we enter September and a month of mostly A L East games. In that month we will face our division rivals in 20 out of 28 games.  Mixed into that divisional fever will be 3-game series against the Rangers and Tigers, plus that odd 2-game Seattle series.

Steve Nesius / AP

For the Rays to achieve their goals of making the playoffs again in 2009,the team must take care of their spoilers’ from the A L West. Those three teams might just hold the deciding factors in the race for the Rays. Wins against them are all pluses for the team. But to lose against any of them right now could put another doubt in the minds of Rays fans.

But that is why we play 162 games and do not award division crowns or playoff berths after a month. If we had awarded a berth back at the beginning of May, the three divisional winners would have been the Toronto Blue Jays,Seattle Mariners, and the Chicago White Sox. That is a big difference from the current leaders of Los Angeles, New York and Detroit. The games are falling off the schedule for the Rays, and the time is now to show their might and claim a stake in 2009.    

It’s a Numbers Game / file photo

With the Tampa Bay Rays adding two new players to their roster in the last 24 hours, there has been a hustle and bustle of conversation and negotiations behind the scenes in and around the clubhouse for those two guys to secure their “favorite” numbers that have graced their uniforms throughout their careers.  Newbie to the team, catcher Gregg Zaun has always worn the number “9” his entire career and sees it as the ultimate good luck charm to him. The only problem is that the Rays uniform number “9” was previously assigned to back-up catcher Shawn Riggans, who is on the DL down in Durham right now.

New Rays reliever Russ Springer also had the same situation when he arrived in Seattle last night for his first game in a Rays uniform. For the night he would be wearing number “37” until the Rays Clubhouse Manager Chris Westmoreland could do a fast sewing and manipulation of the “36” jersey in time for the Sunday finale at Safeco Field. In that contest, Springer would be sporting the comfortable “36” he has worn for many years. But that number had been picked out by fellow Bullpen member Randy Choate and he did offer to surrender the number to Springer in time for the last game of the series.

Athletes do feel a  wild kinship to their numbers. I know I always worn a form of the two numerals “1” or “3” throughout my playing days. I even got lucky enough in High School and College to wear “13” and “31” so I had a double whammy of good luck. And to say athletes are not superstitious is  like saying Paula Deen loves margarine on her food. Seriously, I felt a power mentally within me when I had my number on my back. It was an inner strength I could not describe, it was my version of the Superman cape.

Nick Wass / AP

The number’s on a players uniform are as much a part to a players psyche and identity as their names to the fans. The numbers on their back mean so much to some players that they do not seem to play like themselves without their special numbers. So was it any wonder that newly minted Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson once paid $ 25,000 to get his beloved “24” on his back during one of his many team changes in his career.

And changing your number can also change the way the fans see a player. When pitcher Roger Clemens came back, didn’t it seem a bit odd to see him in a “21” jersey instead of the traditionaL “22” that he wore during his glory days. And when Michael Jordan put on that “45” jersey during his return to the courts, did he not look anything like the “23” we grew to love for all those years in Chi-town.

Numbers can universally imprint a player into our minds and memories. I look at Carl Crawford’s early years with the Rays wearing the number “8” years,before he switched to “13”. It was like a night and day comparision as he began to sprint out from under a shadow the minutehe put number “13” on his back. Now you know him by his number from a distance and do not have to look at the name blazoned across his shoulders.

I remember an article by ESPN columnist Jim Caple back a few years ago where he remembers a “Seinfeld” episode that showed how a players number can transform into our daily lives and about how synonymous a player and their numbers can become to us ?

Consider the Seinfeld episode when George Costanza revealed to his fiancé Susan that he planned to name their first child Seven. Seven Costanza?” Susan replied, “Are you serious?”

“Yeah. It’s a beautiful name for a boy or a girl. Especially for a girl. … Or a boy.”

“I don’t think so.”

“What, you don’t like the name?”

“It’s not a name, it’s a number.”

I know. It’s Mickey Mantle’s number. So not only is it an all-around beautiful name, it is also a living tribute.”

We all know the poor George did not stand a chance in that arument and went down on flames. But those numbers do something within us. Those simple cloth numbers. I know as a player I did not want the secondary numbers like “18” or “11”, I wanted that number where I felt safety within, and secure going to battle wearing on my back.That’s right, to me either number “13” or “31” held the powers of the universe plain and simple.

We know that a majority of the baseball world is content with number under 70, but Rays Manager Joe Maddon has worn the number “70” for years and  we can not visual;ize him wearing anything else on his back. But the numbers game goes beyond just numbers at times. Most good pitchers would not even consider wearing a single digit number on their backs. But it can go further than that in the realms of good and bad. A number can end up defining a player just by sight.

So as the Rays take the field today at 4 pm in Seattle, think about it for a minute. Could you imagine Evan Longoria not wearing his customary “3”, or even Rays starter Scott Kazmir not wearing number “19” If those number symbolize who they are to you, then  you get the idea of this blog. Mention to a Yankee fan the number “4” and you get Lou Gehrig. Mention “24” to a San Francisco Giants fan and you get Willy Mays.

The number becomes just as important as what they do on the field or mound. For that number will always symbolize who they are as a player, and what they did while wearing that number. So, you got to wonder, what did Choate and Riggans get for exchanging their jersey numbers with the Rays two veterans. Well, neither are saying right now, but what they did is give their new teammates a sense of comfort and security on their first day on the job.