July 2009

Lefties are Right for the Rays

 


Ed Zurga / AP

After tonight’s game Dewayne Staats of the Rays Television Network informed us that Rays leftie J P Howell tied a Tampa Bay Rays record by saving all three games in the three game series against the Kansas City Royals.  Add onto this the fact he tied that record with the Rays ex-closer Troy Percival and you see just how unusual and special this was for both Howell and the Rays. Add another layer of awesomeness to the record is the fact it is the first time a Rays Bullpen member had ever done it in the Major League park.

Not the Rays past relievers like Roberto Hernandez, Danys Baez, Seth McClung or even Esteban Yan had the chance to take three from an opponent in a major league park. Percival made his mark back in 200 in a series against the Toronto Blue Jays at the Disney complex, not an approved MLB park. Sure the series was moved there for a three game series to promote the Rays culture into the center of the state, but how many people remember before we took our balls and bats and went to Montgomery, Orlando was our Double-A home.

But here I go rambling off the page. What I want to stress here is that before Howell and Randy Choate made their marks saving  14 total games so far in 2009, the Rays Bullpen has not has such a distinctive “leftie” feel to it. That is not to mean that in 2010 the Rays will feature a “rightie” specialist instead of the usual leftie guy. Heck, I think 2009 is thew first time in team history that we have some legitimate left-handers not named Miller who can toss the ball effectively for the Rays.

To illustrate this, right before the All Star break Howell surrendered his first earned run since April 23, 2009.  And even during that slight moment of vulnerability, the Rays lefties both had a bit of trouble for the first time this season.  Overall, the entire Rays bullpen has thrown to 2.34 ERA since their implosion for 9 runs during that must forget game in Cleveland on May 25th. Even with their moments of normalcy this season, the Rays relievers are currently tied  for the best Bullpen ERA with the Boston Red Sox Bullpen with a 3.35 ERA in the American League.  And not too shabby is the fact that places them within the top 3 Bullpen ERA in baseball right now.

But this blog is about the guy who seem to not get the right levels of respect for what they do. I understand this totally being a leftie in everything but throwing myself. Society tries to change you the minute you pick up a pencil or ball and throw with the southpaw grip. But within time, if the teachers and coaches nurture the leftie, he can become a wanted man at the higher levels of baseball. And right now the Rays have two of the better examples of the leftie revolution in Howell and Choate. Both of them have been magical this season, and Choate has done it at the time the Rays needed a viable option when Brian Shouse got injured.

But at the forefront of all of this is Howell, who could have given up after having a disastrous career as a starter and gone onto other things in his life. But he took a chance and became one of those valued leftie relievers as has grown into one of the most confident and effective of that often ridiculed bunch. Coming into todays game, Howell holds onto a 2.01 ERA and has now converted his last 7 save opportunities.  Before he took the mound again today against his former team, he had only surrendered one earned run to them in his last 16.2 innings.



Chris O’Meara / AP

Except for an unusual Howell outing on July 8th against the Oakland A’s where he let 3 earned runs score against him, before that contest he had a 17 appearance scoreless streak from May 31st until July 8, 2009.  But the real key to all of this is that it came right before the All Star break in which on July 12th against those same A’s Howell gave up only his second home run of the season to Mark Ellis late in the game. That could have played hard on most relievers going into a 4 day lay-off for the All Star game, but Howell used it as fuel to the fire and came out ready to go in Kansas City. Howell had been a pleasant surprise in 2008 elevating his game and his usefulness to the Rays.

So when Troy Percival went down with another injury and Rays Manager Joe Maddon decided to go to a closer-by-committee approach you hoped he would give the California leftie a shot. That came early in the season, but Howell had not adjusted his game yet to get those last 3 outs. He talked with teammates Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour about the pressures of the job and their pluses and minuses before it finally clicked for him. Now he might be the most feared leftie closer not named Fuentes in the AL. His slow curving breaking ball and the movement on his upper 80’s fastball teases hitters until he gets them with his change-up that dips severely before it hits the heart of the plate.

And he is the former leftie specialist for the team when Trever Miller decided to take an offer from the St. Louis Cardinals this winter. He did not look comfortable in the role, but the Rays did bring in another leftie for the first time to help Howell out. Brian Shouse was initially brought in to be the total leftie specialist, but got rocked a bit early in the year, He adjusted and then began to dominate on the mound before he went down with a left elbow following a stint on the mound on May 24th where he gave up the game winning hit to Ross Gload in the Marlins 11th inning victory over the Rays.

Before that injury, Shouse had held left-handed hitters to a .235 average against him.  This was a little elevated from the usual .210 mark he had maintained during his career against left-handers. But before his injury 15 out of his 19 appearances had been scoreless, and he had become the oldest Rays to win a game when he threw 2/3rds of a scoreless inning against the New York Yankees. Shouse (40) also one of only three Rays players to ever take the field for the team over the age of 40. The other two were Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff.

But even if this is his 19th year of professional baseball, Shouse will again get a chance when he returns off his rehab assignment. The Rays want to see him again take the mound on consecutive days before they make a solid decision on the leftie. But currently he is just down the road a spell in Port Charlotte playing for the Class-A Charlotte Stone Crabs. He is scheduled to make his second rehab appearance tonight when the Stone Crabs  visit the Lakeland Flying Tigers. Maddon had said before today’s game in Kansas City they might be making a decision on Shouse by the next home stand.


Steve Nesius / AP


That would make the team look long, hard and deep into the prospects of either trading current leftie number 2, Randy Choate or hoping he gets through waivers.  I truly can not see the leftie getting through waivers and get sent back to the Durham Bulls. So the logical scenario is a trade to a team seeking some leftie action for possible prospects. And Choate has made a great case for staying with the Rays too, but the Bullpen is a bit overcrowded right now. For the Rays to even entertain the option of three lefties, someone would have to go on the Rays bench.

And Choate has put up some great numbers since being called up on May 25th. During that time he has appeared in 28 of the Rays last 46 games. He is also tied for first in appearances in the AL since his call-up.  Like Howell, up until the last series against the A’s at home he had not surrendered many runs. In the July 11th contest he gave up a 2-run homer to ex-Rays Adam Kennedy. It was only the third homer ever by a leftie against him in 328 chances and only the seventh total homer given up in his career.

And to add more value to his possible trade market scenarios, he is a non-roster invitee who would not cost and arm and a leg to financially support for any team that might fancy another good left-handed option. Plus he has gone 4for 4 in save opportunities this season, the first time in his career he has ended into the ninth inning to save a game.  Choate has done everything asked of him by the Rays and has been effective from word one for the team.  It would be a total luxury for the team to find a spot for him to stay on the roster, but because of the success he has had while here with the Rays, he would be going to a great opportunity to get more time on the mound in the major leagues.

So within a weeks time the Rays will have to make some decisions on two of their three leftie Bullpen members. Howell is safe and secure and will not be going anywhere, anytime soon. But either Shouse or Choate will have a new uniform on their back maybe by August 1st.  Gut reactions have Shouse staying with the team and Choate getting an opportunity maybe in the National League for a team trying to steady their Bullpen. Maybe even another trip out to the Diamondbacks to reunite with his former teammates.  But no matter what happens, the Rays will have a safe and secure left -handed  presence in their Bullpen.

Right now in the AL, the names of the solid left-handed closers start and finish with the names of George Sherill of Baltimore, Fuentes, and Howell. With the rising stock of Howell, the Rays found an internal option that has been effective to their closer problems. With the combined efforts of Shouse and Choate this season it made it easier for some fans to let go of Miller as he went on with the Cardinals. With this not being a perfect world, the Rays will have to let one of their southpaws fly away to another team. 

The only question now facing the Rays is just how much can each of these guys take this season on the mound. Both Howell and Shouse are headed again for career marks in appearances and innings pitched this season.
Will the young Howell stand in front and lead by example for this team, or will the 40-year old Shouse rise above himself one last time. Either option or a combination of both of them sound great to me.

            
             Brianshousefanclub.com

Also check out this Brian Shouse fan website made up while he was with the Milwaukee Brewers last season. http://www.brianshousefanclub.com.   I am not sure, but I kind of like the Terminator photo over the Santa one. You be the judge…….

 

   

Burrell is beginning to Heat Up!


Charles Riedel / AP

Sometimes the National and local media can do some of the weirdest and funniest things in print without them even realizing it at the moment.  We all know about the typos that can make someone else’s life a living hell for a while until they issue a retraction/correction to hopefully make the issue go away, or at least lessing the glares and stares. But then there are times like after Friday nights Rays come from behind win over the Kansas City Royals that might just set the tone for the squad during the second half of the Rays 2009 season.

About 2 am this morning I wandered online to check out to see how my MLBloggers Fantasy team did during the first full night of games since the All Star break (I am leading division 1). I then decided to go to www.raysbaseball.com and check out the game’s headlines. I am not sure what I was expecting, maybe some journalistic man crush love towards Rays Designated Hitter Pat Burrell, who went 2 for 5 with 3 RBI and a run scored in the Rays victory. Maybe I was hoping for a glint of respect thrown Burrell’s way because his home run started the run back towards the victory.

But instead I was greeted with a headline that read, “Longoria’s homer caps Rays’ comeback”. Maybe I was hoping that the webheads were about to do what I was considering in my own mind, that Burrell needed a media “hug”. I must have been dreaming to think that Burrell might get some much needed attention after his early season struggles with his neck injury and some very weak hitting in the first half. Maybe I was hoping they might show some props towards the guy. We, the fans always knew his bat would go on a streak at some moment this season.

Well, honestly, I am not the biggest Burrell fan, but I loved his initial signing by the team. It was a positive upgrade to the position, and the sky was the limit on that day.  I enjoyed the fact we were getting someone who had more speed than  ex-Ray Cliff Floyd on the bases. And I was enjoying the fact we got someone who did not need to swing for the fences like  current M’s HR stud Russell Branyan, who had only a few more hits than homers when he was the Rays DH. I guess what I was expecting was a Rays rendition of former M’s great Edgar Martinez.
 

But I think after the way 2008 went for us, someone like Burrell coming to the Rays was a blessing, not a curse. If I had faith in former Rays players Randal Simon and Vinnie Castilla as hitters, Burrell could rest comfortably I was not going to jeer him either. I understand that coming from playing every day in leftfield to just sitting on the bench and hitting 4 times a day is an huge mental and physical adjustment in your mind as well as your body. I get that part, and maybe that is why some great hitter make lousy DH’s.

I get the fact he was coming to the American League and would need a bit of time to adjust and scout some of the league’s best before he hit his stride again. But his injury time could have been spent studying  pitcher’s video provided by Rays video honcho Chris “Chico” Fernandez.  And he might have done just that, but are not privy to that information. Heck, he could have bought a subscription to MLB.TV and watch any game in the AL or NL this season at any time. He could have done home study on his big screen of any AL pitcher while he was rehabbing his neck situation. It was time for him to begin to piece it all together.


Brian Blanco / AP

And finally the moment came during the Rays last home stand . It began to seem like he was transforming himself at the plate. It seemed that all  of the sweaty work in the cages and behind the scenes were about to come to maturity and we could again cheer Burrell without any doubts. Hey, the guy was beginning to hit solid long ball out and  you could hear the different sound in the bat when he struck the ball now with renewed authority. He was beginning to look like that same guy that played in leftfield in Philly for so long.

He looked at home in the batter’s box again. During the Rays last home stand, Burrell went a combined 7 for 23 with a homer and  5 RBI. But  what came to prove he was waking up at the plate was the fact he added 5 doubles during those six games to showcase that the power was coming back in his swing. Pat Burrell was beginning to fulfill the DH role with attitude and power, just like the Rays envisioned when they signed him during the offseason.

Burrell might not have shown great numbers over the span of the 27 games since his return to the Rays line-up. And he might only be hitting .207 since his return, but  his bat has been on fire lately. During this 27-game stint he has hit 3 HR, 11 RBI  and walked 15 times before Friday night’s game. He is seeing the ball better, and his rising batting average is showing it. But the real sure fire statistic that his hitting is starting to bubble is the pure fact he hit two doubles in two of the three games against Oakland right before the All Star break.

What was so remarkable about that feat is it was his first multi-hit games since the April 13th Home Opener against the New York Yankees. Add that to the fact he hit only his fourth career walk-off homer against Toronto’s Brandon League on July 7th, which also was his first Rays walk-off hit this season, and you see a hitter finally hitting his groove. The power is coming back into his game. Last night’s home run got overshadowed by the late inning 2-run blast by Longoria, but it was Burrell’s shot that made the run for the victory possible.


Brian Blanco / AP

Without his homer, the Rays were not within striking distance of the Royals in that contest, but that was mentioned a few paragraphs down in the story online. You see, Longoria and Burrell each went 2-5 last night with a key HR in the win. Who do you think the media thinks he more of an attention draw right now….Burrell or Longoria? Maybe it is good that he is giving him the low profile treatment. Maybe this is just the thing to force him out of his hitting comfort zone and make him take some chances at the plate that will propel his  bat, his batting average and the Rays skywards.

For the team to have a solid c
hance at defending their title, Burrell has to stay hot and produce like he has for the last two weeks. We all know about his past exploits. How Burrell has averaged 31 HR, 99 RBI and 105 walks in the last four seasons. We get the idea that great things can come from his bat.  But this is the time for him to show the Rays fans why he was brought here.  I am again happy to add the middle name “the Bat” to Burrell’s name. He is getting hot at the right time to not only salvage his season, but to be a key component to the Rays charge to the postseason. 

Pat “the Bat”. That has a nice ring to it. I know we have to thank the Phillies fans for that moniker, but it is fitting right now for him. He might have only gone 2 for 5 last night, but in retrospect, that makes him hitting .400 since the All Star break. And those kind of numbers will not only help the Rays fans breathe easier, but also give Burrell some room to feel comfortable at the plate.
 

MY ABC Thoughts……… New Stadium thoughts.

 


St Petersburg Times/ unknown photog.

I have always considered the group put together by the Tampa Bay Rays of local businessmen and women affectionately called the ABC Coalition by a more realistic name. I see them more as the “Average Business Concern” coalition instead of their actual name of “A Baseball Community.” But there are other names for this secret group of “local” business folks that can not be printed here because of the language. Front, center and backwards, the localized business concerns should be their top priority here. To say it is anything else is to lie to themselves and the entire Tampa Bay community.
 

My other name for the group is the “Almightly Business Conglomerate” because of their basic no fluff,no thrills approach to the  any possible stadium considerations in Tampa Bay. Some of the basic decisions they have made recently seem to have more hidden meanings to possible future  behind-the-scenes business dealings or the old Southern tradition of backroom politics. The South is famous for telling people what they want to hear, but furnishing them with half truths and slightly angled prespectives on the public’s perception or community ideals of any planned stadium.
 

I am all for a neutral group outside of the realm of the MLB or the Rays front office to conduct a fact-finding mission to promote both the popular opinion and the local business advantages of any future construction. But I also yearned to see some extreme thoughts or new fangled ideas in the process of any stadium consideration.
But that is not the mission of this group. It is trying to unfold a black and white, no nonsense basis for their decisions. Good luck with that becuase that is as unusual as a three-legged dog winning at Derby Lane.

Where are the “normal” people in this coalition? The group was handpicked by the Rays and are all high profile business leaders/possible future investors/prospective property owners around the proposed stadium site. I have not seen a local small business owner like Mark Ferguson of Ferg’s invited to be a member of the board. Or maybe even a local hotel owner, a plumber, or even a home-based business owner to this group. The cross section of this committee reads like a “Who’s Who in local power circles” instead of being a community involved focus group with the public best interest in mind. 

You can see the reason Ferguson would not be invited to the coalition. Their main objection would be the aspect of the possible extinction of his business so close to the present site, Tropicana Field. But he should have a voice, and so should the person sitting next to you at a Rays game. So maybe a small handful of fans, most likely within the Season Ticket conglomerate, or picked lotto style would have been an excellient addition. This fanbase has the Rays best interest in their minds, plus the insight and experiences of the present stadium. Their voices would ring a bit  louder and sound truer than some of the “suits” on the committee. 

I am not saying pick everyone from  just Pinellas county to be on the board. Are all the current board members locally situated?, Are they like the Chairman of the coalition who because of a business transfer is now based out of state (North Carolina) and comes in for the discussions. He now has no sincere reason  to be totally objective since not being local speaks volumes to the integrity of the group. Why couldn’t we of had a few people from Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, and Sarasota/Manatee counties on this committee. These groups form the core of the fanbase, and their traffic adventures and recommendationd would be more honest. Or would that give too much voice to the people who will not only be paying for the stadium, but paying for future tickets to keep your ‘business” afloat every year.


Peter Masa

I know a huge chunk is hindsight, but I did not get a listing of the ABC coalition members until recently. Heck, I threw my name out a long time ago only because I am unempoyed and have the time and  local knowledge of the region to know if a quick fix was thrown on the table for discussion, or a serious location was being considered. Every time I hear the word “Channelside” mentioned with future business concerns it bothers me. The city of Tampa was bold and enthusiastic in the past to expand its entertainment center towards the Tampa seaport region, and it has come with mixed reviews. People who are done with the Ybor City vibe love the area, but on most nights after nightfall the region becomes a ghost town during the week. It would be great to add some sort of excitement and new energy to that area of the town.

I am all for the aspect of change for Rays baseball. We all know that baseball is a business first and foremost. But why the cloak of mystery by submitting  small specks of information daily instead of just plopping 300 pages of findings and recommendations and let us hack through the paper jungle little by little. The way the coalition is handing out small morsels of information and findings show they must think the entire region suffers from ADD. They might not want us to dwell on the fact that 3 of the site recommendation are outside of the Pinellas county area where currently almost 2.1 million people are within 30 minutes of the stadium. The truth be told, the original stadium was built in the wrong place. We all know that, but it is done and we have adjusted to it over the past 12 years. The next site has to be thought out totally and with regards to all aspects of the Tampa Bay community.

What they want you to see of their recent reccomendations is the possible 2.8 million fans that could attend games at the Dale Mabry site and make the attendance blossom a bit every year. But what they failed to tell us is that the league wide attendance in the MLB this year is down, the Rays have a slight increase. Considering this region has close to a 10 percent unemployment rate, any change towards a positive growth in attendance is a good thing. But this committee is making only business recommendations hidden as geographical mumbo jumbo. We all know that the Rays are a financial business  not unlike the stock market or hedge funds, they can take losses and financial blips for only so long until something has to be done about it. A good business has to see fresh blood/income every year to grow and flourish in today’s unstable economic environment. 

Any stadium will have to be based on the fact it will have to house the Rays for the next 30-some years.  With that in mind, you have to consider if your kids will be the type of people to drive and attend
games at this location, or if the area might just be another foundation of urban blight by that time. Do not forget the Rays still have close to 20 years left on their current house, Tropicana Field. The accumulated balance alone on the outstanding bonds and possible relocation penalties make a 3-5 year move a distant memory unless someone pays that bill first. Sorry Rays, my bank account has .80 cents in it right now, but you can have it if you need it. 

This first hurdle must be passed before any plans of new construction should be considered. Do not forget the possible lawsuits and class-action litigation by local  government,residents and businesses that feel they were left out or misguided with information concerning the team. The basic duty of the coalition should have been to to promote  a metropolitan harmony while trying to effectively weigh every option towards finding the best solution for the proposed stadium. So was it any huge surprise that they decided first to consider the current stadium area surrounded by Dale Mabry Highway and Columbus Ave. in Tampa?


Raysbaseball.com

Did it really even mildly surrpise anyone that they picked a spot that already had some form of road infrasturcture that could support the  increase in traffic needs with little improvements. It was probably considered a “middle-of-the-road” response to both Tampa and St. Petersburg responses for a stadium site. Sorry, but I am not on board with any construction in that region based on the honest fact that on any given “football” game day for the Bucs/USF, the traffic situation is murder from I-275 towards the stadium area. To add 81 dates, which includes weekend series on all three days, and a traffic numbing duo game situation where even a preseason game, or even a regular season college game in September or October would go head-to-head with a Rays game for parking and travel would be a logistical night mare for that location. I am not against a Tampa stadium per se, but you need a more condusive and energetic plan in mind than this to keep me shelling out my two grand a year for Season Tickets.

Why is it that people forget that the Tampa Bay region’s businesses both large and small need to step up to the plate here. This is one of the only metros in the baseball where the individual owners of Season Tickets out number the ticketholders of the local business community. That is an indication of a bigger problem. A proposed stadium is only the tip of the iceberg to the image problems that surround the area. If a small business is not supporting the team now how can you expect them to throw their hands out and take the Rays into their arms post-build even as 37,000-40,000 fans flock into the stadium for a Yankee or Red Sox series. It is a Janet Jackson world people where the motto is “What have you done for me lately?”.

I love the fact they threw out the “entertainment” word when they considered the Dale Mabry sight. Yes, nothing says baseball more than rolling down the highway and seeing a space ship situated above a strip bar and wondering if they provide post game entertainment.  That and having an establishment like Mons Venus that is popular even with the ESPN crowd within vocal range. But I digress. That region in the city of Tampa can not grow like the neighborhoods surrounding Progressive Field in Cleveland or the SODO region of Seattle.  In those cities small local bistros and bars opened up to serve the pre and post game masses and have formed a nice cottage community during the baseball season. There is room to grow right now on Dale Mabry, but the area is already in the midst of a urban blight situation with no cute and cozy establishments or entertainment based flair. It is already bursting at the seams in concrete jungle mentality based on fast food franchises and all-you-can-eat buffetts and chain stores within eyesight of the current Raymond James Stadium.

Not to say that a well heeled businessman will not bulldoze an entire block and rebuild it to a quasi-entertainment center like Ybor City right in the middle of a series of old car lots and strip malls. For that area to again become vibrant and alive, it will take almost as much money as it will to build the stadium to make the surrounding community baseball friendly. People forget, the Bucs only have 8 home games a year, and maybe a few playoff games then it is all over. With Baseball, it runs from the first week in April until the first week in October with spurts of 7 -10 game segments that will overflow the region with people and autos daily to combine with the usual 5 pm traffic horrors. 


RRCollections

Where ever the next stadium is built will be an instant gravy train to some people. The key is getting the word before it hits the public’s ears and securing your piece of the pie. How many of these business leaders on this panel have business ties with the Rays? And to throw even more out there, how many of them have any ticket packages with the team currently? For you to even be considered on this panel it should have been a prerequisite that you either have business or season tickets to the Rays. That would show you actually have a emotional involvement with the team and this is not just a business meeting hidden behind the cloak of comminity involvement and possible changes for the betterment of all baseball fans. ( why do I hear Kumbaya in my head right now?)

For the next Rays stadium to be totally a success, the business community has to be at the forefront of the coalition  and helping to turn the pages. With baseball firmly implanted in this community it is important that we get informed material out to the public to induce good discussion and responses. Right now this coalition is more like a small political machine spitting out what the public wants to hear. That is not to say that when the final recommendation come out there might not be a ton of material to digest, but right now it smacks of a turn of the century snake oil show to me. They are peddling their wares as exciting and as vibirant as the cureall given out on the dusty trails in the old West.

I have been in sales most of my life, and I can see the dog and pony show coming from a mile away. This ABC coalition needs to be firm and just in its findings. Not just throw out sterile news like the teams needs a retractable roof stadium and a “next generation” design. Come on, that is old, news and not even anything that has not been considered all along here. But the true basis of this committee was to be non-judgemental on location, design and proposed site. I love the fact I have not paid parking for 12 years.  People forget that if the Trop had been built even four years later the design and t
he final product would have been significantly different. The industry had such developments after the Florida Suncoast Dome opened its doors that it would stagger the mind. Just look at stadiums buile even 10 plus years ago like Safeco Field and Progressive Field and you will see the open concourses and fan friendly environment the Rays have been fantasizing about for years.

I enjoy the fact that my seat is mine until I do not renew my tickets. And I am not afraid to cross the “bridges” to attend a game if the site is right and the stadium is within a normal traveling distance. OMG!  What has this committee turned me into already. I am starting to sound like those people from Tampa the last 12 years who can not get to the stadium before a 7:08 pm game time. But then again, I do have to cross that dreaded bridge. Great excuse! Maybe I can laways take a 180 degree change and just purchase the MLB.TV package and sit in the luxury of my own home and watch the televison, with extra commentary on the umpires and team.


RRCollections

But then again, my hot dog and nachos do not taste the same at home, they have to have that needed smattering of good old fashioned baseball to it. “Build it and they will come” that sounded good back in the early 1980’s when they cleared the old Gas Plant property and built Tropicana Field.  But hopefully the sign I see  while stuck in traffic on the way to our next stadium will not say “Hot Girls”, or  even “All You Can Eat” on them. Hopefully it will be a plain and simple “Welcome Rays Fans” even if it does have a space ship on the top of it.

Second Half Thoughts

 


RRCollections

About now the Tampa Bay Rays players and coaches are beginning to arrive at Royals Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri eager to get this second half of the season started and off to a winning note.  Missing from today’s workout will be Evan Longoria, who is at the ESPN ESPY awards, but he should be back in time for the Friday night game. Also missing will be Rays reliever Grant Balfour, who is delayed in his return back to the team after attending his grandfather’s funeral back home.

This clubhouse will be alive with stories and excitement following the three day mini vacation that most of the team’s players had since the end of the game Sunday afternoon. But you know the real group to keep an eye on will be the five players and 6 coaches who attended the All Star game who will be holding court about the last few days and the parties and events surrounding their All Star game adventures.

You have to wonder how many times  Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos will tell the tale of the fantastic catch by Carl Crawford with his first hand account of the play only 3 feet beyond the Bullpen fence.  Or you really want to imagine how many times Crawford has now picked up that crystal bat and swung it towards the heavens as if he was using it at the plate.  And you really want to know where the new keepsake is hidden that Ben Zobrist got after the final out of the All Star game. That ball that will forever link him to the All Star game.  Or maybe to hear the tales from Carlos Pena on the “pitches” that got away during the Home Run Derby.

After today all those adventures and stories will have to be put back on the shelf to be retold during rain delays and night flight to other cities as the Rays will renew their quest to get back into the playoff picture this season. At this critical point in the season they are only 6 1/2 game out of the top spot, but they know that even if they hit the 93 win mark, they might be out of the playoffs this season. So their effort will have to take center stage starting tomorrow night as they take on the Royals in a 3-game series. Then they will head to the southside of Chicago for a 4-game series against the White Sox. Then it is on to Rogers Centre to take on the Blue Jays in a 3-game weekend series before finally coming back home to finish out the month.

This next week will be a  critical key indicator of any possible playoff push by the Rays. They truly have to adjust their mindsets and come back from this 10-game trip with a 6-4 record or better to begin a forward trend towards the top of the division. This is a road trip where a .500 record will not do them any justice. They have 3 games against a division foe, and 4 games against a caliber team in the White Sox to see just how good this squad is right now.  They are currently seven games off their 2008 pace, but even at this time last season they only held onto the American League East top spot by a half a game lead over the Red Sox.


Mike Carlson / AP

The road is going to be  a rough component for the Rays the rest of the season. They will play 17 more game on the road against just their division, and they will play host for another 24 at Tropicana Field. 41 times between today and the last game against the New York Yankees at Tropicana field on October 3, 2009. And so with a 41 game swing in any direction, the Rays will have to capitalize on their road opponents to make up some distance in the standings and give themselves any wiggle room the rest of the year.

But the road has not been kind to the Rays, who currently sport a 18-26 record outside the confines of the Trop. And the road mindset can be tricky at times considering the Rays pitching staff has not been great away from home so far this season. In their 44 road games this season, the Rays staff has a 4.52 ERA, and have given up 53 homers. Every statistic is higher on the road but hits. They have actually given up 5 less hits than at home, but they have not been able to stop rallies and scoring chances by the opposition on the road. So when James Shields take the mound tomorrow night against the Royals the Rays have to adjust their minds to almost feeling at home and strive to take this three game series from the Royals.
 

That would be a huge boost for the rest of the road trip if they got out of the gate in a positive manner.  But the Rays will have to continue to improve both on their defense and their offense if they plan on contending in late September and October. They will have to get on a good and fast run right now and gain momentum to achieve their postseason dreams again this year. The road will end up being the key to any playoff dreams.

But with the Rays top three pitchers, and the emergence of Rookies David Price and Jeff Niemann, the Rays have the horses to pull it off. The Bullpen has suffered a bit of a let down recently after blanking people since late June, but again they will be needed to step it up a notch to regain their edge and superiority.  And speaking of needing an edge, a few players who have begun to awaken at the plate again need to step up for the team to make any strides in the division. Crawford, Jason Bartlett and Zobrist have done their part to keep the offense clicking, but now a few other members of the team needs to do their part to propel the Rays.

Designated hitter Pat Burrell went 4 for 11 during the recent Oakland series and the ball sounded solid off his bat for the first time this season.  For the team to go anywhere the rest of the year, Burrell is going to have to step up his game and contribute on a nightly basis for the Rays to surge. And he is not the only one who needs to kick it up a bit right now. Evan Longoria started off the season simply on fire before he began to cool down during the first weeks of July. He has gone 7 for 40 in the last 10 games with only a single home run.  And during that period he has also drove in only three RBI.


Steve Nesius / AP

But there are great signs of the team’s sleeping giant offense making a second half run. Carlos Pena came out of a homerless streak recently during the Oakland series to get his game back on track. But his 5 for 33 mark in the last 10 games shows that the meat of the Rays order needs to awaken for the team to get any wins.   But then again the pleasant surprise of the season, Zobrist has been the big bat in the middle of the order going 10 for 35 with 1 HR and 6 RBI over the last 10 games. And that is a weakened set of statistics&nb
sp;by him right now. Between the 3 and 6 spot in the lineup the Rays are lacking some critical firepower.

But for what is missing right now in the middle of the order, the top and bottom of the lineup have come together to piece some huge wins for the team recently. Catcher Dioner Navarro, who has been flirting with the low 200’s most of the season has gone 5 for 13 in his last four games and has been instrumental in the rays scoring chances in the last two series Even the duo of Gabe’s have come up big for the Rays in the last week. Gabe Kapler has been hot recently going 6 for 17 with 5 RBI in his last 10 games. And Gabe Gross as emerged again going  7 for his last 26 to move runner around for the Rays.

But the consistent hitter for the Rays right now  have come out of the second and seventh spots in the lineup. Bartlett has come up big lately going 7 for 31 with 3 RBI while maintaining a .347 average for 2009. But if you really want to talk about pressure and coming strong right now, you have to point your finger at Crawford. Not only has he been great on the field defensively over the past 10 games, he has been incredible at the plate. 


Steve Nesius / AP

He has gone 8 for 37 and has stolen only four bases. the entire team is in a bit of a funk, but some members are still trying to keep the Rays heads above the waterlines.  For the team to have the added success the rest of the season, B J Upton will have to keep getting more hits and chances on the base paths.

But as Rays Manger Joe Maddon stresses, “Starting pitching sets the tone of a game.” Shields is the one guy on the Rays staff who needs to see an increase in the runs scored during his starts. The team has only scored an average of 2.61 runs/game for him. The only Rays starter to even get close to 5 runs of support was Andy Sonnanstine, and he is now in the minors. This team surely has the ability to turn the season around and gain ground on both the Yankees and the Red Sox and battle until the end for that playoff spot.

Certain things will have to fall into place for the Rays to make a surge both in the win column and in the standings. But this first road trip will answer so many questions and provide extreme answers to their chances of even getting back to defend their title. There needs to be a total boost from the bench to the Bullpen for this team to take the next step. They have been there before and they know the level of commitment and sacrifices needed to achieve their goals.  Starting tomorrow night with the first pitch by Royals ace Zack Greinke to B J Upton the team will be able to regroup, re-focus and re-energize to shoot towards that ultimate goal.

The clock has started ticking, the Rays are getting ready to toss the ball and do some light hitting before finally going back to the hotel tonight. In that short amount of time the assembled Rays need to come together and feel that power and strength of this ballclub. The prize is within sight, all they have to do now is reach up and grab it and hold on tight to the end. Hopefully their grip will be tight, and their will is strong.
Go Rays!

C C to the Rescue

  


Jeff Roberson / AP

You know it is funny. Carl Crawford has been involved in three All star games during his career and for some reason people have forgotten all about his last two All Star appearances. For some reason they forgot about his solo HR shot in 2007 at AT&T Park during the All Star game in San Francisco, and they certainly  have misplaced their minds about his first appearance back in 2002 when he got to play in front of his home town fans in Houston, Texas at Minute Maid Park. Maybe it was the simple fact he went 0-2 in that  first game that left him unnoticed by the rest of the baseball world. Maybe they thought he was a one shot deal and would then go back into oblivion in Tampa Bay.

How many people outside of the Tampa Bay area know that Crawford has seven years of major league experience. The way some of the people acted online last night on Twitter, it was if he had just crawled from under some rock and finally got noticed by the rest of the country. It took an amazing play in the seventh inning to rob Colorado Rockies outfielder Brad Hawpe of a potential home run for everyone to open their eyes towards C C. You would have thought after the Rays run in the 2008 American League playoffs and during the World Series against the Phillies he would have made a recognizable name that would stand out to voters for the All Star game. But no, he was selected to this games as a reserve based on the player’s votes, not by the fans. And that is a horrible thought that we forgot Crawford on the Fan Vote.

And tell me that moment is not going to be a great attention grabber for people to look at his career. It is a bit of a shame that the players in your league (AL) have more respect and admiration for your abilities than the fans voting online or at the other 29 baseball parks. You almost wanted him for a moment to be cocky last night, but that is not his way. He just flashed that smile we have grown to love with the Rays and showed those dimples that have endeared him to us since 2002. He was truly humbled by the moment. He is truly one of those strong, silent types of guys, and it showed last night in the National telecast. But that also endears him to you. You have to admire and love the fact the guy first brought up his teammates on the AL squad before anything else. He is a total team player at heart.


Dillip Vishwanat / Getty Images

Crawford did show that part of his defensive game that people around the Rays have always known about, but has been brought into the light fully last night. He might have become a victim of his own  bursts of speed and easy glides to the ball in leftfield. He makes some plays look so routine that might handcuff other leftfielders in the league. And because he is unafraid to leave his feet to go either vertical or horizontal for the ball, people take that as a ho hum part of his game. But then again, I get to watch him 162 games a year and I am still thrilled with every catch he makes, even the easy ones. There is an art form to the way he plays leftfield for the Rays. He is very fluid in the the outfield, even towards the gaps.

And Crawford is the type of guy you want to win the Ted Williams All Star Game Most Valuable Player Award. He is so humble and thankful to just be playing the game of baseball that you cheer for him and want him to breed success.  And people outside of Tampa Bay  have not gotten to see him get better every season since 2002. Crawford has gotten improved every season in some form of his game. This might be the first season that the rest of the country has gotten to  really know his name, but here in Tampa Bay, we know if Crawford is on the base paths, it is “game on!”

And to think he began the 2009 All Star game on the bench and came on as a pinch-hitter in the fifth inning and stroked a single in his first at bat. But it was not until the seventh inning that Crawford might have cemented his name into All Star lore with the likes of then Minnesota Twins outfielder Torii Hunter’s grab of a Barry Bonds line drive in the 2002 All Star Game. For the next generation, Crawford will be on the defensive highlight reels for the rest of the country to savor and wish he was in their outfield (Sorry everyone he has a team option of $11 million for 2010).

But what does America really know about this guy? What is it that makes him so special to baseball? If you have to ask yourself either of those questions, you have not been watching a whole lot of ESPN “Baseball Tonight” or “Sportscenter” baseball highlights the last 5 years.  Even in the early stages of the 2009 season, a huge segment of the country outside of the American League  have not even woken up to the potential of Crawford until he stole those six bases again the Boston Red Sox at home back on May 3,2009. But did you know that right now Crawford (44) and team mate B J Upton (31) have become only the second set of AL teammates to reach 30 steals by the All Star break.



 

And that is only the tip of the type of the offensive iceberg in Crawford’s arsenal. Up to now there have been only five AL players All Time who have had more steals than Crawford’s 44 steals right now before the All Star game. And some of those names are the best basestealers in MLB history. Names like Rickey Henderson (Oak), Ron LeFlores(Det), Vince Coleman (KC) , Mickey Rivers ( NY) and Kenny Lofton (Cle). All of them considered the elite in the art of stealing bases, and Crawford is the new name to be added to that awesome list. 

Crawford’s 44 steals so far in 2009 is better than the team totals of eight squads in the MLB right now. Carl is enroute to winning his fifth American League stolen base title in seven seasons. He also stole his 40th base of the season on June 28th against the Toronto Blue Jays in only the Rays 78th game. In the last 15 years, only three other players have reached that mark in less than 78 games. And by hitting the 40 steals plateau for the sixth time in his career, he trails only current Los Angeles Dodger Juan Pierre, who has hit the mark eight times in his career. So you might see a slight pattern here. Crawford is trying to re-write a few of the record books in reference to his knack for stealing bases.

But stealing bases is not his only claim to fame people. He is also currently third in the AL in hits with 109, which is also the fourth best mark in all of baseball. His 109 hits before the break missed the Rays club record by one hit, and he set that record (110 hits) in 2004. And he was not even an All Star that season for the Rays. Crawford has 35 multi-hit games this season to give him the third best mark in the AL. He is in the top ten in AL hitting and is currently ninth in the AL with 58 runs scored prior to the All Star break.  This set of statistics also puts him in a special class as one of four AL players All Time to have 40 steals and 100 hits  before the All Star break joining again, Henderson, Lofton and LeFlore.

And if all of that is not impressive to you, take the fact he is tied with Toronto’s Adam Lind for the top spot in the MLB by getting a hit with two strikes on him 47 times this season. Crawford played in his 1,000th game earlier this season as a Ray and his totals of 341 stolen bases and 87 triples have not been topped since Ty Cobb played baseball. And if that is not impressive enough for you, since 1900, Crawford is only the seventh player to reach 1,000 hits and 300 steals before he turned 27.

This guy is magic on the field, with his glove or on the base paths. He is the type of guy you build a team around. But because he is not a flashy or even a mildly controversial player, he might fall through the cracks and not get the publicity. While Crawford might have missed out on the free publicity, he has been working his tail off every day for the Rays and finally got to taste the fruits of hard work and determination in 2008 when the Rays shocked the baseball world by making it all the way to the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. And Crawford stayed in the background during that playoff run accumulating a .295 playoff average while the Rays soared towards the World Series.

The best praise of the continued improvement of Crawford might have come from his own Al All Star/Rays Manager Joe Maddon after the All Star Game last night. Maddon told Fox Sports last night, “I’ve been talking to everybody all year about this. Carl, he has become a better baseball player since I first met him in 2006. He’s a better defender, a better thrower, a better baserunner, a better base stealer, and it’s all because of his work,” he added. “It’s because of him. His work ethic is that good.” 

After a glowing endorsement like that I guess all I can say now is that last night’s heroics might have also begun a timid and long trail towards the Baseball Hall of Fame for Crawford. He doesn’t have the numbers yet, but they are going skyward every game and will only get better. The country saw a Tampa Bay Rays pull a certain Home Run ball from beyond the wall to give the American League home field advantage in the 2009 World Series. No matter who gets there from the AL, they have CC to thank for the home field advantage.

Maybe the rest of the country will now pay attention to the guy we thought deserved a Gold Glove for his work in leftfield. Crawford has put up amazing numbers offensively for the Rays in his seven year tenure with the team. But little do people know that he also has 78 home runs and 473 RBI to go along with his steal totals. He might be the least known of the guy who have the total package in the major leagues. But because he the product of a small market team, he did not get great exposure outside of his broadcast region until the Rays hit the playoffs in 2008.

But winning breeds that type of exposure, and with that extra viewing to the rest of the country got to see the hidden gem in Crawford. Little has been written or even mentioned about his career Fielding Percentage of .991. The guy has made only 21 errors on a total of 2295 total chances in his career. Funny, in the 2008 Rawlings Gold Glove award, two of the three winners play centerfield (Torii Hunter, Grady Sizemore) and the other rightfield (Ichiro Suzuki). No one in the AL got the nod in leftfield. Hopefully in 2009 Crawford can also make a few strides in also pulling in a Gold Glove of his own. The catch in the All Star game might get him some extra consideration in 2009.

I might be biased since I have gotten to watch Crawford mature and take control of his game. He has grown into the kind of player who can change a game just by being on base. Crawford has transformed his game into making a simple walk an almost automatic double and put pressure on A L pitching staffs. Even with teams beginning to anticipate his moves, he is still getting adequate jumps and good base stealing opportunities this season.

He is the type of player who can make a hard play seem easy, and most of all he is the first guy to be there to give props if you do something amazing. His clubhouse presence and leadership have blossomed, just like his exposure to the rest of the country this season thanks to last night’s amazing catch. Maybe now the rest of America will remember his name and vote him into the All Star game in 2010 on the Fan’s vote, where he should be for years to come….count on it!

Options for Broadcast changes to the Home Run Derby

 

Here we go again people, eight hours until all the fun starts all over again. But hopefully tonight;s game will not have that rambling and prognostic feel of last night’s State Farm Home Run Derby. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching a home run as much as the rest of us, but it did not have the same flavor this season for some reason. Not to say there was not a few majestic swats into the outfield caverns there at Busch Stadium.  There were a few blasts that evoked an awe factor from me watching on my big screen, but for some reason the anticipation and the true spectacle of it all was dulled for some reason.

I sat there and tried to remember, or even fathom why I felt this way until I heard the “back, back back!” thundered over my television screen by ESPN legend Chris Berman. It was then that it all finally began to click and fall into place. The event was not falling by the wayside for me, it was the stale and predictable audio coming out of the mouth of commentators Berman, Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, and former Met GM Steve Phillips. Sometimes I think they should instead maybe pick some of the great voices of the Major Leagues to come out and broadcast the Home Run Derby as a tribute to their announcing chops.

Locally here with the Tampa Bay Rays we have been blessed with a pretty good broadcast crew on both the television and the radio. But then again every city has that distinction. But maybe MLB can regenerate the enthusiasm and the bravado of the Home Run Derby by instituting a chance in the on-the-field staff to cover the event to maybe include  a member of the MLB family who usually only does their own local broadcasts. Not that I would not like to see Joe Buck maybe pop down there like he did last night, but he is reserved for the big game. I  am all for maybe one of the voices being from the home stadium crew, which would replace Phillips and do a better job just by sitting down in the chair.

I hear too much of Phillips just on “Baseball Tonight”, do I have to be subjected to him again during a fun event like the Home Run Derby?  So with that in mind, even thought the event is now over, we could have gotten  Al Hrabosky, who is not only a St. Louis folk legend and former  Cardinal player, but a pretty good broadcaster in his own right.

Hrabosky has been up in the television booth for the Cardinals now for his 13th straight season for FSN-Midwest. He started with the team back in 1985 doing broadcasts on several different venues before finally finding his home on FSN-Midwest.  “The Mad Hungarian” would have been a instant hit for the fans watching at home who used to watch his antics on and behind the mound during his playing career. But also of note would have been the telling of stories by fathers and grandfathers to the kids watching about this great  reliever legend.

That would bring a spark to the Home Run Derby. To bring a local figure onto the broadcast team for the entire event. It will also add a air of local pride and resources as this is their domain, and they know the nooks and crannies of Busch Stadium as well as the men who built it. They are there every day and would have additional stories and ad libs that would keep the audience interested even during a lull in the action at the plate. Do not fret Phillips, I do not instantly dislike you banter on the panel, but I want to All Star game to be about special instances and situation, not the one guy I get to hear 162 games a year and beyond every night on ESPN.

By me picking Hrabosky is no slight to the other broadcasters like Mike Shannon in the radio booth ,or even Jay Rudolph or Dan McLaughlin. I am only trying to find the diamond-in-the-rough that most people do not get to hear during their team’s broadcasts. Who knows, maybe in the 2010 event hosted by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim we can get ex-player Rex Hudler or Mark Gubicza to come on board and bring some special Angels flavor to the Home Run Derby panel. 

And Joe Morgan, well I love your stories sometimes, but maybe you need to go for someone else who can keep me doing more than re-twitting and pausing away hoping for a break in the action to see some more exciting commercials than your re-hashed speculations about the Derby hitters. I am beginning to see a pattern in your observations on the hitters. I have heard the same lines, but tweaked a bit left or right about hitters for the last few years by you on the ESPN Sunday Night games, and it is growing old to me. So my idea to replace Morgan might be the best one yet.

You see, I am not voting for myself or another fan to replace Morgan, that would be too easy, but maybe MLB, which is spending millions on this 3-day festival can get ESPN to waiver a bit from their mundane announcers to let a current MLB legend or newcomer take the reins from Morgan. I am going to use the Rays Dewayne Staats only because I have some familiarity with him. He is someone who will be the in the broadcaster wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame before it is all said and done and would be a breath of fresh air not only for the fans to get another perspective, but to hear a voice that has called some of the most remarkable and memorable games.

To let the youth, and the older generation like me enjoy some of the voice around the league at that table would be an true All Star experience. Maybe if not Staats, then Seattle Mariners voice Dave Niehaus, who was admitted into the broadcasters wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008.  He is a voice that people on the east coast of the United States do not get to hear, and would bring about more energy and substance to the game knowing it is their national time to shine.

That is not to say I would not like to hear others like Arizona’s Daron Sutton, who is in his third year with the Diamondbacks. Each of these guys, even at their opposite points in their careers would be another taste of the MLB for each of us to savor during the All Star week. To bring about the change where the MLB audience gets to hear some of the voices and charisma that fans throughout the league and America get to hear each night might be a great influx of new energy and enthusiasm at the broadcast table during the Home Run Derby. They are voices that do not get to be heard unless it is below a clip on the Internet or ESPN now. Or their voices get echoed around the playoff times for substantial calls or historic moments.

The third change might be the hardest for ESPN to imagine, but it might also be a great springboard for their broadcasters. Each segment of their network seems to have their gems, or up and coming guys/gals who have displayed their talents and the crowd has warmed to them during that season. Maybe the broadcaster who is considered their number one person that year, be it a newcomer or an old veteran gets a shot at the big time stage by sitting in Chris Berman’s chair.

I have loved Berman for year and years, but in that statement is the problem. Years and years I have also heard the same phrases rolled over and over until they should have a toe tag attached to them. How many time last night did Berman try and elevate Pujols to cult status during the broadcast even though he was involved in a 3-way tie in the first round.

Josh Hamilton last season deserved that praise, Bobby Abreu a few years ago also garnered that respect and attention, but Pujols was not the giant that night. After his first round 11 home runs, you really did not get the feeling the panel really was going for Prince Fielder until his semi-final round was complete. But the worst thing about last night was the odd comment getting thrown around left and right to fill air time.

There could have been better stories about players like Carlos Pena or even Nelson Cruz that would have made you root for them. Like the fact Pena had a dream before the end of the 2007 Spring Training with the Rays, where he was a non-roster invitee, about getting on the plane with the players for the first series against the Yankees. About how and injury in the last Spring Training game to Greg Norton opened the door for Pena to hit 101 Home runs since that moment in the major leagues.

Or maybe a short stint to show he went from a scrub and almost a non-issue minor leaguer with the New York Yankees system in 2006 to the 2007 Comeback Player of the Season, to a 2008 Silver Slugger in the American League, to a Gold Glover last season. The elevation of his game was the reason for his All Star selection, not just his current home run total. It was the mythical rise of the phoenix of his career from the bottom to the top.

Heck, I even got a few people twitting I should do the broadcasting of the Derby. First off, I am honored, and I did take a aptitude test back at Eckerd College in 1976 that told me my two vocations that stressed my strengths was law and radio in that order. But that is another chapter to discuss at another time. I have  some ideas to maybe invite  fellow fans who love to broadcast to maybe be invited to participate in the on-air duties during the Taco bell celebrity and athletes softball game to give it a different flavor. Maybe that is the stage for me to  see the MLB break out of the norm and have a good time with it all.

I have to admit, I did have more fun watching Nellie make diving catches and Shawn Johnson doing her rendition of Ozzie Smith’s flip. It made me want to watch the softball game. And that is new for me. I usually watch about 10 minutes of it all then click to something else, but last night I got interested. And no, it was not because I fell in visual love again with Jenna Fisher from “The Office”. I have had a TV crush on her since I first saw her, but that is fantasy people. Anyways, the Home Run Derby was based on a 1959 show with the same title. That show evolved into the present day model we see during the All Star game.

For this event to again evolve might take some hard stances by MLB with their broadcast partners, but for one night shouldn’t the event be about the broadcasters of the MLB and their premier hitters. A combining of the two forces both vocal and physical could bring about a renewed interest in the viewing of the Home Run Derby. The All Star game is still going to be the focal point of the three days, but to elevate the Home Run Derby a bit would only bring more money and more exposure to other facets of the MLB.
 

By letting their league broadcasters showcase their talents during the event would make someone in San Diego, California, or even another country want to hear a game called by Boston Red Sox’s  Jerry Remy or maybe the Chicago White Sox’s Ken Harrelson or Steve Stone. It would mean more revenue for the MLB through the MLB.TV packages, and also retain some interest of fans outside their current markets.

To expand the minds of baseball fans is not always an easy task, but for us to enjoy hearing some of the legends and growing talent around the league maybe call the Home Run Derby would be a deep, deep shot into the night. It is now your choice MLB. You can take this advice and use it as your own, or you can just let the Derby stagnate until the viewership goes down and you do not know why. It is time for a change, and here I listed a few easy solutions, the rest is up to you. Do it for the fans. Do it for the International viewers. Do it for the expansion of the sport around the globe. Or like Nike loves to say………”Just Do it!”

2009 State Farm Home Run Derby thoughts

 

Most people call it the “most exciting play in baseball.” I am talking about the one play that can make even a visiting crowd stand up and rise to their feet and cheer and celebrate the true nature of the play. No, it is not a around-the-horn ( 5-6-3 ) double play but the always exciting home run. It doesn’t matter if it is a solo shot or a Grand Slam, people love seeing that ball take its extreme flight path from home plate to its final resting place hopefully in someones hands in the stands.  It is a play that in one swing of the bat can take a game and transform it in so many different directions for the two teams involved in the contest.

It packs the essence of power, of skill and of will power all compacted  in that one solid swing against that little white ball. But it can also hold the hopes and dreams of winning with it’s majestic path towards the outfield walls. There is no other play in baseball that is held in such a high level of respect and admiration when it comes to hitting. 

So we have come to that point just beyond the halfway mark where we celebrate everything that is great about the long ball for one long night. The stage and the players have been set, and their game faces will be different tonight because they will get to also celebrate with fellow teammates and All Stars from both leagues sitting right there within eye sight of the participants.
 

At today’s media day, there will be a million questions thrown at the participants in this seasons State Farm Home Run Derby.  Some asking about totals, distance, or if they can hit the Mastercard banner and win someone some extra spending money for the week. But hopefully someone will remember to ask this one question, this one simple thing that could bring a bold smile to each of their faces. ” What is your motivation for tonight’s event?”

Some of those questions will merit unique answers that might take a player back several years into their past. Others might speak of recent injuries or events that have shaken their core and made them a better player.  And other might just see it as an opportunity to introduce themselves to the world’s audience as both a player and as a person.

The event had grown into a  huge precursor to the All Star Game itself. To say the  Home Run Derby event has taken on a life of its own would not be too far fetched at all. E Bay will be full of 2009 Home Run Derby balls on Tuesday morning, including the gold-colored balls used to escalate the fortunes of charities tonight. For some to be at the event is enough, to celebrate the act of the Home Run and see the cheers of the crowd will be like drinking 5 Amp energy drinks in a row. Sparks will fly, minds will wander and kids will fall all over the outfield trying to catch these hit balls.

Heck, I even took a gander over there today and saw a ball from the 2008 Home Run Derby signed by Hamilton up for bid right now at $ 169.99. But then again that is a “Buy now” option that might not be met. But there is a smattering of about nine past HR Derby balls from 2001 to 2005  all running under $ 40 right now.  It is great that this event has  elevated itself to its current stature in the 3-days events surrounding the All Star Game.

It is hard to even remember that this event might have been made possible by a simple television program stated in the 1960’s. The black and white “Home Run Derby” show was so popular in the 1960’s that it had to have spawned the current event. Even though these shows only pitted two of the best home run hitter of that season, it  did have a huge impact on the future of the art of hitting the long ball. I remember seeing a few dozen of these shows as a kid and trying to copy the swings in Little League. But you did try and copy them because they were your heroes and you wanted to see them blast the ball into the stands with every pitch.

And the Home Run Derby did not hurt its image last season when the world got to see the re-emergence of Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton. From the  great personal story of Craig Counsel, his former AAU coach and personal Home Run Derby pitcher, to the struggles and demons Hamilton had to wash away to get back to this stage, it set up a heroes return to the game that impassions him from top to bottom.  And  his shattering of the events record books only goes to show that anyone can take the stage. But how many people remember that he did not win the event?

And America ate it up like a hot, creamy plate of mac & cheese. But it was also the kind of message that needs to be delivered to the youth of this country. That even if you hit rock bottom and the depths of despair, with a little faith and the courage to change, the world is at your feet.

But what will be the story this year?  Will it be another coming out party for another one of baseball’s stars. You know one of the great “feel good” stories will be the coming back from injury of Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer, which  also rhymes with power, this season. The young catcher has been known for his scattering of hits and his placement of the ball in achieving his current AL leading .373 average. It will be exciting to see him bend his back and thrust that bat to produce some power tonight in the Home Run Derby.

It might also be one of the “coming out” parties I eluded to in the beginning of the blog. Most people associate him with hitting in general. With a good showing in the H R Derby, he will also put his name on you mind when you think of Home Run potential. It is another aspect of his hitting game that might not get the attention it deserves, before tonight’s event.

Then you have someone like the Tampa Bay Rays Carlos Pena, who had been tossed around the league for a few years from teams from the Rangers,Oakland A’s, Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees before he got a non-roster invitee invitation to Spring Training in 2007 from the Rays. Pena  has always had the great glove, awesome power and the ability to pull a team together, but they had not all combined together at the same time before his stint with the Rays.

That spring in St. Petersburg, Florida his game came together and his power numbers have been impressive over the past 2 1/2 seasons. Pena has hit 101 homers with 282 RBI  since his Opening Day start for the Rays in 2007. To even hear the story of him dreaming he was going to be on the plane to New York for the opening series after Rays Manager Joe Maddon informed him he was going to Triple-A to begin the season is amazing. 

An unfortunate injury to Greg Norton opened the door for Pena to fly with the team to New York, and he has been with them ever since. Pena has a very natural home run swing, and the rightfield fence in Busch Stadium, which is 335 feet down the line, could play a major role in how he does tonight.  But when you see him lean back and swing through the ball you have the thought in your mind each hit could go over the wall. He has the ability to take any pitch and drive it, so tonight might make people remember his name.

Brandon Inge, here is a guy I have been pulling for all year long for the Detroit Tigers. He has more homers and RBI than Miguel Cabrera, but most people outside of the American League do not even know his name. Because of his pairing with Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino in the All Star Game Sprint Final Vote, he has been dubbed the front part of the “Bran Torino” pairing.

This former catcher, turned third baseman has been doing the same thing for years without the acknowledgments, but tonight he can also get his name out there for future shots at the All Star team. Hidden beneath the names of Magglio Ordonez and Cabrera, Inge has been the consistent power monger on the Tigers this season. With 21 homers and 58 RBI, he is showing his numbers fit right into the program for the Home Run Derby. He even hit two on Saturday night to maybe get some extra momentum going into tonight’s event.

The reason you have seen only AL names listed here is because of the recent video by Harold Reynolds that put all the focus on the NL first baseman getting ready to participate in the event tonight. I am not taking Adrian Gonzalez, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder or Ryan Howard for granted at all, but to single out the four first baseman and not even chat about the AL competitors is just wrong.

It is for that reason I want to see Mauer,Inge,Pena and Ranger Nelson Cruz slam the door shut on the National League guys. That is right, I want to see a barn burner where the AL comes out on top…again. I am sorry if it is Albert’s house, but it is our event to win tonight. By Reynolds putting that video out with so much emphasis on the NL and not a word about the AL is good old fashioned bulletin board fodder that will be eaten up by the AL participants.

Let the balls fly where they may, but I am going to throw out my final round prediction here: Mauer versus Inge for all the marbles. And if you want a great story, either one of these guys could win it all tonight. But the best part is all of us get to witness some awesome power tonight, and maybe another player will step from the shadows tonight and become another favorite of the world and of your kids.

 

Tall Texan rising to the Occasion

 


Brian Blano / AP

A lot has been written lately in the Tampa Bay community on Rays starting pitcher Jeff Niemann, but most of those humor-based postings have to do with the many different type of animals both alive and cartoonish that have been attributed to the 6′ 9″ pitcher. No one has written about the trails and tribulations that followed this tall Texan and why the Rays had such faith in him in fourth pick in the 2004 draft. Sure he might still get those animal references even after he could hit that magical 15-win plateau that has eluded countless Rays pitchers in the past.

The guy who has been compared to a tall lanky giraffe, the lovable Sesame Street character Big Bird ( minus the yellow skin) might just have more animal references to show for his success by the end of the season. Why not compare him to a phoenix, who rises from the ashes and takes to the sky in victory. That image actually might fit the Texan better than a lot of the other characters associated with him right now.

Success has not always been right at Niemann’s feet during his adventure to become the team leader with wins on the Rays staff.  There have been times where the dream might have seemed dead and buried, or that to even step onto a Major League ballpark might be a distant dream.  People always chat about the positives in a person’s climb to the top, but forget to show the perils and the strides made to even finally take that wind-up and throw to the plate for the first time in the MLB. Sometimes the story we see just starts a bit later than when the player actually began their trek.

Sure the Rays thought enough of him in 2004 to gamble their fourth pick that year. Amazingly, the Rice University graduate was the second of three of his teammates selected in the first eight picks of the draft. He was sandwiched between teammates Phillip Humber selected by the NY Mets with the third selection,and Wade Townsend selected eighth by the Baltimore Orioles.  Niemann had posted a 28-4 record at Rice and looked like a solid selection for the Rays that season.

His 28-4 record was a bit deceiving to the eye because he lost three of those games in his junior year after coming back from off season arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow. But even in his limited duty that season he went 6-3 with 94 strikeouts in 80 innings. To add insult to injury, he also pulled his groin muscle during this season to complicate his throwing style.  And this all followed a sophomore year where he went 17-0 and tied an NCAA record for the most wins in an undefeated season. He was a first team All-American, on the NCAA National Championship team with the Owls.

All this added success followed a high school career where no MLB team even though enough of his baseball skills to draft him in the later rounds. He went totally undrafted and did not garner any interest from the MLB community. So off he went to Rice and in the summer of his sophomore season he elected to play in the renowned Cape Cod League for Harwich Mariners where he went 2-0 and did not allow an earned run in 19.1 innings of work that summer.

He was even asked to join USA Baseball National Team, but elected to venture into the New England landscape to participate in the Cape Cod adventure instead. This followed the year where the Niemann and the Owls had a huge amount of success and garnered a lot of attention. But it would be two years before Niemann would sign his first MLB contract, and a huge 5-year struggle before he felt accepted on the same fields as some of his teammates.

..

Niemann made no bones about the fact he wanted to play baseball for the Rays. He ended up signing within 204 days after he was drafted, and did not throw a single pitch that summer while volunteering for his Rice Baseball coach’s summer youth camp. But right away the press anointed Niemann as the best prospect in the Rays organization, which meant the trail would be littered now with abnormal expectations and extreme pressures to excel.

Niemann quickly moved up the Rays Minor League system his first season finally stopping at the Double-A level with the Montgomery Biscuits for the final three weeks of the 2005 season.  He had made his professional debut earlier in the season while at Visalia before finally coming to the Alabama team. He threw 11 starts between the two clubs going a combined 0-2 with a 4.11 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 30.2 innings.  But what might have sent up some smoke signals to the Rays medical staff was his time from June 12-August 2nd where he was on the DL for right shoulder inflammation.

His DL stint now behind him, Niemann threw three starts the rest of the season for the Biscuits totaling 7.2 innings while giving up 3 hits, 3 runs and posting 12 strikeouts. It was not a hugely productive season because of the injury, but Neimann again showed he had the internal make-up to strive at this level.  His injury in June did produce some extra anxious moments for Niemann in the off-season as he had right shoulder surgery to shave the joint between his collarbone and shoulder.

It was starting to look like the Tall Texan might have been used too much in college, and that his stamina and health might have accelerated his injury situation.  He ended up back in St. Petersburg, Florida at the Rays minor league complex for an extended stay after Spring Training and finally made his Biscuit return on June 19, 2006. He ended up making 14 starts that season, and on a positive note, he surrendered 3 earned runs or less in 12 of those games. He did drop his first four starts before going 5-1 with a 1.75 ERA the rest of the season. 

But the best of yet to come for Niemann that season as he threw a one-hitter against the Jacksonville Suns during a 7-inning start on July 24th.  He also played a important part in the Biscuits playoff run when he made two starts in that Championship run going 1-0 with 2.92 ERA and 14 strikeouts.  He even started Game 1 of the series against the Suns and came away with a 3-1 victory. After the season he was again selected as the top prospect in the Rays system by Baseball America.


Steve Nesius / AP

In 2007, he started the season with the Triple-A Durham Bulls and was selected to play in the 2007 Futures game at the All Star game. That season he did stay pretty much injury free until he suffered a bout with shoulder fatigue in August. But while with the Bulls, he posted 12 wins that season, which was the third best win total in the International League.  He posted a 123 strikeout total for the year, and was ninth in the IL in ERA with a 3.96 mark. Along with teammates JP Howell, Mitch Talbot, the three helped lead the IL in strikeouts and ERA that season.

And that was the breakout season he had been waiting for since 2005.  He also went 2-0 in two Playoff starts with wins over Toledo and Richmond.  He also ended the regular season with a nice
peak going 8-2 over his final 13 starts with a 3.57 ERA.  And for the first time since he was with the Rays, he was not the top prospect in their farm system. This year Baseball America considered him the tenth best prospect in the Rays system. The fall from grace might have had more to do with his injury history than his production, but it did take the pressure off him to pitch his game in 2008.

Lost in the translation by Baseball America’s ranking was the fact Niemann had gone 30-12 with a respectable 3.32 ERA in his last 63 starts prior to the 2008 season. Because of a streak of injuries in the Rays camp during Spring Training, Niemann got two starts in April, but not before he also was the Bulls Opening Day starter in Durham before the Rays recalled him after a Matt Garza injury on April 9th.  He won his Major League debut  four days later against the Orioles giving up only a homer to Nick Markakis while scattering 6 hits in the game. 

He became the first Rays pitcher since Scott Kazmir to win his debut, and the seventh pitcher overall in team history.  He did show a bit of nerves in that game throwing 28 pitches in the first inning before finally settling down and tossing 65 the rest of the game.  In his second start against the Chicago White Sox, Niemann got blown out by the Sox in a eight run 3.1 inning start. He suffered the loss in that game and was optioned to Durham on April 21st.

He did not let the last loss at the Major League level get to him as he went 9-5 in 24 starts with the Bulls posting a 3.59 ERA, and his .207 Opponents Batting Average was the seventh best among all minor leaguers. He even held right-handed hitters to a paltry .162 average that season.  His totals ranked among the leaders in the International League in ERA (3.59) and his 128 strikeouts were the fifth best in the IL that season. And to put some icing on the cake he threw two complete games that season, which tied him for the top spot in the I.L.

He also recorded double digit strikeouts three times during the season, and once during the playoffs. He did make some noise in the post season as he made two starts and pitched an IL-high 14.2 innings and struck out 19 hitters, which was second in the league to Phil Hughes of the Scranton Yankees.  He also tossed a remarkable game during the possible elimination game against the Louisville Bats going 8 innings while giving up only 1 run and two huts while striking out 11 that night. 


Steve Nesius / AP

 
After the Bulls loss to Scranton-Wilkes-Barre Yankees for the Governor’s Cup, the Rays recalled Niemann and he made three relief appearances in September.  On September 19 against the Minnesota Twins he came in for his first relief appearance since 2005 when he was with the Montgomery team.  During that stretch he earned his first relief win and second career victory on September 23rd in a game in Baltimore.  After that magical 2008 season he volunteered his services in hurricane ravished Surfside, Texas where his family used to spend summer vacations.

That brings us to the 2009 season. The book is still being written on the successes and the accomplishments of Niemann this year. But since that first start shelling in Baltimore, the Rays rookie pitcher has made huge strides and changes to his pitching demeanor and the success is showing now for the Texan. With his complete game shutout last night against the Oakland A’s, Niemann is no longer being viewed as a weak addition to this rotation. Right now he is one of the most consistent members of this young Rays staff.

I guess I am going to have a wait a bit before I post again on the final triumphs and statistics of Niemann in 2009. But you can bet the Toys R Us giraffe references and the Big Bird jokes will fly for the rest of the season. That is until the rest of the Rays Republic can lean back and look up into the tall Texans eyes and see he is only Jeff Niemann, Rays starter and only one of six active pitchers 6’9″ or taller in the MLB. And please, do not ask him how the weather is up there?  Please.

    

Smells like Team Spirit

 

Oh now that was fun. That was the kind of series I have been waiting for the entire year. You know the kind of three game set that shows you the grit, determination and the moxy that is still beating in all 25 members of the Rays roster during a three game festival of ray-dom. Sure you might say that it took a few extra innings to get one of those wins, and it took some last inning heroics to get another, but isn’t that considered a character-building moment that you dream you team would have before they make a run at their division’s top chair?

And so after the Rays sweep of their divisional menace the last few season, the pesky Blue Jays, we have another fly coming in tonight that could buzz the Rays tower a few times and make for another extremely exciting series, the Oakland A’s. And do not be disillusioned, there is an elephant on their team logo for a reason. This is another team that never forgets, never lets down, and is carrying a hot hitting Adam Kennedy at third base right now. Hmmmmm, didn’t that guy used to wear a Rays jersey? Oh yeah, before we traded him for the Dillon-aire.

But getting back to the last three cardiac-filled series, the Toronto-Tampa Bay series again showed who wants this right now, and who is about to have a drastic Fire Sale to maybe unload some older talent ( Rolen) or mis-guided youth that is not hitting, fielding or might already be dead inside ( Rios). I have to admit, after the power outage, the kid invasion of the Trop., and the constant numbing pain in my index finger from submitting votes in the All Star Game Sprint Final Vote ( last free ad promo of the year) I almost missed an ace coming of age finally.

Sure we saw the best pitcher in the American League take the mound in the bottom of the first inning in Roy Halladay, but we also got to see some of the magic and excitement that David Price will have in store for us for the next……… well, a long time. Seriously people, the kid showed why we have so hyped up about him getting here this year. He cut back dramatically on his walks yesterday, which is a great aspect all in its own little world. One solo stroll to first is all that King David gave up to those eyeballing Jays. Oh, and they did try and test him a few times, but the strikezone was his real friend yesterday afternoon.


Brian Blanco / AP

And that will put a smile on even the most frugal and cold-hearted Rays fan. But people forget, we have had promising young hurlers before who have dissolved in front of our eyes. And even this season we have seen the trio that helped us land our first playoff berth go a bit south with no run production, or untimely meltdown of an inning or two and cost us a chance to see the orange lit dome from the Sunshine Skyway bridge to the Howard Franklin. Just because the team is having their second best record ever is not enough right now.

But seeing Price embrace and go back to some old thinking, like not even over emphasizing the scouting reports but going out there and throwing “his” game, it might have been a major break through for him at this level. We all know the kid has a million dollar arm, but like “Nuke” LaLoosh in “Bull Durham”, we were starting to think he might have a bit of a ten cent head on the mound. I am glad he proved us wrong. He needs to keep proving us wrong the rest of the way through the season, or at least for the next 5 years.

But it was no passing of the torch moment people. Halladay just doesn’t have the energy in his arm and body right now to beat the Rays. You seem to forget that he is 10-3 this season, and two of those great losses have come to the guys with the sunburst on their jerseys. And that is a major coup for the Rays. Beating the best is the way to regain this division and also set the tone for people to think twice before playing us right now. And that might be a better weapon for the Rays right now. The fact that team have begun to again question this team in a positive way is an indication that maybe we are finally over the hump and striving for the top of the hill again.

The last three games have given me this renewed feeling of the team getting it at the right time. Think about it here. Going into the break it was a disaster in 2008 after a 7-game losing streak to the Yankees and the Indians, people all around baseball were questioning the Rays staying power and mental toughness. Well, if we can gain some great ground in the next 3 games, with some help of either New York or Boston slipping a bit, we could be within 3 games of the top spot just coming out of the All Star break.


Brian Blanco / AP

And with a possible 6-game winning streak still on the stove, it would make them one of the hottest teams in baseball since the end of April. Did you know that we are only one win off the top spot since April 30th for wins in the entire MLB. From that date until today the Rays 39 wins are only second to the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers 40 wins apiece. That mean the Rays have fought from their 8-14 record on April 29th to a stellar 39-25 mark as of today. Let’s see, a 31-11 mark and we are worried about this team.

Heck, maybe we are wearing those dark-colored glasses a bit too tight on our faces. There are 27 other teams that are envious of that mark. Even the Boston Red Sox have only gone 37-17 since the end of April. With the Yankees finally catching the Red Sox, you can bet some of their eye glances will not be towards the Rays scores right now, but to see what the pinstripes are posting. That is a great thing for the Rays. We snuck up on the Jays and then put them in a vise and they lost 5 out of 6 against us in the last few weeks.

That thrust them down below us to wallow with the worry that the Orioles might get hot and pass them for the cellar spot.  But do not get lost in the fact that two of the Rays recent win have come in Walk-off fashion, which is an emotional rollercoaster of its own here.  The Rays have done it by timely hitting by Pat Burrell, Carlos Pena and Ben Zobrist. The three guys they need to get hot again to make any charge at the top spot again in 2009.  But then again, maybe this team is starting to believe in themselves again.

Some times I find that hard to believe, but as Rays Manager Joe Maddon likes them to think about a game for 10 minutes after it is over, maybe the mindset is finally drilled into their brains to not cherish a win, or discount a loss into bits and are finally “living in the moment” of the games. That can be a great weapon, that tool of selective memory and association. It can make you put your best food forward and forget the past within moments. It instills a eagerness to fight as if it was the last game, plus gives you the added confidence of not holding onto the past.

Ahhhhh, The last few games have had a certain scent to them that reminds me of something. It has that tart bitterness of realization, the after aroma of blood,sweat and tears left on the turf and the sweet sme
ll of victory. But to go along with all of that is certainly the aspect of winning their eighth straight game at home in yesterday’s matinee. Yes, that is it, that smell of Dome Field Advantage. The knowing and yearning of going to a contest and having that  flowing fragrance of  a possible blow-out or one-run win in the atmosphere even before the First Pitch.

The Rays have manufactured the second longest winning streak at home right now behind the 11-game streak set April 22-May13th of 2008.  In all, they have won 22 of their last 27 in the confines of the dome, which translates to the best record again in the MLB at home passing both the Dodgers and the Red Sox with yesterday’s win. The smell rising off that 29-13 record is again the basis of the Rays winning streaks, but it is also a indication that their earlier falls from grace when they played most of their games on the road were just figments of the real Rays team.


Brian Blanco / AP

Most people when they come to a baseball game smell the freshly made popcorn, the meaty aroma of hot dogs roasting on circular rollers. Me, I smell something else. I can smell the faint odor of fear right now in the visiting teams. The anticipation in their sweat of a long night with cowbells and loud vocal responses from the crowd. I love the smell of a ballpark. Not for the human smells or the food, but for that perfumed air of winning and confidence can just intoxicate you like a few $ 9 beers, but doesn’t leave you with the mental pain the next day of hops and barley.

It is the smell of victory, and it is still just on the tip of my tongue. It has no aftertaste or even a hint of regret. Like the 1980’s icons Kiss said so effectively in one of their great songs, I just want to “lick it up” and come back for more. Maybe this three game series against the A’s will also intoxicate you, and want you to again feast at the Rays table. Hopefully he does, and if not, we will get you soon enough…..trust me.

 
 

Cartoons and Power Outages

 



During today’s afternoon baseball game the Rays had one of their annual Park and Recreation days. If you are unaware of this special day for Rays fans, it is the time of the year where 5,000 plus youngster from all over the Rays viewing area get to come out to the ballpark for an afternoon contest and get the best gift ever from the Rays………. Rays Thunderstix!  Now if you are one of those people who complain about the cowbells and their constant clanging, you would have a field day during the Thunderstix days.

Sure they have a lighter sound, but the constant pounding of the two stix together, or off the kid next to you tend to get on your nerves after 7 innings. And the greatest thing about this promotion, the stadium looks full and the only ones who really complain are the people who clean up the Trop after the kid tornadoes tend to wreck havoc and trash everywhere. This is not to mean that kids can be a bit…well, messy, but more to the fact that once a Thunderstix is not usable, it is discarded like a old useless Popsicle stick to the floor of the stadium.

I mean as you leave the game the carnage you see all over the stadium floor of damaged and forgotten Thunderstix can be kind of overwhelming to someone who values collectibles. But to most of these kids they are just props to keep them occupied and happy for at least half the game before they get their hot dogs, cracker jacks and soda. I actually love these days more for the facts it is the one time during the entire year you can sit behind 10 rows of kids and even if they all stand up, you can still see the field. It is not like when adults, who tend to be above 5 feet tall occupy those same seats and become instant black-out elements at any time during the game.

But things did get a bit testy for a few moments when a few of the Trop’s banks of lights flickered and the umpires decided that we needed to wait for 20 minutes until the light came back full force again. You could see up in the Raysvision booth that they were scrambling to find some suitable entertainment for the young crowd and actually brought out a Bugs Bunny classic “Baseball Bugs”, where the frisky rabbit takes on the Gas-House Gorillas in a game of baseball.

But for some reason the Rays forgot they had the best cartoons in the business, and it featured players and people that the kids have seen over and over on television and on the Trop’s big screen. The Rays came up with a cartoon based on the “Defenders of the Game” which featured Carl Crawford, B J Upton, Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Carlos Pena. They even had special places for Rays Manager Joe Maddon and Rays Senior Advisor Don Zimmer. What a special cartoon moment that would have been as even the players were sitting on the dugout steps and near the bullpen grass checking out the action on the screen above rightfield.

Raysvision and the Rays had a captive audience that they could have used to parlay their “Defenders of the Game” scenarios for a long time, but instead went with a old Bugs Bunny cartoon. Now do not get me wrong, I love Bugs, and the cartoon they did show is a sure baseball classic, but at least they did not show that Rockey the Mudhen “Infield Fly Rule” buzz kill video that sometimes pops up late in the games on Sundays. Kudos to the boys in the booth for not subjecting us to that baseball definition video one more time.

And even during his post-game interview Maddon spoke about the Bugs Bunny cartoon about how the guys were enjoying it and that it seemed to go over well with the mostly kid crowd. Maddon did ask via the assembled media in the clubhouse if they can maybe get some Roadrunner and Wiley Coyote videos for the next rain delay/power outage. Because we do not have rain delays, but power outages in Tampa Bay, and we do not have to wait for a tarp or a grounds crew to signal the go ahead to resume play.
 

So with that recommendation by Maddon I decided to try and find some alternative cartoon if the Raysvision crew could not find a baseball-related Warner Brothers cartoon. I decided to dig into the dusty cartoon vault really deep and into the dark recesses of the bowl to see if they did have any cartoon with the road runner and the coyote that might have a baseball background. I could not come up with a single episode, but I did come up with a few where  the coyote had decided that a baseball bat would be a good weapon of choice against that pesky sprinting bird.

The “Defender of the Game” cartoons can be found on Youtube right now from the first episode , to the final one after their second season. They are classic cartoon where the Defenders tackle the evil Umpreror, and then Doctor Stats. They are pretty tongue-in-cheek cartoons, but are fun to watch during a power outage/rain delay. But there are other variation out there like a classic Woody Woodpecker cartoon called, The Screwball” where he tries to get into an outdoor baseball field. Then you have the old 1948 classic cartoon “Baseball Brawl” which featured woodland animals as players in the baseball game. 

But the end result is that during the outage, the cartoon did bring about some sense of order to the stands and kept the kids occupied with harmless fun for everyone. And that is the special problem that can surface on a day like today with a crowded house of pre-teens all coming out to watch a baseball game.

But in the end, everyone left with a smile both in regards to a Rays victory, and from the classic baseball cartoon they will be telling their parents about tonight. And who knows, that might transfer into a Family Fun Day this Sunday where the family of four can come to the ballpark with FREE parking and discounted food and tickets. I guess the cartoon could be called a community ticket experience now.

 

 

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