Results tagged ‘ Jason Bartlett ’
I now know how it feels to be “that other guy”. You know the one I am talking about right now. The “guy” who somehow does it right, works his tale off doing his job day after day, dating the right girl for him, polishing up that 1969 Camaro hood to a shine like the Sun, then as Jackie Gleason once said: “Pow!, right in the kisser.” He gets smacked in the teeth by reality. And just like that, he has to rebuild and recharge to pull himself off that canvas to answer the bell.
It is that same sense of realism that the Tampa Bay Rays are facing right now. Three games ago no one in their right mind could of, or would have predicted this horrific outcome. Some of the Red Sox Nation in attendance who came down to root for their visiting team never envisioned something like this series sweep when they boarded those flights from Logan to TIA. If this series were to emulate a boxing match, it would have been called by the referee in the third round by TKO. It was a classic Northeastern beat down plain and simple.
The Rays have to immediately rebuild after their customary 30-minute grace period to try and refocus and re-institute Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s main mantra of the 2010 season. This team needs to rise from this horrid beating the Red Sox put to them and push that anger and emotion within their offense and reclaim what is rightfully theirs……A first place squad doesn’t give up, doesn’t lay down, and doesn’t show fear…It stands tall, even if bloody and tired, and asks for more please.
This Boston series was a vivid reality check for the Rays that their starting pitching might “set the tone” for their rise this season, but it can just as quickly be their slope to falling too. The offense can not afford to take a single inning, a plate appearance, or a single swing off, or the offensive machine could break down just as it did the last three nights. Even with the power display put on by Rays slugger Carlos Pena with a long solo blast that came only feet short of the Trop’s back wall in that first contest, only five other hits sprinkles Tropicana Field’s turf during that initial Monday loss.
The Rays early Spring mantra of GTMI, or “Get The Man In” fell on hard times as the Rays went 1-6 with RISP, and stranded another 5 souls on the base. This statistic alone firmly stuck the fork deep into the Rays flesh and the fact the Red Sox pitching staff sent 17 consecutive hitters back to the dugout after Jason Bartlett’s double in that same contest , it twisted the fork harder into the Rays underbelly for their first loss to Boston this season.
GTMI had become instantly an anemic message of CWGaH (Can We Get a Hit). As the Rays fans walked to our cars for that long exhausting ride home after Monday night’s loss, we instantly gave that night’s win to the Red Sox knowing the “terrible two’s” ,Rays starters James Shields and Matt Garza were throwing the next two nights. With that great thought and vision of victories in our minds, that first loss seemed easier to swallow. The intense bitterness of that loss seemed less salty and diluted with the possibilities of “Big Game” and ” El Diablo” getting redemption for “WD-40”. A betting man would have wagered his salary easily on the duo with a high probability of a “W” on the left side of the Rays record column. Losing either of those match-ups would have entered his mind as he pluck down his wagers.
Tuesday night, Shields posted a “quality start”, and set the tone by only giving up 4 hits and 2 runs over 8 innings,. But the odd mixture of an ever widening strike zone by Home Plate Umpire Bob Davison and the trickery of Boston starter Jon Lester taking that extra 6 inches off the plate proved to be the Rays recipe for disaster. Lester gave up only a single to Rays Designated Hitter Willy Aybar in the fourth inning to spoil his night. The Rays again were faced with another “slumber of the lumber” epidemic as the Rays went 0-5 with RISP, and stranded 7 Rays on base in their second loss in as many nights.
The invisibility of Maddon’s offensive mantra GTMI, or “Get The Man In” might have become a broken tooth on the spoke of the Rays hitting machine and it brought the whole she-bang to a screeching halt. When the Rays have shown their offensive pratfalls this season, the team has stranded countless men on base, or forgotten where those bases were located. Without a solid smack, slap or a tickle off the Rays bats, this team will feel that bitter taste of losing again. And we knew after that second smack down this second divisional series would go to Boston. But we still felt strong in knowing the Rays were sending their own demon to the mound for the finale, and he could already taste the sweetness.
And in this final swing at the Red Sox you knew that something had to give for the Rays. Something had to be discovered or uncovered that had boosted the Rays chances at failure the previous two nights. But just as quickly as the sixth Red Sox hitter, you saw Garza instantly show the frustration behind the mound, and some sort of implosion was definitely on the horizon. After that first blast by Adrian Beltre, Garza seemed to second guessing his strategy and try to change his team’s outcome in one sweep. Garza’s 5 walks and 3 home runs allowed last night showed his mind along with his control was not as sharp as the whiskers on his chin.
Garza was having his own purgatory moments on the mound, the Rays hitters found a reoccurring theme of inconsistent hitting. They did string together an early scoring opportunity in the second inning after Blalock lead-off with a single. Blalock then advanced along the base paths and came across the plate on Reid Brignac’s grounder and tie the game and gave the Rays a boost of renewed confidence.
A second costly mistake to Beltre, which quickly deposited 388 feet into the Leftfield stands and the Red Sox quickly took this game solidly out of the Rays grasp.
The Rays need to resoundingly wake up their slumbering offense that went a combined 1-14 with RISP in their Wednesday night debacle. Soon the mantra of GTMI might be dead in the water if the team doesn’t institute a lifesaving move to save this home stand. People will point fingers from the stands towards certain Rays players who have failed to connect or contribute lately, but the stark reality is all 25 members of this Rays team are accountable right now. You win as a team, and you lose as a team.
Somehow some way this spell of offensive despair has to end. Hopefully it is a simple attitude or minor adjustment and again we can cheer and say hello to victory soon for the Rays. Either that, or is it going to be a long, long Summer, and we do not want that!
I could have rambled towards a posting of Kentucky Derby hopeful candidates that currently play for the Rays, but we already know that coming in one-two in that race might be the sprinter Carl Crawford and the long strides of B J Upton neck and neck at the wire. Honestly might come down to if CC has a forward neck bob at the moment he hit’s the finish line. But it only seemed fitting that I take a few names and personalities off the Rays roster and give them a one-night only ZZ Top song. I can tell you that I-Tunes is going to love me today with this research.
Now this one might seem like a pretty self explanatory song choice for Rays fashion plate and G Q model in residence slugger Carlos Pena. But I actually have two Rays figures in this choice. The first is of course Pena who has been the fashion sensible member of the Rays since day one. But my other selection might fool a few people, but he is trying with what he’s got, and for that I got to give Rays Television announcer Brian Anderson an Honorable Mention in this song choice.
Anderson might not have the fashion runway swagger of Carlos Pena, or even the handsome looks that make more than a few women faint, but Anderson is a budding fashion police poster child who seems to get better with every road trip. Maybe Pena is secretly taking Anderson out on road trips and getting him a new tie or stylish sports coat or tie to go with his daily ensemble on the Rays broadcasts. No matter what the true story is, we all know Pena is the true fashionista on the Rays roster, but Anderson might be raiding his closet if Pena is not careful…maybe.
I do not see how this could be a surprise to anyone. Major League Baseball players get handed cellphone numbers and even room keys all the time for prospective romantic interludes, but most disregard them as “groupies” or even trouble waiting to happen. But the fact that is totally humorous is that these same women had Longo’s digits in their cellphones, so they can not play as innocent either here as they might have had conversation with Longoria either before they met their current squeezes, or during their courtship.
Either way, it really has just up the ante and further advanced the mystic and allure of Longoria to women from coast-to-coast. So the next time your “significant other” gets a text message that she either smiles at or giggles like a schoolgirl, just ask her point blank is it from Longoria. It probably is not, but you never know, some guys might think it was an ultimate compliment if Longo was texting his girl….Not me, but there might be someone like that out there in the Rays Republic.
This actually might have been the easiest song to place with a Rays player basically because I seem to smile and chuckle every time I see him attempt an extra base or turn the corner for a try at a triple during a Rays contest. Carl Crawford has streamlined his glide around the base paths over the last several years to provide more energy and push to accelerate his speed within a few strides. But still when he rounds the First Base bag and he seems to be leaning at a 45 degree angle and chugging those arms back and forth, his legs always seems to come out in my photos as magical blurs or looking like time lapse photography.
So it was a perfect choice to include Crawford’s name as the player associated with “Legs”. And even if this song ultimately illustrates a love for the female form, I hope Crawford can take that I am using a bit of literary license here to portray this song towards his burst of speed and not the way his lower lips seems to drag like a English Bulldog when he is pumping towards an extra base. And I want to apologize in print if you read the lyrics to the second verse and think I am referring to Crawford with hair down to his fanny….I am not….Seriously ( My Grey’s Anatomy voice)….Seriously!
Garza has always had that persona to me. The one where he seems to display and cool and clam demeanor under that bundle of emotions and inner frustration sometimes with himself on the mound. He usually can wear those cheap sunglasses as a outer shield to keep him from actually showing his highly charged confidence and emotions. But then again, Tom Cruise pulled it off with the same pair of cheap sunglasses in “Risky Business” and it turned him into a movie superstar. Maybe Garza can turn his cheap sunglasses into a Cy Young?
I am not sure why this next one seems to fit just by the title of the song, but I see Rays fifth starter Wade Davis as the perfect poster child for this song. Maybe it is that outer shell he has that eludes most strife and controversy as he seems to glide through his starts even against some of the opposing teams top pitchers. Davis has provided some interesting performances already in 2010, and has been totally in control and often times kind of in his own personal zone of tranquility while attempting to provide pitching brilliance so early in 2010.
And I am not trying to play on his nickname “W D-40” to provide some raw angle of southern gentleman meets ferocious beast, but the guy is from Lake Wales, Florida and is as calm as a cucumber and soft-spoken as they come. But then again, when things are clicking like they are right now for Davis, there is nothing to worry about anyways….really.
It might be the last time Crawford, Pena and even Dioner Navarro and possibly Jason Bartlett all hit the field at the same time to try and right a situation that seemed to melt them apart like the cold weather on that unusual October night. Maybe it is the mantra adopted by Maddon for 2010 that no longer uses mathematical situations, but asks the simple question: ” WIN or What’s Important Now”. Maybe it is that urgency of completing the mission, of finally breathing a sigh of relief that will act as the whistle from this pressure cooker called the MLB season.
ZZ Top is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member. They got their start just like so many other musicians did struggling in the small bars and honky tonks in the Texas landscape. But their telling of the stories and the message in their lyrics, they got the rest of the country to not only experience a bit of Texas, but of their own personal cultures and rituals.
But hopefully in the next several months the Rays can duplicate the success and get the admiration of the rest of the Major League Baseball world to again see them for the hardworking and diligent team that they are….And maybe after it is all said and done, the Rays could actually shadow another ZZ Top song as a team.
For if the Rays hit that desired pinnacle they seek so dearly in 2010. If this Rays team can climb that last rung of the ladder and stand proudly at the top with a golden trophy in their mitts, then maybe they can all collectively sing “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” on the pitching mound as they shower each other with praise, champagne and memories just like ZZ Top has given all of us over their long career.
Got to go people. Got a small errand to do since I am getting Photo Credentials to shoot the ZZ Top Concert tonight. And yes, tomorrow will be a ZZ Top post Concert Photo blog. See you later Gator…
And sure there are still a few battles to be won or lost before the team finalizes their 25-man roster, but this is just one Rays fan’s educated guess, a “guestimation” if you will, in what might actually mirror the line-up cars presented to the Umpires prior to the beginning fo the Rays 2010 Major League Baseball season.
The MLB.com Fantasy projections have Bartlett going to the plate over 500 times this season, and sporting a .320 Batting Average with 14 HR, 66 RBI and 30 stolen bases. But the one figure that jumps out at me is not the Batting Average, but the fact he could plate 90+ runs in this high-powered Rays offense hitting in front of Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist, Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena. If Bartlett does get on base, even via the walk (54), Bartlett could be a thorn in the side of opposing pitchers’ in 2010. And with Bartlett showing early power this season in Spring Training, these stats might just be a launching pad for him this season.
What can you say about the Rays second hitter that has not already been said either in Baseball Fantasy passages or prose. Carl Crawford might just be one of the most exciting players to simply watch during a plate appearance based solely on his unpredictable nature of mixing the infield hit with his power stroke. And the added ammunition of possibly adding a drag bunt to his arsenal in 2010, You could see him get his highest seasonal Batting Average as a Ray in 2010.
Some people are calling Ben Zobrist a ” man without a position”, and also downplaying his 2009 slugging campaign to the pure fact American League pitchers’ were conned early by his extra power and base running abilities. But 2009 was the first full season Zobrist actually has been healthy in his short career with the Rays. A small list of nagging injuries kept him bouncing in and out of the line-up before 2009 when Zobrist finally got a chance to show his abilities after an May knee injury to ex-Rays Second Baseman Akinori Iwamura. And maybe all Zorilla ever needed was a chance to shine after showing rays of brilliance during pinch-hit and spot duty during games in 2007-2008.
And we know that Rays Manager Joe Maddon will do everything to get Zobrist’s bat into the Rays line-up, even considering batting Zobrist in the 3-slot to begin the 2010 season. This is Spring Training swap in line-up spots for Zobrist has shown great results, and might be the answer to provide RBI-opportunities with three straight Rays hitters who can get on base and mix power and speed effectively to get rival pitching staff into early inning troubles. MLB.com Fantasy Projections have Zobrist hitting .297 with 27 HR , 97 RBI and 17 stolen bases. But his key moves in 2010 might be his position flexibility to give the Rays options at Second Base and Rightfield throughout 2010 based on game day match-ups and possible late inning position shifts.
This might be the next step in the evolution of Longoria as Maddon will push more offensive pressure on the young player’s shoulders. But I have a feeling Longo will actually welcome the chance to produce and also be a key leadership component of this 2010 Rays squad. MLB.com Fantasy projections have Longoria posting a .281 Batting Average with 33 HR, 113 RBI and getting 72 walks during the season. If Longoria gets off to a solid and hot start, this might be the season he sees more walks, and could easily pass that 72 walk mark easily.
Early this Spring I was worried about Rays First Baseman Carlos Pena. After he had two of his fingers broken by a fastball pitch by New York Yankees starter C C Sabathia, there were early Spring concerns that Pena, who went over 21 plate appearances before finally getting back into the groove with a Home Run to start his 2010 Spring hitting regiment. But lost in the confusion was the fact he was hitting the ball solid during that time, but the new heavily padded batting gloves might have been more of a mental change and adjustment for Pena than a physical one.
With his fingers healed and ready to go, Pena has recently begun to show more selective plate selection and getting his average moving towards the Mendoza Line this Spring. But you can not discount the sheer power and ability of Pena in this line-up, and he has been working hard this Spring on pulling the ball more towards the Third Base-Shortstop hole to fight off the game day shift that some American League teams employ against him. But the MLB.com Fantasy projections have Pena hitting .227 with 39 HR ,100 RBI and 87 walks. But a key for Pena might be to show an avid decrease in strikeouts since he will be hitting in the 5-spot and might see more different pitch selections in 2010.
I am actually thinking this sixth slot might be a possible second lead-off position for the Rays in 2010.
And who better than speedster B J Upton to be at the plate in this situation. In Spring Training 2010, Upton is showing he has fully recovered from his off season 2009 shoulder surgery, and his bat stroke has looked real clean at the plate. But some of that credit might also rub off on new Rays Hitting Coach Derek Shelton who spent more than a few moments with Upton in the off season working on his front foot placement and swing follow through. The results are early success this Spring for Upton.
Upton might finally have that breakout season Rays fans have been waiting for in 2010. Upton has the ability to be one of the best Centerfielders in baseball, and with some additional pop in his bat, he could possibly meet his brother Justin in Anaheim for the 2010 All Star game. MLB.com projections have Upton hitting .241 with 11 HR and 55 RBI to go along with 42 stolen bases. Upton’s presence on base will also give pitching staff fits in 2010, and I actually see him hitting more like a .265 Batting Average with 16 HR and 70 RBI and posting 50 stolen bases. As you can see, I am expecting Upton to have a nice ” coming out” party in 2010.
This is the one huge question mark to me right now. I want to believe in Pat Burrell’s just having an “off year” in 2010. I really do, but Burrell has to show more than just neck pain and inconsistent plate appearances, because “The Bat” has to perform this season, or be instantly labeled a flop with the Rays. Hopefully in 2010 Burrell can again live up to his moniker and provide some needed hitting from the 7th position in the Rays line-up. This season definitely needs to be a good season for Burrell to help provide some protection for Longoria and Pena, or pitchers will not fret knowing an anemic Burrell is in the On-Deck Circle.
The eight spot in the Batting Order definitely be an “insert here” platoon situation depending on where Zobrist is situated on the field. Both Gabe Kapler and Matt Joyce have the offensive abilities to play every day in Rightfield, but they will be in a platoon situation with Zobrist depending on where skipper Maddon positions Zobrist that night.
And then again, this spot could go to Rays newcomer Sean Rodriguez who was a main piece of the Scott Kazmir trade last July and has been on fire at the plate this Spring and might actually see extended time at Second Base if he gets off to a hot start at the plate in 2010. So with that possibly in the cards, let’s check out all three players projections for 2010. Kapler will definitely get spot starts against left-handers and also time as a late inning defensive replacement in 2010. Kapler no longer seems to have the power potential he had earlier in his MLB career, but MLB.com Fantasy projections have him getting at least 205 plate appearances while hitting .239 with 8 HR and 32 RBIs. Not a big power threat anymore, but a solid hitter who can also still run effectively on the base paths.
Matt Joyce might not even make the Rays roster straight out of Spring Training due to some extra time working on his conditioning because of a early Spring elbow ailment. But Maddon has shown extreme confidence in Joyce’s abilities, and he might be realistically destined for an early rehab or DL visit to begin the season. But projections have Joyce seeing limited duty in 2010 possibly as a fifth outfielder and his ability to rebound might take his stats off the charts in regards to early 2010 season projections.
On paper it seems that Shoppach might have a slight advantage on game day preparations and ability to block balls in the dirt with more regularity than Navarro, but the starting job is not going to be easy as both have been told it might end with both being measured up for possible match-ups based on certain Rays rotation members in 2010. We might definitely see Shoppach being Matt Garza’s battery mate in 2010. But in MLB.com Fantasy projections, Shoppach get the early edge based on power showing a possible .214 Batting average with 12 HR , 40 RBI and you can bet a boatload of Hit By Pitches again in 2010.
But the same MLB.com Fantasy projections show Navarro having a slight edge in average( .218), but lacking the power element that Shoppach will bring to the Rays. And Navarro was given the early edge in plate appearances, where projections have him coming to the plate 376 times compared to Shoppach’s 271 appearances. But the main contribution factor might be who will get an early hot hand and show a firm foundation with the Rays pitching staff. Both players come with their own sidelines of good and bad abilities, but both can throw out runners and have a good knowledge of American League hitters.
But do not be surprised if one of the Rays catchers is injured that the Rays do not quickly pull up minor league catcher Nevin Ashley from the system over minor league veteran John Jaso. Ashley has shown the abilities and stamina that Maddon likes to see in his catchers’ and could be in line to fight for a back-up catching slot in 2011.
The potential is there for this 2010 Rays team to produce and score runs again at another record pace, but the key will be the health of the Rays. Even one key member out of the top of the Rays line-up for an extended time might throw some of these MLB.com Fantasy projections right out the window.
But the stark reality is that this is the most talented and athletic Rays team to ever step onto Tropicana Field. And with that comes inherent dangers of severe injuries, and the possibilities of extended hitting slumps or offensive lapses. Most Rays Republic remember the awful start the Rays got off to during April 2009 (9-14), and the Rays were constantly playing “catch-up” while the rest of the American League East played out their season. But the unsuspecting hand injury to Pena in September took the Rays down a dark path and they quickly fell out of contention for the AL Wild Card. Each piece in this Rays line-up carries a extremely important piece to the entire Playoff puzzle in 2010. One piece missing could cost them dearly in 2010.
With New York and Boston not “reloading” as extensive this off season as they did in 2009, this division instead went ” defensive” and because of that, it might be closely contested into the final weeks of the season. For the Rays to uncork a bottle of bubbly again in 2010, the Rays will have to see a few of these projections shoot skyward and maybe even see Burrell or one of the Rays catchers’ catch fire early and spring the team onto some early success. Only a handful of days and nights before our MLB dreams become a new season of realities. Maddon key phrase for the year is “W.I.N.” which stands for “What’s Important Now”. For the 2010 Rays, it will be getting out of the gate fast and furious and taking no prisoners in their first month battling mostly divisional foes
RRCollections I arrived up at BrightHouse Field about 11-ish on Sunday to check out the Tampa Bay Rays first venture back North and into their familiar Pinellas County stomping grounds in 2010. Got to tell you, the second I got into the pristine ballpark, one thing was perfectly clear to me. Not only was this a beautiful sunny day, which somehow got cooler by the inning, but I was instantly smiling as I glanced towards the Rays bench and instantly saw a few of the Rays players signing for fans along the rail.
And if there is one thing I am extremely proud of concerning our Rays players, it is their constant attention and respect they show people in the stands every day. I have to admit, if the Rays players did not feel a bit of kinship to stop and talk or even be social with their brethrens in the stands, this MLBlogs.com blog might a be a lot more boring and statistic-related, and I would not have most of those great stories to tell all of you.
And this is something I am extremely proud of our players to have been consistently providing themselves for the fans for the last 13 seasons. And with this season marking the 15th anniversary of Major League Baseball awarding us our franchise, it is amazing we also were rewarded with such generous and low ego players in our short history.
We have a baseball team here in Tampa Bay that has religiously signed for their fans, and even spent more than a few moments making some kid’s day by giving them a ball, or even a wide smile when they ask for an autograph or picture with them. And sure there are people around Tampa Bay who sometimes abuse the system, but we are lucky the guys sign for us. As I sat by the Rays dugout tunnel and talked to a few people, the players came and went, but always had a moment for the fans.
Sure some of the Rays biggest stars might not have made the trip north this time, but you can be assured they will be in that same dugout when the teams meet again in Clearwater on Tuesday, March 23 at 1:05 pm. And there are a few of the Rays players that might not seem to heed your call for their autographs or photo opportunities at times, but this Rays team by far signs more balls, bats and collectibles for their fans than most of their counterparts in the Major Leagues.
As I stood there taking random photos most of the time during Batting Practice in Clearwater, I kept an eagle eye towards the opposing team’s leftfield tunnel entrance that leads to the Philadelphia Phillies clubhouse. What I was trying to gauges if the Phillies players were following the Rays player’s lead and signing for the fans before this Spring Training game.
And if you go down to the rails before Rays games there are always scores of Rays fans with the same types of stories. Telling you of Rays players showing a unusual sense of kindness or requests for multiple photo with friends and family never uttering a negative comment, but treating their fans to a special moment with a huge smile.
Maddon has on more than one occasion reminded his Rays players that the Rays true fan base is a great constant source of energy and motivation for this club daily, and that they should remember when a fan requests a moment with them during the baseball season.
And it is great to see a young Rays fan leaning over and asking for an autograph, and that Rays player comes over signs and maybe even chats for a moment with the kid and the crowd. Not only does it make his day, but sometimes it makes the player’s day too. It is so special to have a team like our Rays that is open to giving back to the Rays fans. And sometimes we might forget just how lucky we truly are as Rays fans to have baseball players willing to take some time out to do this for us before Rays games.
Most visiting teams fans are jealous of that close bond between fan and player, and wish that their guys would do the same for them. This firmly illustrates another great reason to be a Rays fan. But also there is the danger of getting too used to it and maybe asking too much, or pushing the envelope and alienating a player with the fans.
As with most teams, there are autograph hounds/collectors within the Rays Republic who tend to throw a dark shadow on the true fans by selling their autographed rewards and jeopardize a real fan just wanting a sincere autograph. It is this level of fan that has been the benchmark for the Rays imposing their Sunday autograph days to be limited to kids under 14.
These measures have pushed the autograph hounds to getting their signatures outside the stadium player’s entrance gates, or charity events, where it is the player’s option if they will reward the collectors.
Rays fans need to keep nurturing this special player-fan relationship, and try and keep it from drying up, or let anything negative influence the Rays players from wanting to sign or spend time with the fans.
I sometimes have found it necessary to impose my opinion on some young autograph seekers to teach them a better way to get their autographs without upsetting, or maybe ruining the great open ended relationship between the team and its fans. You know the kids I am talking about, who yell “Hey You” or do not even get to know the Rays roster and do not call them by name, but by the number on their jersey.
The Rays players being so open to the fans is a great reason to be a Rays fan. And even if there are a few negative influences surrounding the fan’s nucleus with the players, the relationship is not one-sided. If the fans remain respectful and treat the Rays players with genuine concern and interest, this great bond between the two should flourish for a long, long time.
I do consider us blessed with great players who show more attention to our fans than most within the MLB ranks. But then again, that might just be another great advantage to doing things “The Rays Way”.
It is about two hours before we again get to hear that first “official” thump into the catcher’s mitt to signal the official beginning of another fantastic Major League Baseball season for the Tampa Bay Rays. And it is great that Mother Nature decided to participate today with a nibbling cold breeze circling through the stadium, and the warming heat from that big orange ball in the sky are both making this first day of real baseball tingle, just like an early childhood Christmas morning.
Hate to admit it to the baseball world, but I am a sentimental old fool when it comes to the game of baseball. Some say I am too emotionally and mentally attached to the game and that has produced some interesting flashbacks over the last few days. To me, it is just a reminder or a mental revisiting of some past Rays Spring Training Grapefruit moments that stand out in my mind. And there has been a bit of a revolving continual flashback video within my mind’s eye recently that hopefully will diminish with Guthrie’s first pitch. But they are great moments to me, and ones that always bring a smile to my face.
But even with a head nod from Rays reliever Dan Wheeler yesterday in the rain-reduced workouts at the Rays complex, another vision came of the young Wheeler being one of the only members of that first Rays Draft class to make it all the way to the top beginning with his fantastic Spring Training back in 2000 when he also won the Al Lopez award for the then D-Rays. It brought back times of seeing someone like Travis Phelps who was drafted so late in the 1998 MLB Draft you would think he would be a scout or in another line of work instead of coming into Rays games as a reliever and reminding people around Tampa Bay that confidence and talent can get you what you desire in life if you mix in a healthy dose of determination into the equation.
And not everything rushing through my mind has been a good time. There was a moment on March 19,2005 right after seeing possible future Baseball Hall of Fame member Roberto Alomar trotting off the Progress Energy Park infield for the last time with his head down that it donned on me he might have just made his last Major League Baseball play, and then within a few hours notice, Alomar announced to the baseball world he was retiring from the game due to vision and back problems. And the duo night’s announcements of both Alomar and outfielder Danny Batista leaving the game on the same date left some of us gasping and wondering if the team might be cursed.
But then memories like 2008, which was the Rays last season training in St. Petersburg, Florida come to my mind. Visions of Rays pitcher Scott Kazmir predicting while he was rehabbing an elbow injury that the playoff was the goal of the 2008 team. And maybe set into motion during that Spring Training quote nugget during a Spring Training interview out at Rays Namoli complex, this team formulated their foundation and cemented their confidence for the entire season. Instantly this team began to win those 1-run games that Spring.
And combined with emotional games against the Yankees in which Yankee farmhand Shelley Duncan was dishing out some baseball justice, this team came together on the clay and dirt of Progress Energy Park. And that cosmos of emotions built up right up until the March 23,2008 game against the Cincinnati Reds when the team played their last Spring Training game ever in the stadium where they had held every Spring Training game since 1998. For they were going to relocate 80 miles Southward the next Spring in the seaside hamlet of Port Charlotte, Florida taking over a refurbished former Spring home of the Texas Rangers. And that last sell-out game held a bevy of emotions that overflowed into the grandstands and grassy berms.
Even if the Spring Training game have been transported to our South, the Rays team taking the field today know what is ahead of them. With Rays Manager Joe Maddon discarding the mathematics and bringing on the abbreviated, we are entering a new Rays era. “What’s Important Now” is the new mantra. Maddon chatted a lot with Ken Ravizza, the Rays performance consultant and sport psychologist who actually came up with the Rays new possible T-shirt phrase, breaking the Rays Manager’s string of number-induced team slogans. Staying in the “present moment” is going to be key in the way the Rays play this Grapefruit season.
Breaking from the untold failures of the Rays past has been accomplished. This new Spring edition of the Rays will again try and control the controllable from today’s game throughout 2010, with an earmark to correcting past inferiors and mental stop signs. The team seems to be focused towards the immediate future, and what each and every one of them can bring to the table. I commend them for the early acknowledgment of what has to be trimmed and better defined for this team to again taste champagne in October.
But I am also a student of the past, and I personally know that sometimes you have to go back to review the past before you confidently step forward. So today as Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett steps into the batter box against Guthrie there is a heightened sense of renewal in the air here in Sarasota, Florida.
There is new orange paint surrounding Ed Smith Stadium, but there is also a crispness that only a great Spring Training baseball game can deliver, and a refreshing rebirth in “The Rays Way” this Spring that should lead to lofty heights and great results. And with that, it is time to watch some last minute preps toward seeing baseball for the first time in 2010. I am excited, reminiscent of the past, and also eager to see the future…Play Ball!
And the final direction this 2010 Rays team takes in 2010 will be heavily based on this mathematical breakdown, even before their Home Opener on April 6,2010. And this simple math problem might say a lot about how solid and confident this Rays Coaching staff, and Maddon feel about the key elements of their 2010 squad before firmly heading into the Rays 13th Major League Baseball season.
One statistical breakdown remains unsolved, and it will definitely define the early roster of this team. This one still undecided simple mathematical conclusion could become the balancing fulcrum towards the realizations of multiple scenarios for possible failure, or ultimate success going into the 2010 season. For these two sets of simultaneous and sequenced numbers will decide the final set-up of the Rays roster. How the Rays split their 2010 roster into their “13 & 12” segments will be a huge indicator of how the Rays perceive their team’s strengths coming out of Spring Training, and into the early divisional firestorm with American League East ramifications starting with Game 1.
How Maddon and his staff decide if they want to start the season with 13 pitchers and 12 bench players or vice versa will be an early tell tale sign to the confidence level this Coaching staff has with its roster, and its solution towards early challenges.
For the Rays can not have a downward spiral in the month of April, like in 2009, when the Rays went quickly towards an unpredictable 9-14 early record, and put themselves in “catch-up” mode for the rest of the season. How this Rays squad separates their personnel into those “13-12” splits might be a instant indication if the Rays organization believes their pitching will need to get the “upper hand”, or if the hitting/fielding players will get the chance to man that “13th seat” at the table.
But you can count on more than a few players trying to force the Rays hands and have their names put in ink onto that “13th” numbered roster spot this Spring. These young and hungry players will do everything humanly possible to make the Rays staff’s decision tougher, and hope to make it lean towards their names with an impressive performance during Spring Training. And the ultimate reward just might make their first Opening Day MLB roster.
If the Bullpen pulls it together and borderline relievers like Winston Abreu and Dale Thayer make the roster, it could tilt that invisible line towards the team ultimately carrying 13 pitchers. And even the addition of former Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine thrown into the pitching mix, either in the Bullpen, or as a possible fifth starter. This could throw the whole equation quickly into the pitching sides favor early on this Spring. But that in itself presents an interesting and complex decision all by itself.
With returning fifth starter Wade Davis and Sonnanstine squaring off in the only battle this Spring for a starting job, could the eventual loser of that battle just be sent packing to another team like Jason Hammel in 2009, or could they just be sent down to Triple-A Durham knowing they might be the first call-up of the season?
I have a feeling right now Maddon and his Pitching Coach Jim Hickey might be leaning towards extending that “13th slot” towards a pitcher, but there are also going to be some tough and interesting decisions to be made in the Rays infield and outfield mix that might make that entire pitching situation moot.
We already know that outfielder Matt Joyce is going to try to prove once and for all to the Rays Coaching Staff and Maddon that he deserves that Rightfield slot going into the season, and maybe for the next several years. And even if Joyce wins that spot (which I think he does), it is small factoring process compared to the highly competitive dogfight that will ultimately decide the fate of the Rays second utility guy between Reid Brignac and newcomer Sean Rodriguez.
And maybe Brignac’s roster “pop-ups” to the majors in 2009 might have given the Rays staff more of an comprehensive book on Brignac’s abilities coming into this Spring, and possibly Brignac’s scorecard already has a few penciled-in notes and scratches from the Rays Coaching staff, while Rodriguez is a blank slate with everything to gain heading into the Spring Training games.
Sure Rodriguez was a key trade component of the Rays trading left-handed starter Scott Kazmir to the Angels in late July 2009, but this will be the first time most Rays fans and the Tampa Bay media will get an extended chance to see what the kid can do……now or in the near future for the Rays.
If more than one of these young players like Joyce, Rodriguez, Brignac or even Elliot Johnson makes a lasting impression that they “have to be” on this roster, this could ultimately shake up the preconceived notion of 13 pitchers and twist the equation quickly towards 13 bench players. And that scenario has a very distinctive possibility of happening this Spring. These numbers games for the first time in Rays short history, might effectively come down to total game day performances and not the foresight predictions on their talents, or a daily growing maturity in their abilities to play at the Major League level.
But, the wrist injury to Aybar might be one of the biggest question mark still unanswered totally into this first set of Grapefruit League games. If he is down and out for an extended time, or even gets put on the 15-day Disabled List to start the regular MLB season, the Rays could keep an extra bench player down with the Rays instead of sending them to the minor league camp or even up to Durham.
So there might be a lot of day-to-day evaluations and recommendations discussed with Rays Head Trainer Ron Porterfield in the next week or so to see if there is a viable option of Aybar playing before the Major League season begins, or they shut Aybar down from hitting drills and let him effectively rehab back into game shape before pressing this same numbers issue again during the Rays season.
And if Aybar does go on the D L, it could also be a bit of a last gasp of making this roster for one of the reliever fighting it out to become a Rays Bullpen member, or could evolve into a chance for the loser of the Sonnanstine/Davis battle to be kept on the Major League roster as a possible long reliever like Lance Cormier.
My personal gut reaction is that the Rays seem to want to do everything in their power to try and keep Sonnanstine up at this level, but if he falls into that 13th slot and Aybar comes back, he would be the first to fall from the 25-man roster. You already know that Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, Cormier, Dan Wheeler, Randy Choate (leftie specialist), J P Howell along with Wade Davis, James Shields, Matt Garza, David Price and Jeff Niemann take up 11 pitching spots before even considering Abreu, Thayer or Joaquin Benoit as a Bullpen option.
That would leave a possible one viable slots, with a second up in the air right now if the Rays want to carry 13 pitchers. You could pencil in Sonnanstine into one of those two spaces, but with him and Davis both having minor league options, they could always be sent down with the adage that it came down to that “13th ” spot. And even with Thayer and Abreu showing mixed results at this level, you have to think of the two, Abreu would get a longer look based on his 2009 MiLB.com designation as the Triple-A Reliever of the Year.
But not going in Abreu’s favor is his short stint with Cleveland in 2009, when he seemed to imploded a bit on the mound and almost started an all out brawl in a game versus Seattle. But both relievers have paid their minor league dues and could force the Rays hand and send Sonnanstine to Durham, even with great outings this Spring.
This is only my scenario of the whole situation and is only my personal glance into the Rays possible decision on this issue. I see the loser of the Davis and Sonnanstine battle to be immediate trade bait offered before MLB rosters finalize and if a good trade option can not be found, the loser of the fifth rotation battle will be sent back to Durham knowing they are the first starting pitcher recalled by the Rays.
I think there are a few NL teams that would jump on Sonnanstine if he has a great Spring, but there is still time to see about his 2010 situation. I truly feel that Joyce will win his battle for Rightfield, and will platoon with Ben Zobrist to begin the season until Joyce shows he can hit left-handers with consistency, then it open another can of worms for the Rays as to a final playing position for Zobrist.
Out of the infield battle, I see Sean Rodriguez maybe having a slight edge right now, but I feel it is Brignac’s job to lose since he has the confidence and skill level to play at the Major League level. And if Aybar does go on the D L , they both could get a realistic shot to make the initial Rays 25-man Opening Day roster. But I also think in the end, the Rays will shop Brignac and he could be somewhere else either before the 2010 season, or within the first few months of the season.
It is funny how two of the Rays past “utility” guys, Aybar and Zobrist based on their great seasons in 2008 and 2009 will play a part so deep into the Rays decisions in 2010. But that just goes to show you the improved depth and wealth of talent sitting in Port Charlotte right now, just at the Major League camp level.
Some people consider the number “13” to be mostly evil with no redemption for any good. But that same number “13” for one Rays player this Spring Training season will be a blessing, and a chance to show they have what it takes to survive and play daily at this level of the game. Whoever gets that coveted “13th” spot in 2010, no matter if they are a Rays pitcher, or field player, they will know internally that they survived one of the most competitive Rays Spring Training camps.
It might not seem so tough to some of the Rays fans watching the workouts and drills, but this Spring’s competition level has been raised very, very high, and the final Rays player to grace that “13th” spot decision has to consider himself lucky indeed, for they get a chance to grow with this Rays team as they again set their sights on games in October.
One of the biggest reasons so many fans came out to the Tampa Bay Rays 2010 Fan Fest on Saturday was a chance to chat and get autographs from their favorite Rays players in advance of the 2010 season. Also on hand were a few of the Rays minor league prospects invited to the Major League camp that started on Friday. The number of fans seen entering the building on Saturday definitely showed that the enthusiasm and the excitement is very much still alive within the Tampa Bay area for their team.
And there were a few big name players like Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist, new comer Sean Rodriguez sent to the Rays in the Scott Kazmir trade in 2009 and Rays 2009 scapegoat Designated Hitter Pat Burrell. The autograph day went pretty uneventful accept for some late arrivals from players, and some people grumbling about the absence of Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett and leftie Jake McGee. I still have not heard a word on Bartlett, but McGee missed the event due to his wife Morgan going to a local hospital, but she has since been released and McGee is back with the team at the Port Charlotte complex.
But there were more than whispers from a few of the Rays Season Ticket holder I spoke to on friends not renewing their seats or even people downgrading from multiple seats to singles for the 2010 season. But the reality is also there that a small bulk of that inflated number in 2009 was for people who wanted to secure 2008 Playoff tickets and bought seats in the inexpensive sections of Tropicana Field to get guaranteed seating for the Rays playoff run. But there is a anticipated hope of people getting into the flow after Fan Fest and purchasing one of the many ticket packages or options for the upcoming season.
And there were members of the Rays Sales Department all over Tropicana Field ready and willing to discuss or show seating options to people all during Fan Fest. There are options starting as low as $ 273 (Friday or Sunday plan) and rising depending on the seat location. And beginning this Friday, February 26,2010 at 9 am, individual game tickets will go on sale to the general public for the first time in 2010. Another popular option is the Saturday game package that will include every game for the Hess Express /Rays Concert Series that start at $ 331 for T.B.T. Party Deck or Upper Deck Reserved seating.
And again in 2010, the Home Plate Club prices seems to have gone down a tab, so if you should win the Florida Lotto in time for the Rays season, you could purchase a seat in the All-Inclusive area starting at $ 13,256. And even as the Rays season Ticket numbers have dropped, it had to be anticipated by the local economic struggles and also the 2009 Playoff package ticket holders not renewing their seats for 2010. You can be sure within now and the beginning of the season, the Rays will announce some additional ticket options and also attractive promotions and events to get the Tampa Bay residents to come out to the Trop. for more games in 2010.
And as usual, the autograph lines seemed to begin to get congested almost immediately as people bought their silver wristbands then stood in line almost two hours before Evan Longoria first stepped onto the first table location just after 12 pm. By the time he had stepped into his seat, the line formed around the white plastic chain links and circled out into the Rightfield Street hallway down past the Dipping Dots booth and almost to the Rays Carnival Games for the kids.
And there were all sorts of interesting items brought up to the players to sign this year. One fan, Christin Manfredo actually had new Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach sign her 1,000th autographed baseball during Fan Fest, with Rays prospect catcher Nevin Ashley becoming the 1001st autographed baseball in Manfredo’s collection. And there was the usual oversize baseball bats and small scale batting helmets for players to sign, but the one item that caught my eyes was the oversize World Series ticket that were given to several players during the day.
Everyone always asks who is sitting right there with me in my section. Well, here we see Michael, who sits in Section 138, Row C Seat 1 giving Evan Longoria one of the State Farm Home Run Derby balls from 2008 to sign. Longoria took some time looking at the ball and remarked that it looked like it was actually hit, possibly by him during the event. It is a great collectible ball for Michael’s collection. Another item that came up just after Michael to Longo was an actual gold-colored fielding glove that looked a lot like the Golden Glove model glove on the trophy that Longoria will be presented at a Rays game in 2010. One of the great things about this event is seeing some of the fantastic collectible items fans have obtained during the past season from auctions, sales and even events like Fan Fest for the guys to sign.
People were complaining all day long about players getting to the Trop. late for their signings and not staying past their times to appease fans. I know that certain players had transportation delays on their travels up from Port Charlotte, while others had logistical situation going on with their belongings and equipment getting to Port Charlotte ahead of them on Saturday. For some reason, B J Upton took a huge blunt of this backlash, but he was not the only player who was delayed and did not stay any additional time to sign for fans.
And some Rays fans were quick to notice he was texting between signatures and also checking his phone a bit not aware of his transportation logistic situation. But then again,
when you are sitting at a table above the general public, they can see you every move and action and can develop negative opinions and reaction quickly based on your overall mood and attitude to the fans. Upton is excited to begin a new chapter in 2010 and is healthy for the first time in a few years. He has reached out to new Hitting Coach Derek Shelton for advice and has seen the errors of his ways in the past with his nonchalant base running and quiet demeanor. I think he is going to have a breakout year in 2010.
Gabe Kapler to me has become one of the greatest ” at ease” fashion sense guys on this team. And I mean that as a compliment. Here we see him in a great black hat and a pair of Chuck Taylor sneakers that seems to show his laid-back attitude and approach to this team. But he is also one of the guys who get into a “zone” during game day and is a constant figure helping other players both on and off the field. Kapler is one of those guys on the edges of the Rays roster in 2010 who could be beneficial to the Rays return to the playoffs in 2010.
Most people know these two guys as one of the best First Basemen offensively and defensively in the Major Leagues, and the other is the Senior Director of Promotions for the Rays. But Carlos Pena and Brian Killingsworth also have another “Kevin Bacon 6 degrees of Separation” moment”. Both were also members of the Wartham Gatesman who won the 1997 Cape Cod Baseball League Championship. Funny story, Killingsworth actually called me on my cellphone the day we got Pena and told me about the signing. I still marvel at that moment I knew the Rays were bound for the playoffs with a guy like Pena behind the scenes.
One of the great thing I love about Rays Fan Fest is the way Rays Radio Network guru Rich Herrera gets time with the players to talk about the upcoming season, or even put an exclamation point on some issue. It was great how he started chatting about the limited edition Carlos Pena T-shirt being sold by the American Red Cross and the Save The Children Foundation.
Herrera told the crowd how the back of the T-shirt lists all the accomplishments Pena has accumulated since his arrival here in 2007. About Pena’s 2007 Comeback Player of the Year Award and Silver Slugger Award, his 2008 Gold Glove, and his 2009 selection to the All Star game. But Herrera was quick to mention the one award Pena is most proud of is his selection as the Tampa Bay recipient for the 2008 Roberto Clemente Award.
Most people know that this award is given annually to the player who combines outstanding skills on the baseball diamond with their devoted work within their team’s community. Pena was actually honored to be presented his nomination by Roberto Clemente Junior during a ceremony at Tropicana Field on September 3,2008. As part of the Roberto Clemente nomination, Major League Baseball made a donation in Pena’s name of $ 7,500 to Fundacion Lumen 2000, a Christian Foundation which provides foster care for children. Pena and his wife, Pamela, also donate school supplies, medicine and equipment to this foundation annually.
I have notice a weird pattern lately in the family units of players within the Rays roster. It is fascinating to me the number of “twos” associated with Rays players and their children. There seems to be a wild Rays parallel, especially in the Rays Bullpen where 4 players have two children. Included in that list is Dan Wheeler (2 boys),Randy Choate (2 girls), Jeff Bennett (2 girls) and Dale Thayer (see above photo).
But the duo’s do not end there as First Baseman Carlos Pena (1 boy,1 girl), Outfielder Gabe Kapler (2 boys), Starting Pitcher Matt Garza (1 boy,1 girl) and Catcher Dioner Navarro( 2 boys) all celebrate the “2’s”. But it can go one step further as First Base Coach George Hendricks, Senior Advisor Don Zimmer and Vice President of Communications Rick Vaughn also have two children in their broods.
There was also a another wild moment behind-the-scenes as several members of the Rays showed up wearing some unconventional head gear for the autograph signings. From Rays starter James Shields, who should get the nod for the 2010 Home Opener against the Baltimore Orioles rocking a white cap, to new closer Rafael Soriano coming down the aisle dressed in black and gold and listening intently to his I-pod on the way to the signing table. Some websites around the Internet did not see his ensemble in its entirety. So the above photo is what he wore into Tropicana Field before he took the stage wearing the Rays new “Sky Blue”-themed alternative jersey.
And most of the Rays were in a really giving mood during Fan Fest. At one point, before Grant Balfour went over to the Season Ticket holder Photo area, he came down from the table and signed for a few minutes with a few more fans before heading over by the Leftfield foul pole to participate in the photo op for the Season Ticket holders only. But even as they were coming and going, several Rays players,including Upton posed with fans for pictures as
they were ascending the aisle to go back into the Clubhouse area following their autograph signing times.
Fernando Perez even took a moment out to come by my seat and tell me he read a bit of my posts during the off season, which really caught me by surprise. I had forgotten I told him about my blog following his poetry article back in 2009, and he advised me he likes my “personalized” view of the game and the actions. Got to admit, when you have a graduate of Columbia University in Creative Writing tell you he likes your stuff… I was on cloud nine the rest of the day. Fernando, in advance, got to tell you, I am also a huge fan of your articles and I am still going to push you to join MLBlogs.com and submit some stuff….You can count on that!
But this was also a time for some “old Friends” to reunite as former Rangers teammates Jaoquin Benoit and Carlos Pena chatted for a bit before Benoit and Rays Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos made their way to the stage for their 4 pm autograph times. There were a lot of chuckles and writing down of information between the three of them before Ramos and Benoit descended for their time at the autograph tables. And as was custom for every Rays game since he got here, Ramos gave me a salute as he entered the blue-screened area for the signing. I am a lifetime fan of Ramos, and it is not just for the sideline Salsa displays either.
And the Rays organization has to be proud of its fan base that still had the roped off areas full and awaiting autographs at 4 pm. This is a great sign of the energy and the commitment this region has towards Major League Baseball. And it is also fitting that Maddon did not leave the signing table until everyone in the “Table 1” line had their chance to come up and get their signatures. Even as the overhead lights began to dim within Tropicana Field, Maddon and his two Coaches stood their ground until the last fan got their items signed. Maddon did the same thing in 2009, and I suspect he will do it every season he is here with the Rays. And that is another reason to love him as this team’s manager.
As you can see by this last photo, the time is quickly upon us to begin our nightly patronage of all things Rays related. And those 45 days will seem to simply fly by as the Rays begin game within the next week or so. Once the team begins their Grapefruit schedule the days will pick up steam until that last Florida Home game at Tropicana Field against the New York Mets. And then with one more trip up to Durham, North Carolina to play the Triple-A Champion Durham Bulls, it will be only a matter of hours before we again assemble for another Major League Baseball campaign, and a drive towards playoff glory again.
Even with all of the outside distractions and riff-raff going on within this Tampa Bay area, the one constant is that the Rays play a brand of baseball other teams are now adapting for their own squads. They always say that imitation is the ultimate form of flattery. If that is true, then the “Rays Sky Blue” jerseys might be a great addition as expectations rise and the sky is the limit in 2010.
RRCollections **** Within the next few days I will post a extended Photo blog of the pictures I took today after the Rays Fan fest tomorrow afternoon.
I could not sleep a wink last night and thank goodness AMC had a pretty good movie lineup until 6 am this morning. This felt like the first time I ever suited up for a baseball game. I had the butterflies early today and mixed with the anticipated assembly again with Tampa Bay Rays baseball players who I consider “baseball buddies”. And the long hours leading up to this special moment of the Rays pitchers and catchers reporting for 2010 more than lived up to all the previous night’s hype and anxiety.
Sure you would think the hour and a half drive down to Port Charlotte from the shadow of Tropicana Field would seem to take forever as the sun began to rise in the East, but the reality was it seemed to furiously fly by with only the time staring to ebb slower as I began to wait first in line this morning to get into the Charlotte County Sports Park and “officially” begin my 2010 Rays experience. And it was great to not have the over indulgence of the Mosaic Corporation’s name attached to signage surrounding the complex today. And as I was standing there as the Rays media members began to assemble, some just passed by, while others acknowledged me standing their in my Pepsi sweatshirt as I battled the 56 degree weather.
And while I was standing there, a wild figure in pink sweatpants, barefoot and a huge poof of hair began to walk up to the security checkpoint carrying his baseball gear in a Army green dufflebag. He had come to make the team, and Edgar Gonzalez was not going to take “no” for an answer. Sure he might not have had great baseball experience only playing Marine Corp baseball, but decked there in his USF baseball jersey ( but did not play at all for USF), he was energetic and wanting an audition today for a possible slot on the Rays.
And two assembled security guards were business like and totally professional as they tried to point him towards Tropicana Field and the Rays Front Office to arrange an “official arrival” or even a slot to participate when the minor league camp came in next week. But Gonzalez was persistent and totally seemed to have his wits about him, until he began to unravel his story into a million pieces by saying he was trying to hold correspondence with U.S. President Obama and the world leaders on the curing properties of baseball. So as Gonzalez began to fade to black in the minds of the security force, he was advised to “put shoes on, or vacate the property as a safety precaution”.
Just then, you could see the color drain from Gonzalez’s face and he knew instantly that he had blown his scheme to try and infiltrate the Rays first 2010 workout. But I do commend the security force for doing it with grace, class and not singling him out and making the situation difficult. So as he turned away he said he would rehash it out up in “Tampa” with the Rays officials and be back another day to formally take the field. Well, Edgar Gonzalez, I wish you luck, and I hope you do get that shot, but since you have, by your own admission, never faced a 90+ mph fastball or seen a slider in your life, the audition might last the $ 2 it costs to run the Batting Cage machine at the Mini Golf complex down the street.
But as 10 pm came, I strutted in first in the line and was handed a Dioner Navarro and Matt Garza bobble heads and a great present of a Rays Spring roster cardboard placard that listed each invited Rays ” guest” to the 2010 Spring Training complete with the final statistics including every stop during 2009. I scanned up and down it a few time to see the names and former 2009 teams illustrated and saw a few extremely interesting names. Names like Mike Ekstrom who was claimed off waivers by the Rays this off season from the San Diego Padres , or former Ranger pitcher Joaquin Benoit, who might push some pressure on the Rays Bullpen spots, or Joe Dillionaire” Dillon who might push for a bench spot on the team and be an adequate third catching option on the Major League roster because of his versatility.
As the guy all assembled around Rays Manager Joe Maddon for his first inspirational speech for 2010, and the brief speeches and chats by Jeff “Ziggy” Zigler, who is the Rays Traveling Secretary, the team got into stretching and began long toss to get their arms stretched out for the first time in 2010 in front of a live audience. Rays starter Matt Garza and Rays Bullpen reliever Lance Cormier put on the show of the day easily topping 200+ feet in their long toss segment before the squad split into three groups and began to start drills on retrieving the ball in front of the mound and doing basic drills like covering first base on a bunt or even shot towards the hole at first base.
And on another part of the field, the Rays field players were beginning their daily workouts in the batting cages under the watchful eyes of spectators and autograph hounds. Gabe Kapler, Jason Bartlett and a bulkier-looking Rays prospect shortstop Tim Beckham all took their swipes in the cage today before taking time out to sign for some of the fans and expressed excitement in returning to Tropicana Field tomorrow for the 2010 Rays Fan Fest. I took this time to chat a bit with Rays Communication Manager Carmen Molina and St Petersburg Times Rays writer Marc Topkin about the season and to see if I could get a few tidbits.
But I was lucky enough to be within a good earshot of the conversation by Rays owner Stuart Sternberg to the assembled media when he began to discuss the Rays payroll, keeping Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, and the possible Rays stadium pot that is beginning to boil. He was his usual self showing total commitment to the St. Petersburg market place the team is currently in, but stressed the stadium will not be adequate up until the 2026 lease expiration date. Standing their in his own “Rays Sky Blue” sweatshirt he spoke for about 15 minutes answering volleys at him and providing in depth, complex answers that more than fulfilled the questions thrown at him on the fly. P. T. Barnum would have been proud.
And as the players began to split into their respective groups for their day ending run in the western-most field’s outfield, several players like J P Howell, Jeff Neiman and Rays prospect Jake McGee sprinted to the Rays clubhouse and shed their sweatshirts and came out again to do their running before taking time to chat and sign for fans before leaving for the day. I had a chance to talk to Howell, and his eyes lit up when I asked about his off season trip to Bora Bora for his honeymoon, or when I asked if we could do an interview sometimes during Spring Training about it.
And as I was asking that, Grant Balfour slapped me on the back asking if I was keeping my same seat. I quickly told him I was, and told him he better keep his same seat also ( on the Rays Bullpen bench) for 2010. He just smiled from ear-to-ear and told me he was going to do everything possible to stay put. Or when Randy Choate came up with his new facial chin hair and asked why I did not yell “Randy” when he saw me. And I began to tear up a bit. This is hard to explain, but over the past three years while I have been battling employment issues, these guys have been the solid foundation and the people I made sure to say something to before, or during every single Rays game.
So today was special to me in a different way than most of the people assembled to welcome the Rays back from cold Winter snow-scapes, or even trips abroad with their new loved ones, this is my personal rite of Spring passage. Baseball is back, but better yet for me, Rays baseball is back. Even as I stood there talking with baseball buddy’s Rays Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos or Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi, I could feel that inner fire kicking up again and was eager for the upcoming season.
Maddon did not bring out any mathematical equations this season, but offered confidence and a yearning to remember those steps made in 2008 to again get back to that ” special place”. For the Rays to revisit their 2008 roots, it will take sweat, blood and commitment by each and ever member of their 2010 roster. In the next month and a half guys will come and go from the Rays clubhouse either to the minor league camps, or even towards other opportunities in baseball, but Maddon stressed that they had to regain that passion, had to redefine and re-energize to again do things “The Rays Way”, and make those steps to again claim a top spot not only in the American League, but in their ever present difficult Eastern division. But for today, it was just great to see my buddies again.
Anyone who knows me outside of the ballpark might say I am just having a “moment” with my increasing adulation for Rays uber player Ben Zobrist. There have even been whispers of a budding bro-mance (No, but I still wave), and that my respect and complete adulation for this budding MLB star might sometimes borders on downright obsession. Sorry to ruin it for the bromance police, but I see a lot of similarities between Zobrist and myself when I was playing sports, and I really admire those traits and sensibilities. I see the child-like wonder still on his face and eyes as he is getting ready to step on the field every day. And his community involvement, not only in his faith, but in his actions to bring the joys of baseball to kids, even during the off season just makes me like him more and more.
There is just something about Zorilla and the way he goes about his business both on and off the field that you want to point out to younger kids and hope they take a bit of his style, confidence and positive demeanor for the game of baseball home with them and hopefully carry it with them on the baseball diamond. Maybe it is the honest fact I might actually be watching one of the budding great role models for the kids forming right in front of my eyes, and I want to shout from the rooftops about it hoping that others outside our realm of the baseball world also hears my loud raves.
And I will agree totally that I seem to push this agenda a bit hard when it comes to Zorilla, but I see so much potential yet to be tapped, or even shown to the MLB baseball world and I am thrilled to be able to watch him daily. And maybe it is a bit creepy as it is written here, but it is done with the best intentions to publicize one of those MLB players I truly label one of the real “Good Guys” in baseball. But you do not have to look too far away from the game of baseball to see he is a great example of a good man and father as well as an excellent multi-faceted baseball player.
You only have to see him on the sidelines before games talking with fans, or shaking hands or hugs to other Rays fans who have grown to also know the inner “Good Guy” to know we are witnessing the ever changing growth of a great person. He always has time for the fans, either with a picture or signing a baseball. He truly knows just how blessed he is to be able to play this game for a profession every game, and it shows on his face. If you have ever seen him hold his young son Zion before games, or even seen the glances between Zorilla and his beautiful wife Julianna, you know this is a guy is grounded and supported at home as well as at the ballpark by thousands of screaming fans. I have to say I am a bit jealous of his relationship with his wife because he seemed to have found the perfect complimentary piece of the puzzle for his personal life.
Thanks to Ryan Bodies films/RaysIndex for videos
From the ground up Zobrist has solidified what each Major League player goes throughout their careers before finally busting through the barrier and getting the plate appearances and the playing time to impress and bring shock and awe to the fans and his teammates. Considering most Rays fans had Zobrist penciled in at shortstop going into 2007 off season before the Rays traded with the Twins to bring in shortstop Jason Bartlett. And some players might have taken a step back, but Zobrist was confident and poised and if not for a thumb injury sustained early in Spring Training, it might have prevented an intense battle between the two. But in reality, the healing time spent nursing that thumb injury might have been the perfect antedote to give Zobrist more time to experiment and hone his swing into the power tool it is today.
By Zobrist going back to basics after this injury to his thumb, it might have helped him develop his swing to incorporate his hips sooner into his swing and bring his power element to the forefront. And it is simply a treat now to watch him hit and because of his fielding versatility, he adds a different dimension to this Rays squad. I actually think he made the Rays a better team by being so versatile both at the plate and in the field so that the Rays are able to pencil him into multiple positions without fear of a decrease in productivity or defensive ability.
And most people look at 2009 as Zobrist’s banner year, but I truly think we are just starting to see the edges of a career that just might explode with more plate appearances and a possibility of position stability in 2010. If there truly was a “10th Man” award in Major League Baseball, then without a doubt, last season it would have ended up resting in Zobrist’s hands. And if you look at his final totals for 2009: a .297 batting average, 27 HR, 91 RBIs and a monstrous .948 OPS, you know we might only be seeing the start of a long career. And that is what is great about the reporting date next Friday down in Port Charlotte, Florida. It is the time for the next chapter in the Zorilla tale to begin.
Chris O’Meara / AP
And it was refreshing in the attached video to hear Zorilla and his wife discuss candidly the upcoming Rays 2010 season and the high expectation goals each see on the near horizon. Neither of them was shy in their opinions and both honestly saw the potential for a great year with more surprises and more Zorilla All-Star chatter. But what I really liked visualizing in that video was the basic fact you saw that these two people really liked and wanted the best for each other. I know that sounds corny and a bit insane, but sometimes you can be “in love” with a person and not like them, but with these two people, the love and the connection between them just shines through in a bright shining beam of awesomeness. Okay, maybe that was a bit much, but you get the idea.
I have gotten lucky enough to talk to Zobrist a few times while he has been with the Rays and he an intelligent and very open guy who truly loves talking about baseball. Even during one of the plays that seemed to have burst his name upon the ears of fans outside Tampa Bay, I was standing right there asking if he was okay and beaming with pride on the extreme effort he took on the play even before making impact with the low Rightfield foul line barrier. And when Zobrist came over the next day and signed his name on the broken piece of the wall, he genuinely thanked me for making sure he was okay. And maybe that is when the bromance from afar started. Because I finally saw a bit of myself in Zobrist and it forged an instant bond.
One of my friends once commented that my new found attention towards Zorilla was my self actualization that we both carried so many of the same values in life, and in that I found solace and respect for him. But I also find solace in the fact he is a “team guy” totally. So many times you hear about players who are “me” guys, well Zobrist is far from a “me” guy, and that fits perfectly into the culture of the Rays clubhouse. I got the idea to write this blog after reading a fellow Rays blog, Rays Index today and seeing Zobrist and his wife compared to Milly and Jimmy from the movie “Bull Durham”. And in reality, Zobrist does fall into that realm of the spiritual team mate who is always smiling and in a positive frame of mind. And that is infectious to a team’s chemistry and always a good guy to have around during the solemn moments. I might not personally throw “Milly” in with Julianna, but I do agree on her love of the game of baseball and for embracing Jimmy and his personality.
Zobrist is one of those budding players among the ranks of the MLB that we can be proud of knowing, watching play and showing our youth the positive things about the game of baseball. I imagine the Rays might have seen some of those special qualities when he was traded by the Houston Astros to the Rays back on July 12,2006 in exchange for slugger Aubrey Huff. And what he has brought to this Rays roster is a lot more than just his steady play and always improving bat. Zobrist answered in one of the attached videos he would love to play the rest of his career with the Rays.