November 2011

I am Hoping For Good Lueke

You want to toss it into the barrel that in our own youth some of us have our own incidents or times that things went terribly wrong. That some situation in our own personal lives had gone so sideways you felt you might fall off the face of the Earth. For new Tampa Bay Rays RHP Josh Luekes, I am hoping wisdom definitely was garnered with his past ugliness.

Episodes like this either defines a person or changes them in such a way that similar behaviors never darken their door again. Then there are other who denote that behaviors like this induce a pattern, a way of thinking outside the game, and that they might be damaged good forever. I am hoping the gray area in Lueke’s past is now set in primal black and white with no shades of darkness.

When I heard the Tampa Bay Rays traded their former lead-off catcher, double-J, John Jaso, I hoped it was for a player of caliber. Heck, when Lueke was included in the Texas Rangers tally sheet in their 2009 mid-season acquisition of Cliff Lee, I thought maybe there was hidden pitching pedigree or dominance not seen on the scouting report, but back then in mid 2009 neither I, or the M’s knew the full extent of the horrendous incident.

To paraphrase TV serial killer Dexter Morgan, Lueke has his own dark passenger, a past incident that will haunt and proceed him where ever he ventures for the rest of his life. This past transgression of Lueke is not as simple as a minor traffic accident or can be tossed under the carpet. This horrific incident happened, and Lueke was brought to justice and judged.

Back in May 2008. Lueke was charged with rape and sodomy after an incident at his Bakersfield, California apartment. After his arrest and several weeks in jail, Lueke plead no contest to the charge of unlawful imprisonment with violence and was sentenced to 40 days in prison. Lueke was released with time served since he had already served more than that time period awaiting his fate on the more severe charges. The woman passed out in an apartment shared by Lueke and another Texas minor league prospect, and DNA was discovered on the woman after she awoke and found a few pieces of her clothing removed.

What bothers me most here is that the Rays as an organization are now in that vicarious spot of bringing in a player of questionable past exploits,  and who’s past could/could not have that focus attached to him for his entire Rays tenure effecting him both on and off the field. This incident is not like former Ray OF Elijah Dukes and his Baby’s Mama drama, this was a crime of violence against a woman who entered Lueke’s Bakersfield, California apartment back in May 2008 and left battered and emotionally scarred.

Lueke has possibly stayed the right course of actions, including the counseling route since the incident. Walked the right path since that episode, but this kind of action follows you even on the field. This kind of man-handling tends to make some of us nervous (myself included) and cautious even if Lueke could throw a devastating 98+ heater. It makes me overly protective of any young fan or female who might venture Lueke’s way before, during or after a game.

I want to be open-minded and think with the rationale of religious forgiveness, but being the father of 2 girls Lueke’s past actions have me skeptical right now. Sure there was talk of the woman in question in this incident possibly making the matter moot by partying and cavorting with Lueke and other players at a local watering hole that fateful night, but that thinking died in my mind the moment things turned ugly. Lest we forget, pleading no contest in a court of law is just another verbage of pleading guilty, only in this manner you do not have to admit guilt. Some say this  reduction in the charge was made to offset a possible civil matter which would have ballooned had Lueke been found guilty by a jury of his peers.

I am perplexed to say the least with this move. This is a 180 degree twist of the usual Rays logic of propriety and responsible behavior. It goes against all of the usual risk management nuances of this franchise by taking on a player who has a high degree of risk with high potential for backlash and criticism. The Rays in their past dealings have set  a high-caliber  example with regards to character and chemistry with players entering the sacred Rays fold. In that manner this trade has me feeling a bit odd, possibly wondering if Lueke’s upside outweighed the flexing controversy. Maybe it is my veiled belief that sometimes people do not change, they just find better hiding places for their transgressions.

I want to believe in Lueke as a ballplayer, but for some reason his dark blemish within his life inhibits that total hue of optimism for me right now. Lueke said during a recent conference call he hopes “that eventually ( the incident) just goes away and people quit judging on what their hearing and actually get to know him and they can make their own opinion”.

I want to believe he might recite the Serenity Prayer daily, open doors for every women in Tampa Bay and has embraced a total vow of renewed respect for the fairer sex. Hopefully Lueke has figured out the Rays are banking their reputation on him, and he doesn’t let them or us down ever again…..on or off the field.

Filling the First Base Hole is Crucial for Success

It is no secret among anyone in Major League Baseball right now that the Tampa Bay Rays are in need of a First Baseman. Be it from a trade, a free agent or maybe even a budding star caught between a rock and a potential All-Star, the Rays will find their man, but at what price?

Heck just for conversation and a few giggles, can Andy Sonnanstine play First Base? Seriously I am not applying Sonny name to the 1B fodder list, it is just he has done everything else for the Rays, plus he will finally get a gig where he can hit daily.

You can immediately take names like Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, Jorge Posada and Derrek Lee out of the think tank mostly because of the fear it would cause instantly to the Rays payroll situation. Even past Rays familiar names like Russell Branyan, Eric Hinske, Brad Hawpe, Jorge Cantu, Adam Kennedy, and Carlos Pena might give each of us a wonder if they can again be monster at the plate and huge pillows in the field, but their tenures have come and gone for this team.

Dan Johnson, the Rays 2011 Opening Day starter refused a assignment and is also within the free agent wading pool. His exploits, especially in the latter weeks of the season have made him a folk hero in Tampa Bay, but his dismal early season slump in 2011 made in more than expendable. Johnson has unfortunately had a yo-yo existence with the Rays from his plucking off the waiver wire, to a year in Japan courtesy of the Rays, to being a part of this team by proxy in Triple-A Durham then emerging with memorable Home Runs and spontaneous eruptions of power. If only he could get that power spurt to last 180 days during the regular season.

Interesting name do pop out at you from the list of potential young free agents like the powerful ex-Yankee Juan Miranda. The former Cuban baseball star signed a reasonable $2 million contract with the Yankees in 2006, and like former team Cuba team mate and current Rays farm hand Leslie Anderson, Miranda has not shown the verbosity yet to possibly warrant more than a casual look by the Rays. That and a limited MLB experience which mired Miranda with a .226 career average, this might take him out of any Rays consideration.

 Michael Cuddyer might be an interesting name to associate with the Rays in their 1B quest, but his Type A status, which could cost the Rays draft pick might be a huge stop sign to any advancement towards his name. We all know how the Rays value their draft picks, and accumulate them like canned goods to weather any impending payroll storm. I actually would love to see what Cuddyer would do with his photographic talents if given a few extra months of Trop photography….but that is not a reason to sign him (bummer).

There might be a few young tradeable names to ponder for the Rays, but then again it might come down to the “want “ list by the other franchise, possibly killing the deal in the initial chatter phase. If the Miami Marlins do indeed get Price or King Albert to guard their First Base bag, it will be interesting to see how the team positions Gaby Sanchez for relocation. With the Marlins pretty set with at least 3 starters on the books, there is room for rotation adjustments and improvement, but would someone like Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann or an Rays prospect on the cusp plus a young catcher like Jose Lobaton or Nevin Ashley be enough to land the powerful Marlin?

Or could the dangling of Cincinnati Reds young hitter Yonder Alonso be the morsel that tempts the Rays into digging into their roster and farm system possibly bringing Alonso to Tampa Bay where he will have a free range position in front of him unlike in Cincy where Joey Votto is cemented at 1B for the immediate future. The problem with Alonso is not his value, but the deal it would take to possibly separate him from his Reds jersey and into a Rays uniform.

Would Rays VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman be willing to possibly delete SP James Shields from his roster even before Spring Training, or can be package a deal possibly including some middle infield talent, plus a budding pitcher and possibly another player to get this deal done and put a solid body with a few years of flexibility at the corner position for the Rays? Alonso might be a power upgrade over the Rays 2011 First Base corps, but will he be the fielding gem the Rays need to keep their defensive fielding advantage intact?

Even though other First Baseman names out there like Lyle Overbay and Jason Giambi might tweak a bit of Rays interest as potential platoon members, their salaries definitely might be out of the Rays comfort zone, immediately dissecting their name from the 1B Carousel.

In my honest opinion, I am still hopeful the Rays can plug in Rays 2011 First Baseman Casey Kotchman as a exclamation point into this pondering question. Still there are questions within this easy solution to the Rays First Base dilemma. Kotchman’s biggest stumbling block to him possibly getting a multi-year deal might be his ponderance for low power numbers. Still, if the guy can get the needed hits, place himself up near .300 and produce scoring opportunities and drive in runs, does that vault him over a guy who might hit 20+ HR and have a average glove?

This decision on the immediate horizon for the Rays has to have their direct and undivided attention. This current opening that the Rays need to fill this off season is the keystone of their defensive alignment. Get the right glove and bat into this slot, and the Rays could see their offense suddenly pull a Rasputin and emerge from their slumber with their lumber. Whatever happens, this one move will send immediate signals on the way the Rays want to do business in 2012.

Sure you would love to possibly see someone like Cantu come back, or possibly entertain a Pena reunion, but those scenarios might not be in the compromised deck of cards the Rays have for 2012. Possibly a Alonso or Sanchez could fall into the Rays hands, but at what cost, and is Rays pitching really such a high point that losing a Shields, Davis or even a emerging Cobb or Torres not produce a few shock waves?

This one movement by the Rays front office this Winter will be watched closely by the Rays Republic because First Base is just that critical a spot for the Rays, and only a solid corner man will fit nicely with the square peg shape of First Base.

Thank You Just Doesn’t Seem Enough

On the eve of the day all of us collectively gather together and pronounce our blessing and “thanks” for all the bounty and goodness life has exposed to us in our past year. Like so many other families around this Nation and Tampa Bay, my parents kept that honored tradition of everyone gathered at the table giving “thanks” a loud for the blessing and good things that had transpired over those last 365 days.

I loved those moments, but as the Rays begin to venture into their 15th year of baseball in the major leagues, I have some unfinished business. People and events that warrant not only a “ shout out”, but a significant remembrance or high-5 at this time we want to express ourselves. So, hang on, this list might be a long one.

THANK YOU to the relentless men of the original Tampa Bay Baseball group who shed tears, fought away drowsiness and endured their long path until we got our storied franchise.

THANK YOU to the cities of Seattle, Oakland, Chicago, San Francisco and even the Minneapolis/St Paul Minnesota community that were stepping-stones as the eventual Tampa Bay expansion franchise made it path through the MLB minefields. These MLB teams all brought bits and pieces of themselves to the table as the Rays fashioned their early patchwork franchise.

THANK YOU to our first owner Vince Namoli and his crew who fought the tides and battles early on in this franchise, and still do. Our Captain at the helm since 2007, Stuart Sternberg who has secured a new path, a new identity and a new reason to rejoice being a member of the Rays Republic crew.

THANK YOU to Wilson Alvarez for that first delivery to the plate on March 31, 1998. It completed the completed the mission and set into motion that events that are still unfolding, and will for a long, long time.

THANK YOU to players like Wade Boggs, Fred McGriff, Dwight Gooden, Johnny Damon, Matt Joyce, and St. Pete natives Casey Kotchman and Doug Waechter who came “home” to play in the Rays colors for Tampa Bay. Each of you have left footprints in the Rays historical sands that will stand the tests of time, and always be some of our fondest memories

THANK YOU to my friends within the Rays 4th Floor from BK to DJ Kitty’s master. Each of your actions have brought together different scenarios and changes to the Rays experience from the concerts, promotional goodies to the foundations of fan-based gatherings like the “Maddon’s Maniacs”.

THANK YOU to the men who have assembled in the Rays Bullpen over the past 14 seasons who have sat, spat and even chattered with me on their journey’s to and from the Rays “second Clubhouse” under the Rays Rightfield stands. From the gum-tossing and comedic activities of Andy Sonnanstine, to the Elvis-inspired guitar styling of Rusty Meacham, I am thankful for those moments.

THANK YOU to guys like Rays Clubhouse Manager Chris Westmoreland and his crew who let me see things behind-the scenes as their Pepsi vendor for years. Getting to see the Rays Clubhouse as it transformed, and even letting me take a piece of it home forever.

THANK YOU to the assembled hundreds who have graced the Rays roster sporting numbers from 1 (Joey Gathright, Akinori Iwamura, Miguel Cairo, Rey Sanchez, Antonio Perez, Sean Rodriguez) to 98 (Jae Seo) for your spent energies, blood and even heartaches as this franchise went through their growing pains and ultimate defeats and celebrations. I consider you all friends for life.

THANK YOU to the fans I have met, entertained and even fought verbally with our these years. Your opinions, insights and even diverse comments have molded these posts and even gave me more than a dozen reasons to question my own logic. From Jeff McKinney, Pat and Christine Manfredo to George, Charlie and the crew up in the 300’s, if we could bottle your optimism and energy for this team, we could light up the Tampa Bay region indefinitely.

THANK YOU to the 2008 Rays team who let me grace a moment within a team photo etching myself permanently into the fabric of the greatest Rays team to date. Still hard to imagine that the Rays, in their rookie attempt in the post season fought so hard and valiantly had an element like rain play such a critical role in their first World Series.

THANK YOU to the Rays scout and player development people like Mitch Lukevics, RJ Harrison who have been linchpin in the development of so many of the Rays past, present and future stars. Their devotion and work ethic knows no bounds, and their tireless emphasis on quality has made the Rays farm system a model of player development efficiency.

HANK YOU to the people of Tampa Bay no matter if you are a long-time Season Ticket holder or someone who graces the stands only a handful of games a season. Your support is needed and appreciated from those among you in the stands, on the field and assisting you with your baseball experience. The lifeblood of this team is the interaction and reaction of the community, and our return to future games.

Giving “thanks” at this time of the year for things outside of Tropicana Field are also very important. So my last THANK YOU has to go out to Rays Manager Joe Maddon and his cooking crew of Rays Coaches, Rays staff and employees who have yearly venture out into the Tampa Bay region for Maddon’s annual “Thanks-Mas” celebration.

But I would be remiss if I did not make one more “THANK YOU”. I have to also make a huge and humble shout out to you, the readers of this blog. Since our change over in May 2011, so many of you have stayed the course and returned while others have gone away or have not returned. I “THANK” each and every one of you reading this right now for your support, your time and your comments that have made my writing better since 2007.

But then again, you can never hear the words “Thank You” enough these days.

Who’s On First?

I was entranced the first time I saw the comedic team of Abbott and Costello perform this routine on our family television console one Sunday afternoon. I was mesmerized by the ingenious wordplay by the duo to the point of repeating it so often the following week in school I got a isolated seat in the library by myself to perfect my comedic nuance.

That same hilarious routine comes to mind so vividly for me now with the Tampa Bay Rays current conundrum at their first bag position. Scanning the players listed on the Rays current 40-man roster, it is quickly evident that none of them has seen ample time at First Base to breathe any confidence that the team has answer so far in their quest for a secure and reliable player on the first base corner.

Last season’s inspiration Casey Kotchman is a free agent, possibly speaking in confidence with the Rays, but also entertaining other offers, situation and pondering his own 2012 M L B existence. You would have thought it a no-brainier to try and sign “The Magic of Kotch” to a multi-year contract, but so far the homegrown baseball prospect has been mute and silent on any transactions.

Dan Johnson, the Rays 2011 Opening Day First Baseman refused his re-assignment to the minor league and has set his sights on other M L B venues as a possible home for 2012. There is still a hint of a Rays reunion, but that would come at a significant salary reduction again for Johnson who seemed lost early on in the 2012 season before coming back and putting some late September magic onto his resume.

Leslie Anderson, the Cuban baseball reject at First Base played with a bit more consistency for the Triple-A Durham Bulls in 2012, but is his advancement been enough to warrant more than a Spring Training invite and a outside chance of securing a roster spot. This is a position on this team that is in dire transition, a black hole that has to be filled first, then the other cogs will fall into place.

For the Rays defensive existence relies on a solid guy with a ever expanding spider web glove at this spot. He makes Evan Longoria look better, converts the ill-thought out throws of Reid Brignac, and is the key end point of any double play consideration. This position has to be the Rays priority one this off season, or 2012 will be a step backwards akin to the 2009 season.

Where is that definite piece of the puzzle the Rays have found in the past with great 1B names like Fred McGriff, Travis Lee, Tino Martinez and even Carlos Pena. This team can not feasibly afford the bevy of current First Basemen seeking salaries for 2012. The Albert Pujols and Price Fielders’ of the MLB will not accept a price slashing Rays payment slip as their productive years reach their summit.

Even a established young player like current Cincinnati Red First Baseman Joey Votto might come with a price the Rays would balk at paying for a productive bat with ample defensive skills. Some say a run at Votto will cost them at least a duo of pitching prospects and possible a catcher. But in this regard the Rays do have a quickly approaching pitching surplus problem, but is possibly taking on Votto’s 9.5 million dollar contract could possibly eat into a huge chunk of the Rays other “wish list” this off season.

Then there is the attractive but expensive option of the Rays flirting with the possibility of bringing on ex-Yankee C/1B Jose Posada as a short term solution with an eye on his trade deadline value and bat being a easy positive for the Rays. Posada is actually the only Yankee since Bernie Williams I could respect and see as a member of the Rays.

Posada is a true competitor, and walked a thin line in the Bronx in 2012 knowing his diminished skill behind the plate, plus a multi millionaire in front of him (Mark Texiera) prohibited him from getting more than a sampling of his skills at First Base last season. The only huge bind in this logic is the fact Posada made $ 13.1 million, or 1/3rd of the Rays 2011 total payroll. This fact by itself might eliminate
Posada’s name immediately considering the Rays will possibly be slicing even a bit more off their payroll to begin 2012 with an eye on a late July addition if they are within sight of a Wild Card or better post season berth.

The Rays in-house options currently within their farm system besides Anderson is limited to Double-A Montgomery Biscuit duo Henry Wrigley and Matt Sweeney. The problem here is both have not ventured past that Double-A plateau yet, and their addition besides a possible Spring invite would be suggestive at best. The Rays have a deep farm system but not currently at this vital cog in their defensive machine. The answer might be an internal transition for the Rays to save money plus utilize their current players sequencing them into roles that build upon Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s 2011 mantra of “Find Another Way”.

Should the Rays implore current diamond journeyman Ben Zobrist or even Sean Rodriguez or Elliot Johnson to do a bit of off season prep at First Base. Possibly getting reps and game action in a Winter League, or maybe sending them to an isolated camp site to work on it in private and then introduce their transition as a “team united” surprise come Spring?

The following few weeks should be interesting as the Hot Stove season begins to simmer and choices begin to be eliminated from the First Base list. This is a key off season position for the Rays to secure an ample and reliable player who can be a catalyst for this young team. Be it a young player or possibly a grizzly vet, this first base bag has to have solidarity and consistency both in their defense and their bat to be a great addition to this team.

Pujols is not an option, Prince would not get the royal treatment in Tampa Bay. Votto might be established enough to warrant the player fodder needed for a trade, but will the Rays commit a huge chunk to solidify one position? Anderson, Wrigley and Sweeney might not be viable options, but could be future consideration, possibly in 2013 or 2014.

If the Rays want to save their funds for other player options, then a Zobrist, Johnson transformation might be in line with the Rays fiscal reality. Zobrist will make $ 4.5 million plus a possible $500,000 assignment bonus. His rising salaries will institute him into new roles, or define him in 2012. Johnson will be a meager salary option, but with his limited time at this side of the diamond, is it worth the gamble and possible implosion?

I still remember watching Bud Abbott clutching his baseball cap in his mouth in utter confusion and dismay at the swirling names of the players on the field during that routine, but it all comes down to that ultimate question still pondered by the Rays this off season, “Who’s on First?”

Molina Light,a Possible Backstop Libation for the 2012 Rays

When I first heard we were possibly getting a member of the famed Molina trifecta of catching. Instantly my mind was a-flutter with who of the trio of Molina’s had been caught in the Rays net. I knew instantly it could not be Yadier. For the youngest Molina was probably still basking in the underdog afterglow after securing the improbable 2011 World Series Championship.

My mind quickly shifted gears 180 degrees wondering if my old baseball friend Bengie was eager to help his old Halos Bench Coach and current Rays Manager Joe Maddon strengthen up his pitching staff and young catchers. I was thrust back into our own Rays Republic reality when I heard Bengie is loving his time away from the game watching his kids grow up, and possibly hinting of a return of his own to the diamond, but not as a player.

 With the two bookend Molinas accounted for as non-factors for the 2012 Rays roster, it left only the middle brother and a bit of a mid-line offensive minded Molina. Neither of the potential choice cuts of the Molina clan where heading to Tampa Bay. Instead we might be getting the robust yet refined Molina Light.

Granted Jose Benjamin Molina Matta has his own set of World Series rings the first garnered in 2002 when he backed up older bro Bengie with the Halos, then again in 2009 as a member of the New York Yankees. This middle-of-the-road Molina had a bit of history in his baseball resume after becoming the last MLB player to hit a Home Run in the original Yankee Stadium.

After that game the baseball savvy Molina took to quoting famous Bronx icon Babe Ruth who in his last public speech at the original Yankee Stadium said, “I was glad to have hit the first home run in this park. God knows who will hit the last”. Now that is paying the ultimate homage to a man who’s offensive swagger was said to have built the original Yankee Stadium.

 I am sorry if the “Molina Light” might seem a bit harsh, but it is unfortunately realistic. If you had a choice of any of the trio, even the retired Bengie would get your honest vote over the former Toronto Blue Jay backstop. Sure Jose is the tallest of the Molina catching foundation standing a robust 6 foot 2 inches, but his career total of 24 Home Runs, 430 hits and a lifetime .241 average begs you to consider him “light” with the lumber.

In his favor is his uncanny ability to get the most out of his pitchers, especially young staffs. I was impressed over the past 2 MLB seasons when Molina was handed a merry-go-round of pitchers to become familiar with, some with experience, both most still just raw talents. He sculpted that young staff, refined a few of their weaknesses and used their advantages night in and night out to steal critical wins from opponents. I shudder to think what that staff would of accomplished had there not been the injuries and setbacks.

With the Rays possibly having maybe 2-3 starting pitchers coming into Spring Training 2012 with less than 2 full MLB seasons of work, maybe the 1 year deal for Molina with a club option kicker might end up being more than the Rays usual modus operandi of a solid veteran presence to act as a mentor to work with and teach the Rays young crew of backstops, plus add another layer of fine tuned seasoning to guys like young pitchers Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Alex Torres and Alex Cobb.

The Rays would be however experiencing Deja Vu by bringing in another veteran catcher who has a skilled and solid defensive style, which firmly fits the Rays mold, but Molina has seen his offensive numbers decline since 2010, and that gives me a huge reason for concern. Still signing Molina for a 1-year deal with a club option for 2013 could end up being both financially feasible and a future insurance policy in the event John Jaso or Jose Lobaton can not grow and escalate to take this Rays pitching staff to a higher level.

Jose Molina might not be my favorite Molina, but I respect his past present and future work ethic and his undying courage to sit another season behind the plate and get battered night after night by bats, balls and thundering base runners. In that regard he is a solid choice, and along with his skill at slicing and dicing the pitching game plan into a lean, mean strikeout machine, he could be a welcome and solid addition for 2012.

In retrospect, the Rays are a better team with any Molina behind the plate be it Bengie, Yadier or Jose. Who knows, if Dioner Navarro can have a breakout season and be an All-Star, maybe the Rays are just the place for another Molina brother to make his mark.

Rays Own Rennaissance Man……James Shields

When I try and visualize a bit of the essence of the phrase “Renaissance man”, I do not immediately bring up images from the 1994 Penny Marshall flick starring Danny DeVito and Gregory Hines. Nor do I rank my brain to remember the spontaneous moments of an episode by that same name on the of Sci-Fi classic Star Trek:Voyager”.

Instead my mind comp templates a man or woman who shows a resounding expertise in multiple areas. From fashion acting, or possibly even the written word. I also see visions of a culinary artist in motion whipping up a delightful creme brulle or possibly a Basalmic Vinaigrette without a care or whim. I am beginning to think the Tampa Bay Rays might have own in-house version of a “Renaissance man”, and it’s not pitchers David Price or Andy Sonnanstine.

James Shields- Fashion Plate:

For me, Rays greybeard and man-of-the-moment James Shields fits this image perfectly. We all ready know of his fashion exploits designing two Friday Fest T-shirts given away to fans in the past two seasons, and you know there are more inspirations ans designs dancing around Shield’s cerebral cortex just waiting for their big entrance.

I remember when Shields unveiled his first T-shirt I did an in-depth blog post on the design and elements that caught the eye of a local fishwrap. But that is just one layer of the constantly unfolding pieces of work devised by Shields, and only a scratching of the surface of his potential. Shields has also been a model and seasonal participant of the Rays Wive’s “Rays on the Runway” show held every season in a local Tampa Bay venue to benefit the Children’s Dream Fund.

James Shields- Author

Recently Shields and’s own Bill Chastain, who also doubles as the Rays writer unveiled their collaborated work “September Night’s” during a book signing at a South Tampa sports bar this past week. The book follows the wild month of September 2010 as the Rays fought for their second American League East title. It is an insightful account from a pitcher who hit the mound 5 times during that historic stretch.

Shields was approached by Chastain during a 2010 road trip to Detroit to write the tale, and Shields hovered over Chastain’s microphone telling the untold stories and events that were behind the usual Blue curtain of the Rays. Shields wanted to deliver the passing of that eventful months with anecdotes and inside muses that only Shields could deliver. Shields even delivered a few spot-on caricatures of his teammates that showed both their serious and spontaneous side as the Rays concluded their 2010 regular season campaign.

In the book Shields reveals a few unknown events, and bring a human side and clarity to some of the things we was fans never have access to, or hear about before, during or after historic runs like the Rays 2010 divisional chase. Shield’s accounts of the daily events bring it into a more human and non-competitive format to illustrate everything you wanted to know about that great 2010 late season run.

James Shield- Humanitarian

I think this one part of Shield’s Renaissance man persona is the most accurate depiction of the man himself. Local Tampa Bay political icon US Congressman Bill Young thought so much of Shield’s advocacy for the Tampa Bay foster care system that he bestowed the 2010 “Angel of Adoption” award to Shields. This award gives members of Congress a chance to further applaud and bring to light the gallant efforts to enrich and enlighten the lives of foster and orphaned in this country and abroad.

But that is only a sliver of the way Shields gives back to this community. Shields and his wife Ryane have teamed up with the Eckerd Youth Alternatives to create an exclusive club for foster children in this area.

The Big Game James Club was designed to help promote normalcy along with a sense of stability and belonging within the everyday lives of Tampa Bay area foster children served by the Eckerd Community Alternatives program. About 50 kids participated in the program in 2010 and get to meet Shields before the game plus enjoy watching the contest in a specially-decorated suite generously donated by the Rays and the Shields family.

Shields and his wife are also firmly supportive with the traveling photo and audible exhibit the Progress Energy Heart Gallery for the last 5 seasons. The Heart Gallery was created to offer another visible way for children to get a chance to find their own family unity within the local foster care system. For his efforts Shields has also garnered the Rays nomination for the prestigious Roberto Clemente Award given to the MLB star who epitomizes the off-the-field humanitarian efforts just like the Pirates legend.

In addition, Shields works with the Rays charity arm, the Rays Foundation during their fund raisers, golf tournament and has donated his time and expertise through the Rays annual Broadcast Auction to act as a pitching tutor/ instructor. Shields also donated funds to help rebuild a youth baseball field in Bradenton, Florida.

James Shields- Actor

By now all of us have become clients or at least admirers of the fictitious MLB pitching firm of Shields and Price portrayed infomercial style during the 2011 MLB season in conjunction with the MLB Fan cave. In this instant Rays classic video you see the easiness and professional demeanor of Shields, the actor. Shields does an great job of making us all want to pick up the phone and use the services of this great leftie-rightie pitching combo.

Being a “Renaissance man” in the 21st Century most would think you have to be fluent in multiple languages, be able to write computer RPG code, or possibly help give birth to a child in an elevator. Those are great attributes, but there is one more thing that resonates this “Renaissance man” theme with me with Shields in mind.

I have volunteered for a few pre-Spring Training golf tournaments over the last few years, and it is always a pleasure to see Shields step up to take a putt or smack the daylights out of that little dimpled ball. Shields plays golf with the same air of professionalism and competitive spirit that graces his face and body language on the mound. But Shields also carries that hint of non-nonchalant charm needed to have fun with the game and not take it all as serious as life or death. If I played golf, Shields would be the kind of player I would want in my pairing.

On the bottom of his page in the Rays media guide for the last several seasons there has been another chapter possibly unfolding behind the Rays blue curtain in regards to Shields, and it plays great with the paternal Italian side of his heritage. Shields wants to possibly pursue a career in the culinary field after he is done throwing a little white sphere 90+ mph.

Who knows, possibly the Rays could let Shield design a sandwich, a concession item in one of their Rays themed stands that would not only mirror this love of cooking for Shields, but give us all another avenue to delight and further admire the skills and craft that this Rays right hander has to offer. And Shield has achieved this remarkable “Renaissance” title even before his 30th birthday..

I truly can’t wait to see what talent or enterprise Shields unveils next!

Will Price’s Venture into Arbitration Facilitate a Rays Countermeasure?

Southpaw starting pitcher David Price easily can be considered the most important cog to retain in the Tampa Bay Rays surging competitive machine. His potential is limited only by his own tinkering and shifting in his pitching grips. His confidence and abilities might have taken a direct hit in 2011, but his first season as a Rays “ace” definitely showed he has huge potential and “up-side” to grow into the role and Price is eager to embrace these challenges.

As his abilities have grown, so will his seasonal salary, with Price garnering a sustainable $1.25 million for 2011, Price definitely will see his bank account expand in the coming seasons. Some people among the Rays Republic were shocked when Price opted out of his original 6-year $8.5 million dollar payday recently with the Rays. After achieving Super Two status this past season, Price was in a position to not throw a curveball into the Rays 2012 plans, but possibly offer a bit of salary stability if the Rays would talk about an extended foundation in the Rays fold. Price was set to earn $ 1.5 million for 2012, plus garner the last deferred installment payment of his $ 5.6 million signing bonus from his original Rays contract signed on August 15, 2007.

Some have said publicly that Price executing his right to refuse his 2012 option of $ 2.433 million was a formality, possibly a venue for the Rays and Price to discuss another deal for the long haul. But his decision to exercise his right to refuse his option might put a few of the Rays “wishes” for offensive help on the back burner for a bit possibly putting handcuffs on the Rays front office from getting that needed offensive firepower to stay competitive.

Then again, the move by Price could be a calculated risk with Price knowing he could bring a sense of salary stability with an extended deal instead of the financial darkness that always overshadows the arbitration process. The Rays currently have club control over Price until 2015. But with Price’s decline of his 2012 set salary, his suspected 2012 salary jumps tremendously from the $ 2.4 million figure to between $ 7-8 million dollars just for 2012.

Price could go instantly this off-season from a true Rays payroll value to potentially being the top dog (sorry Astro) within the Rays salary hierarchy. This off-season both Price and arbitration eligible CF B J Upton could both possibly take between $14-16 million of the Rays payroll between themselves. That is why a long-term understanding between the Rays and Price should be on the table this Winter.

Price’s decision definitely puts the Rays front office behind the 8-ball this Winter to either sign Price to a team friendly extension, or face the reality that his escalating arbitration salaries after 2012 might make Price more of a liability financially as his abilities escalate upwards. You wonder if the Rays will stand by patiently watching as Price’s salary escalates yearly finally seeing the Rays faced with another Scott Kazmir or Carl Crawford situation as his worth exceeds the Rays fiscal abilities.

This move by Price could transition into a finely packaged extended stay with the Rays for the southpaw, or be the first indicator of his own exit visa being stamped with a potential 2015 date. possibly shipped out before that expiration date. Rays payrolls for the next few seasons might not venture even close to the previous high of $72+ million dollar threshold back in 2008.

SP Jame Shields has a bevy of club option salaries of $ 9 million ($1.5 million buy-out) for 2013 and $ 12 million for 2014 on the immediate horizon, and these high dollar figures will make him instantly expendable as early as July 2012. Current Rays offensive spark plug 3B Evan Longoria will see his 2011 salary double from $ 2 million to $4.5 million in 2012 with club options on the horizon that balloon to $7.5 million (2014) to $11.5 million in 2016. Even 2B/OF Ben Zobrist will see his coffers increase from $4.5 million in 2012 to a possible $ 7.5+ million club option in 2015. Suddenly this Rays cohesive core has an impending high salary expiration date.

This whole Price situation can go a multitude of directions. The two sides could sit down, iron out an extended stay with the club with team friendly terms. Or the Rays could venture into the unknown void of the arbitration process that will surely see Price’s value escalate skyward on a yearly basis until Price is a high dollar risk and an instant trade commodity.

This fiscal nightmare has been on the horizon for some time. With extended deals signed prior by Zobrist, Shields,Longoria and last season with SP Wade Davis. The Rays financial nightmare scenario might have been set into motion by Price’s option out of his low-ball 2012 salary. Other members of the Rays young core will soon reach salary arbitration for the first time and financial decisions will have to be made as to the breaking point nears for this Rays expanding young nucleus.

That is the fiscal reality of the Rays. They are a franchise that is currently treading water in a deepening financial MLB ocean as salaries push them under and they gasp for needed financial relief. There is the potential for salvation, or the realistic drowning financially of this franchise. Either way, the Rays player movements this Winter will definitely define their direction and their commitment towards their young core. Within the next few years with a few budding stars pushed out by their impending financial burdens, not their talents.

The final rendering of their movements with Price will either send out shock tremors, or sighs of relief. Price is the keystone to this movement. The first to walk through this fragile threshold, and he will definitely not be the last. Price is wandering into the impending darkness not knowing his final destination, but hopefully the Rays will illuminate the path with their trademark sunburst and make the whole journey pleasant for both sides. Price is betting his Rays future on it.

A Tale of Baseball in Kuwait…Renegade Style

On the wake of tomorrow being Veteran’s Day, I want to take a moment to salute and give props to the men and women who stand in harm’s way, and those who support them both home and abroad. Even in a hostile country thousands of miles away back in 1991, baseball was my link to salvation on those desert afternoons and down times. Those games have left an indelible imprint on my heart and soul. I hope you enjoy my Kuwaiti tale .

I remember one night when my father and grandfather were sitting on the back porch and their voices began to rise a few hundred decibel while discussing the game of baseball. Both of them had a genuine respect and admiration for some of this Nation’s best baseball player who put down their bats and picked up a rifle or wrench or fly combat missions when manpower was needed to defend this country’s mindset and dreams.

Even if my time in the military was short compared to both of those men, I always made time to let some of the nuances of baseball intertwine into my daily routine. I was attached to a small unit that made it ashore during some of the first waves of amphibian approaches to Kuwait and within my gear taken abroad was my glove and a baseball.

Throwing back and forth even as the penetrating sun and swirling sands scraped at our skin like sandpaper. We still threw for hours just to bring some form of home into our minds and hearts, not only to break the slow ticking of time in the desert. Even though the majority of the soldiers of my unit had deep cravings for football, there was always time for a baseball, or someone boasting about their curveball being slick, or having a rocket launcher attached to their arms.

The game of baseball was an instant bonding agent no matter if we were from St. Petersburg, Florida, Rock City, North Carolina or Portland, Maine.

The game transcended the two countries ideologies and language. Poked past the cultural differences and the social unrest of the region. We even invited some of the local Kuwaiti kids to join us in our games. It felt great to spread this great sport to another region just as my father did in ports in the South Pacific, and my grandfather in England and Denmark.

During my time in the Middle East I found a new respect and admiration for the game, just as my father and grandfather had before me. I began to experience what they meant about how the passion and the pulling power of the game brings not only a group of soldiers together, but is a starting point for interact with the locals introducing them to baseball. This game that could start with two people and then suddenly blossom into 20 or more souls playing their hearts out sometimes blew my mind when the locals, both young and old eagerly began cheering and watching intently during the games.

I can still remember like it was yesterday when we were about to pulling out from our post near the Northern border of Kuwait that I needed to leave of piece of me here. Something had to stay here for this to seem real to me. So as we were motoring through the city of Abdari I saw a few kids throwing a baseball around the town’s central square.

I called for one of them to come over to my Humvee. I had a friend in the unit with me who was a translator and he asked the boy for me if he knew how to play baseball. The young kid, maybe 10 told my friend he was being taught the game before the local Marines pulled out and he was left with only the baseball.

I took the Humvee out of gear then went to the back of the unit. I got out my duffel bag and searched for a few moments and brought out my old college baseball glove, two of my wooden Louisville Sluggers and about 12 more baseballs sent to me from home. Even though I knew soccer was the prominent sport in this country, I wanted to leave a “baseball” piece of me in Kuwait that day.

I gave the items to the boy and made him promise to use them for sport and not as weapons or as bargaining pieces with his friend. I wanted him and his friends to want the items to play the game, not to sell or even trade for something else. He nodded his head in agreement and he ran yelling and screaming with excitement from our Humvee with his new-found sporting equipment. His small group of friends all encircled him like he had found a golden statue in the sand.

As I got back into the Humvee to drive away, he and new baseball posse all waved to us and I was glad deep down inside to leave a small part of me in this small Kuwaiti town. But more, I was glad to leave a part of the game.



Further Downward Spiral of the Marlins

I am not sure if it is politically correct yet to call them the “Miami Marlins” or do we still have to introduce them as the Florida Marlins until April? No matter which name is appropriate for the moment, the air in South Florida is becoming a bit foul recently, especially since the leaking of the Marlins newly proposed uniform and logo designs. They look and smell more like a forgotten pail of fish than the christening of a new Marlins era.

I commend the franchise for their want to change their public image and bare footprint in the Miami as the club nears their new stadium unveiling ceremony this April. Some would warrant the passing of the famed fish logo into the deep Atlantic abyss.

This redesign, the team’s transition from the famed Fish has so far gone from a fresh and vibrant transformation into something more mundane and muddled. It has begun to smell more like a forgotten and rotting Marlins carcasse. Why would the Marlins ownership and front office leave the pleasantries of the comforting Florida pastels and color palette and dive deep into this proposed logo and uniform monstrosity.

Bits and pieces of the Marlins intended 2012 changes to the franchise’s “look” and “feel” have leaked out into the cooling Florida air. Some have been greeted with consumer disdain and utter confusion on why the team took a 180 degree turn and sprint from their original aquamarine and grey undertones which typically were more “Miami” in concept than their present proposed Marlins re-creation.

The Marlins surely decided with great excitement and anticipation that their upcoming name change which would facilitate them dropping the “Florida” moniker and embrace their “Miami” community would become an enormous merchandising opportunity. But in my opinion the team went from heroes to zeros in nanoseconds when they lost their touch with their locale’s vibrant color scheme.

I know the Merchandising arm of the Marlins wanted to capitalize on their budding new look and surge forward in the MLB merchandising ranks just like the Tampa Bay Rays franchise experienced when they redesigned their uniform and logo back in November 2007. Possibly the huge success in merchandising sales combined with the Rays vibrant new logo and club colors warranted the Marlins wanting to ride this same merchandising and imagery wave.

This new Marlins concept is right up there with the Chicago White Sox old shorts and radically modernistic logo back in the 1980’s. Both quickly found themselves in the collectible piles, never to see the light of day again on a MLB field.

This new color scheme seems to solidly embrace more the hues experienced during those dreaded January-February Florida cold spells that try to yearly ruin our early Spring citrus/strawberry harvests. The Marlins uniforms remind me of color combinations from their “home” uniform which has the complexion of an orange on the tree as soot slightly covers the citrus and their “away” jersey reminds me of the accompanying blackening clouds that hang close to the crops perpetuated by the hundreds of smut pots littering Florida groves.

This uniform color combination looks great upon the Baltimore Orioles players because of their storied bird’s own color palette, but this color doesn’t seem to embrace or celebrate the magic that is the highly Hispanic region of South Florida.

The scaling back of the team cap logo into a more futuristic “M” doesn’t do this highly vibrant region any pure justice. It is just doesn’t convey the Florida region with any clarity or gusto. The design needs more Mojito and less dismal. Why in the name of Bud Selig did the club have to go and look more like the San Francisco Giants than the “Fun in the warm Florida Sun” Marlins?

I embraced the initial prototype Marlins logo when it was first introduced. It seemed to fully comprehend the Miami vibe with it’s art deco style lettering and that majestic Marlin making its jump along side the classic “F”. The new cap design doesn’t speak to the Florida mystic like the first version. It is a pity a franchise that has celebrated 2 World Championships has to feel this kind of ridicule or embarrassment, but it is definitely warranted.

I understand change has to happen and the Marlins uniform and logo will change with their surrounding environment, but how in the heck did this color pattern realistically emerge as a possible alternative? I just want to know if Marlins Manager Ozzie Guillen is re-thinking his invlovement with the club not wanting to look like a Grim Reaper or the Great Pumpkin in the dugout. I can’t wait to hear Ozzie speak on this topic.

From Little Havana to Coconut Grove you know the Marlins faithful will feel the urge to revolt, throw their opinions skyward hoping someone in the Marlin’s lofty tower will heed their concerns. Calling this design hideous is too lean a word. The Marlins hopefully have a back-up plan, a proposal that might unite and reconnect their community with the team. If not, the Marlins franchise might not see their vision of an increase in attendance or a resurgence in merchandising come to fruition in 2012.

The Marlins have to own up to their error now or face the possibility of a further disconnection with the South Florida communities that make up the Marlin’s fan pool. This is not to suggest the team needs to go over-the-top in their color analysis, but the present compilation will make an immediate disassociation between the ball club and their community.

I wish the Marlins fans luck. If this uniform change stays on track, you are going to need more than your I-pod earplugs to mute the laughs being heard in the stands around the National League. Possibly the worst MLB uniforms ever imagined. There is still time to tweak and change the prototypes, but that window is quickly closing. Maybe they are changing their name to the Miami Mundanes….It would fit the uniform changes.

Angels Tried to Pull a Maddon Kayfabe Move on Us

How ironic and funny is it that a region like Tampa Bay that boasts one of the largest community of off season home of carnival and circus operators in the country (Gibsonton, Florida) almost missed the entire reverse zabi-da with a side twist fiasco repatriated by those dastardly Angels? Maybe the rest of Major League Baseball truly see us all within the Rays Republic as the perfect rubes or Jabroni’s as we ventured again to believe what is in front of our eyes as 100 percent accurate instead of questioning sideways motives, or poking our noses deeper into situations to gather the honest truth.

I am beginning to think the Rays Republic (myself included) possibly could truly be so innocent and virginal to the perpetual dark-sided dealing that live within the M L B code that we all completely missed the indicators or slight-of-hand trickery that should have directed our diverted attentions to the real reason for the dinner date between Los Angels Angels of Anaheim owner Arturo Moreno and Rays VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman. WE truly missed the real ballyhoo objective, and could have potentially lost a great asset to the Rays past success

We somehow became more mesmerized by the thought of Friedman departing than to see the behind the scenes workings of another plot of deceptive move to take a important cog of the Rays winning machine. I can admit freely I never even imagined questioning that dinner date as more than a friendly gesture of Moreno wanting to see if Friedman would/could entertain a move to join his little band of West Coast gypsy’s and run his Halo’s operation.

What we all missed was the precision puppet string work being done with pure finesse and accuracy as the Angels used Friedman’s dinner as a deceptive tool while the Angels went after their original target with vigor and vitality. Who could have rightfully imagined that the California dining adventure between Friedman and Moreno was actually the ending movement of an apparent smokescreen by the Angels after they were turned away after seeking permission to talk to current Rays Manager Joe Maddon for their GM vacancy.

Sure the Angels did it the right way in contacting Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg and “asking” in advance for permission to speak with Merlot Joe, but the Angels were informed the Rays skipper was happy and content in his present role. Still the Rays usual Def con 6 level of media black-outs left all of us in the dark until some of the whole enchilada began to unfold outside the Rays grip on the situation.

All the while we in the Rays Republic were anxious about a possible Friedman escape and we entirely missed all the signals and signs that the Angel coveted Maddon. Even though Maddon still has a year on his Rays current contract, the team would have been compensated for their cerebral conductor of the Rays Way possibly with players, prospects and maybe even a future MLB draft selection, but that is all moot now as Merlot Joe is still part of the Tampa Bay franchise.

There was even a highly placed rumor of a nice salary bump, possibly a doubling of his current Rays salary if Maddon had entertained the Angels advances , but Joe instead biked away from the chance proving once again he truly does bleed Rays blue now.

The artful dodger gamesmanship by the Angels just goes to show even in the deceptive world of baseball, the intended target is not always the wanted one on the radar. Somewhere Rays supporter Brian Knobs and John Ceno could be sitting around today talking Carny about how the Angels almost “froze the tip”, had the Rays Republic paying close and continued attention while a different pitch was being presented just out of their eyesight…

Guess from now on I am going to think about some of the chatter and talking coming out of MLB with two trains of thought…the truth and the swerving end-around angle that would benefit those just out of our sight lines. So maybe the off season workings of baseball have “heels”, “workers” and produce a ballyhoo of hidden expectations and side moves. Maybe I am not a well versed smark, but who knew that baseball had so much Carny motives running around within it?