June 2011

Has Damon Found the Fountain of Youth?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Down near the shadows of Progress Energy Field, the Tampa Bay Rays former Spring home stadium, stands a fountain of strange lore. An ancient artesian well that still gurgles and bubbles mineral enriched water from the limestone Florida aquifer said to be beneficial to restoring vigor, vitality and longevity.

Starting to think that possibly Rays Clubhouse Manager Chris Westmoreland has a clubhouse attendant out there nightly scooping up a gallon or two and chilling the contents and placing it within reach of Rays veteran Johnny Damon for pre-game time use. Thousand of past Winter visitors have barked and shouted

about this unique hidden gem among the trees and bushes of First Street South, and by the way Damon is playing…..He knows the secret too.

Some say that veterans come to the Rays for two reasons: One is a chance to play among their family and friends, possibly for the last few seasons of their long MLB careers, and other come here hoping to ride the recent post season Rays comet for a hope and chance at again tasting last October magic and champagne.

I have a feeling Damon is here for a third reason….that water is re-vitalizing his career, his focus and his chance to step further into baseball lore. Damon has become the unsung hero, providing an accentual immortal backbone to this young squad, becoming the clubhouse muse, and rising to an insured spot of local cult hero status in the Tampa Bay area.

When Johnny Damon was first introduced this Spring along with some other guy now long gone, Mr. Biceps was the player who shined on that panel. He was the one who seemed overanxious for the Spring to start, pumped at the possibilities of the season.

From that first introduction of Damon to the Rays Republic masses, we all began the healing process of forgetting what a thorn Damon had been in the Rays side as a member of the Red Sox, Yankees and Tigers. Now the Rays Republic could use Damon’s vitality for our own good, to prime his fuel pump and watch Johnny run simultaneously with this young Rays team until the needle hit past empty churning on fumes taking each and every game to it’s limits. That to me is the “Damon Way”.

Think for a moment what this team would have been like in the first month of this season with Damon pulling wins out of the air with walk-off magic, key hits and even a few well placed chats with a few of the struggling Rays hitters. Damon can honestly say without a shadow of a doubt this team counts on his positive drive, hacks at the plate and this young squad finds confidence and strength in Damon’s exploits nightly.

Most thought Damon might have picked a chance to play with the Rays as his “swan song”, a chance to play in front of friends, family and his extended baseball circle that broadens and expands with every swing of his bat. Damon so far has been worth every penny the Rays will pay him, and then some.

Too bad Damon might never even get a dime of the attendance incentives he had positioned in his contract due to a significant drop in Rays attendance. But it is still early, and with a surge by this team again to the top of the American League East, the fans will walk to the turnstiles and again be a vocal force in the seats. Some thought Damon was nuts to include those “ incentive clauses”, but Damon was thinking “ outside the batters’ box”.

But there is also a side to Damon that has puzzled me. Here is a guy constantly walking his name up the hitting charts with every solid swing of his bat, and there is not bravado, no outward “me” complex, no exclusion from the ranks of the team. That my friends is the true essence of a “team player”. Bryce Harper could use a few well-pointed lessons from this humble hero.

Amazing enough, Damon has reached base in 33 straight games this season, a new career high for the Orlando native. This is currently the longest streak of its kind in the American League this season, and Damon is quickly approaching the 37 game MLB 2011 mark set by Los Angele Dodger OF Andre Either earlier this season. Remarkably Damon is hitting .315 during his streak.

Maybe playing on this young squad has actually been a proverbial “Fountain of Youth” for Damon. Consider this impressive mark for a moment. You think I am dreaming, last night Damon has 3 extra base hits for the first time since April 27, 2008. Want a even better exclamation point on that “youthful” vitality statement, Damon has now hit lead-off for the past 5 Rays games, and has 4 extra base knocks to go along with a vibrant .409 batting average.

With 3 more double-baggers, Damon will become the 11th player EVER with 500 doubles, 100 triples, 200 Home Runs and 2,500 hits. The 10 former MLB players to already hit this mark, George Brett, Goose Goslin, Roger Hornsby, Willy Mays, Paul Molitor, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth, Al Simmons and Robin Yount already have plaques in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Now that is some good company to be associated with….bar none for a re-energized hitter.

With his hair cut into a faux hawk, and sporting a mostly clean shaven look so far this season for the Rays, Damon is definitely not showing those proverbial aches and pains of guys starting to see the shadows of the end of their career. Possibly the youth on this team has inspired and brought Damon back to his baseball earlier roots, possibly back to those long forgotten KC Days. Some nights Damon looks like a man possessed with confidence, energy and a willingness to do everything humanly possible to bring home a “W”.

With every smack of the ball, every stolen base attempt and time he crosses the plate, Damon shows more and more he is in that elite class of players that you enjoy watching play the game. I was excited the first moment he took a seat at the Press Conference this Spring, and I still get giddy nightly at what he can do with not only his bat, but his presence in a game.

Tonight during the Rays late night game against the Angels before they again head eastbound for 3 in Baltimore and a lone showdown in Motown, I am going to keep a close eye on Damon in the Rays dugout.

I want to see if there is a silver chalice, and chilled elixir saved especially for Damon as he returns to the bench. Possibly the same nectar Ponce de Leon spoke of so long ago. Sure, the water in the receptacle handed to Damon is filtered, purified and possibly from a aquifer somewhere, but we know it possibly is not the fabled water of the Fountain of Youth.

Damon’s resurgence is not defined by the water he drinks, the food he eats or even the amount of sleep he gets on the plane. Damon seems to be having fun with the game again, and that can make even the most severe pain cease and positive moments shine brighter than ever.

But just in case, I am going to go by that fabled Fountain when I return Friday night to St. Petersburg and grab me a few sips of that mineral-enriched goodness from below. Now if this weekend’s blogs seem better written, more concise and to the point, possibly the best I have ever produced…..Then we will talk about the water again…. ore it will be my secret, along with Johnny.

The Boys of Early Summer…The Photo Version

Been tooling with the idea in my boggled brain cells over the past week as to if I should designate Sundays from today on to doing a small pictorial, or even small selection of unique and some times funny photos taken by photographers all over the cities of Major League Baseball.  Upon further rounding approval last night from the bottom of my Shocktop bottle, I am going to do a 1 week experiment and see how it all shakes out. Hopefully I can get a few people to chuckle, think or possibly even comment.

Either way, it is more of the evolution of my little blogging Utopia that change is inevitable, even in a baseball vacuum.  And I will not take pride or even credit if I happen to pick on certain teams, or players in the upcoming weeks if this segment becomes a weekly blog post. I think if I could draw, it would have materialized into a “Pushy da Broom” cartoon that I loved so much as a young Sports Correspondent with the “Evening Independent.” So without further ado, let’s get the 1,000 word photo extravaganza under way….

Seriously here, that little spun ball of twine and cowhide seems to sometimes have a mind of its own. It seems to pounce, dance and even do a twirl or two with the best “Dancing With The Stars” competitor some nights. Who in their right mind would consider a small white sphere could evoke and commit so many heinous acts of  physical manipulation of the human body to within stand its impact. But then again, a 95+ fastball can leave a menacing stitch mark bruise on your body for at least a week.

But the baseball is not the only some times seemingly self-possessed entity that surrounds this great game. Sometimes those wooden bats that Major League players depend on seem to just have a mind of their own. They sometimes seem to be self programmed to break, slip or simply self propel themselves towards the most unusual locations, and in the most unexpected moments. Pine tar was supposed to help eliminate some of this, but as Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach can tell you….The bat definitely has a mind of its own in the hitting zone.

No matter if it is made of Pine, Ash or even the dreaded Maple, the MLB bat recently has been on a collision course with catastrophe. Whether it is spinning end over end or tomahawking through the infield, one of these days someone on the field will look like a beef kabob after one of these missiles finally finds a human host.

Even with all the changes and instructions by MLB on the shaving and sanding of certain parts of these bats, still some end up hurling at high speeds towards the stands, dugouts or even just inches above the hairline of the Rays ace David Price seems to bring more action than a few gasps and thanks that it did not find a stationary stopping point that night.

But then there is also that breed of player within the Major Leagues who just seems “Super Human” at times, then fall quickly to their kryptonite. For some it is a 12 foot wall, for others it is that seemingly nice breeze caressing through the ballpark that suddenly makes the ball take a right turn just beyond the outstretched glove for extra bases.  Some consider these souls “Sam Fuld” wannabes, but they all have that one knack that separates them from the guy in the stands waiting for that first Home Run ball on live television. They have the confidence to stay perfectly vertical or horizontal in perpetual motion while the guy in the stands must navigate nachos, babies and even other overgrown “kids” wanting a $ 15 keepsake.

Still, the guys on the field seem to be taking more risks this season with dying quail fly balls and screaming white sphere that seem to break the sound barrier as they are hit towards the outfield gaps. More guys seem to be leaving their comfort zone, getting ” jiggy” with the ball and providing Web Gems for generation to emulate and remember. Willy Mays made an incredible catch way back then, but would it even make the ESPN Baseball Tonight Top 10 some nights?

Has the game evolved that much at times? That simple acts of human contortions from the past have become a bit commonplace now, or even mundane at times. I mean look at this picture of Mariner’s outfielder John Saunders. Ask yourself, is he asking for a bottle of water, the Home Run ball or remarking how high he cascaded on this wall, fishing for an M’s fan compliment? Seriously, I think he just wanted the ball back to throw to Ichiro.

Has the MLB  players changed so much that muscle is now being replaced by speed and agility when power and bat speed ruled the day for so long.  Take this photo of NBA legend Bill Russell as he paid a visit to SEattle and spent some time with M’s Third Baseman Chone Figgins. Think of the effect a guy like Russell would of had in a baseball game if he stretched, even into foul territory for a hit ball near the line. Makes you kind of wonder if Figgins might just dream of that same fantasy sequence tonight.

Seriously, the game’s budding stars do not have bulging muscles even in their eyebrows. Pitcher’s are hitting the triple digit mark with more consistency and clarity these days, even Texas Rangers President Nolan Ryan has impressed with the upward curve of flamethrowers in the MLB in recent years. Then the ” artistic” pitchers, those with a few years under their belts have redefined their own usefulness by finding exploding breaking stuff or even inventing their own twists and breaks to pitches that have come out of nowhere to be extremely effective. Some of the best pitchers right now do not even throw in the mid-90’s. Evolution, revolution, convolution…This game is in a constant  stage of eternal change… in a good way.

But still the mental errors and flaws of the human element that flow constantly throughout this great game can take a team out of a contest in a matter of moments. An unfortunate lean towards second base, an impromptu brain fart or even trying think a bit wiser and smarter than you are capable of can change the outcome with a booming hit, or a ball snaking up the middle.  It is this element that makes baseball unpredictable and always a challenge to prognosticate with any accuracy beyond mis-matching pitching set-ups.  Funny how the human element, not even within the emotional realm can change a simple play and turn it into a crowd pleasing, inning ending bundle of moves and propel “Uncle Mo” (motivation) back into your team’s favor.

But that is why we play 162 games and do not crown a Champion until the final 27th out of the last game of the post season. Physical, mental and emotional ties that bind this game together can make a winner out of any team on a given night. No matter if a guy is on point and throwing darts to the plate, a simple seeing-eye single can change the moment forever, and possibly send the contest into a different direction. That is the magic of this game, the thrilling unexpected moments that linger and get told to Grand kids and people sitting with you on barstool 20 years later. Sports photography doesn’t enter into the “picture is worth a thousand words” category because its pixels and colors can change generations, change mind and evoke everything from tears of joy to tears of saddness…. with the simple stroke of the bat, or pitching delivery.

God I love how this game never stops surprising and shocking me. Maybe that is why I can not get enough of it…..Maybe.


Seattle………..The Renegade’s Way

Man, I envy this Tampa Bay Rays team for the next four days. Not only will they be staying in one of the cleanest towns in America, but they are sequestered in a seaside town that I have always had a deep affection for my entire life.

 It is a bit of a bummer that this city sits over 3,127.66 miles from my doorstep. Seattle, Washington, also known with love as the Emerald City of the Pacific Northwest was a special oasis for me where some rainy days can bring 37 inches of rain, and you get the double bonus prize of both sea and mountain backgrounds that are simply breathtaking to these old eyes.

And this area also has a long standing tradition/ love affair with baseball. From the Triple-A Tacoma Rainers to the feisty home dwellers of  beautiful Safeco Field, the Seattle Mariners, this region is a baseball haven. One of the Rays ex-Bullpen Coaches, Matt Sinatro still has a baseball facility in this region. 

People forget, that the Tampa Bay Baseball group was in the process of buying the Mariner’s when the local government stepped in and saved the sale of the team buying promising a new stadium and development in the SODO (South Downtown) district.

So it is about time that I list some of the great thing the guys can do in their off time while they are out in Seattle, or at least some of the thing I would be into doing if I was there this weekend.

First off, if you are a music fan, this town can be a haven for lovers of all different types of music. You can go celebrate like Sir Mix-a-lot and his crew on Broadway right to the west of the Space Needle and stop at Dick’s and get you a burger to die for.  This is the region talked about in his classic video, “Posse on Broadway.”

Or if you want to pay your respects to those who have fashioned some of today’s music tastes and visit the final resting places of Jimi Hendrix in Renton or maybe Bruce Lee and his son Brandon Lee.  While you are out there, you can visit the Troll under the Bridge in Freemont. This awesome sculpture is actually fashioned within the underneath support of a highway bridge in the small town.

As the Rays get up in the morning while they are staying at the Westin on 5th Avenue near the downtown district, the Rays could stroll on down to Doc Maynard’s and take in the Underground Tour which  starts in Pioneer Square and will make them aware of some of the odd characteristics of this town, and maybe you will get a ghost sighting at the old bank vault. Seattle was originally built at sea level. And this brought about some interesting plumbing problems during high tide.

Or maybe they are just thirsty and want to travel out to the Red Hook Brewery, which has its home base here in Seattle. The company, which crafts different types of beer was started in this are in 1981.  Red Hook started in an old transmission shop and moved 20 miles east of the city where they still have Tuesday Night Trivia at the Forecaster’s Pub located right off the brewery. 

Or maybe Hard Lemonade is your thing? You know that Seattle is also home to Mike’s Hard Lemonade, which was first made here back in 1999 after they moved the operations from Lakewood, Colorado to Seattle.

But then you have local food icons like Beth’s where the team can all join in to take on their signature 12-egg omelette’s and hash browns, or maybe sit in the Pope’s Room at Buco de Beppo near Lake Washington. But then there are local icons like Ivar’s. where the fish is so fresh the fish slaps you before you eat it.

But there is a host of ethnic variety from Turkish food at Bistro Turkuaz to Catfish Corner on Cherry Street that brings back the Southern charm of soul food to this Florida boy. Icons like Iron Chef Mario Batali and his family’s deli Salumi in this town, along with some of the local flavor of places like Flying Squirrel Pizza Company founded by ex-musician Bill Coury.

It would take me 10 years to sample all the different types and styles of dining in this town. I mean small breweries like Pyramid Brewing, which is within the shadow of Safeco field, or the small  brewhouses like Circa that make a Sunday brunch of Hawaiian sweet-bread French toast. The region has all the great flavors and tastes of the world hidden within 30 miles of the center of the city.

The region is a gold mine for seafood, and you can get some of the finest and freshest in the world off the docks or, in the local  Farmer’s Markets. But he granddaddy of them all is Pikes Market located right on the ridge of the city’s hub and is within walking distance of the monorail that goes up and down the Seattle slope towards the World’s Fair location.

Everyone knows their “Public Market” sign that has been emblazoned on movies screens and backdrops for years. But it is within the confines of this small market that is found one of the true gems of this city, and my personal favorite fast food. Just mention the name Prioshky-Prioshky to a local and their mouth will water. They do not do sushi, but does the Eastern European classic pirogies that are to simply die for………totally. the last few times I went out to Seattle, I brought back a dry ice box filled with 10 pounds of their tasty morsels.It is simply worth the trip to just taste one of them. 

But there is a huge combination of places in the market that are great, like Taxidogs, or even I Love New York Deli that does the mile high sandwiches just like Katz’s Deli in NYC. Oh, and be sure to visit the Spoon Man and tell him the “Florida Cracker” said Hello. I loved this guy and his unique take on music from raps to old boogie-woogie with just two spoons. Classic entertainment.

The region is teeming with great sightseeing adventures too, like the compound of the 1980 World Fair that houses the city’s icon, the Space Needle, or wander out to Ballard Locks and check out the salmon steps put into the lake’s lock system to keep them jumping to their spawning grounds.  Or maybe take the amphibious Duck Tour and see Microsoft founder Bill Gates compound from the lakeside.

Seattle is one of the town that has stayed in my mind for what seems like forever. It is a perfect meshing of technology and culture, with a spice of ethnic individuality and pride.

I hope you can some time in your life hit a baseball game at Safeco Field ( my favorite park) and stroll around the city a few days. Just like the charm of San Francisco, Seattle can take you away from stress and responsibilities for a few minutes with just the aroma of the freshly brewed coffee along the storefronts. Off days for a baseball team can be either a day of rest, or exploration.

Whatever your taste in anything, I bet you I can find what you need in this town during your travels here. From crafted beers made daily, to sending a  fresh slab salmon back home, this town has what you need, what you desire, and will make you smile for years afterwards just by its vibe.

Seriously, this is one of those town after you visit you will talk about for a long time…..I know I am still talking and dreaming about it now, 35 years after my first gaze at the Space Needle.

Home Sour Home

You see it in the Tampa Bay Rays night after night. Pushing sometimes past the limits of physical exertion into those uncharted waters. This season has already produced more of its share of wild twists of fate. The worst has been watching this once dominant team at home somehow lose that “ home turf” advantage, watching loss after loss stack up where victories once lived.

There was a time when a 3-3 split in a 6-game home stand might be acceptable, but no more. Once the Rays had that subconscious advantage of team’s coming into Tropicana Field knowing this was the place where visitor’s win come to die. In 2011, the Rays have played 30 of their 55 games in the 72 degree confines of the Trop, but have only produced a sub .500 mark of 14-16.

This was the stadium that once boasted the some of the best Major League Baseball home records, but now even the 10th man (fans) can not seem to drive the Rays towards the finish line with any clarity. Some might say the problem lies in the fact the Rays have now played their 16th game in a row against a team with a .500 or better record. But don’t you have to beat the best to be the best?

Sure the Rays have amped up their offensive output during this home stand, but that still only manufactured a .500 record ( 3-3). Averaging 5 runs a game this series has been critical to even producing those 3 victories. Before they finally took out their boom-boom sticks at home, the Rays were averaging only 2.9 runs per game.

Still, currently the Rays are averaging 3.2 runs at home compared to their 5.5 runs on the road. How much of a disparity is that? Well, the Rays at home rank 25th in MLB in offensive output, while on the road they are 3rd in the MLB (2nd in the AL). Interesting enough, the Rays have scored 6 runs or more 14 times already in 2011, but have only turned over the digits on the scoreboard that high twice in their home confines.

So what is so different about 2011 that the Rays have sunk to new lows at home? Some point towards the roster changes, but even that is stretching it a bit thin. Sure there have been huge personnel changes, but after a Spring Training schedule and 55 games, the team should be more comfortable in their playing style, and guys showing their tendencies to teammates.

It hasn’t been the starting pitching. That has been one of the great strong suits of this Rays team that starters have gone long in games, produced some outstanding results, and have handed the Rays Bullpen only a handful of critical and potentially harmful situations. But still this team sulks below ,500.

Could our want for this squad to resemble the 2008 and 2010 teams been too much pressure too soon, or possibly could the Rays just not be there yet with this revamped team chemistry. The potential and the spirit is still soaring on this Rays club, even as they near the .500 mark overall. Consider this for a moment, if the Rays did not sport a winning record on the road, they might be farther in the pack in the American League East.

Instead this team has been within 3 games of the top of the AL East leaderboard for 45 straight days ( since April 18th). More frustrating is the Rays have now lost 8 of their last 12 games, possibly finally hitting the first wall of the season. And with a road trip facing over .500 Seattle and Los Angeles firmly in their sights, it is time to either buck up of take shelter.

It is not like guys like Evan Longoria and Matt Joyce are not trying to push this team past their home flaws. Flying under the radar is the fact the Rays actually came out of May with a winning record ( 14-13) . This is only the third time in club history the team has achieved that mark.

Interesting point is that the Rays sport a 2.00 ERA in their 14 wins, while watching that mark fall rapidly towards a 5.90 ERA in their 13 losses this May. Rays Manager Joe Maddon always says “Pitching sets the tone”. But how can a part of the Rays game that has been so dominant also be one of it’s breaking points?

Maybe the Rays need to use that K. I. S. S. mentality we all learned as kids. Keep It Simple Stupid seemed to work for us, maybe it is the invisible mantra for June with AL East rival Boston invading the Trop this month along with Inter-League foes Cincinnati and Interstate foe, the Fish (Marlins). Out of their 27 games this June, only only 10 are home games.

Suddenly their home record will be the test of time for these young Rays. If they can not produce a over .500 mark this month, their place at the table may fall by the wayside. Suddenly it seems that a sweep of the Red Sox and at least a .500 Inter-League mark might be the salvation for the Rays potential late season run.

Wild how a team that for the last three seasons sported one of the most intimidating home environments is now faced with a revamping, or re-channeling of their home vibe. Could the visitor’s ears finally gone deaf to the sound of the cowbells?

Could the once loud crowds and cheering Rays Republic suddenly gone silent much like Kevin Costner’s character Billy Chapel “ clearing the mechanism” to hush the Yankee crowd noise in “For The Love of the Game”. We want to point fingers on why this is happening. Want answers and changes simultaneously to occur to nip this evil in the bud.

This team has to finds a way to again evoke fear, intimidation and a sense of defeat when teams enter to Trop for games. Somehow we got to get that “Pit” mentality back that Maddon spoke about so many times in the past. But it doesn’t start with the 10th man, the first 9 have to produce, entice and make the environment prime for victory again.

Maybe something as simple as opening a can of whoop a$$ when the Rays return home to face Boston on June 14th is the answer. If not, it might be the final pebble in the way of this Rays rock rolling downhill, further pushing them away from their goal and dream of again celebrating in October.