December 2008

2008 Rule 5 Pre-Draft Scribbles and Current MLB Phase Final Rule 5 Draft Results

 

 

 

 

                

 

 

Who would have thought you could find a Hall of Famer in the Major League Baseball Rule 5 draft? You usually associate this draft with the marginal player who is not good enough for the 40-man roster, but still performing for his team. You would never think a player like Roberto Clemente would be subject to the Rule 5 Draft, but he was, as were notable players like former Oriole Paul Blair, current Met Johan Santana and Royals closer Joakim Soria. And can you even imagine that current Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino went through the Rule 5 Draft twice befores ticking with the Phillies and going on to win his first World Series ring this Fall.

 

 

But besides Clemente, the most recent addition to the Rule 5 Draft All- Dumb Move team was former Rays Josh Hamilton. He was left unprotected by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2006 and was selected 3rd by the Chicago Cubs, who then sold his rights to the Cincinnati Reds where he played in 2006 all season long at the major league level. The Rays were trying to hide Hamilton off their 40-man roster because of recent re-instatement to baseball after 2 years of drug problems. But that did not deterr the Cubs, who quickly snatched Hamilton up before the Rays knew what had happened.

  

 

Will there be another ” Josh Hamilton or Johan Santana” in the 2008 Rule 5 draft being held on Thursday in Las Vegas?  The answer is not that simple this year. This years draft might be the hardest to predict in the last several years. No one is a clear favorite in any of the three phases ( MLB, Triple-A, Double-A) to be selected this time around.

 

 

Alot of basbeball officials call this year’s Rule 5  Draft a bit of a bust. There is not a huge buzz about any one player, or the potential as in years past. The rules changes prior to last year, adding an extra year of protection for teams to keep players. Under the old rules, 2005 high school draft picks and 2006 college picks would have had to be protected (and most international players signed in ’04 as well).

 

Prep pitchers such as Sean West (Marlins), Chaz Roe (Rockies), Brandon Erbe (Orioles) and Will Inman (Padres) would have to be protected ,but are not on 40-man rosters. That leaves more room to protect fringy players who otherwise might not have made the cut. Some borderline players will get an extra reprieve this year thanks to the new rules, but will have to earn that spot come Spring time.

 

 

                     

 

 

Similarly, the Pirates don’t have to make a 40-man call on 2006 first-rounder Brad Lincoln, who has missed a year with Tommy John surgery, and the Indians can wait on corner infielder Wes Hodges, who can hit but hasn’t shown he can handle third base.

 

That has left a thinner talent pool to choose from. The ’06 Rule 5 yielded stars such as Josh Hamilton and Joakim Soria, but the top talents in the ’07 class were players such as outfielder Brian Barton, who stuck all year with the Cardinals; knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, whom the Mariners swung a trade to keep; and lefthander Wesley Wright, who stuck as a reliever with the Astros.

 

 

                     

 

 

Draft analysts agree there are few position players with Barton’s upside in this Rule 5 class, and and the quality and talent of players and pitchers has dipped accordingly with the rule changes. Big names such as Donald Veal (Cubs) and Eduardo Morlan (Rays) have attracted interest, but Veal pitched poorly all year and again in the Arizona Fall League, while Morlan’s velocity was back in the 89-92 mph range in Puerto Rico but not in the mid-90s he showed earlier in his minor league career. Morlan was the third player garnished by the Rays in the Matt Garza, Jason Barlett trade last November with the Minnesota Twins for ex-Rays badboy Delmon Young, Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie.

 

The best comparisons to Barton are several prospects with injury questions, such as pitchers Alan Horne (Yankees), coming off rotator cuff surgery on his shoulder, and Pedro Strop (Rangers), a former Rockies farmhand coming off his own arm injury; and catcher Donny Lucy (White Sox), who is athletic and plays a premium position but has never quite performed.

 

What buzz there is has centered on Class A pitchers with stuff rather than track records. Among the names bandied about:

 

 

                           

 

 RHP Jordan Pratt, Dodgers ( above ) : The 2003 fifth-round pick out of an Oregon high school has yet to progress past Class A. He spent 2008 in high Class A Inland Empire and walked 67 (while striking out 80) in 69 innings. However, Pratt has premium stuff, with a fastball that consistently reaches 94 mph, and an inconsistent curveball and a premium cutter that helps him handle lefthanded hitters. They went 2-for-35 off him in Hawaii Winter Baseball, where Pratt showed off some smoother mechanics that helped him throw more strikes. Lefty David Pfeiffer of the Dodgers, a sidearmer, also was getting some attention.

 

 

 

 

LHP Jordan Norberto, Diamondbacks ( above ) : Norberto has upside, as he’s just 22 and has reached 96 mph with his fastball. He’s also spent the last two years in the low Class A Midwest League, striking out 220 in 204 innings while walking 102.

 

 

 

 

IF Corey Wimberly, Rockies ( above ) : No one in the class fits the utility profile better than Wimberly, a 5-foot-8 switch-hitter with plus speed and defensive versatility. Wimberly played second base, third base, shortstop and the outfield in ’08 at Double-A Tulsa while posting a .370 on-base percentage. He lacks strength but has a solid track record as a hitter.

 

 

RHP Loek Van Mil, Twins: The 7-foot-1 righthander has shown a fastball up to 97 mph in the past but has a partial ligament tear due after injuring his elbow just prior to the Beijing Olympics. Fellow Dutch national teamer Hainley Statia (Angels) remains the top middle-infield possibility in a thin group of players there.

 

Post Rule 5 Update:

 

Here is the Major League portion of the Rule 5 Draft  with final results posted below. Check out the list and see if your favorite might have picked up a young player, or left someone unprotected and they were selected from your squad.

 

In the Rule 5 Draft, the Tampa Bay Rays lost the rights to Double-A closer Eduardo Morlan, who was selected by the Milwaukee Brewers with the 15th pick of the draft. The Rays then selected starter-turned reliever  Derek Rodriguez with the 19 th pick to swap pitchers with different aspects of the game.

 

 

 

Major League Phase

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Pick
Player
Position
Drafted By
Drafted From
2008 Club
1 Terrell Young RHP Washington Cincinnati Sarasota
2 Reegie Corona INF Seattle New York (AL) Trenton
3 Everth Cabrera SS San Diego Colorado Asheville
4 Donald Veal LHP Pittsburgh Chicago (NL) Tennessee
5 Lou Palmisano C Baltimore Milwaukee Brevard County
6 Luis Perdomo RHP San Francisco St. Louis Springfield
7 David Patton RHP Cincinnati* Colorado Modesto
8 Kyle Bloom LHP Detroit Pittsburgh Altoona
9 Jose Lugo LHP Kansas City** Minnesota Ft. Myers
10 Benjamin Copeland CF Oakland San Francisco Fresno
11 James Skelton C Arizona Detroit Erie
12 Zachary Kroenke LHP Florida New York (AL) Scranton/Wilkes-Barre
8 Los Angeles (NL)
13 Gilbert De La Vara LHP Houston Kansas City Northwest Arkansas
14 Jason Jones RHP Minnesota New York (AL) Scranton/Wilkes-Barre
15 Darren O’Day RHP New York (NL) Los Angeles (AL) Salt Lake
16 Eddie Morlan RHP Milwaukee Tampa Bay Montgomery
17 Robert Mosebach RHP Philadelphia Los Angeles (AL) Arkansas
18 Miguel Gonzalez RHP Boston Los Angeles (AL) DNP
19 Derek Rodriguez RHP Tampa Bay Chicago (AL) Charlotte
20 Ivan Nova RHP San Diego New York (AL) Tampa
21 Rocky Cherry RHP New York (NL) Baltimore Norfolk

* Acquired by Chicago (NL) in exchange for cash considerations
** Acquired by Seattle in exchange for cash considerations

 

 

Rays Send Jackson to Motown for Young Outfielder Joyce

 

          

 

 

To say that this trade took me by surprise would be a total understatement. I did expect to see Rays number 4 starter, Edwin Jackson maybe traded closer to the reporting date, but sometime baseball can sneak up and trick you sometimes. To say I will miss chatting with Edwin on the sidelines down by the Bullpen Cafe on Sundays.

 

 

 

 

When he first got traded to the Rays I made sure to chat with him while he was in his street clothes about this team and it might be the best thing to happen to your career to come here. He has grown alot as a pitcher, and I wish him nothing but the best in Detroit. And you know you better come over and shake my hand during Spring Training dude. 

 

But what really amazed me was the sly and calculated measures that Rays General Manager Andrew Friedman pulled off this caper. No one is baseball can say they saw this one coming at all. What Friedman did was trade away a sure thing starting pitcher, who is under arbitration this season, for a  young defensive right-fielder we will control for 6 years.

 

 

 

Holy Cow! You mean we actually traded for a guy who will be fighting for a roster spot this spring and if he still needs some seasoning, we can send him to Durham without recourse. That is simply amazing and well outside the usual Rays thinking of the past. It is a pretty calculated mis-match that we got a guy who will only get better, while giving up the same in Jackson.

 

The only problem is, Jackson would hate to be the long reliever in the Bullpen and the trade was a blessing for him.  Considering how far Edwin Jackson has come in 2008, you have to admit, the Rays could have asked for more and been well within their rights. But the trade answered questions and provides key answers to situations that would be difficult to achieve in March or April of 2009.

 

By doing this trade now, it actually benefited both teams even before decisions are being made for 2009. Jackson will move into the Tigers’ rotation with a good spring and will continue to grow as a starter in this league. People forget he posted 14 wins this season, which was a personal high for him, plus he had some of the best command of the season on his pitches late in the year.

 

The bad thing for Jackson is that the Tigers ex-Pitching Coach was Chuck Hernandez, who worked alot with Jackson when he was here with the Rays. Jackson has been developing and inproving on his off-speed pitches and we will see him again early in 2009 when the two teams meet on March 26th in Lakeland during Spring Training. It will be the only time these two teams meet in the spring this season.

 

 

 

On the other side, we get a player who is also a Tampa-born and raised player. He attended Armwood High, just outside of Tampa and then moved over to Florida Southern University in Lakeland for college. Joyce was selected by the Tigers in the 12th round of the 2005 Amateur Draft. Following the 2007 season, he was selected as the 7th best prospect in the Detroit farm system.

 

In 6 games against the Tampa Bay Rays this season, Joyce played left-field and  went 3-18 against the team during late season series as the Trop and at Comerica Park. He batted .167 against the Rays, with  a .286 On-Base Percentage. He played extremely confident outfield for the Tigers, and actuallyt gunned down Jonny Gomes at second base in the last game of the season in Detroit.

 

 

 

For the year, Joyce batted .252, with 16 doubles and 12 home runs and 33 RBI’s in only 92 games. Joyce ended up 6th among AL rookie with 12 homers.  He hit a career best 2 homers in a game against Texas on August 19th in Arlington, Texas.  He had a career high 4 hits on July 3rd against the Mariners at Safeco Field. Also of note, he drove in a career high 5 RBI’s on July 21st against the Royals in Kansas City.

 

On paper this trade looks like one done to actually minimize the confusion and the stress in the spring of having to find a destination for a starter to make a spot for rookie sensation David Price. With Jackson now out of the mix for a spot, that will leave Jeff Niemann, Andy Sonnanstine, Wade Davis, Mitch Talbot and Jason Hammel to fight for the 5th rotation position.

 

But the true measure of this trade is in the advantage the Rays now have with a young and improving outfielder under their control for 6 more seasons. This will give them stability and confidence to maybe evn use Gabe Gross as trade bait to get a right-hand bat for rightfield before the reporting date. It is a win-win for both the players and the team for a change. Both get a change of scenery and a chance to fight for a top spot right out of spring.

 

I will raise my bottle to you Edwin this weekend, and hope that you find success and happiness in Motown.  And I will be seeing you on the visitors’ side when the Tigers visit the Trop on September 4-6th, 2009.    You can count on it!!

Rays General Manager for a Day

 

 

 

One of the hardest jobs in all of  baseball is not the Managers’ position, but the title of  General Manager. I think that more GM’s have taken a bullet for the failures of their teams than any of baseball field mangers. It is said that the stream of blood runs downhill after a slaughter and usually that blood starts at the scalp of the GM, who is the first sacrificial lamb for the public and the media. 

 

The position has a bit of give and take from the bottom to the top, but for all intentions, can be the lonliest post when things are going bad for your team . You have to dictate and slice through all of the BS coming out of the clubhouse and the publics mouths, plus select the  most rightious information and  sage advice from scouting to make a calculated and educated gamble on a player or a team situation.

 

For Rays General Manager aka Boy Wonder of 1 Tropicana Drive, Andrew Friedman, so far in his tenure in the position, the scale has been weighed heavily in his favor. Considering that less than 3 years ago he was not even involved with the Tampa Bay Rays, and his name was no more known in public circles than my name. But in three years  with help from  wily old veteran G.M. Gary “Obi Wan” Hunsicker he has built upon a solid core of players and  eager staff members to reign  alone on top of the G.M. mountaintop. 

 

Decision after decision went wrong for him in the beginning. He stayed silent and towed the line on trade talks that could have meant the world to the team, and moved on ones that might have dealt them a death blow in the past.pile  But with a few years of plus and minues calculations, the Rays G.M. has eliminated the risk management portion of his position and is seeing only sunny skies and rainbows right now.

 

 Well, on today’s front page, MLBlogs asked a simple question that will either rock the nether worlds or simply go down as more Internet babble and ramblings by people who love to play God behind a keyboard. I am one of those ramblers, but I can atest to countless hours of thinking about this ( 2 hours) and entered debate after debate during the morning to strengthen my fortitude and latitude to accept this challenge. I am to become the G.M. of the American League champions for a short time and plot the course for the Rays cruiseliner. Hopefully I will not need a toll for the river Styx after I am done with my opinions and raw mental brainfarts. But in the office of the G.M., even ordering coffee can be met with critcism and  second-guessing.

 

 

                    

 

 

I am not sure if I want to play a higher power, but I would like a crack at a few             situations I would consider if I was the Rays GM for the next few days in Las Vegas. With that in mind, I am going to put myself in WWAD ( What Would Andrew Do ) mode and trya and make a few educated guesses as to the betterment of the Rays  roster and their minor league system. I even have a play that should be added to their 40-man roster before Friday, or lose him to another team is a sure bet.

 

 

 

So, here we go, I am acting GM of the Tampa Bay Rays for about an hour. My  first round of business will be to get minor leaguer Rhyne Hughes on the 40-man             roster. Hughes had a monster Arizona Fall League and might be going the route that current Rays pitcher James Shields took a few years back. Hughes made                       the All- AFL selection squad and hit the cover off the ball in Arizona.

 

He has been at the Double-A level in 2008, but might start there then move up to Triple-A depending on the Bulls need for a power first baseman. But getting  this kid hidden on the 40-man roster is a vital cog that has to be done ASAP. The Rays took care of a roster spot on Monday evening by assigning pitcher Chad Orvella, who is coming off of shoulder surgery outright to the Durham Bulls.

 

 

The Rays might not have as many holes as usual this coming year, which actually plays well into their hands during negotiations with players. There are several key             guys up for arbitration like Dioner Navarro, Jason Bartlett, Edwin Jackson and Jonny Gomes. In the next several weeks a few of those guys might not be here by trade or being released by the team. I would put more money on the trade situation than losing all value for the players. Even a guy like Gomes, who had a miserible 2008, has value to a team looking for a 4th outfielder or even a DH for hire.

 

I am going to cut to the chase in this blog and attack the two main needs for the team in 2009.  The right-field slot and the DH position are highly publicized and ‘must need’ positions on the team. I have a few ideas about each and will explore them in two ways. First to list the free agent solutions, and then by trade.

 

 

               

 

 

First off, let’s tackle the need for a DH or bench player for the Rays via the free agent market. With the recent lunch date with Milton Bradley going so well for  the Rays, the only thing standing in the way besides a contract is if the guy is worth losing your first round pick for him.  With Bradley being considered a top tier free agent, the team would have to forfeit a draft pick to secure his signing.

 

 

                            

 

 

Another plus about Bradley that the Rays can build on is his ability to protect hitters in front of him bcause of his .324 average last season. To add onto that is the fact he also hit 22 home runs and struck out only 112 times last season. He is also an on-base guy, posting .439 On-Base Percentage, largely because of  his 80 walks. His sttitude and personality quirks have also mellowed with age and he has become a calm force in the locker room. He might not be Cliff Floyd, but  the guy commands respect and leads by example.

 

 

                  

 

 

The second alternative to a DH via the free agent wire is also a very  attractive one for the Rays.  Mostly  because this player can still contribute in the field at some lengths and could be a valuable asset to the club. Also considering some of the milestones he is approaching, he could be a great PR tool for the team to attract fans. If you have no figured it out yet, it is Ken Griffey Junior. I have been  a huge Griffey fans since his Mariner days and would consider him in a second  for the DH position.

 

Junior might have slipped a bit in production in the last few seasons, but he also has been playing the field almost every day while in the National League, and took over center for the Chicago White Sox after being traded at the trading deadline in 2008. If he was to be a DH, with an occasional stroll into the outfield, he could protect his knees and still hit daily for the team.  Griffey hit only a combined .248 between both leagues in 2008, but his low amount of strikeouts ( 25 ) shows that the plate discipline is still there and he can rebound off a bad 2008.

 

The Rays might be able to get Griffey at a Florida discount becuase of his home being in Orlando, but still might command about $ 4-6 million a year. Griffeys’ 2008 salary was set at about $ 8.2 million, which would put him out of Tampa Bay puse strings if he commands the same salary in 2009. 

 

Bradley made about $ 5.25 million last season. If Bradley wants to play on a competitive team for 2009, he also might be into giving the Rays a discount on base salary with some incentive bonuses tied to production. I would think a $ 4 million dollar salary with up to 2 million in incentives might do the trick for Bradley.

 

 

           

 

Let’s now consider the right-field  slot. I honestly feel that the team can  find a suitable player who is right-handed without breaking the bank in 2009. Alot of names have been tossed around lately, but there is aslo one that has not come to the surface yet in refference to the Rays. Brad Wilkerson has been playing right-field in the majors for a long time. He started 2008 with the Seattle Mariners, then moved onto the Toronto Blue Jays and provided great relief and power from the right-side of the plate.

 

Most of baseball has not even considered him after a sub-par 2008 while both rehabbing and trying to fit into a tight outfield situation in Toronto. But he might be a low cost alternative to the high priced guys seeking positions through the MLB. His sub .250 average for 2008 was mostly covered by his injury that he tried to play through before going down and finally getting healthy.

 

 

                              

 

 

This is the one position on the Rays that I think they can make a great trade that can help both ballclubs. In the past, the Rays have been linked as the third team with the Chicago Cubs for Jake Peavy. But the real factor is that they do not need the Cubs to make a trade with San Diego. The Padres are seeking a shortstopn and a pitcher to replace two players currently either treaded or deep into discussion to part the Padres.

 

Tampa Bay was eager to pout in a claim for Brian Giles on the waiver wire in 2008, but got one-upped by the Boston Red Sox. The Sox blocked the attempt to claim Giles to keep him off the Rays roster and maybe get him for themselves. Giles did not want to go to the Red Sox, but might be open to a Rays attempt at a trade because they have a true opening for him in right-field.

 

 

 

 

One problem with this trade off the bat is the amount of salary owed to Giles in 2009. The Rays might not be willing to take on the entire amount of the 2009 salary and would want to offset some of it by having the Padres eat a bit of the contract. The players’ that the Padres could get for Giles could be a nice smorgasboard of up-and-coming pitchers and a infielder.

 

The Rays have a abundance of pitchers who are log-jammed at the minor league level and might be willing to part with a MLB level pitcher and a Triple-A starter. The pitchers in question could range from Edwin Jackson and Jason Hammel to Jeff Niemann and Mitch Talbot. All have been at the major league level and have proven to be quality pitchers.

 

 

The Rays also have a few infielders who could be packaged in the deal, which includes Reid Brignac, Elliott Johnson, who have limited major league experience to Ben Zobrist or even Jason Bartlett who have MLB experience. Zobrist is actually a player who could play any role for the Padres and is still under contract for 2009. Bartlett is arbitration-eligible, but might only cost about $ 2 million a year fater the hearing.

 

Giles is my trade target for the team in 2009. I think if the team packaged Jeff Neimann, Jason Bartlett and maybe another reliever, Dale Thayer or a Double-A player, plus take on  $ 2 million dollars of Giles salary, we could have a great deal for both teams. But that is just my opinion here.

 

 

So here we go, I have taken on two trouble spots for the Rays in 2009 and tackled them my way. How do I think I did as GM for the Day for the Rays?  That depends on if I can get these guys signed sealed and delivered for Rays Manager Joe Maddon and the boys by Febuary 2009.

 

 

New York, New York in Las Vegas, Vegas

 

                           

 

 

The MLB Winter Meetings 2008 are now up and running, both Yankees head honcho Hank Steinbrenner and Met’s guru Omar Minaya are hunting for big game and will be seen all over the Las Vegas strip in small cubbieholes and behind the green curtain at your favorite steakhouse looking for that prized piece to their team’s puzzle. It is interesting that the meetings are in Vegas, not for the show and the flash, but for the bet big or leave philosophy.

 

And these two teams are the optimus primes of the 2009 seasons. People come to the city in the desert for different reasons, to make it big on the Strip, combine their luck with some skill to gain some cold hard cash, or maybe even leave with a prize beyond beliefs. Whatever your reason to come to the neon city, sometime what you do in Vegas can haunt you an entire season. And during the next several days, both these men will try and hone, piece together and ride the winning team to their goals. Or will both of them crap out and go home losers? That is doubtful, but this city can turn dreams in dust as fast as a roll of the dices.

 

 

 

Vegas has never been known as poor mans’ town. Not even in the early days of the Flamingo Hotel and the Golden Nugget did the town have a soft spots for losers or the weakly-rich. It is a town built on the riches of others and is not a forgiving town in the least. Wealth has always been thrown around the strip either for power or control. This years MLB Winter Meetings will  not  be any different.

 

The  filthy rich are throwing contracts at the  player du jour like a man with a gambling problem. Two of the biggest bets this season are pitchers’  C C Sabathia and Francisco Rodriquez. Both are considered the “aces” for both of the New York teams’ folly into the neons lights of Vegas. Both can either make the town smile or leave everyone in the state of disbelief that baseball fails to secure the prizes for the city. This is not to discount the power-hitters like Mark Teixiera or Raul Ibanez, or even shove under the table any discussions about them. But these two pitchers are the “make ot or break it” commodities of the two New York franchises.

 

Alot of poker is left to play in the Hot Stove season. Pots are boiling all over the place and people are starting to ladle out their favorites and make moves to secure their new seasons. After these two high end players either get signed or walk away from the tables, the rest of the cards will fall into place around the league. The benchmark salaries or contracts might be sitting in a Las Vegas hotel right now gaining dust or being prodded like cattle to search for loopholes or advantages. The next few days are critical for baseball, becuase as soon as the big boys leave the tables, the rest of the teams will put in their antes and see what they can get for their money.

 

 

                           

 

 

To say that whoever brings joy to the New Yorks’ will need al least a Brinks truck or a few Pinkerton guy’s to help them out of town. But would be an insult to the fabric that made Vegas a dreamers’ town if neither team got there man here, but in the works a contract or deal within the cinfines of the Bellagio Resort area.  But who out of the two giants in the Big Apple  will come away with what prize , and what price? 

 

Who will bet it all hoping for magic, and who will go home with their tails between their legs?  That will be a huge 2009 story, and it is so early in the game. Who has the guts and confidence to twist the hands of fate to the extreme  and test their will against the odds. Or who is winning to throw the dice and hope their number comes up with all their money on the table? This might be the true story of the next 4 days in the desert.

 

 

                             

 

Both teams’ might come home with a fortune in talent and could bankroll a great advantage going into the new season. The American League East will again be a 4-man race until someone seperates themselves from the pack and takes over that division. The Yankees do not want to be the team looking up at three teams again this season, and might make significant moves to illustrate their desire to agin be the top dog not only in the league, but in the city. The Mets on the other hand are in the division with the current World Series Champions. All they have to do is talk to the Rays players about the  stigma attached to chasing and passing the 2008 kings and gaining control, in the National League East race.

 

Both the Yankees and Mets have high hopes for these meetings, and both bolster full confidence they will come away as winners when all is said and done. Most of this bravado might be a illustration of the city’s personality and it’sinternational state of confidence, they get what they want, and then go on and conquer. That might have been the mindset in the past, but in today’s culture and today’s baseball, the best do not always rise to the top. Just because you spend in the 100′s of millions doesn’t even guarantee you a playoff spot in today’s parity league. To be the king of the hill, you have to remain consistant, which neither have done for years in their respective leagues.

 

Both teams have sparkling new stadiums that need to be filled nightly for there to be any signs of financial rewards and playoff glory again in the city,  I would honestly expect the Yankees to be the ones to put it all on black and try and pull out a near miracle to gain some face-time and again become the franchise to fear in the near future.

 

The Yankees have not had fate on their side the last few seasons. The team is in the payroll penthouse area, but almost slipped to the American League East basement last year with injuries and assorted offensive mis-alignments.  If not for a late season splurge, they might have fallen below the lowly Baltimore Orioles for 5th in the AL East. And that is not the place for a team spending money the way the Yankees have for the last 5 years. As Janet Jackson says in her song “What have you done for me lately?”

 

 

                             

 

To say it can not happen in 2009 would be an understatement. George Steinbrenner finally passed the mantel to his older son, and we are going to see if the elder Steinbrenner got any of Dad’s genes when it comes to building a competitive network and administering a firm hand on the roster.  “Big H” has to have all the cards and gamble his finest china to get the prizes of this years free agent crop. The prize knows his intentions and has already voiced a few odd comments to maybe put up a bluff before finally going for all the cash and playing in the Big Apple. But sometimes people do things for reasons other than money, so Sabathia might just go the “better judgement” route and not only stunn the NY crowd, but the nation as a whole.

 

After losing two starting pitchers, one to arrogance and the other to retirement, and maybe losing a vital cog in right-field, “Big H” has to toss the bones like a gambling’ whale and show the money or leave the Vegas strip as a loser going into Spring Training. The Yankees might have already played their first hand giving their top prize,  C C Sabathia their first offer, but you can be sure that this deal, if it interests the big guy will take a bit to complete. they might get a hand shake out of it all, but at this junction of the season, that can make the difference between night and day for a team.  A funny comment out of the Sabathia camp says the big guy hated Spring Training in Florida while he was with the Cleveland Indians, that might be a small cog in the road, but sometimes a better organization can mend that fence without too many problems.

 

The Mets on the otherhand, might have  a few  face cards up their own sleeves. They have already shown pitchers’ like K-Rod and Brian Fuentes that they have both the money and the reserved parking  spot for them just waiting for their signatures. The check waiting for the new closer of the Mets will have a few zeros behind it, and might even be the biggest payday of their career if they played their own cards right. 

 

 And with an offense that drawfs the Yankees squads, the Mets might have the leg up in the Big City. And with their own new sparkling stadium going up, they also have to win big now and secure some of the best talent to showcase their new digs. These two might not be the only high cost hauls of the Mets at the meetings, but it would be a nice centerpeice to showcase their new digs to have a starter who can command the game, and a closer who can execute with the best of them on board.

 

With the starter in mind, there are many floating on rafts  on the poolsides in Vegas waiting for a call from Minaya wanting to speak to them about a New York opportunity. The starting pitcher situation is actually alot cloudier than the closer or even right-field positions, becuase until the first few are off the board, the pecking order is out of kilter and might need to be rearranged by a Met’s signing. Do not be surprised if a name like Oliver Perez, or maybe even Edwin Jackson becomes the 5th starter for the Mets and outperforms the some of the best in the game.

 

 

 

Both teams have also selected  secondary targets who would be great prizes to obtain during the meetings, but might not be considered the “house favorites” right now.  The Mets have also set up back-up plans into effect if K-Rod decides to take his toys and go home without a Mets contract in hand. The team has also begun preliminary talks with Fuentes and wily veteran Trevor Hoffman for the vacant closers’ role. Both might not be the top shelf potential the Mets seek, but both have experience and might come at a discount considering the asking price of K-Rod services. Bott also might be a economical move as sure bargains considering the financial climate of  America and baseball. Another name that will be circling the shark tank is ex-Cubbie, Kerry Wood. He might have a busy week in Las Vegas shaking hands and eating expensive lunches and dinners while being courted all around the strip by interested teams.

 

Here is another thing to consider before shelling out  all the dusty money from the safe. Just how secure are we that the money will come back into the team’s coffers during this financial crisis. Will the fans be as eager to shell out up to $ 100 a visit to either of the pearly gates to see their New York teams play in 2009. Now tickets might not cost a hundred, but when you consider all the extras like food, beverage and maybe parking or transportation and a few after game suds, a hundred might even be a bargain. Teams might be looking for value in the fast lane this year and might even produce a few incentive laden contracts to help in case of a financial meltdown at the turnstiles and concession stands around baseball. People will still come to game no matter what, but the amount of expendible currency and the consistancy of that money might be watered down a bit at first in 2009. As fast as the nation rebounds, sports will shows an increase in revenues and sales of merchandise. But until then, it might be a buyers’ market for a short time.

 

I truly think the Mets might have the upper hand here in getting a few of the prized free agents based solely on the team’s current assets. What pitcher would not want to have a David Wright or Jose Reyes behind him makiing him look good. Those two guys on their own could be the best “face cards” to show for a prospective starter or closer signee. But of course the Yankees have their own cornerstones who can command respect and admiration in Jeter and A-Rod, but you never know how long those two will be together before age and injury finally takes them to the turf.  So we have a case of old guard and new guard in both the middle of the New York infields. One has been style and elegance for years, while the other has been power and speed. Sorry Yankees, I have to give this bet to the young turks on the Met’s roster based on potential after the fact.

 

 

                  

 

The next week will truly show if the worldly belief that you can bring home a fortune in Las Vegas holds true. Either team can be winners in this sweepstakes, but might also be smart to consider the penalties for thinking too far beyond the box.  Minor phrases and comments by Sabathia and by K-Rod might be indicators of just how fast all of this will be done. Sabathia might drag this out a bit and the Yankees might  just move onto A J Burnett or Ben Sheets because of less stress and more straight talk. But Burnett’s familarity with the division might be worth the extra dough to steal him out of a Braves uniform.

 

If this was 2008, and the economy and the job situation were bright, all power to the players for getting everything they can for their services. Prudent behavior has never been a strong suit of the ownership of either the Yankees or the Mets.  I have also heard recently that they will again petition for more bonds to secure the finishing touches to their stadiums beyond the Billions already spent on stadiums for both teams. Being financially prudent might also be the “river” card that could make or break their next few seasons.

 

By playing smart and studying the enviroment around them, they might come away with a minor player who will become a major contributor. High dollar doesn’t always mean high value.  Both these franchsies know this very well. Do we have to remind each franchise of their last high dollar low output signings. The Yankeess still cringe when the name Carl Pavano is heard in public, and the Mets might feel the same about Pedro Martinez and his ever changing body aliments. So it might be smart for both teams to take a step back and even re-evaluate a few things before sticking their heads back into the fire.

 

 People forget that baseball has always been a way for Americans to forget about their problems. Each World War was a huge emotional time for the country, and baseball helped ease the pains and the stress of life. During the Great Depression, baseball also served as a every man’s fantasy world that for a single nickel, they could watch 9 innings of guys working their hearts out for the common man without the stress of their own everyday life.

 

 Personally, I think that baseball keeps my head above water. Baseball is my primary solitude in a hectic world. And to think that the two giants in New York are struggling with success is almost too much to take at times. I am not a fan of either of these two teams, but I have a huge amount of respect for the organizations. And for that reason, I think the fan base deserves a winner, or at least a team that plays hard and nasty until the end of the 162nd game.  I always expect a New York team to come out bold and brash and carry their voice loud and proud into the night. But in 2008, for the first time in a very long stretch, both voices went silent in October. That is a silence that neither team can afford in 2009.

 

 

 

 

The cards are dealt and the bets are in………………Do they both win, or do they both lose?  

 

Does the play of the dealer and the teams bring out a push, or do they split the cards and find their glory in the end. The odds are in the favor of the house always, and the “house” in this matter is the players. Based on the climate of today, do they go to the penthouse, or do they give the team a chance and maybe back-load a contract a bit. The decision is about to come to light. No one knows but the guy holding the cards if it will be  a blow for a defeat or triumph.  A bit of gambling advice I was once given by a well known gambler, you never bet blindly on a sure thing, that only leads to a huge disppointment that neither you nor your dreams can ever rebound from….ever.

 

 

Vegas Baby……Vegas

 

 

If you are one of the many traveling members of the Tampa Bay Rays front office in Las Vegas this week, can you pull off the swagger and the slight attitude of a pennant winner?  After your team pulled off the almost impossible in 2008 of  claiming the American League  East and Pennant, let’s hope you can become as cocky and as vocal as the other counterparts in the AL East offices. At the MLB  Winter Meetings at the  elegant Bellagio, do you finally have people on your speedial that are the movers’ and the shakers’ in baseball?  Again, we hope so. For years the Rays were the typhoid marys of the major leagues. No one gave you the respect, the ablity, or even the confidence to even park your car without hitting the cement pole. But now you have gained that initial push towards respectabilty and you can flaunt it with the big boys this year. Celebrate, let you inner rowdie come out and show the world the Rays are here for good and you better get used to it! 

 

Now we all know that Rays General Manager Andrew Friedman has already been a busy guy this offseason, but does he get more looks and more calls now simply because of his upstart moves and slick manuvers in 2008.  We hope so. And do the Rays even get odd calls now from veterans wanting to play here seeing the positive attitude and the termendous team concept in the clubhouse.We sure hope so too. According to some sources, for the first time in Rays history, people are actually calling the team asking about openings and chatting with team officials. Such a adventure would not have seemed possible a few seasons ago, but now are common place for the A L Pennant winner.

 

 As the Rays continue to search for key ingredients to their 2009 pie,  We have to believe that they are gearing up for are making another run at the World Series in 2009. Vegas currently have then at 16:1 to repeat the playoff senario and win it all this time. That is a huge improvement over the 150:1 shot that was posted before the 2008 season. So we as fans have to believe that the team is being constructed in 2009 to defeat and stay above the division, and not just stay up with the Sox and Yankees and Blue Jays in the AL East in 2009.  Wow, what a difference a little winning can do to your organization, and your Vegas odds for winning the World Series.

 

 

                                  

 

Their division has become a hot bed of activity in the last few years where the winner of the division is an odds on favorite to win it all. With that kind of  mentality only growing and evolving in 2009, do the Rays have what it takes to not only defend the crown, but keep it safe all year long from their divsion foes?  Or is the primary focus of this weeks meeting to gain avenues and portals into the upper working of the MLB to find the hidden gems like Eric Hinske and Willy Aybar again in 2009. The scouting department of the Rays never get enough credit for seeking, searching and finding guys like Andy Sonnanstine and Rhyne Hughes. That department might be the hidden reason for so many of the Rays advancements in the last year.  Finding those diamonds in the rough seems to be a gift for the Rays scouting department.

 

 

The Rays  primary focus in the Hot Stove season so far  seems to be in formulating a trade or signing a free agent to improve the Rays potent offense and increase the stopping power of the bullpen.  But will they be aggressive on their “wants”, or sit back and remain low key and hope everyone picks off one-by-one the weaker guys before the Rays pounce on their guys. You would think that by this years Winter Meeting, Friedman would have the insights and the drive to go after the guys before even matching them up.  This is proably the first Winter Meeting he has had time to venture outside his hotel room and actually communicate face-to-face with a large amount of people. Popularity and a gift for the craft can be a person’s greatest asset in this game of chance.

 

 

But again, Friedman’s focus might be on the free agent market totally and not even consider a trade of any type just yet in the off season. He might hold all his cards until January, then deal them out as he sees fit to the right suitors. Friedman has gone on record as saying he has less players to trade per se this year than in the past. This actually might be a smoke screen set up until the upper echelon of pitchers disappear, then he brings out the names like Hammel, Niemann, and maybe even Jackson or Sonnanstine to wet the interest of teams seeking young talent with upsides. The Rays have the leagues’ quota on young arms plus this year. But then, we have been stockpiling the guys knowing that this day would come some time, some way, to where we could just pick and choose our guys for the first time based on our standards and not the standards set forth by other teams or free agents.

 

                           

 

Friedman has also been blunt to about his trading past and the team has been active heavily in the trade column than in free agents column. But starting in 2009, the team is actually taking a look at free agents and trades at a 50-50 percentage for the first time in franchise history. The Rays have finally built up enough clout and respect in the last year to entice free agents and make the Tampa Bay a perferred destination for veterans who still have alot in the tank.

 

As for the offense, the Rays are flexible with their plan for  further improvements, whether it’s by acquiring a full-time right fielder or a  power-hitting designated hitter. Their focus is firmly in improving their offensive numbers in 2009.
Clear holes are currently flashing in right-field and DH, but could they also get a value later in the Hot Stove season to spell a trade of a secure player right now in the Rays lineup. That question might be better answered around the mid-season mark when they will re-evaluate Carl Crawford and his $ 11.5 million dollar contract for 2010. In the comnig year or so the team will have to face the reality of losing a big name player because of the small market money coming into their coffers. Crawford and Kazmir might be the first 2 players that are within the system to be depatched out of the roster because of future salary or bonuses. And this will set a nasty trend for a few years until the next crop of young studs get established, then rebuilding will happen again and again.

 

 

Friedman is not sure how the current economy will affect baseball in Tampa Bay in 2009. But he does know that he is getting more and more calls from interested parties who want to talk about the team’s openings.  Even though a recent presentation by the Tampa Bay Baseball committee showed that the area’s wealth is down considerably, and that the stadium’s even financial stability might be in play in 2009. Playing within the boundaries of a tight economic circle might be hard for a team fighting to regain it’s edge in 2009. With the general population near the stadium showing double digit unemplyment, it might be a rocky year to start off in 2009, then gradually get into a rhythm and rise upward near the summer months. This is just speculation, but might be a realistic senario for the team. 

 

The conversations with other teams have been just as frequent as they’ve been in years past, but with both agents and teams, we’re  seeing that there aren’t very many people who want to be aggressive and really force things ahead right now. Is it the financial conscience of the league, or just the agents and players feeling out the sagging system before demanding, or putting out their  inflated numbers. Could we see a year of low ball figures to free agents with a vested interest or options, or will we have to wait about 2 years when the economic climate rebounds full force to see super high estimates and salary marks again in baseball.

 

Friedman showed a sense of humor when asked whether he expects activity to pick up during this years Winter Meetings.  He does expect that trade and free agent signings to go wild if something happens early to dictate the market or  something might flex and break trends within the league. But in the end, could we all be just playing the numbers and be left with what is left over on the tables and not get the desired players we need to succeed. The reality is that baseball, like gambling is a crap shoot and anything can happen……………even busting out on a good hand.

 

 

 

 

Rays Reminiscing…………..A Year Later

 

 

 

 

A little over 13 months ago we took on a new persona here in Tampa Bay. Everyone remembers the limp, win-challenged Tampa Bay Devilrays. Well, we were told to expect changes and get used to winning and maybe keeping a roll of antacids in our pockets for the 2008 season. But little did we know what was about to happen to effect our lives, stomachs and attitude towards our home team.

 

First there was the events st Straub Park that put the entire thing into motion for 2008. Kevin Costner and Modern West came to put on a free concert for the Tampa Bay Masses as we dropped the Devil from our moniker and became to Rays………free and clear. Along with those changes were vibrant logo with a highly accented “R” and the burst of light, which could of been a sunburst, a flashlight, or maybe even a quasar from the futre telling us about 2008.

 

 

 

 

The event brought alot of mixed emotions into the Tampa Bay area, but also brought about a sense of removing the past and being reborn to become what we should always have been…winners.  Not only did the team have a new energy about it, but the player showed the emotion and the anticipation on stage that night to bring about total acceptance of the new look. I only had one problem with all of this change. I still thank that the road jersey should have the “Tampa Bay” naming on the chest instead of the Rays.

 

It might be something simple to most people, but I also have been on teams that accented the away jersey would have a regional flair, and the Rays became only one of a handful of teams that now held the same uniform both home and away. One small patch on the sleeve kept the flying “ray” alive, but for how long. I have a feeling we might see it gone in 2009, replaced by some sort of symbolic gesture of winning, or maybe a “burst” like in the center of the current logo.

 

 

 

 

After the effectiver launching of the new logo and advertising, the team went on a media blitz that saturated the Tampa Bay area with the new attitude and logo. Gone were the green and white shirts off the shelves, and on them now was the burst and the typically blue hats with the white “TB” on them. Also gone were the 5 or 6 variations of the caps during the initial launch. Tampa Bay wanted the entire area to re-unite under one cap scheme before re-launching variations and knock-offs.

 

The Champs Sporting Good store player appearance were extremely popular and some store even ran out of certain team apparel that night. The buzz was all over the Tampa Bay area about the recharged Rays and their plans for the future.  So we got to relax for a short while before the team announced two huge trades of disgruntled or negatively-aligned players. One was a superstar in waiting, while the other may someday be a great powerhitter, but not with the Rays.

 

 

 

 

Delmon Young, who had been in the doghouse of Maddons’ since the last game of the season was jettisoned to the great white dome in Minnesota along with utility guy Brendan Harris and minor league outfielder Jason Pridie. The deal at first looked like the Twins had fleeced the Rays for a potential All-Star and slick-hitter in Young.  But the deal did not take a Tampa Bay turn into late in Spring Training when it looked like two of the players dealt to the Rays might be starters on the team.

 

 

 

 

Jason Bartlett came to the Rays as a much under used appreciated and mis used member of the Twin’s infield. He had good skills at the plate, but his strong point was his defense. The second member of the trade might have come with the most baggage to Tampa Bay. Matt Garza was a great pitcher, but he got into himself too much and might have done himself more damage than good in his time with the Twins. In the end, both guys became valuable members of the team and did not even look back as they moved forward with the Rays. The minute Spring Training started at the Namoli Complex, you could see both guys were relishing in their change of scenery.  Bartlett quickly got into the team’s rhythm and poised to become a valuable member of the squad.

 

 

 

 

Garza tried to become a dominating pitcher early, but his mind got in the way of his pitching and sulking and frustration came to the top alot in the beginning. The truning point for this trade came on that faithful day in Texas where Garza could not longer hide the frustrations and outwardly exploded in the dugout. That day, Garza let it all out and began a transformation that made him into a stellar pitcher.

 

 

 

 

The second trade might not have made much sense at the time, but it was done more out of helping a player who did not think he needed the help at the moment. Elijah Dukes will someday be a trememdous hitter and outfielder, but the local enviorment for him was toxic and he needed to leave before it destroyed him. Duke was traded to the Washington Nationals and did not see a huge amount of action in 2008, but the positive did rear their heads for him during the year.

 

He played inspired ball and did not focus or dwell on the off the field problem he had in Tampa Bay. He showed the Nationals the raw ability and power he had, and made some amazing plays in the field before finally going down in a game against the New York Mets. In that game, Dukes sprinted for a ball near the base of the wall and hit it with such force it should have broken his leg.

 

He did come outy with a knee problem, but came back  quickly and even made more heads turn before the end of the year. He stayed out of trouble and learned that the change of scenery made the trade a blessing in disguise. Tampa Bay might not have gotten alot in return for Dukes, but they did give him his life back, and he repaid them by doing it the right way.

 

 

 

 

After these two trades, the team went about signing two members of the 2008 team that made contributions in different ways. Troy Percival was chasing a top 10 spot in the All-Time save list when he signed a 2-year contract with the Rays. Because of his knowledge of Maddon’s gameplan, he was the perfect candidate for closing out Rays games. He came with veteran experience and postseason muscle, which could come in handy for the young Bullpen.

 

His work ethic and chats with the young guys could serve a dual purpose as having another pitching coach out there in the Bullpen to educate and relate to the other players. Percival came into the year  wanting to secuire the back end of the Rays Bullpen and give them some stability in the position.  Little did we know at the time what would happen, but in 2007, it was heralded as a major upgrade and a certain intimidation factor.

 

 

                              

 

 

The second signing was for a former outfielder who had won a World Series ring just like Percival. Cliff Floyd came to the team with a dual mission. He came to the team to provide ammunition and experience to help educate and emotionally charge the young bench. Floyd came here with great credentials, but his on-field mobility was in question from the start. Gone were the legs who could produce a run from a single, but the power and the stroke were still there in force.

 

He became an instant leader in the clubhouse and lead by example. Always the professional, Floyd took young players like B J Upton and Carl Crawford under his wing and taught both of them the art of the game. That half the battle in this psort was fought between their ears and in their words and comments to others. You could see the change in both players’ early in the year, and it set the tone for the team.

 

                                

 

 

 

So with these 4 episodes early in the off season for the Rays, the team set about  a series of changes like never before in their history. They had a change of uniforms, attitude and a veteran experience level they had not witnessed in their short history. The sky was the limit for the young team before the Feb. reporting day, and from there they just kept making history. 

 

Josh Hamilton Is My Hero

 

 

 

                                      

 

 

When the American League 2008 All Stars were officially announced, every one in baseball took notice that Josh Hamilton had finally  come full circle and achieved the dream of his lifetime. The fact that  the event would be a total  180 degree swapping of the horrors and the misguided attempts of Hamilton to finally right the ship and cruise to the ultimate harbor.  There have been numerous human interest stories before in connection with the All Star game, but none would even hit the zenith that Hamilton took us during the 2008 State Farm Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium.

 

 

From just how far Hamilton had to come was not the issue at hand, but how far he had come, and to where he would take us next.  From the day he was selected in 1999 with the First Round overall pick, he has been fighting the demons and the wrath of promise and expectations. When the then Tampa Bay Devilrays took Hamilton, he was considered one of this generations blue-chip, 5-tool players straight out of high school. The sky was the limit then as Hamilton could do just about anything in the outfield and at the plate. 

 

 

He was a highly decorated high school player, twice being named North Carolina Gatorade High School Player of the Year. Following his senior season, he was named High School Player of the Year by Baseball America and Amateur Player of the Year by USA Baseball. Hamilton played outfield and also pitched during his high school career. As a left-handed high school pitcher, Hamilton sometimes hit 96 MPH. He was touted as a rare talent, who was almost equally skilled as a pitcher and a position player (outfield).

 

Dan Jennings,  then a Tampa Bay scout said “He has every tool we look for in a position player.” His high school coach at Athens Drive, John Thomas said “He’s better at this game than anyone else I’ve seen in high school or college.”

 

 

                    

 

 

I remember first seeing Josh at the Namoli Complex in St. Petersburg, Florida. Your first focus was on his strong forearms and his professional demeanor. I know from my work involvement with the Spring Training staff that Hamilton was eager and willing to do anything to show his worth to the team at that stage of his career. On the training field facing SE of the center coaching towers,Josh used to routinely put balls into the players’ parking lot during Batting Practice. It became a running joke that the clubhouse staff used to sit out there and shag balls to keep them from hitting the players’ cars

 


After this successful debut in professional baseball, he spent the 2000 season with the Charleston RiverDogs in the South Atlantic League. Prior to the 2001 season, Hamilton was involved in an accident in his truck coming back from a Spring Training game in Sarasota,Florida. His mother was also injured in the accident, and she went home to North Carolina to be  with her husband to recuperate from her injuries. For the first time in his professional career, Hamilton was on his own, without a parental voice to reel him in when he overindulged or misbehaved off the field.

                                      


The 2001 season was the first time Hamilton began going to the Ybor City section of Tampa with teammates and became involved in the local bar scene and began experimenting with drugs, after a few months he made his first attempt at rehab. Several former Rays players routinely went to the Tampa entertainment zone to let off steam from the days work and enjoy the nightlife. It was at this time that Josh also began his obsession with tattoo’s and the local parlors in Ybor City. Long nights and missed curfews were only the tip of the iceberg for Hamilton, the demons were getting to his soul and he was about to plunge deep into the abyss.

 


Hamilton only played 27 games in the 2001 season, split between Charleston (  Class-A ) and the Orlando Rays ( Class -AA ). Hamilton began the 2002 season with the Bakersfield Blaze ( Class -AA ), batting .303 with 9 home runs and 44 RBI in 56 games before his season came to an end due to lingering back and shoulder injuries. At this time he also began experimenting with pain medication and the effects took a huge part out of his game. He had loss the will to play at the highest level by then, just trying to survive another day on pain medications and other drugs of choice.

 

 

 

 

At the start of the 2003 season, Hamilton started showing up late during the Rays’ Spring Training and was reassigned to the team’s minor league camp as a warning to shape up. Hamilton was not happy about the demotion and left the team and disappeared for several weeks, resurfacing several times, but eventually took the rest of the season off for personal reasons. Hamilton was hoping to return to Spring Training with the Devil Rays in 2004, but he was suspended 30 days and fined for violating the drug policy put in place by MLB.

 

 

Because of the length of his suspension, and the terms of the drug policy, Hamilton must have failed two or more drug tests after being put into the program. A ‘failed’ test is a positive result for a drug more severe than marijuana. Hamilton was known to frequent  local tattoo parlors and clubs where cocaine and other drugs could be found easily and without problems. Alcohol also became a secondary  drug of choice while doing the club scene in Ybor City.

 

 

The  suspension was increased several times after repeated violations of the terms of the program. From 2002 until 2006, Hamilton did not play any baseball at all.  He was starting to hit the downward spiral that would take him into situation he could never imagine in his life. He made several attempts at rehab, and started off the 2005 season with hopes of being reinstated by MLB.  During his time away from baseball, Hamilton had escalated to using heroin and shed almost 35 pounds off his frame from the drug use. One time during a brief stay in a drug house in North Carolina, Hamilton let a known drug dealer use his truck to go get more narcotics for the people in the house, but the drug dealer never returned with his truck or the drugs.


 


Hamilton’s struggles with drugs and alcohol are well documented. He finally got clean after being confronted by his grandmother, Mary Holt. Hamilton says he hasn’t used drugs or alcohol since October 6, 2005. When giving a brief summary of his recovery Hamilton says simply “It’s a God thing.” He does not shy away from telling his story, speaking to community groups and fans at many different functions. He frequently and publicly tells stories of how Christianity has brought him back from the brink and that faith is what keeps him going.

 

 

                                                

 

 

Hamilton finally put down the struggle and the redemption in a book entitled, ” Beyond Belief: Finding The Strength To Come Back”.  The book  details the events that led up to the derailment. Josh explains how a young man destined for fame and wealth could allow his life to be taken over by drugs and alcohol. But it is also the memoir of a spiritual journey that breaks through pain and heartbreak and leads to the rebirth of his major-league career.

Josh Hamilton makes no excuses and places no blame on anyone other than himself. He takes responsibility for his poor decisions and believes his story can help millions who battle the same demons. “I have been given a platform to tell my story” he says. “I pray every night I am a good messenger.”


 

His wife Katie sometimes accompanies him on road games and during personal appearances, offering her perspective on his struggles as well.  To go along with the provisions of MLB’s drug policy, Hamilton provides urine samples for drug testing at least three times per week. Rangers’ coach Jerry Narron says of the frequent testing: “I think he looks forward to the tests. He knows he’s an addict. He knows he has to be accountable. He looks at those tests as a way to reassure people around him who had faith.” Hamilton approaches the plate at Texas Rangers home games to the song “Saved The Day” by Christian group Phillips, Craig & Dean

 

One of the biggest opponents of helping Hamilton get back to the major leagues was Clearwater Baseball Academy owner Ron Silver. After hearing about Hamilton’s desire to return to baseball, Silver offered the use of his facility if Hamilton agreed to work helping area kids and also fine-tuning his swing and follow through after lessons and events.


After several months there, Hamilton attempted to play with an independent minor league team,the Broxton Roxs, but MLB stepped in and disallowed it.  After reviewing his case, and hearing from doctors that being around baseball might speed his recovery, Hamilton was allowed to work out with the Devil Rays minor league players starting on June 2, 2006. Throughout this endeavor, the Rays management let Hamilton know that they would do anything possible to ensure his protection and his health while fighting to get back into shape for baseball and beyond.

 


I remember I had to deliver some Aquafina water and Pepsi products to the Rays Minor League complex the morning Hamilton officially could go back onto the field for the Rays.  Hamilton has no idea of the media circus waiting for him outside when I pulled up to the doors. Sitting outside the doors to the practice fields were almost 10 TV cameras’ and crews waiting for Hamilton to emerge to start his MLB career over again. He was inside talking to Tim M, who runs the complex for the Rays when I first saw him. Hamilton looked bigger and stronger than when he was with the Rays before, and had a aura about him now. As he turned and smiled at me, I saw that he also had a renewed vigor and swagger about him. A positive light that truly would guide him through this endeavor. 

 


Josh had found religion was the key to his core. That by believing in the Lord, he had a co-pilot on his journey this time. That he could trust himself and his faith that things would be right this time. He turned, shook my hand after I told him it was glad to see him back again with a smile on his face again and  he slowly step towards the door. I warned him of the media storm outside the door, and he just smiled and said, ” I have been waiting for this all my life, I am past the hurricane, this is just a sun-soaked rain shower now.”

 By the end of the month, he was allowed to participate in minor league games. He played 15 games with the  short-season Hudson Valley Renegades near the end of the 2006 season. In addition to returning to baseball, Hamilton also served as a cautionary tale for his young teammates with the Renegades. Rick Zolzer, the Renegades’ director of special events said of Hamilton: “”He pointed (the other players) in the right direction. He said, Don’t make the mistakes I made.’ He was so good with all of the young kids.”

 

 

Hamilton was  then selected third overall in the MLB portion of the 2006 Rule 5 Draft by the Chicago Cubs in the off season. The Rays had not placed him on their 40-man roster and left him unprotected to be selected by any of the MLB clubs.  The Rays were hoping that with his sorted past and a career in jeopardy, teams would not select him and he would remain with the Rays while reconstructing his career. The Cubs took a gamble on Hamilton, and he was later traded to the Cincinnati Reds for $100,000 ($50,000 for his rights, and $50,000 to cover the cost of the Rule 5 selection). In their coverage of the draft, Chris Kline and John Manuel of Baseball America called Hamilton “the biggest name in the Rule 5 Draft.”  

              

                                  

                  

 

 

In order to retain the rights to Hamilton, the Reds had to keep him on their Major League 25-man roster for the entire 2007 season. He was one of the Reds’ best hitters in spring training, leaving camp with a .403 batting average. As a result, he won a spot on the Reds’ Opening Day roster; the Reds planned to use him as a fourth outfielder. Hamilton started most of the time in center field after an injury to former-Ray Ryan Freel. He also received starts due to injuries to Chris Denorfia and Norris Hopper.

 

 

Hamilton made his long-awaited Major League debut on April 2 against the Chicago Cubs in a pinch-hit appearance,and received a 22-second standing ovation from the Reds’ faithful. He lined out to left fielder Matt Murton, who made a sliding catch. Hamilton stayed in the game to play left field. As he was waiting to bat, Cubs catcher Michael Barrett said “‘You deserve it, Josh. Take it all in, brother. I’m happy for you.”

 


He made his first start on April 10 against the Arizona Diamondbacks, batting lead off. In that game, he recorded his first Major League hit, a home run off Édgar González. The next night, he hit another. Hamilton was named the National League Rookie of the Month for April. On May 22, the Reds placed Hamilton on the 15-day DL with gastroenteritis; they activated him on June 5 after he batted .333 (8-for-24) with four home runs and six RBI in a six-game Minor League rehabilitation assignment. Hamilton went back on the DL on July 12 with a sprained wrist.

 


Among all NL rookies, Hamilton placed second behind the  Brewers’ Ryan Braun in slugging percentage (.554), and fourth in home runs (19); behind Braun, Arizona’s Chris Young, and the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki. He was shut out in the voting for the Rookie of the Year, which was won by Braun.

 


On December 21, 2007, the Reds traded Hamilton to the Texas Rangers for Edinson Volquez and Danny Herrera.

 

 

 

 

 In 2008, Hamilton locked up the Rangers starting center fielder job with a stellar spring training in which he batted .556 and drove in 13 RBIs in 14 games. His spring training performance proceeded to follow into the regular season. Hamilton, usually slotted third in the Texas batting order, appears to be finally fulfilling his great potential. Hamilton led all Major League players in RBI for the month of April. He was named American League Player of the Month after hitting .330 with 32 RBI during the month. Hamilton then went on to win player of the month for the second straight month in May, becoming the first American League player in baseball history to be awarded Player of the Month for the first two months of the season.

 

 

Hamilton was featured on the cover of the June 2, 2008 issue of Sports Illustrated, in a story chronicling his comeback. On July 9, 2008 Josh Hamilton hit the first walk-off home run of his career against Angels’ closer, Francisco Rodriguez. Fans selected Hamilton as one of the starting outfielders for the American League at the 2008 MLB All Star Game at Yankee Stadium. He finished first in voting among the outfielders to clinch his spot. He will be one of seven first-time starters in the game.

 


Along with Kosuke Fukudome, Geovany Soto,Ryan Braun,and the Rays’ Evan Longoria, he will be one of four who made their MLB debut 2007 or 2008. He was selected to participate in the 2008 State Farm Home Run Derby the evening before the game. Hamilton selected 71-year old Clay Counsil to throw to him during the Derby. Counsil was a  local volunteer who threw batting practice for him as an American Legion player  in Cary, NC. Counsil threw picture perfect pitches for Hamilton to hit that night in Yankee Stadium. At one point it was rumored he had thrown over 90 pitches before Josh had finished his First Round.

 

 

                     

 

 

In the first round of the event Hamilton hit 28 home runs, to break the single round record of 24 set by Bobby Abreu in 2005. Several of those homers were to the only place in Yankee Stadium where a ball could be hit out of the complex, deep right center field next to the upper decks. Hamilton, who had 28 homers after the first round, came out and took only a small amount of pitches to extend his total to 32, before retiring for the final round. Hamilton ended up hitting the most total home runs in the contest with 35, but lost in the final round to Justin Morneau, as the scores were reset. His record setting first round included 13 straight home runs at one point, and three that went further than 500 feet. His longest home run was 518 feet.

 


In 2006, when Hamilton was trying to get back into baseball, he had a dream where he participated in a Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium, but he could not remember how many home runs he had hit. After the Derby Hamilton said: “This, was like living the dream out, because like I’ve said, I didn’t know the ending to that dream.” The next night, Josh started in center field for the American League, and went 1-3 on the night and was greeted by a huge cheer from the mostly Yankee crowd on his first at-bat.

 


Hamilton has been an inspiration to both young and old to rise to this level of achievement in such a short frame of time. The season is still young, and Hamilton is currently leading Major League Baseball in RBI’s with 95. He is currently hitting .310 for the year and is ranked 18th in the MLB, and 9th in the AL. Hamilton also has 21 homers at the break to rank 12th in the MLB and 3rd in the AL, two behind the leader.

 

 

                                  

 


Hamilton has a chance to made a bid for the Triple Crown this season. He was also touted as a early favorite for the AL MVP award. But in the end, the only category that Hamilton lead in the American League was the RBI crown with 130 RBI’s on the year. He ended up with a .304 batting average, good enough for 11th in the Al. He also ended up hitting 32 home runs to tie for 8th in the AL in that category. Some say the pressure of carrying the Rangers and the long season put Hamilton behind the 8-ball early in the second half of the season.

 



In the AL MVP race, he ended up coming in 7th place, and was the last participant to top 100 points in the race, he ended up with 113 points in the MVP voting.

 


We have a lot of great baseball to play, and Josh still has some unfinished business to attend to in the upcoming seasons. He has so much promise in 1999 when he signed with the Rays, and so much time was lost and will never be retained again. But with determination and a will to succeed, we all will see Hamilton rise from the ashes and become the man and player we always knew he would be in baseball.

 


We should all be grateful this fantastic athlete found the courage and commitment to  raise himself above life’s struggles and tragedies. He is a perfect example of mind over matter, and that the power of your own will can defeat any and all demons if you just believe.   And with that, I think I will hit the TIVO again and watch the State Farm Home Run Derby all over again tonight.

 

   

Is Las Vegas Sniffing Around the Tampa Bay Rays?

 

 

 

 

After a  oustanding season like 2008, cities like Las Vegas, who have hungered for a baseball team going on 15 years still have the taste for the game. With Major League Baseball heading to Las Vegas for their  2008 Winter Meetings this weekend and next week, it is not wonder that Las Vegas will roll out the red carpet for the baseball elite and  will again troll the hallways and side passages hoping to talk to ballclubs secretly fighting for stadiums and more  revenues to keep up with the Steinbrenners’ of the world.

 

Stu Sternberg, the Rays principal owner, has stated time and time again that 2008 will be a barometer as to what the fan base pulse of the Tampa Bay area. Would Stu and crew maybe be looking for a way out of town? or maybe could be seduced by the Sin City charm and the aspect of over 39 million travelers to the fair city. Or could a FREE stadium built for his pleasure and  his team’s future financial well-being be beyond just a nibble or taste of future goodness.

 

 

                                                                            

 

We will not know the answer to these questions anytime  in the near future, but with the Rays’ executive team heading to Las Vegas and the Bellagio resort for a week of meetings and backroom trade banter, you can be sure Las Vegas Mayor  Oscar Goodman will be close in hand with a towel, drink or even a ticket to an exclusive show to chat, converse or even entice any team’s officials about  baseball some day coming to the desert.

 

The mayor of Las Vegas sure seems to know a lot about the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. He knows about their young pitching and the offense that can tack on runs like rain when the floodgates let loose, but he also know the payroll limits set by the limited local support of the Tampa Bay community.  He knows that the team has an outstanding infield, where opponents’ line drives and ground balls go to die.  He even think they might have a  future dynasty of sorts if the payroll can equal the win totals of last season ( $97 million would make a great roster even better).

 

                           

 

 

But will the dynasty be forged in  St. Petersburg, or maybe somewhere westerdly beyond the hustle and bustle of Tampa Bay? As MLB offcials and team management head to Vegas for their annula Winter Meetings,  Goodman plans to be there with showgirls on each arm, pressureing baseball’s  high and mighty to listen to his sales pitch.

 

Much like that guy who sold your parents’ that time-share years and years ago, Goodman is great with a small group, but even better when he holds the right cards. And the team that has him salavating is our Rays.  Most people would think that Las Vegas is not far along in the process of even imagining a franchise in their town. If you believe that, please do not play poker with the man. He is alot farther along than even you and me think he is in trying to secure a team for his neon community.

And he’s not the only one eyeing the Rays.

 

                                                  

 

 

Oscar Goodman would probably have a hard time getting elected to the St. Petersburg City Council. Take St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker and times him by 5 and you will get the intensity of this guy. He is a maverick at making a deal, and he has a mission to secure an MLB, NHL, NBA and maybe even a NFL team before he leaves office in 2011. It would be a legend as big as Bugsy Segal if he could pull off that miracle for the town that money built.

 

 

In Nevada, the 69-year-old Goodman may wind up governor. That would put him in position to even pester the MLB brass for years and years until either thry buckle or a team sashshays toward the neon lights and big times. The third-term mayor is a  former high profile lawyer for the mob, once suggested  to the town’s folks that people caught spraypainting graffiti  should lose a thumb on public television. That would take the old western standard of hangings and discipline in the town square to new meaning in the 21st Century

 

 

In 2004, when Las Vegas was  being considered as a  possible future home for the Florida Marlins, Goodman showed up at baseball’s winter meetings with two showgirls and an Elvis impersonator seeking the attention and the votes of the onwership groups of the league.

 

Most of the the baseball owners ran away from him, but then friend and former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda came over, hugged Goodman and said hello to the girls. Next came  current Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. Then former Cincinnati Red Tony Perez, an executive with the Marlins.

 

 

Past the glitz and the off-color comments, Goodman is serious about his quest for a major league franchise. Las Vegas is one of the 10 fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, with its population increasing almost 30 percent between 2000 and 2006. It’s within driving distance of San Diego, Phoenix and Los Angeles. Has a diverse demographic that probably has a minority of Red Sox and Yankee fans to fill the stadium on game days.

 

And, perhaps most importantly, it saw 39-million visitors in 2007. But will people go to Vegas to do their usual ventures and also come out to a baseball game. Why not, you can not gamble 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, you will need down time. And baseball could be the perfect answer to the stress and pressure of Las Vagas from April to October every year.

 

Movement already is happening. The sports research division of Pricewaterhouse Coopers says it is studying the Las Vegas market for an unnamed client. And while Major League Baseball asked Goodman to stop talking to the  Florida Marlins about relocation after ecent stadium set-backs and high budget restraints, baseball executives recognize Las Vegas’ potential.

 

 

               

 

One high ranking MLB executive called Las Vegas “one of the most attractive markets in the U.S. for a pro sports franchise,” and said it was a serious candidate to attract the Montreal Expos when they were moving. As you might remember, the Expos former owner bought the Marlins, while his old team became the basis for the Washington Nationals. So Vegas as an eye and an ear tuck deep into the sand listeningh to everything going on in baseball.

 

 

          

 

Building a stadium would not be an issue, Goodman says. Neither would a public vote, which would not be required. And you know that they could have the ultimate in in-game entertainment with the local flair for the over-done and the obscene, but tasteful local traditions.  A retractable roof or even a full-time roof because of the high heat could be contructed and manitained with ease in the town that is Las Vegas.

 

 

 

And on sports betting, a sticky issue for professional sports, a compromise likely could be reached that would prevent gamblers from betting on Las Vegas home games, Goodman said. Goodman would not specifically talk about the Rays — he doesn’t want to be used as leverage for the stadium pursuit in St. Petersburg, nor does he want to upset big league executives.

 

But with the current stadium concept now in a grass-roots, fact finding mode, the team might be willing to wait out their results, but what if the findings come out to be negative and non-responsive to the St. Petersburg, or even Tampa Bay area fan base. So could the future be pointing towards the neon and glitter of Sin City, or the breezes and palm trees of Tampa Bay?

 

                      

 

 

But from afar, Goodman has noticed the thousands of empty seats at Tropicana Field during the past season. He wants to nail down a baseball, basketball or hockey franchise before he leaves office in 2011. Rays officals have called the next few years critical to the team’s foundation, but could that just be wordspeak to a possible move or even re-evaluation of baseball on the West Coast of Florida? 

 

 

The Rays still hope to build a new ballpark in the Tampa Bay area, and likely are prepared to continue pressing local officials for public funding. That back-and-forth could take years. At the same time, while Las Vegas might be motivated to attract a team, the citiy is far from a panacea for Major League Baseball. Both come with questions as a market. Just like Tampa Bay.

 

 

The Rays themselves dismiss any talk of relocation. Sterberg has also gone on record  that the Rays are singularly focused on making baseball work in the Tampa Bay area. In any event, the move would not be as easy as the Colts midnight move from Baltimore to Indianapolis. The Rays have a tight and iron-clad lease to play in Tropicana Field through the 2027 season.

 

At a minimum, the Rays would be forced to pay off the outstanding debt on Tropicana Field if it left town before 2016, which now stands at $80-million. The debt total drops to $47-million in 2012 and $24.6-million in 2014. And besides that, fans based lawsuits and anyone with a contract with the team could step up and get a local judge to rule on the team staying in the area.

 

 

 

But it’s not out of the question the Rays could leave if a new ballpark isn’t eventually built, said Rob Canton, director of the sports, convention and tourism division of researcher Pricewater­houseCoopers. “The long-term viability of the Rays is in question if there isn’t a new ballpark,” Canton said.

 

Las Vegas could offer to build the Rays a stadium for free. And the Rays could then use the $150-million they would have contributed to a ballpark in St. Petersburg to negotiate their way out of the city’s lease. The moves are highly speculative, but it’s not impossible.

 

In the end, maybe posturing by Las Vegas is what it takes to get a new ballpark built in the Tampa Bay area. Like the leverage St. Petersburg created for the Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants. Tampa Bay also made people take up and notice in Seattle and Oakland, where the community had to take measures to keep their franchsies.

 

Seattle quickly approved a stadium plan for what is now Safeco Field. That moved turned the Mariners’ facility into one of the best ballparks in the country and scrapped the out-of-date domed Kingdome. Tampa Bay’s first baseball group had a signed contract with the old Oakland A’s ownership group, Levi’s Strauss, and MLB stepped in and found local ownership that could support and control the team before the Tampa Bay group could even move a muscle.

 

 

So there are alot of possible senarios and endeavors to take place beofre any true discussion can enter about relocation, or even removing the Rays from Florida. The stadium committee might have a major say in the future of the team.  They are currently seeking and looking for area to locate the proposed stadium, financial considerations, and the  most feasible way for transportation and the fan base to enjoy baseball for centruies in Tampa Bay. If all the work and the issues point to a dead end, then you never know yet about the eams’ true future here in Tampa Bay.

 

Or maybe it means the team find its new ballpark — 2,500 miles away.

 

I would not want to bet on this one, but for now……………I am going to let it all ride baby!!

 

 

St. Petersburg and the MLB Go Waaaay Back

 

                           

 

 It gets to me sometimes how people tend to wrap the “Tampa ” label on the city by the Bay more and more on national baseball broadcasts, ESPN Sportscenter and during post-game interviews. The St. Petersburg area is the 4th largest cities in the state,and would be a far bigger city if it was not for that body of water on three sides of it.

 

 But the media has a love affair and always get wrapped up in the  sheets and covers of  St. Pete’s brotherly city over the water  just east of them.  It is not easy to understand sometimes since this city has had a long love affair with baseball since even before the 1900′s. And to add to it all, the Minor League  Baseball office is located in our fair city in front of Progress Energy Fields box offices right down by the waterfront.

 

The City of St. Petersburg, Florida has always had the moniker of being a town where older people go to die. It has been affectionately called, ” Town of the Newlyweds and Nearly Deads” for as long as I have been alive. It is a town known throughout the world for the endless green benches, sunshine almost 360 days a year, and a bridge span that collapsed onto a tanker in the late 70′s.  But did you know that it was the last stop for President John F Kennedy before he left for Dallas, Texas?

 

The game’s Sunshine State history reaches back to amateur ballclubs of the 1870s. In 1888, major league clubs began putting down Florida roots when the Washington Nationals came to the Jacksonville area for spring training. St. Petersburg welcomed owner Branch Rickey and the St. Louis Browns in 1914, and new transportation routes in the 1920s drew still more springtime teams–many lured to St. Pete by businessman and former mayor, Al Lang.

 

 

Baseball has been in the  seasonal lifeblood of the region for over 100 years. And  with so many clubs using this area for Spring Training, it is about expected that residual energy and phantom sightings and events would blanket the area with a paranormal presence. I have heard all kinds of stories growing up about the early days of baseball in Florida. Sightings among the mist at ballparks and strangers sitting in the empty dugouts that vanish when you walk up to them. Mystery and baseball sometimes go hand in hand with each other. 

 

Stories of ballplayers’ like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig staying in local downtown hotels, like the Ponce De Leon and Don Ce Sar Resort.  And also unthinkable stories of events that today would cause an uproar, like how local innkeepers and restaurant owners would not let former Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson  and some other  african-american players eat or sleep with the rest of the team’s players due to beliefs that would be considered horrific today. In the 1940′s, racism was a social problem in the south, and ghostly reminders rear their heads at old haunts like Mirror Lake or  beyond the top of  “Thrill Hill” off 3rd Street South near Bayboro Harbor. 

 

 

                                 

 

I have heard rumors and enuendos about deep sea boat trips deep into the Gulf of Mexico to follow game fish like the Marlin and players missing baseball games because of losing track of time out on the high seas.   I actually saw a photo of Ruth and Gehrig deep sea fishing off the coast of Florida in of all places, the Diamond Club at Safeco Field. Take the stadium tour, you will see that, and an awesome photo of Babe Ruth as a Red Sox pitcher.  Also the stories ans urban legends of the elaborate shindigs and parties attended by some of baseball’s elite players in places like the old Hermitage Hotel, or the Detroit Hotel’s courtyard, which is now the Jannis Landing concert venue. 

 

With all that wild actitivites and the bold and brass characters of old-time baseball, you would think some of that would still be here, coasting within our eyesight. There are reminders everywhere in the city of baseball’s past here.  Little did I know how much of the past still is present in St. Petersburg until I made a pilgrimage to my local bookstore. I  went on a baseball book hunt to one of the classic bookstore, Haslems to try and find some old editions or volumes written about baseball.

 

Now I know I could have gone to Barnes and Noble, or any other cookie-cutter store with their coffee shops and muffins, but I wanted to have a literary expedition into the past. I do not know what it is about an old bookstore that makes you feel, well nostalgic. Maybe it is the smell of the aging pages and binders glue, or maybe the accumulation of dust and mildew on some collections, but you can always find somethnig to peak your interest.

 

If you have never heard about Haslems’ ,it is a huge collection and mish-mosh of books discarded and obtained from people and sources all over the world and  every book known to man seems to flow to them.  I came away with a few great books about our national pastime. They had a huge selection of autobiographies and collections of stories concerning baseball. I have to check out this book, ” The 30-Year Old Rookie” the next time I am in there. 

 

One of the book I chose was, Haunted Baseball, by Mickey Bradley and Dan Gordon. To start with, the authors are Boston Red Sox and New York fans, which puts them in good company with the bandwagon fans the Rays attract 64 games a year ( minus the 17 against the AL East foes ) tends to attract  at once to the Trop. this year. The book is a  fantastic collection of events depicting the ghosts, practical celestrial games, and unexplained phenoms concerning baseball and some oif the hotel, motels and Holiday Inns around the league and the minors. 

 

And to my delight, within the inside pages is a unique  insight and local history of apparitions, events and local  urban legends that only back up  old stories and  unwitnessed events I was told as a child. I have enjoyed reading this book. The authors have done alot of research with players, coaches and experts in the field of the unsual and the unknown.  From the first chapter based on events in St. Petersburg, and it peaked my interest to revisit and explore these places again and again.

 

 

 

The first chapter is dedicated to a St. Petersburg park that sits less than a few miles from Tropicana Field, the Rays current home.  I used to run around  this park as a child and fish in it’s lake and read under, and climb the huge banyan trees. The park has always had a eerie feeling to me,like someone was watching you from a distance, and I did not know why. Cresent Lake Park is also the site of Huggins-Stengel Field, which was  one of the Spring Training sites for the old Yankees, Mets, Cardinals Orioles, and the young years of the Tampa Bay  D-Rays..

 

Huggins-Stengel field located in the Southeastern corner of the park near the huge silver colored watertower that has served as a landmark since the 1920′s.  My grandfather used to live on 13th Avenue North between 5th and 6th Streets, less than a city block from the field. He used to take hours telling me about the legends both concerning the field and the playerd who called it home for many years. One of the wildest adventures into the bizzare world of the paranormal concerns former Yankee greats’ Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle .

 

 It is said that the spirit of the “Bambino” loved the Florida sunshine and the city so much that his spirit is still here,  Some say that occsionally a figure is seen sitting in the dugout at twilight wearing a Yankee jersey on the third base side of  Huggins-Stengel Field and can still be witnessed on occasions usually before the weather turns cold in Florida. Mikey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio patroled centerfield at the complex, and legend has it that the day after they died a brown spot turned up in the exact spots both of them used to play on the field.

 

Ruth also was playing in the outfield once and a bull gator decided to sun himself in deep centerfield and chased the “Bambino” from the field . Ruth also used to hit monster shots down the vine-covered leftfield area and kids used to clamor for the balls. Some say a lone figure is sometimes seen out there in the early morning mist just standing in centerfield as if waiting for a ball to be hit his direction. Most take this apparition to be Ruth, who loved playing at this quaint location better than the Yankees old facility in New Orleans. Truth be told, the Yankees moved the spring training site to St. Petersburg to keep Ruth from Bourbon Street and the late night life of New Orleans.

 

The old clubhouse is the scene of several unsual and unexplained happenings. It was like a second home to alot of the Yankee stars who spent plenty of late hours there before heading to the team hotel in town. After the D-Rays moved all their operation to the Ray Namoli complex in the Jungle area of town, the team turned the location over to the City of St. Petersburg, who converted the old clubhouse to an office space currently occupied by the St. Petersburg Parks and Recreation team TASCO.

 

 

 

At Huggins-Stengel Field, some also say the ghost of Casey Stengel is said to have been seen and felt in the old clubhouse. Two plaques in front of a building are dedicated to Miller Huggins and Casey Stengel and that it was the New York Mets spring clubhouse for more than 20 years are all that distinguishes it from the dozens of other baseball fields in the city. There are 3 ex-MLB training sites in the city that are still standing. Besides Huggins-Stengel, there is the Busch Complex ( St. Louis Cardinals ) off 62nd Avenue Northeast, and the Namoli complex ( Mets, Orioles, Cards, Rays ) next to the Walter Fuller Community center in the Jungle Prade area of St. Petersburg. 

 

Legend has it Ruth gave up shagging flies on the first day of spring training in 1925 because an alligator emerged from Crescent Lake to sunbath in the outfield. Ruth is said to be one of the few players to put a ball into the lake about 500 feet from home plate in right field. Among the others: Mets slugger Dave Kingman.

 

It is a series of wild tales of ghostly sightings and unexplained sounds and smells concerning the vast history that has graced this cement block building. The old Yankees clubhouse, built in the 1930s, was torn down and replaced by the current one in the early 1960s. Lockers from the original clubhouse were moved to the new one, and one of the wood stalls greets visitors in the entrance to the building now used for offices for a teenagers program, TASCO.

 

One of the wildest  and most interesting tales concerns a thick cigar odor that is strong in the AM when the TASCO workers come in the morning, and the strange and odd happening after dark in the building. It is said that former Yankee manager Miller Huggins was a huge cigar smoker and would often light up in the clubhouse or the surrounding areas. But the lone figure in the dugout near nightfall has more of a place in the local lore. Some say it is the shadows that play against the overgrowth in leftfield that give the dugout its errie glow and shadows right before sunset.

 

I used to deliver Pepsi product to TASCO as a Special Events Coordinator, and I always had an uneasy feeling in that building. If I knew about these events, I would have loved to stay the night or visit there at night. The park is patrolled by local police looking for  illegal activities, not ghosts during the night. The St. Petersburg Police Department has never had to respond to a burglar call or break-in at the complex, and the motion alarms have never been set off by the nightly escapades.   

 

 

The third chapter of the book features the  World famous Vinoy hotel where countless stories have victimized visiting teams, and newly promoted Rays players staying in the resort for Rays games.  The hotel was vacant for  over 20 years and fell into  major disrepair before the site was cleaned up and restored to it’s current state. It has been a long time since the hotel was a vacant shell on the waterfront, but true natives know how much the hotel transformed the Straub Park and Vinoy area back to respectability and extreme comfort for local visitors’.

 

The book goes into detail about the haunting and shenaigans of the spectres’ in the old wing of the hotel. I know of one death in the hotel from when it was an abandoned shell. It is of a homeless guy who fell into the water-filled elevator shaft and drowned because there was no one there to hear him scream for help, or rescue him. Legend has it that sometimes the walls of the elevators produce a banging sound and the elevator shakes like someone trying to get in from below or above the unit.

 

I have also stayed in this hotel  a few times on the 5th floor of the old wing and have not had a truly restful night  sleep . One time it was due to weird scratching noises outside my 6th floor window. I took it as a dove or bird trying to find a niche for the night. Never thought about a ghostly apparition or spectre causing the chaos. I also know of doors and windows that have been locked, then appear open to the outer halls during the night while people have been asleep inside of the rooms. The main ballroom has been said to have nightly ghost parties where voices and footsteps are regular occurrances to unsuspecting staff members.

 

It has a Rays’ twist in the form of a ghostly haunting involving Jon Switzer when he first got promoted up to the big club. You have to read the account to believe it. It is a tale you would not believe unless you read it. Other players and coaches have had events happen to them in this spirited hotel.  There is even one player from the Cleveland Indians who will not sleep in the hotel due to a bad night sleeping or the feelings he gest from the old haunt.

 

the paranormal is present so much that it was profiled  in an ESPN story involving the Cincinnati Reds reliever Scott Williamson. He says he was held down in his bed by an unforseen force in the night and in later research, it was noted that the former landowner of the Vinoy site before the hotel was built was also named Williamson.

 

As you can see, some residents of the past might have come back to St. Petersburg to check back into the hotel to rediscover  their glory days or even revisit the best times of their lives. The city has always had a southern charm and relaxing feel to it, but the bumps in the night have gotten a new meaning after reading that book. I recommend that anyone who enjoys tales of paranormal or unforetold strange happenings  should check out this book.  The authors’ also have a  blog page here on MLBlogs.com where they leave blogs entries from time to time. Here is the page if you are interested in either the book, or their blogs: http://hauntedbaseball.mlblogs.com .

 

Well, got to go run by  old Cresent Lake on my  morning jog, maybe I will see the figure in the mist, or an old bull gator that could to be the re-incarnation of Babe Ruth on the lake bank behind the centerfield wall……………wish me luck, I love the unexplained.

 

 

Rays Last 3 Arbitration Eligible Players…..Outfield and Pitching

 

 

 

The  huge celebrations has died down to the point that now we remember them only by using the glossy pictures and video to remind us of the time, place and who we were with when the Rays climbed the  postseason mountain in 2008. Little remains of the celebrations at the vacant Trop. But the stadium is full of activity as the crews are rapidly moving to transform the Dome into a viable football arena, The pitching mound is missing, base paths are gone, and the field is being fitted and lined for the St. Petersburg Bowl, which will debut this year in the stadium. It will be odd to sit there and watch a  college football game at the Trop., knowing that in less than 90 days after the game, baseball will be back at the Tropicana Field.

 

But not gone is the fact that the team was in line for  huge shares of the playoff booty from MLB, and they got the  fantastic news about their bounty on Tuesday. According to MLB, the Rays will distribute over $ 12,278238.61 in a 43-way pile to players and other Rays personnel. You have to hope that Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi got a nice chunk of change from the playoff pie and will not have to umpire as much this off season. The Rays split was about $ 223,390.05 per share, a nice chunk of change for a months worth of sweat and tears. To put that into consideration for players playing under a minimum MLB salary, they will receive almost half their yearly salary for a month of playoff baseball. 

 

        

 

It is totally amazing to me the amount of money flowing out of the baseball coffers after  the complaints being thrown throughout the newspapers and blogs during the  2008 playoffs.  MLB was huffing and puffing about the lack of viewership on Television and the weather situations surrounding the World Series, but in the end, even the first ones eliminated in the AL, the Chicago White Sox, who lost to the A L Champion Rays in the ALDS, got to take away  over $ 27,828.33  each in players’ shares. Not a bad gig if you can get it. That is more than I made in 2008 so far.

 

 

Okay, back to the  main issue here. Today I am going to highlight the last 3  Rays players’ who are eligible for  non-tendered arbitration for the Tampa Bay Rays. They are as  pretty diverse group. You have a devoted church-goer and all-around good guy, an aggressive extrovert  Aussie who moonlights in the World Baseball Classic, and a guy struggling to get respect for his talent, but is a better pitcher than advertised.

 


Each has a place on this team that was  exciting and unique. All three helped set the tone in positively different ways for the team in 2008. But I am again going to put myself into Andrew Friedman’s head and try and divulge and dissect the players into rationale pieces. Will these three guys be the foundation of another great Rays team, or do they need to be jettisoned to make the team better in 2009. By my evaluations I will decide if I would grant or deny any of these three an opportunity to upgrade their salary and continue playing for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2009.

 

 And now, on with the show:

 

 

                            

 

Gabe Gross:

 

Gabe Gross had one of the best seasons of his major league career after he was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays. He hit personal highs in hits, home runs and RBI’s as well as getting 5 outfield assists for the team, second only to B J Upton’s 12 assists. But beyond that, Gross also became Mr “Big Time” for the Rays.  Not only could he be the defensive player they needed down the first baseline for the Rays, but his bat had magic in 2008.

 

Even on the night he was acquired by the Rays, the former Brewer scored his teams go-ahead run to win that game before heading to Orlando to meet up with his new team. Since he has gotten here, he has lit up the clubhouse with positive comments and actions, and totally won over the crowd in right-field with his play. But his bat is the thing that set him apart in 2008.

 

 He was one of the only guys on the roster who was money with guys in scoring position in 2008. And because of that, a lot of his RBI’s came in the later innings in games when he was put in as a defensive specialist for the Rays.  He had only one walk-off homer against the Chicago White Sox on June 1, 2008, but 4 times he teamed up with team mates for back-to-back homers.

 

 

 

That went a long way for the Rays establishing leads and putting the game out of reach. Gross also hit 7 solo homers and 6 2-run shots during 2008. To say he was clutch would be an understatement.  He played in only 78 games in 2008 since being acquired for a minor league pitcher, Billy Butler. But along the way he hit a tape measure 437 foot homer against the Cleveland Indians to tie that game on August 6th.

 

14 of his 38 RBI’s were either game-winning or game tying in 2008.  He has 3 walk-off  RBI’s, matching the Rays team record. One of those was a walk-off homers against  White Sox reliever Matt Thorton, which was his first career homer off a left-handed pitcher. 

 

 

 

 

Gross has been a model Rays from start to finish and the team would be truly rewarded if they granted arbitration to Gross for the 2009 season. With the flux of not having a designated right-fielder in house, Gross is also a huge advantage for the Rays in that they do not have to be desperate seeking a outfielder, and would be totally confident to give the position to Gross for 2009.  His 2009 salary could bump up to $ 1.3 million dollars, which is well within the range of a competent 4th outfielder who can hit and play defense with the best of them.

 

 

 

 

Edwin Jackson:

 

Anyone who knows me knows that this one will be personal. I am a huge fan of the guy ever since I first met him at a Spring Training game a few years ago and told him he will love it here. Funny how people can be attracted to certain types of ballplayers. Jackson is the type of player I enjoy watching pitch and learn the game of baseball.

 

He was a former sixth round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers as an outfielder, but was converted to a pitcher by the Dodgers’ staff. This is only his 4th season as a pitcher and I have seen improvement every year he has been in our system.  He is also one of those guys who is humble enough to chat and sign for fans as long as he can for the joy of it, not because it is his duty.

 

Now that Jackson has turned 25, we can finally cal, him a veteran on the rotation.  But did you know that he has now made 77 career starts as a pitcher, 63 of them for the Rays.  This season he tied the Rays record for wins with James Shields and Rolando Arroyo with his 14th win. His previous best was his 7 wins in 2007.  He also posted only his 2nd winning season as a professional. He was 2-1 in 2004.

 

 

 

 

He threw a total of 183.1 innings in 2008, which was over 22 innings more than any other time in his career.  He ended the month of August with a 2.27 ERA, the best on the staff and 4th best in the American League. He also tied a Rays record for 4 wins in August.  He had a 4- straight game win streak earlier in the season from July 25- August 10th.

 

He also won 6 out of 7 starts up to August 10th posting a 2.59 ERA during the streak.  He had a streak of 20 straight scoreless innings over the span of 3 starts from May 8-18th.  That set a record for a Rays starter, and was only 1 inning off the all-time Rays record of 21 set by Joe Borowski in 2005. 

 

Jackson is known for his high-powered fastball that can reach the top 90′s with a slight dip, but his curve and slider can sometimes just rumble through the strike zone and has been his problem pitches this season. Jackson was also involved and suspended for the Boston-Tampa Bay fiasco in Fenway Park because of his run towards the mound during the scuffle.  It was said he was punching and hitting  Coco Crisp at the bottom of the pile, but photos show he lost his shoe on the way to the mound and did not arrive until late in the event. He served a 5-game suspension from June 22-27th.

 

 

 

If I were Andrew Friedman, I would first sit down with Rays Manager Joe Maddon and Pitching Coach Jim Hickey and see what the Rays have in store for Jackson in the near future. With the aspect of David Price coming into the rotation, the Rays must make some adjustments to either Jackson or Andy Sonnanstine in the starting rotation.

 

If the Rays think that Jackson would be valuable in either the rotation or the Bullpen, then they should offer him arbitration and get him settled for 2009. Also on the horizon is interest by several clubs in Jackson over the past 2 seasons. The New York Mets, Seattle Mariners have expressed interest in the developing right hander.

 

Remember, that this guy is still learning the art of pitching, and 2008 was his best season to date, with unlimited potential and growth in the next few seasons.   Jackson could look forward to a salary in the $ 2.5 Million dollar range after an arbitration hearing.

 

 

 

Grant Balfour:

 

I did not know what to expect in 2007 when the Rays sent my buddy Seth McClung to the Brewers’ for the Aussie reliever. He came into the Rays Bullpen and was average at best in 2007. He lacked a certain intensity and velocity to his pitching, but all that changed after Spring Training in 2008. Balfour was not selected to the Rays Bullpen losing out to Scott Dohmann for the last spot in the Bullpen.

 

Balfour did not stress it and went down to the Durham Bulls with a chip on his shoulder and fire in his belly. When he came back up to the Rays Bullpen, he made it very difficult for the team to even consider sending him back to the minor leagues. Down the stretch, Balfour and J P Howell were the core of a Bullpen unit that shut down some of the best hitter in the entire league.

 

Balfour down the stretch pitched in 17 of the team’s last 34 games.  In 15 of those outing he pitched scoreless frames for the Rays.  Overall in 2008, the Rays went 32-19 in ballgames he came into from the Bullpen.  He also tied for tops in wins in 2008 in the Bullpen with 6 wins, tied with J P Howell.  He leads all MLB relievers with a 12.66 strikeout per 9 innings ratio, pitching 58.1 innings and recording 82 strikeouts on the year.

 

 

 

Balfour also was tops in the majors by fanning 36 percent of the batters he faced, and  his 1.54 ERA was also the  4th best ERA posted by a reliever in the majors this season.  His .143 opponents batting average was best in the AL, and second in the MLB to the Cub’s Carlos Marmol.  He also allowed only 3 homers and 11 extra base hits all season long.

 

He also had a .230 slugging Percentage against him, second lowest in the majors. Balfour also provided support as the Rays closer during Troy Percivals’ many DL trips in 2008. During this time he preserved 3 out of the 4 save opportunities for the Rays.

 

 

 

Put all these statistics along with a on-mound intensity not seen in the past by the Rays and you have the total package for the Bullpen. It is a sure bet that to invest in Balfour would be a great investment for the Rays. So to offer him arbitration might be a moot point. If anyone deserved a raise in 2009, it would be the members of the Bullpen who kept the teams in games all year long. With an arbitration hearing, Balfour could increase his salary to about $ 1.2 million dollars. Every penny of it will come with emotion and energy, just what they Rays need in 2009 to defend their A L East crown.

 

Next Class of Arbitration for the Rays:

 

The next group to hit the arbitration ranks for the Rays will boost the payroll in a major way. Players like infielders Ben Zobrist, Willy Aybar will have their first go at the process. Catcher Shawn Riggans will be eligible. And B J Upton will also be presented with his first arbitration decision as a professional.

 

In the pitching department, we have people like J P Howell and starter Matt Garza.  You can see several of the above players maybe being offered long term or even extension to combat the arbitration process. It was said that in 2006, the Rays wanted to make a long-term deal with B J Upton, but the deal was not formulated or completed in time.

 

I could see Matt Garza and maybe even Ben Zobrist getting an extension to cover a few of their arbitration years. and maybe even a year or two of their free agency like the deals given to James Shields, Scott Kazmir and Evan Longoria in the last several seasons.  So we have that to look forward to in 12 months time.

 

 

 

 

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