Results tagged ‘ Dan Wheeler ’
When I first arrived for the 2014 edition of the Jesse Litsch and Bechtel Financial Celebrity Golf Tournament it was a Winnie-the-Pooh kind of blustery day. But a great thing happened just as the teams assembled for lunch before 18 holes of great golf. The skies parted and that warming Sun took charge of the event. But I also want to believe someone up there wanted Connor to have a perfect day.
I got to meet Connor a few years ago while he was struggling with that nasty “C” word. The kid was spunky, friendly and determined to fight this cancer back into submission. I heard from a smiling bird a week prior to the event some fantastic news about Connor, and I was beaming the rest of the day.
So it really was perfect the Sun was blazing and the celebrities all assembled in a half-moon around a make-shift Home Plate as Litsch lobbed a mid-zone pitch in and Connor rocked it high into the left-side section of the field up onto the Putting Green. You see today was a day Connor could celebrate, and all the assembled celebrities wanted to also give him a special and emotional celebration. You see Connor has fought the demon and won. He is now Cancer-free.
As he rounded the bases to cheers from everyone around the circle the celebrities gave him a Home Plate “team meeting” as they all rubbed his head, shook hands and clapped to celebrate this awesome achievement by one truly courageous young guy. I will admit, there was some liquid on my cheek, but I told people it was dew from the palm tree. I was even more honored to photograph the moment and hope everyone remembers Connor fight and to remember Jimmy V’s words, “Never Give Up”.
Connors own charity “Friends of Connor” which supports other children taking on cancer is only 1 of the trifecta of great charities that the golf tournament embraces closely. The North Pinellas YMCA Summer Camps and Bechtel’s Bikes for Kids, which provide bikes and protective gear for children in need around this region and are delivered each holiday season by Pinellas County Sheriff’s department.
After the emotional beginning of the day events the assembled duffers made their way around the beautiful and wildlife-filled EastLake Woodlands North course to take on events like the Long Drive, Closest to the Pin and the always welcome Red Bull 9th hole. This year some amazing food also graced the greens as Skyline Chili (Chili Dogs), Johnny Grits( amazing Shrimp & Grits) and Jersey Mikes (Cheesesteaks) helped keep the golfer full, happy and never hungry.
But of course everyone was either dreading or loving the all-time favorite holes, the tee-ball blast or the Kick, Punt and Pass competition. Every year there are highs and lows at the T-ball hole as some people give it their all and the tee takes the blunt, or some bunt while others like Toronto Blue Jays RP Sergio Santos gets some pre-Spring hacks in advance of Inter-League fun.
I swear the tournament should post up a photographer at this hole with photos of all the participants and hold the pictures as a charity ransom so they do not get popped over the social media channels. Okay, maybe that is just my sinister idea. But seriously, the Kick ,Punt &Pass hole is by far the measure of who still has it and who…doesn’t.
I know a few people dread this hole, but the two pairing I witnessed participate this year did a great job with only 1 shanked punt. You see they first have to kick off a tee, then someone has to punt the ball, finally someone has to bring out their inner-Flute and throw as far as possible and the pairing then set their balls down and go from that mark. Always one of my favorite stopping points as I walk the 18 holes and try and catch people off-guard (in a good way).
Absent from the tournament field today were the Rays contingency who had their Pitchers and Catchers report on the tournament’s date, but the event did have a Rays flair as former players Andy Sonnanstine, Dan Wheeler, Fred McGriff and Coach Ozzie Timmons made their ways around the course. There were also over 2 dozen members of the Toronto Blue Jays farm system from top prospect Aaron Sanchez to MLB showing support for the event.
Again the evening was not only highlighted by the always amazing Silent Auction, but by the antic and jovial personality of local television icon Charlie Belcher. He was out there along with his wife visiting the various greens chatting with the golfers and providing liquid refreshments. I can honestly say he is one of the best MC’s in this area and is always fun to watch as he presents awards during the evening’s final moments.
From start to finish I always enjoy the event as each gear from George’s precision from start to finish, to Jesse & Kevin Bechtel’s involvement on the course and beyond to the conversation and sights I get to witness each year. It was another Home Run of an event and it all started with a walk-off Grand Slam by a kid wearing that great Toronto Blue Jays cap. Connor may have stolen the show this year, but Litsch and Bechtel and eager to go to bat for each charity for the next 364 days.
Here is a link for additional photos I took at this year’s Jesse Litsch & Bechtel Financial Celebrity Golf Tournament.
I do not remember the first time I went out to the Tyrone area of St. Petersburg, Florida and watched my first Miracle League ballgame. Here were kids, some with huge physical disadvantages with smiles going from ear-to-ear laughing, along with their adult co-pilots whistling around a soft surfaced baseball diamond with the ease and grace of deer or birds. I tugs deep inside you to see the joy, adulation and huge amounts of spirit on display not only by the cheering parents and friends, but by other kids awaiting their own turn at the plate.
The Miracle League was the first charity ex-Tampa Bay Rays catcher Toby Hall took under his wing when he began his foundation. As the league as grown, so has Hall’s involvement with another great institution, Buddy Baseball who now joins side-by-side with The Miracle League as Hall’s main baseball charitable interests. Both of these leagues embrace the positive things about the game of baseball as well as promote equality as players no matter your limitations and bring about a honest and positive experience for all involved.
And this is something Hall has not only embraced during his playing days, but also kept the spirit alive and thriving since his retirement from baseball last season. His foundation and his annual Toby Hall Spring Training Celebrity Golf Tournament have grown just as much as his charities, and the involvement of present and past athletes from the Tampa Bay are and beyond have stepped to the plate and knocked balls clear past the fences with their charitable donations and efforts.
From his golf day events and raffles, to that evening much anticipated silent auction, I have been glad to watch as this event has grown into an event that people mark on their calendars as far back as October to be a part of this event.
This season I got a grand honor of being the celebrity greeter at the event and got to meet plenty of people I have never met personally as well as greet old baseball friends and past participants who remember my face. And this event is not only for baseball players. The assorted collection of athletes and celebrities from this region that show support for this event runs a gambit from artists like TW Curtis, Hooters/ Sports radio icon Lynne Austin, Rays “strapping young Rays lad Todd Kalas, and even Fisher from 97X radio grace the celebrity pairings as well as guys who made their name on the fields, ice and gridirons.
From the frozen ice we saw former Tampa Bay Lightning goalie, Pat Jablonski putting a few dimpled balls into the cup. Boxing champion Winky Wright took a few doglegs left and right this year as well as Montgomery Biscuits Coach Ozzie Timmons and his memorable pants. Even LPGA golfer Brittany Lincicome and Lantana Stone made celebrity appearances this year. Buried in the list of celebrities was also a race car driver, Martin Plowman. In all, athletes from ex-Bucs great Mike Alstott to Wright made their yearly pilgrimage to Hall’s event, and as always, fun was in the air and the kid’s were on our minds.
The day was prefect for golf. Not to hot, not to cold (until the later hours) and just enough wind to drive the golfers crazy with slices and hooks, but also keep the sweat off your neck and arms to prevent a little too much Sun. Even special treats like amazing Bloody Marys via an icy adventure, to succulent and tangy shrimp cakes with an amazing sauce kept spirits high and fun at an explosive level. It was great seeing old Rays baseball friends like Dan Wheeler, Trever Miller, Andy Sonnanstine, Jason Romano, Randy Winn and the “Crime Dog” Fred McGriff take time out of their schedules for such a great cause.
Other current MLB players like Adam Lind, Jesse Litsch and AJ Pierzenski (who brought his own foursome) along with the Rays rotation duo of Alex Cobb and Matt Moore showed their support for Hall’s charities as well as play a pretty competitive and good spirited round of golf. And the Tampa Bay Bucs were not absent from the festivities as former players like Alstott, Dave Moore, Anthony Becht and Reidel Anthony played along side current Bucs WR Vincent Jackson during the scramble tournament.
As always, the day began with everyone relaxing, eating some lunch and getting themselves ready for a great day for golf and supporting Hall’s many charitable organizations. From mulligans purchases to the final bids of the evening at the banquet with our new comedic friend “hook ’em horns” guy, the event came to a final end with some of the kids and parents of both charities in attendance at the nightly banquet/silent auction.
I even got into the spirit this season bidding on a great autographed item and being able to take it home and proudly put it on my wall as a reminder of this great event and the guy who brings joy to so many kids within The Miracle League and Buddy Baseball.
So, I need the date for next year because I definitely want to highlight it and save it because who would not want to be a part of this foundation’s great events and shake hands with the humble host who always seems to get that clutch donation. I have always had mad respect for Hall, but this season I think I can ratchet it up a few more hundred notches.
Always a pleasure helping Toby out with this event, and I’m not only looking forward to the 2014 Toby Hall Spring Training Celebrity Golf Tournament, but 3-4 years into the future as it is so much fun to volunteer and be a part of such a great event hosted by such a humble and great supporter of the game of baseball. Call me anytime Toby, I’ll help in anyway possible.
Here is a Flickr link to all 81 photos taken during the 2013 Toby Hall Spring Training Celebrity Golf Tournament.
Professional athletes have a special format and platform to help educate and introduce us to charities and organization that are among us that without their support or enlightenment might go unnoticed or suffer financial downfalls and possible extinction. This is one of the many reasons I have chosen to be a part of the annual Toby Hall and Friends Celebrity Golf Classic. Well, that and helping out one of my true baseball friends.
His 2012 event again was overflowing with support from the baseball and sports community of Tampa Bay. From the Tampa Bay Lightning to former and current athletes coming together to help support Hall and The Miracle League, the event was a winner from the arrival of the first golfer. This year the event took on a different feel for me. Hall had announced his official retirement as a player earlier in the year, and now his focus and determination was focused and pin-pointed towards helping those organizations that touched at his heart strings.
I also took on a different face within the classic this year as I was on the opposite end of the camera lens taking photos of some of the golfing pairings, and getting some unseen shots while accompanying Hall and his entourage around the course during the days events. It was great to see former Tampa Bay sports icons like Tampa Bay Bucs RB Mike Alstott, T E Dave Moore, K Martin Gramatica. and the Bucs mega fan Big Nasty made the region’s football presence known at the event. Other NFL participants were Kansas City Chiefs TE Anthony Becht and former Jets, Bengals and Bucs OL Matt O’Dwyer.
As usual, the Major League Baseball community both in Tampa Bay and with a bevy of former Rays made the bulk of the events celebrity attendees, each bringing their own spin and special moments to the event. Current members of the Rays showing their support for the former Rays backstop included SP David Price who formed Team Price along with teammates SS Reid Brignac and CF B J Upton. Also attending the event was SP James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb and RF Matt Joyce who all acted as celebrity golfers in the classic’s pairings.
But Rays players were not the only one having fun on the links this day, Rays Third Base Coach Tom Foley, former Pitching Coach Chuck Hernandez, Bench coach Bill Evers, former Rays Hitting Coach Steve Henderson and former Rays OF and current Montgomery Biscuits Coach Ozzie Timmons made their rounds Thursday. Former Rays bat boy and current Toronto Blue Jays P Jesse Litsch was also on hand as well as FSN Sports and Rays Television broadcast man-on-the-move Todd Kalas who came out to support the event plus performed some spontaneous Awards Dinner MC work that inspired the evenings auctions.
Several other former Rays and long time supporters of the classic which included a pair of new Chicago Cubs, LHP Trever Miller and RP Andy Sonnanstine, plus new Indians RP Dan Wheeler who made their annual show of support for their former teammate. Former Rays backstop Gregg Zaun again brought his humor and great vibe to the event along with Washington Nationals OF Jason Michaels who again brought his unique putter and local radio “babe” and original Hooters icon Lynne Austin who I still owe a Bloody Mary. Local NBA icon and restaurant owner Matt Geiger also showed his tall and big presence on the links.
It was a great day on the greens and fairways and I had a great time talking and shooting the breeze with many of the celebrities and amateurs who took to the links. With great weather and great bonding on the golf course, the night’s final event brought the whole day to an eventual climax. Along with the raffles and awards presentation, Hall then introduced a group that had touched more than his heart strings to the assembled crowd.
Hall spoke of his recent introduction to another great baseball related group called Buddy Baseball that pairs a volunteer with a special needs player and they bond both on and off the field. His emotional moment touched so many in the crowd, and showed us another great organization to not only keep an eye on, but help develop into the successful model The Miracle League has become around the Tampa Bay area. Hall presented the group with a $ 4,000 check on this night, and with it came a rush of emotions all over the room and with the players and staff.
So many of the works and events that athletes do both in Tampa Bay or around the country do not get their “just desserts” within the local media. I volunteer for these events every Spring not to glamorize the athletes involved, but hope to inspire and promote others within the region to also join the path to helping these organizations have continued success and expansion into other Tampa Bay regions. Knowing that Hall has included the Baseball Buddies group now with The Miracle League charity it is a great moment for special needs kids and adults around the Tampa Bay area to have that unique baseball experience and enjoy the game.
I will be posting all my additional photos of the 2012 Toby Hall & Friends Celebrity Golf Classic on my Flickr page (Rays Renegade) if you might desire to re-post or download a photo for your own.
It was suppose to be a pairing party in advance of the 2012 Toby Hall and Friends Celebrity Golf Classic. It was suppose to be one of those meet and greet opportunities for the duffers to meet other members of their foursome, and also celebrate another awesome tournament. That was the plan Toby Hall had in his mind before he entered the Courtside Grille last night.
Instead it became an impromptu Retirement Party complete with the obligatory pine wooden rocking chair that party invitees were asked to sign and give their well wishes to Hall as he embarks on other adventures in his post MLB life like watching his kids grow up, and devote more time to his charity and other worthwhile endeavors. It was an event I did not want to miss.
There were people coming out of the proverbial woodwork for this honor like former Rays owner Vince Namoli who looked very relaxed and had even lost a few pounds. Former Rays Pitching Coach Chuck Hernandez came to the event as well as former Rays Bullpen Coach Glenn Ezell and current Bullpen Catcher/Enforcer Scott Cursi. The showing of support from former players on a night usually reserved for the menial task of assigning pairings was a complete success.
In the crowd was also former Rays OF Randy Winn, Toronto Blue Jays Pitcher/ Rays Bat boy Jesse Litsch, hurler Boof Bonser and Tampa Bay Bucs Defensive Back Ronde Barber. On the screens around the bar played a photo montage of Hall’s days both at Triple-A Durham, Tampa Bay and his stint with the White Sox. Food was plentiful, drinks were flowing and the room held a great vibe of well wishes and a few well placed cards and present for Hall and his family.
As the pairing were being announced, it was immediately noticeable that this season’s tournament had a few extra Rays names being bellowed out like P David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, SS Reid Brignac, CF B J Upton, RF Matt Joyce along with Rays farm Coach Ozzie Timmons, Jason Michaels and the always entertaining Gregg Zaun. Former Rays RP Trever Miller, Dan Wheeler Andy Sonnanstine, Rays Coaches Tom Foley and George Hendricks plus that strapping young lad, FSN Florida/Rays traveling ambassador of good times Todd Kalas. The event seems to have exploded this season with the addition of several Rays player who will be first time attendees this year. The show of great support for Hall and his main charity, the Miracle League should make this the best tournament turnout and fundraising in the Toby Hall Foundation’s history.
It was a great time to show our admiration and respect for a player who gave his all for the Rays, and is still considered the best to ever squat behind the plate. Hall may be leaving the game a bit earlier than he expected, or wanted, but his foundation, his children and his wife will be more devoted attention. If Hall takes to his retirement that way he called games and hit at the plate, then he will again be hitting for the fences. Go get ’em Toby!
Day 2 of the Charity Week experience. This charity event actually took place last Thursday, but somehow I lost my little camera video card in the movement from the camera to the computer. Now that the day’s photos are safely within the computer, it is time to give you some of the highlights and tales from the 2011 Toby Hall Celebrity Golf Classic.
This is my second year volunteering for this golfing event that first started out as a bowling event in Tampa so many years ago. Arrived at the Bayou Club gold clubhouse about 9:45-ish and immediately came face-to face with three off-duty members of the St. Petersburg Police Department.
They were there as special guests of Hall to participate in a fundraising event through their memorial T-shirt benefiting the families of two recently slain SPPD officers. During the charity event, the SPPD representatives set up a tent at the turning point or Hole 9.5 of the course and as the golfing pairs came up to do the putting challenge, they could also purchase T-shirts and speak to the officers( including a K-9 officer) that knew the two officers.
When Tampa Bay Rays centerfielder B J Upton’s 5-member pairing came up for the putting contest, Upton took a moment to go over to the SPPD tent and purchased not one, but over a dozen T-shirts, including one for everyone in his pairing group.
Fellow Rays Fans Wall of Fame member George Stone was on the scene again that day spreading the word about the featured charity of the event, The Miracle League. Some might not know that the Miracle League is a baseball league formed so that children of all ages with special needs and abilities can also enjoy the greatest game on dirt. At one point later in the evening, Stone actually got a verbal commitment from St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster to attend the 2011 Opening Day event in St. Petersburg.
There were plenty of Rays, plus ex-Rays on hand this day helping Hall in his quest to help this great organization. I remember a few years ago when they completely re-constructed the Miracle League field in the Azalea region of St. Petersburg, just down the street from the old Rays Spring Training facility.
On hand that day supporting Hall’s charity event was Dan Wheeler (Red Sox), Jesse Litsch (Jays), Brian Stokes (Jays).Boof Bonser ( NY Mets), Jason Michaels (Astros), Trever Miller (Cardinals),Ryan Webb (Marlins), Gregg Zaun (Padres), Miguel Cairo (Reds). Bobby Wilson (Angels) and Jorge Cantu (Padres), plus former NBA star Matt Gieger and retired Bucs running back Mike Alstott.
Representing the Rays was Upton, starter James Shields, RP Andy Sonnanstine, and new RP Adam Russell. Also on hand were a few other well known Rays faces either from the Coaching ranks, or from their on-the-field reporting. Broadcaster Todd Kalas was joined on this day by current Rays Third Base Coach Tom Foley and former Rays Coaches Bill Evers ( Durham Bulls), Ozzie Timmons (Columbus Catfish) and former Hitting Coach Steve Henderson. Rays shortstop Reid Brignac was also scheduled to attend, but had an emergency.
I was stationed to begin the day in the registration area handing out specially made Toby Hall caps, visors and rain slickers. But just as it seemed I might have an early end to my day, I volunteered to run the putting contest. It was a great time in which each pairing member got a chance to hit one golf ball into a sectioned off squared area for multiples of points with a maximum of 10 points if you sunk your putt..
You could cut the air with a knife as to the early competitive nature of the event as Cairo was the closest to the hole for most of the day until 5 pairings from the end, the cream began to rise to the putting top of the pot. Local attorney David Papa, who was in the Wilson pairing found the center of the hole to become the first to thrust his team to a sizeable lead. ( total 14 points).
That total seemed safe until one of the last groups, which included LPGA star Brittney Linicome, had their first putting contestant Tim Nalls of American Marketing put in square in the hole. With an immediate 10 points, this team was quickly putting (bad pun) itself into contention for the Putting contest crown.
But suddenly we all noticed that Linicome, who had an early flight out of Orlando in the morning for a LPGA event had left before taking her putting chance. I made an executive putting contest decision to let Nalls put his way to either team victory, or a second place finish. The climatic moment was short lived as Nalls pulled his second try to the right and did not even register a single additional point. I wonder if Linicome would have gotten them that needed 5 points for their victory by putting her golf ball in the inner square within a foot of the hole? We will never know.
But the solace of placing second was definitely short lived by the Linicome pairing as they finished the event with a 52, good enough for the eventual top finish in the tournament and bragging right for the entire year. As the teammates from the Linicome pairing basked in the afterglow and celebrated at the after party at Courtside Grille minus Brittney. The real winner here was the Miracle League.
I have been proud the last two years of volunteering in this event, and also made a commitment that day to help another event that will be held this Friday. On that day I will be helping out the Jesse Litsch & Bechtel Financial Celebrity Golf Tournament in Oldsmar, Florida. How can I possibly complain, another great day in the Sun with athletes supporting their local charities and spreading the news of this great charitable golfing event.
I want to remind the Rays Republic that the memorial T-shirts that benefit the families of the two slain SPPD officers will be ongoing in the Tampa Bay community. You can contact, or visit the St. Petersburg Police Department’s lobby to purchase a T-shirt, or contact them about ongoing outside T-shirt opportunities within the community. Please support this worthy charity and remembrance of these Tampa Bay heroes.
Again I want to thank Tracey and her staff plus Toby for the adventures and memories. Believe me, I have more than a few moments to tell people about that would not fit on this post today. But that is the great thing about charity events like this that happen so close to Spring Training. The excitement levels in seeing past friends and the approaching report dates just adds to the zeal and essence of the tournament.
I am already looking forward to the 2012 event. I want to post a link here for the Miracle League of the Gulf Beaches and hope that all of us can contribute in some way to a great organization that brings the love of the game to some that might not be able to run, hit or even pitch like everyone, but the smile and joy on their faces as they move around the bases makes it so worthwhile.
All photos taken at the 2011 Toby Hall Celebrity Golf Classic can be found in a photo set on Flickr.com
Common.Wikepedia.com Photo files
It has been my custom over the last few years to attach a word, phrase, or commonplace item as a keynote to what the ending year has envisioned to me. This year I am again incorporating my yearly ride with the Tampa Bay Rays by my side into this year end resolution. 2010 was a spectacular 365 day odyssey that somehow closely resembles the Kumba multi-inversion rollercoaster located just 25 miles from my front door within the oddly placed fauna of Busch Gardens in the urban jungle of Tampa Florida.
It really has been that kind of wham, bam thank you Ma’am year for Tampa Bay. One that has taken all of us, including the Rays, on moments of Mt Kilimanjaro-type highs, to the unexpected desolate lows of Death Valley, California while we all scream incisively through the zero G rolls and inverted loops to bear witness of the year’s gut wrenching end result. Hearing the collective loud thumping cadence of our heartbeats within this 32-passenger rail car as the rollercoaster finally finishes off as an unfocused blur.
The 2010 ride started out so serene and calm as we welcomed back 1B/3B Dan Johnson after a short Japanese baseball trek and saw the Rays signed their first European prospect LHP Stepan Havlicek (no relation to the Celtic legend). The impending illusion of a smooth and possibly uneventful ride seemed ease our minds as our car first left the ride station.
We became entranced and hypnotized by the soothing clicking sound of the car as another tremendous Rays Fan Fest came and went where we sadly got to see local Rays resident and Baseball Hall of Famer Robin Roberts for one last time. We all marveled at the Rays Jumbotron at Fan Fest watching the antics of Rays Radioman Rich Herrera and legendary eater Joey Chestnut boast about their hotdog eating skills while systematically standing in line to pursue the autographs of our Rays heroes.
All the while the clicking of track kept us somehow distracted, and played into the final menagerie of peril that was to soon take our breath away. The March signing of RP Joaquin Benoit to a minor league deal made us all giddy with anticipation and hopes of new found glory for Benoit. Suddenly our car took an unexpected 90 degree left turn out of our comfort zone when this Spring we saw LHP J P Howell suffer a bout of shoulder soreness that would start him on his own unanticipated rollercoaster ride during 2010.
With Howell’s injury only thought to keep him out until May, we began our 143-foot lift hill that would eventually send us rapidly screaming at full G force through the highs and lows of the 2010 season. After an incredible Grapefruit season where the Rays finally saw the emerging stars of SS Reid Brignac and 2B/utility man Sean Rodriguez shine bright, our car quickly headed into the Kumba’s signature pre-drop element.
Quickly the Rays season began to take a few twists and turns brought on by a sudden 135-foot drop to our left with the early season struggles of Designated Hitter Pat Burrell and escalated into a 114-foot vertical loop that intensely thrilled us as the team got out to a late April record of 17-5 before the Rays encountered their first diving loop and subsequent first extreme low point of the season.
It all started as the ride entered its initial diving loop segment with the team firmly clutching their pink bats and uniform ribbons when on Mother’s Day (May 9,2010) their coaster ride entered its first Zero-G roll brought on by the Perfect Game thrown by Oakland A’s LHP Dallas Braden that put lumps in our throats and stole our breath from us. But this was only the Rays first venture into a systematic tail spin as more unexpected plots twists were creeping our the horizon for the Rays.
The team then seemed to hit a rough patch as they spent a short spell on a smooth stretch of track before finally entering a much feared Cobra roll on June 25,2010 that saw former Rays RHP Edwin Jackson toss a No-Hitter against the Rays in the comfy confines of Tropicana Field. The result sent us again flipping upside down for the second time this season before we were able to enter a mid-course brake run at the All Star break . It was then that we saw Rays starter David Price become the first Rays pitcher to ever start an All Star game. At the midway point of our coaster ride the Rays end the first half with the Major League’s second best record (54-34) trailing only our division rivals, the New York Yankees.
Just as the ride was beginning to obtain some sort of normalcy, the Rays and the coaster again began a accelerating fall off the brake run through a series of interlocking corkscrew twists that heightened with a renewed Rays excitement by a No-Hitter tossed at Tropicana Field by Rays starter Matt Garza, and accented by the Grand Slam of another Matt (Joyce) to put the game finally out of reach and into the Rays record books.
Gut twisting and wrenching wins then somehow became the norm as the Rays unexpectedly ran into a 5-game losing streak (their only losing streak above 3 games in ’10) at the entry point of their first corkscrew twist. During this negative twist of misfortune during back-to-back Rays versus Blue Jays games from August 7-8th that saw normally secure starter James Shields surrender 6 Home Runs one day, then saw the Rays have to rely on Evan Longoria hitting a dying quail single through the 1B-2B hole with two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning to stave the Rays from becoming the first team to have 3 No-hitter thrown against them within a years’ time.
As Rays Kumba car entered the darkened tunnel after their latest close encounter in Toronto, the Rays again got back on the winning track and eventually approached the end of the season with a playoff berth in their grasp, and a possible American League East title just beyond their fingertips. As the ride entered its final braking run, the Rays faced a 1 game ultimate gut check presented to them to possibly secure another AL East banner for the rafters of Tropicana Field.
In classic rollercoaster form, the Rays took their final game of 2010 against the Kansas City Royals in extra innings and added to the climax and crescendo of that last right hand turn by being greeted by multitudes of Fans at St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport upon their arrival again in Tampa Bay before the ride began is last motions towards a ultimate disembark at the rail station.
Their quick exit in the ALDS just showed how accelerated their post season ride in 2010 could be extinguished. Lost in the final equation were a few special Rays moments that only further illustrated just how exciting and thrilling 2010 was for the Rays.
The 2010 Rays team ended up with 96 wins that season, only one “W” away from eclipsing their club win mark set in 2008. It was amazing for a Rays team that many baseball prognosticators did not even envision even a playoff berth for the squad back in April. We saw the maturation and confident emergence of a Rays starting 5 rotation that missed a team goal of 1,000+ inning season by its 5 starters by less than 46-odd innings. Then saw Longoria pick up his second consecutive Gold Glove while Carl Crawford finally got the Golden Glove that has eluded him.
Even with all the eventual ups and down, in and outs of their 2010 season, the Rays sent all of us on a cascading water flume ride of unexpected emotions and thrills as the team finally exit the railcars for the last time in 2010. We then had to say goodbye to 9 Free Agents, almost as many non-tender arbitration eligible Rays as the team began their foundational framework for another future glorious coaster ride.
Not knowing if it was a bead of cooling sweat from the fearsome ride, or a trickle of an unexpected tear set in motion by the thoughts of losing Rays stalwarts like Carlos Pena, Crawford, Benoit, Randy Choate, Dan Wheeler, Rafael Soriano and Grant Balfour. I am stricken with a unforeseen bout of silence as I might have been witness to the last ride of a 4-year journey that started in 2007, and will end at the stroke of midnight tonight. I had been an up-close and personal participant in the formulation of a winning culture by the Rays in our short existence. I want to stand in line again for another chance at having my breath taken away on another future glorious trip.
At midnight the clicking of Kumba will be heard in the background as I wander towards another Rays odyssey. The rise and fall of this franchise definitely mimics the twists and turns of a well maintained rollercoaster that is always pushing the limits of both gravity and the breaking points of humanity before tumbling down towards a sense of reality.
Thank you Rays for this years journey. Thank you for the “firsts”, the “lasts” and the 81 straight tickets to ride as I took my seat in Tropicana Field this year and each time It left me simply breathless and aching for more. Some call this season the end of a Rays era, I think it is the beginning of a tradition of celebrating the “Rays Way” and buckling every New Years Eve for another ride of our collective Rays lives. Now where is that SheiKra coaster located again?
Just when I thought I could feel a tad secure about the Tampa Bay Rays unstable Bullpen situation, Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman has to drop another bombshell on the already scarred Rays Republic. With the recent revelations that even Rays stalwart reliever Grant Balfour is shunning the Rays arbitration offer, the team has quickly seem it Bullpen’s health go from unstable to critical.
I instantly felt like Daniel-san from “The Karate Kid” with a hearty leg sweep taking me out and sending me to the canvas. Suddenly the foundation I thought was flimsy but fixable, might just be undergoing a major overhauling. Maybe I invested too much into hoping, praying, thinking that Rays southpaw reliever J P Howell could somehow be that impending shining light we would need in the Spring of 2011 to blaze a Bullpen path.
Instantly, that foundation, that hope of some stability was swept clean, at least for the first few months of the 2011 Major League Baseball decision. Friedman had very encouraging words about Howell’s rehabilitation program since his 2010 shoulder surgery, but the only words echoing through my mind again and again was the possibility he would not be available until May or June. With just those few words it seems that a total transition of the Rays Bullpen was underway, and would Sonnanstine and Cormier be spared from the purge?
In reality, the Rays Bullpen went quickly from a slight rebuilding mode to a full blown reconstruction mode even if Sonnanstine and Cormier are brought back for 2011. Howell was thought to be some of the glue that might bond this unit tighter with his hugely optimistic attitude and energy. But with Friedman’s announcement of a possible road bump in his rehabilitation process, Howell quickly goes from a veteran cog of the Rays Bullpen 2011 machine, to an in-season inserted piece.
Suddenly the instability of the Rays Bullpen reminds me of those moving grass patches in the Florida Everglades that on the surface look like solid ground until you walk on them, then you fall through into the murky water below. Even with young arms like southpaw reliever Jake McGee and righthander Mike Ekstrom possibly returning for another Rays extended gig, Friedman made it clear that McGee would have to prove himself this Spring or possible start the season with the Triple-A Durham Bulls.
With the Rays possibly carrying 12-13 pitchers going into the 2011 season, suddenly only the starting five of James Shields, Matt Garza, David Price, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann seems to be on any form of solid ground for now. But we have a long way to the Rays first reporting date of February 13th and anything can happen. If the Rays do consider carrying 12 pitchers’, that would mean that 7 new faces could possibly enter the Rays Spring Training complex in Port Charlotte, Florida on that date. I hope the team is stocking up on ” Hi! My Name is….” tags.
Such a major re-configuration to the Rays late inning staff could take them immediately out of the thought process of contending during 2011 and might have damage their post season aspirations for several years. Suddenly the once solid and reliable Rays Bullpen unit is a shadow of its former self. And with the Rays farm system a bit discombobulated after 21 minor league free agents were not offered an olive branch by the parent club, more change is expected.
It is a long way to February 13th, and the Rays could possibly entertain a multi-year offer with Balfour, or possibly have the chance to sign Wheeler to a lower salary figure than his declines $ 4 million option and retain some form of reasonable back end stability to the Rays Bullpen. Tendering 2011 contracts to Sonnanstine and Cormier could alleviate a bit of the Rays relief flux, but would only be a band-aid on the seeping wound.
Should be an interesting 24 hours for the Tampa Bay Rays front office. With 9 pending arbitration decisions to be made during this tedious 24 hour period, it could ultimately show the Rays poker hand. The arbitration list set for immediate discussion by those in the Rays boardroom comprises 6 relief pitchers, 2 former All Stars, and a offensive player picked up off waivers in 2010. Tomorrow’s final decisions at the conclusion of the deadline will show a distinctive and resolute signal by the Rays head honchos of whether any of the nine have any possible future with the Rays.
But from that one secure arbitration point, it becomes more of a interesting gamble for the Rays to consider offering arbitration to their other Type-A players who might just take the arbitration offer and force the Rays hands to trade them or face some difficult financial decisions considering the Rays will cut their 2011 payroll nearly in half to around $40-59 million dollar range. But does it really seem in their past character that Carl Crawford or Rafael Soriano would accept such an arbitration offer to rejoin the Rays knowing that multi millions are lying out there waiting for their services outside Tampa Bay? Hopefully the dice do not come up “snake eyes” in this situation.
A more possible arbitration offer could be extended to Rays reliever Grant Balfour after another sub 4.00 ERA year with the Rays. This also might not be a “given” knowing the facts that the Rays are searching high and low for low cost Bullpen bodies to replace 2010 members like Balfour, Soriano and Benoit. Balfour seems like one of the two possible Rays arbitration offers ( in my opinion) that might be accepted. Then again, recently Balfour’s name has been mentioned as a top tier relief option that could hit the unrestricted market full bore on Tuesday if he is declined arbitration.
The Rays again have issued their usual code of silence that is not letting out a single whisper or hint as to their final decision or possible direction in terms of these arbitration issues. But the thought of a possible arbitration offer to Choate might actually provide an adequate Rays insurance policy in the event Rays reliever J P Howell has some sort of delay in his return in 2011 from his shoulder surgery. That could instantly open the door wide for Choate or another Free Agent southpaw to join the Rays roster with an eye on a possible departure during the Trade Deadline. Roll the dice again and hope for “Boxcars”.
That leads us to 4 former Rays players who have played their last games in a Rays uniform unless a drastic change of heart by the team. Brad Hawpe, who was picked up by the Rays after his release by the Colorado Rockies, and reliever Chad Qualls, who was traded to the Rays by the Arizona Diamondbacks at the Trade Deadline should be two players who do not get even a thought of arbitration by the Rays. Both had seasons to forget, and did not instill any sense of confidence in their abilities to continue with the Rays for 2011.
Qualls in particular did not seem to embrace his change of scenery and in the end almost duplicated his high dubious ERA that he maintained with the D-backs before his trade. Most people might point to his recent success near the end of 2010 and the postseason as reasons to keep Qualls, but the end result is there are dozens of reliever out there who can get ground ball outs with less extra baggage and worry than Qualls. A 5.57 ERA in a limited amount of appearances does not bode well to promoting confidence or providing an assurance of a relief reprieve.
Hawpe never seemed to get into a solid Rays groove once he came up in August mostly getting chances as a pinch hitter or the Rays Designated Hitter role. Not showing positives and embracing the DH spot might of brought an instant kiss of death for Hawpe. His .179 batting average in 15 games with the Rays did not instill any other emotions of enthusiasm or hope that he could be a possible solution to the DH problem for 2011. Hawpe was brought in to test run for a possible arbitration decision this Winter at DH for the Rays.
Instead it seems that Hawpe just folded his hand and left the table early.
There might have been 4 million little reasons ( his 2011 club option figure) that could have easily factored into the Rays deciding to decline his option for 2011. With Howell also up again for salary arbitration this Winter, it is possible that the Rays did not want to spend around $ 10 million plus just for three pieces of their 2011 Bullpen. The aspect of offering Wheeler arbitration could blow up in the Rays faces considering he posted his third straight season of 60+ appearances, and ended the season with 6 scoreless appearances. Always a gamble to offer someone arbitration as their stock is climbing.
That leaves one more soul that the Rays will not offer arbitration, but hope that he will eventually offer a bit of a “hometown discount”, possibly cutting his 2010 salary up by 25 percent to make him again affordable to the Rays for 2011. Carlos Pena has been very vocal and more than adamant about returning to the Rays again in 2011. The Rays definitely can not discount the loss of offense and defense by the omission of Pena from their roster, but also can not afford another $ 10.5 million salary in 2011 for their former All Star First Baseman. The two parties must somehow find a suitable compromise.
As of right now, the only sure decision by the Rays is a arbitration offer to Benoit that will net the Rays another pick in the 2011 MLB Draft. The other eight decisions will have to be weighed with possible risks and counter balances to either extend an offer or possibly slamming the door shut to further free agent discussions. Will the Rays put their money firmly on the hopes that Crawford, Soriano will decline arbitration, thus netting the Rays additional draft picks when they do eventually sign with another team? Or could it all suddenly backfire and the duo accept arbitration and handcuff the Rays to finding a suitor for the duo before their arbitration hearings?
Joaquin Benoit Yes
Carl Crawford Yes
Rafael Soriano Yes
Grant Balfour Yes
Randy Choate Yes
Chad Qualls No
Brad Hawpe No
Dan Wheeler Yes
Carlos Pena No
The Tampa Bay Rays front office and my moles have gone silent. The organization seems to have again gone into their seasonal Black Ops mode when finalizing and considering their list of targets for the current 2010 Hot Stove season. But just like a hunter, the Rays have their scouting department scouring the countryside for videos and research that will point their direction towards a few of their prized prey.
And with another banner set to be raised to the rafters in April 2011, the Rays have the young talent and pitching to again cause some havoc in the American League East. But the 2010 season took a toll on the young team as they saw 5 of their top 6 2010 salary earners exit the franchise 40-man roster on Sunday morning. The team saw a combined $ 40 million in 2010 salaries instantly fall off their books which was almost 55 percent of their 2010 outgoing financial picture for Rays players.
The main problem with losing a person like Pena and his ability to command this Rays clubhouse is that you can never match up the team again with that personality and intensity type, but you look for a figure who commands the respect and can take the reins in the clubhouse without a power struggle or in fighting. That is a rare thing to find as ex-Rays slugger Pat Burrell found out in 2009 when he accosted B J Upton in the Rays locker room thinking he had the support of the team, then suddenly found out he was not in the power loop.
Maybe the Rays could set their gun sights on someone like Free Agent Jim Thome who might command a salary like Pena’s, but could provide a instant patch to their leadership and Designated Hitter hole with ease. No longer can the Rays set their sights firmly just upon possibly inviting Pena again into the Rays sanctuary. Even with Pena’s past vocally adamant wants to return to the Rays, can a financially adequate figure be reached without hindering the rest of the Rays off season secret double agent game plan.
Not only will the Rays be trying to find players to take over the missing pieces in their roster, they will be trying to glue together a few ripped apart seams in their clubhouse character. This might be more difficult than finding a guy who can hit over 30 Home Runs, or hold hitters to under a 3.00 ERA as a reliever. Physical ability is always available within the cycles of players who yearn for a shot in the Major Leagues, but sometimes character and leadership is not their game or part of their professional credo.
Mother Nature has done her best in the last day to remind all of us in Florida that Winter is quickly approaching. It’s blustery message was delivered locally by a huge weather trough of icy Artic air that has temperatures in the Tampa Bay region tumbling from the mid 80’s to a blustery 50 degree in the last 24 hours . With that blast of colder air comes the oncoming and anticipated hibernation of most of the Tampa Bay Rays non-baseball related staff as the rest of the Rays front office embraces for a hot and humid Hot Stove season. Does it really seem like it has been 5 days since the members of the San Francisco Giants first thrust the MLB Commissioner’s Trophy high into the Texas sky and signaled the beginning of a well orchestrated off seasonal dance between Major League Baseball players and the upper management of their respective franchises who can take this 120 hour grace period to entertain or separate themselves from players that once could be considered critical to their team’s plans.
Within this ticking of the clock all 30 MLB teams can either play the respective “devil or angel” card by securing their valued players by joyfully acknowledging their acceptance of their players’ exclusive club options, or possibly declining the same said options with an eye to a possible salary reduction and welcome back into their team’s fold as if nothing happened. It is in this time of the year that the player’s agents and representatives can either make or break their clients “bankability” with their clubs, or begin to put feelers out for another opportunity.
It is the time when the gloves come off and the pleasantries can sometimes take a back seat as clubs’ begin to weed and filter out veterans or high risk contract players who’s declining skills or performance potential doesn’t adhere to the club’s style of play or forecasted remolding of the franchise. Within this 5 day period more than few gasps and whispers will be heard when players who were considered “untouchable” almost 4 months ago are given their unconditional walking papers or left dangling within the trade winds as pieces that could be acquired for a few pieces of silver now.
Take what has happened recently to Giants Shortstop Edgar Renteria who in the beginning of this 5-day period was preparing for a huge celebration with the fans of San Francisco, but even before he could step upon the float for a celebration parade was non-tendered his option by the same club that saw him hoist the Most Valuable Player award for the World Series. In less than 120 hours Renteria went from the penthouse to the basement with nothing to break his fall from Giants grace.
This 5-day fiasco is where your personality and abilities as a player are defined under a stark microscope along with a dollar sign anointed to your forehead and either you gain the fiscal approval, or you are cast into the darkness with one match and candle. It is where the ugly head of business within the MLB has to rear its hideous face and make decisions that are not welcomed or anticipated by either the fan base or the general public. Where even a team fresh off a whirlwind World Series trip has to define their 2011 goals and payroll within the confines of cold reality and monetary limitations that might exclude a key member of the celebration.
Dan Wheeler was one of the first pitchers in the Rays farm system to ascend through the ranks and get to the Major League level back in 1998. He has a long history of his love and involvement with the team having a chance to come back to the team that gave him his start in 2007. But Wheeler’s $ 4million dollar salary is not conducive to the Rays structure of their payroll for 2011 and saw his 2011 club option declined by the Rays. Wheeler will receive a nice $ 1 million consolation prize from the Rays with a hope of extended talks to possibly come to a financial crossroads that can benefit both parties and rejoin the team.
With this chill felt in Florida today, it instantly reminds me of the brief time period between the final out of the 2010 MLB postseason and the sudden approach of the 2010 Free Agent season. A time when MLB member clubs will see the leaves (players) fall from their roster trees as they begin to shed salary and personnel for the long Winter. 120 hours doesn’t seem like enough time to fully examine and filter out the pros and cons of a currently MLB player before plucking him off your roster….. possibly forever.
As the chilled wind rustles through the trees outside, Winter is approaching and Spring is still just a daydream away. But within the next 24 hours every front office of the 30 MLB clubs will poise to again spring into action the off season fight for Free Agents and begin the hearty task of creating another possible winner who 51 weeks from now will thrust their own MLB Commissioner’s Trophy into the night sky and the process begin all over again.