September 2009

One Man’s Treasure is another Man’s Trash

 


RRCollections

You know I was looking around my little shanty shack today and it dawned upon me that I have acquired, obtained and down right bargained for so much baseball related stuff, it might need its own room or banquet hall soon. I know I am not the usual person to have that pack-rat mentality, but when it comes to the items related to the game of baseball, I have a very big problem. I mean I have at least 8-10 large plastic storage bins just filled with Rays team related bobbleheads. And do not get me started on game-used jerseys and other Rays items.

But is that the real destiny of people like me, a team collector, that my home will have to mysteriously have to expand to include a separate room for the team posters, bobbleheads and pictures and assorted knick knacks?  I am beginning to think this is how my life is going to unfold from now until my last breath. And I know it would of been a whole lot harder to even move in here if an old ex-girlfriend in North Carolina had not used my memories as firewood and burned my college and professional collectibles and jerseys back in 2000.

I went from a small U-haul pulling all my stuff up to Charlotte, NC, to filling my old full size Ford Bronco’s back section of the cab in a puff of smoke and smoldering ashes. Sure I was upset, but I also had those event moments stuck within the confines between my ears, plus the fact I did not want to upset her enough that I would have to drive home to Florida naked if she also burned my clothes.

It was a huge loss in the aspect of my past  sports exploits, but it might have saved me money not to drag them around for the umpteenth time. But why do we, as fans put such value and importance on the things that our favorite teams or events give to us at the gates? Why is it that we keep all of this special cargo if we do not even think we are going to sell it? And think of the hours of grueling agony our families will have deciding what to do with it all after we are gone from this world?


RRCollections

It is not like if I perished tomorrow anyone besides me will know that the Rays On-Deck circle from 2000-2002 that is sitting on my floor with the old MLB slogan “I Live For This” logo still blazing from it. Or that the rosin bag on top of the lower baseball shelf is from the third World Series game in Philly last season.

 I might have to conduct a master collectible file on my laptop for my Last Wills Executors so that they know what this junk acutally consists of, and it is not to be set out with the trash cans to be lost for all generations. Or am I putting too much importance on these bric-a-brac and obtained treasures?

But isn’t that the price we pay for stacking the In-Game magazines and the player pictures and the multiple pieces of team mail we received over the last 12 seasons. I have saved every Rays correspondence they have every sent to me, including the “Under Construction” stickers and little lunchbox with the assorted  street work items in it. That item was sent out when the Stuart Sternberg regime began its rein in Tampa Bay, and it is a prized possession.

Maybe someday some one ( besides me) will erect a Rays museum somewhere in town, and I could donate some items no one has thought about for years. You remember those items, they are the ones you scratched your head about years ago, but now wish you had kept. Like the team undistributed Jason Tyner bobblehead that never got into most Rays fans hands, but some of us got them for a price.

Or maybe it is the final  Ad Agency proof of a poster done years ago to promote fans bringing in used sports equipment to a Rays game that pictured the local sports icons Brad Richards (TB Lightning) Brent Abernathy (Rays) and Derrick Brooks ( TB Bucs). Oh, and did I mentioned the original was signed by all three guys !

And what would my Executors even think to do with the over 275 signed balls that seem to increase daily. Would they decide to donate them to the Rays Foundation charity, or give them to kids in the neighborhood who might just use them for BP? Or would they just get tired of dealing with all this stuff and fire up the fireplace and burn the over 75 signed bats lining the bedroom wall right now? Thank goodness Florida stays warm for 9 months a year.


RRCollections

And you might ask yourself why I have even thought about an episode like this right now? And during the Rays season? Well, the honest fact is that we have only 14 games left in the 2009 season makes me think more now. The finality of it all is beginning to thrust itself upon me, and I am daily getting more and more nervous for the future. I have not celebrated a birthday in 12 years, but I have celebrated 12 seasons? And maybe that is where my problem lies?

Maybe this game has now consuming so much of my life and breathing moments that I now only refer to days during the season as home or away days.  Why is it that something that feels so good to me might be as bad as a 3,000 calorie multi-leveled hamburger with extra cheese? But isn’t that also the essence of the passion and the undying loyalty you want from a real fan? You would want to feel that the guy who is collecting all of this stuff is doing it out of a love for the game, not the profit he can get some day selling it on Ebay.

But that is the crutch  we sometimes bear as collectors. Some see us for the love of the game, while others think we might be planning a retirement fund based on the items we had them sign for in the past. And that can ruin it for some of us.  And at tonight game, the first 10,000 fans will get the “Fan’s Choice” bobblehead featuring Rays rightie Matt Garza. And before you ask, the goatee is done nicely, but there are no sunflower seeds spread around the base.


RRCollections

But it is another item that will go unwillingly into the ever growing pile of Rays related things in my cubbyhole. It will be another piece of the 2009 season that will be stored away for storytelling in 2020 to the great grand kids, or maybe exchanged on holidays if any of my kid’s children get the Rays fever. I have never been a pack rat before, and it is really not in my nature to store or keep stuff like this for so long.

But the truth is the fact that I see bits of Rays history in each of these items. I see player performance and commitment in the bats and jerseys. I can see game contributions in the bobbleheads and rattle drums given out as toys to some, but are a valuable memory collectible to me.

So as I sit here looking at all the stored items from First Game programs to every cap this franchise has ever worn, even the “Throwback Day” caps, I wonder where and what they will be like in 5 years after I am gone from this world.

Hopefully they will either be in the hands of baseball loving relatives or a museum, or even a family heirloom for a collector like me. Because these items go in circles. they are either acquired for history, discarded as useless junk or given away without any knowledge of their treasured importance.


RRCollections

If you are not a baseball fan, then this stuff is just junk to you. Like the time I went to a local store and bought a soda with a American Eagle silver dollar as a kid.  The clerk immediately took it from me and reached into his wallet and took out a paper dollar bill. He then put the coin in his pocket. I asked the guy why he did that, and he told me that silver coin was worth so much more than a simple dollar, and was priceless to him since he was a coin collector.

So you can see, an item to most of us that might seem like trash can be a treasure beyond comparison to another person. Value can be placed on anything according to our own likes and dislikes of things from the past. I just hope that someday someone looks at the Mumm’s champagne bottle signed by the entire 2008 Rays Bullpen after clinching the AL Pennant and see history, and not just an empty champagne bottle taking up valuable space from their treasured Pokemon card collection.

 

Rays Players Highs and Low in 2009

 



Bill Koustron / AP

There was some ramblings during the last months of 2008  that if that Tampa Bay Rays squad did not make the playoffs, they would be referred to as the “Best Rays team to never make the playoffs”. Well, with their huge mountain of success that season I can safely say they will never have that title attached to their legacy because of the 2009 team’s fall from grace. But, the 2009 team could very well be the team that will be in your minds for a long time as the team was good enough to win a post season berth based on their talent, but fell short of the goals with their game results. 

Even with 15 games to go in the 2009 season, and the playoff balloon sitting on the ground with no more air in it for fight or flight, this Rays team is still fighting for a few of its members to post career numbers and fight for Top 10 rankings in categories all throughout the American League. Considering this is the same Rays team that sent 5 members and their entire Coaching Staff to the 2009 All Star Game in St. Louis, Missouri. And even with the improbable story of Carl Crawford walking away with the games MVP award on a monster catch in leftfield, it might be just as rewarding to remember the season of Ben Zobrist, who caught the last out of the All Star game.

So let’s take a look with 15 games to play in some of the American League leaderboard and some of its categories both good and bad, and see where our 2009 Rays team can make some historic marks for future Rays players to aspire to beat or avoid totally :


Bill Koustron / AP

*** Even with two pins in his fingers, Carlos Pena is still the Home Run leader in the American League with 39 this season. With 15 games left, Pena’s biggest competition comes from Yankees First Baseman Mark Teixeira, who is 4 home runs away from catching fellow first baseman Pena. This battle might come down to the last series between the teams in October.


***
Evan Longoria is also fighting Teixeira for the AL Runs Batted In title right now as Longoria currently has 104 RBI and is just 8 RBI away from catching Teixeira for the title. Longoria, who is only in his second season at the major league level would become the first Rays player to hold such a title.


***
Carl Crawford has his hands in at least two chases for titles with one currently just 1 more than his career best. That is right, currently Red Sox Jacoby Ellsbury, who has 61 stolen bases is leading the Stolen Base category, but Crawford is right behind him with 57 steals at this time. Crawford also is 29 hits short of 200 total hits for the season, and with both titles within his reach, you might see a few more chances by Crawford both at the plate and on the base paths in the last 15 games.

*** Both Longoria and Crawford also are currently tied for 10th in total games played this season with 142. the top spot is currently held by the Orioles Nick Markakis and Yankee Robinson Cano, who both have 146 games this season. Crawford is also currently 11th in at bats this season with 564 prior to tonight games against the Toronto Blue Jays. Longoria is also currently sitting in the 4th spot in doubles with 44 this season for the Rays.

*** Jason Bartlett has made a name for himself this season with his bat. Not only has he set new career highs in home runs and RBI, but he is currently batting to stay within the top 5 in AL Batting Average right now. Bartlett is sitting in 5th place at this moment with a .324 average, and is within .004 of tying Yankee Derek Jeter for the 4th spot. Bartlett is also holding strong in the race for triples where he currently sits in 7th place in a tie with fellow Rays Crawford and Ben Zobrist with 7 triples. The AL leader has only 9 triples, so the title is out there for any of the three to take it this season.


Mike Carlson / AP

*** Then we have Longoria who is also right out of the Top 5 spots with 283 total bases in 2009.  And there are currently two Rays in the top 10 for Walks this season in the AL. Pena is sitting in the 7th spot with 87 walks this season, and Zobrist is right behind him in 8th with a total of 85 walks in 2009. Zobrist has more of a chance to hit the Top 5 by the end of the season.

***  There is one category that the Rays probably wish they did not have 4 members in the Top 20 this season… Strikeouts. Pena is no longer in the top spot, but is holding down the 2nd spot with B J Upton sitting at the 5th spot with 147 K’s in the season. Longoria is also in the 10th spot with 127 strikeouts so far this season. And coming in 20th is the Rays new Designated Hitter, Pat Burrell with 109 for the year.

***  As we continue on the unhappy trail of some negative Top AL spots for the Rays, both Crawford (14) and Upton (13) are in the top 3 base runners caught stealing this season. This includes picked off of the bases and actual steals during games.  And another honor that he might wish he did not have, Longoria is on pace to be the top offender in Grounding into Double Plays this season as he is the current leader with 27, just 1 GIDP short of the MLB lead right now.

So now that we have established that several Rays players are having career seasons in 2009, lets head on over to the American League leaderboard in the pitching categories and see if we might also have some contenders for top 10 spots on the Rays pitching staff:

*** Rays starter Matt Garza is currently sitting in the 8th spot in the AL in Strikeouts this season with 167. With another start on Saturday night, Garza  might have a chance to boost himself closer to the top 5 spot currently held by Toronto’s Roy Halladay with 187 strikeouts.  But in reality, he might not get to the 200 K plateau, but it has been a great season for the Rays rightie. James Shields also is in the top 15 in the AL in strikeouts sitting at 14th place with 145 this season.


Chris O’Meara / AP


***
  Rays reliever J P Howell is currently sitting in the 6th spot for appearances with 67 this season. The top spot currently is only 4 appearance more than Howell’s, but that might be unrealistic as the Rays have unofficially shut down Howell at this time due to arm fatigue.


***
  Rays starter Shields is  also currently sitting in the Top 3 in Games Starts this season with 30, and is well within the top spot in the AL, which is held by Yankee CC Sabathia and  Tiger Justin Verlander with 31 starts. But in reality, there are 10 people sharing the spot with Shields who will be making his 31st start of the season tonight against the Blue Jays at home.

***  Rays rookie Jeff Niemann also has a few spots within the top 20 in several categories for the Rays in 2009. In his first full season with the team, Niemann is currently 14th in wins with 12 this season and 14th in ERA (3.80). The Rays AL Rookie of the Year candidate also is in the 8th spot for Complete Games (2) and is in a 4-way tie for Shutouts with two this season.

*** The Rays also have three members of their starting rotation Niemann, Garza and Shields in the Top 20 in the AL ERA category this season. And at this moment, both Shields (198.2) and Garza (185.0) are within the top 15 for total innings pitched this season for the Rays.  Garza also has the 3rd best Opponents Average in the AL currently sitting at .234 mark.

*** And some of the marks that the Rays pitching staff wishes it did not have in 2009 consists of Shields surrendering the second worst amount of hits this season in the AL with 217 hits. Also in the Red  spots for the Rays is Shields with the third worst amount of runs scored against him in 2009 with 101 this season.  And it gets even worse as Shields  is also in third surrendering 27 HR this season.


Marc Avery / AP

***   And just because his name did not flash in the last paragraph doesn’t mean that Garza also is off the hook with bad statistics this season. He is currently the second worst pitcher in the AL in hit batsmen this season. Garza is also within the Top 3 in Walks Allowed this season in th American League with 68 so far this season.

So as you can see, the Rays harbor some of the best young talent in the American League. With  a splattering of great events throughout this season taking the spotlight away from the reality of the disastrous events of the last few weeks, this team has struggled the entire year to decide what kind of team they wanted to be both on the mound and at the plate. That indecision might have led to the final free fall in September that dashed their dreams of the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.

But the solid foundation of this Rays team is strong and should be able to weather the storm of 2009 and come out strong again in 2010. Even with their expected 3 young starters with a year or less of MLB service hitting the mound in 2010, the Rays should again be the team to watch in the AL East.  Because with this season coming to a close, the learning process of this squad will not stop with the games. In the off season you can be sure that the hitters and the pitchers will be working hard to again get the taste of champagne in their mouths.

And the stark reality that this team is being built for the long haul and not just a single season or two of championship caliber talent might hasten their rise again to the top of the AL standings. With the Rays minor league system again brimming with young talent striving to make a mark so they can get a shot in the big leagues, this team might be again the envy of most of the Major League Baseball world. 

So this team might be considered a failure by some, but the reality of the situation is that the team could finish with the second best record EVER by a Rays team in 2009 and be considered a failure by the critics around the league. Just because the team took a step backwards in 2009 doesn’t mean they are losing their grips or going to go into another free fall towards mediocrity in 2010.  The team again will be stocked with tremendous talent with the abilities to again have the team celebrating next October.


Gail Burton / AP

It might be one step back, but it is not as if the team stepped off a large cliff and is destined for the rocky bottom. There is a current team who also struggled like the Rays the season after they appeared in the World Series. The Colorado Rockies came upon the same fate as the Rays and lost their chance at a world title. And the team did take a backwards step in 2008, but in 2009 they currently are riding high with a chance to again make the post season in the National League.

Anything is possible for the Rays in 2010. With the example of the Rockies also coming off the rock pile and again chasing the top spots there is hope and a sense of determination from these Rays players to be next season’s Rockies and again go to the MLB playoffs. So maybe it is now that the team needs to set a short term goal of showing the community their commitment and their striving to again post “W’s” in the left column for the next 15 games. This team might be the worst of the best Rays team to ever set foot on the Trop’s turf, but it is in no way comparable to the 2007 squad.

Pitch Counts are here to Stay

 


Steve Nesius / AP

A lot of times during the Tampa Bay Rays 2009 season we have seen a Rays starter get into a dominating groove against an opponent and he begins to take complete control of the game only to be taken out after a mystery number of pitches, or because the current pitching match-up philosophy dictates he has run his course in a game. But  the common question still on our minds is why is there a mystery pitch count number,and why do some of the Rays starters seem to get more of a leash than others before getting yanked out of a contest?

We have all witnessed the unusual pitching formulas in person where the Rays Coaching Staff will let a starter come out in the top of an inning to face maybe  only one batter before being yanked for a reliever. But why it the system doesn’t let this starter finish the inning? Why is the match-ups more important than the flow of the game at that point. Would letting a starter throw an additional 10 pitches to try and finish the inning endanger him more towards an injury, or a possible loss? 

The  Rays current pitching situation is apparently based on computer-based match-ups and not pitch count, but sometimes it just seems like misused mathematics gone wrong when the Bullpen ruins the outing for the starter.. 

Because we have all seen starters who are in total control on the mound get taken out late in the 7th or 8th inning with a definite shutout possibility and a still possessing a manageable pitch count, usually under 100 pitches. And then the Rays reliever comes in and gives up either a few base hits or a home run and the shutout and quality start have been flushed down the toilet. With good intentions by the starter, but a loss in the process. Could the system need a bit more instinct than Sabermetrics at times. And do the Rays have any flexibility in the system at all?


Brian Blanco / AP

Sure there have been pitching moments this season where we all collectively felt Rays Manager Joe Maddon might have left a guy in too long, or maybe might have taken someone out a bit early and he could have fought through the problems and collected a “W”. But the physical side of the game of baseball along with the fans has been slow to accept this new found  set of pitching principles. But  it seems to me that the Rays Coaching Staff is now totally committed to this new style of pitching, and we are the one who must learn the system before we pull all of our hairs out of our skulls.

 
And the argument for or against a set number of pitches for a starter or even a reliever has been a winded and highly emotional debate that will go on until we can get some  critical answers to our overflowing bowl of questions. What we as a fans need to do now, for our own sanity, is to try and understand the new pitching system before we can make an clear and educated judgment or even begin to condemn the operation as a waste of our pitching talent base. And it is hard to accept what some people have coined as the “wussification of pitching” because of the adaptation of this process by many teams in the Major Leagues.

Has the games parameters changed that much in the last 10 years where we are now considering a formally common thing like a Complete Game or even a quality start as a thing of beauty and rarity instead of a by-product of the game? Have we whittled down the pitching system so much that if a starting pitcher hits a 130+ pitch mark in a game it is a time to get really excited, or maybe even concerned?

In a recent series against the Rays on September 4, 2009, Detroit starter Justin Verlander threw 126 pitches and the Rays let starter Jeff Niemann throw 115 pitches before he was pulled from the home game. I mean this newly anointed system points oddly towards the century mark( 100 pitches) as a precursor to the thought process of removing someone from the game. But is that number set in stone if a guy is struggling on the mound, or is that just set as a barometer mark for guys throwing with authority and control? Right now this pitching system is beyond the infant stage, but is just now being accepted by some people in the stands.


Kathy Willens /AP

We see the actual game pitch count now displayed everywhere from the Internet  In-Game boxscores to the stadium scoreboards or special displays, to the constant verbal barrage by the Television and Radio announcers to this 100+ marks level of mortality in pitching.  This designated mark in the game now seems to be the  key determination factor more than actual game performance now.  I mean will we some day just look up at the scoreboard and see 100 pitches flashing on the screen and know that our pitcher’s personal time bomb is ticking  and will soon be taken out of the game?

I mean this must have a wild effect on the pitching staff as a whole knowing that even if they are cruising along, that at that century mark they could get pulled from the game and see their work trashed within a 1/3 of an inning by an unstable Bullpen. But in recent Rays games we have seen a glint of pitch count flexibility in this system. Maybe it is because we are no longer playing for the post season, or maybe it is just the fact that right now the Rays Bullpen is fighting a uphill confidence battle amongst themselves.

Either way, it is encouraging to see Rookie Wade Davis take the mound in front of the Tropicana Field crowd for his Major League Debut and get to throw 105 pitches, and leave with the lead and a possible 1st MLB victory. But then we quickly saw it evaporate as the Rays Bullpen threw a cookie down the middle to Tigers slugger Brandon Inge who hit a Grand Slam in the top of the 9th inning to boost Detroit to a victory 5-3. But the aspect of letting Davis even get to that 105 pitch mark might have been dashed if the Rays were still hot in the fight for a playoff berth.

But could there be other determining factor like adjusted work load and the fact that some of the staff might be fighting arm fatigue or shoulder soreness that we do not know about. But so far the Rays have not announced any shutdowns or reflected minimal outings for their starters in 2009, which hopefully means that people like Davis, Niemann and David Price will get to throw deeper into games for the rest of the season. But that again becomes a double-edged sword for the Rays.

For if one of those three were to come down with an injury before the October 4th Season Finale against the New York Yankees, the fans would be wondering out loud of the system hurt or helped the pitcher this year. That is why yesterday I brought up the idea of shutting down maybe two of the guys who have put in maximum innings the past two seasons. But in reality, the Rays usually employ a 75-pitch count in
the minor league for some of their starters, and for that reason, even Davis has thrown a total of 158.2 innings in the minors before his current 9.2 innings so far for the Rays.

Both Davis and Price were held to strict pitch counts in the minors in 2009 with an eye towards the end of this season. The minor league system of limiting pitches might have actually helped the Rays in their decision to maybe shut some people down this year. But considering Price only threw a total of 34.1 innings before coming up to the Rays, and only has a total of 144 innings right now, both Price and Davis should be able to complete the rest of their starts this season without  a shutdown.

But can the same be said for fellow rookie Jeff Niemann? He put in a total of 133 innings at Triple-A last season before finally coming back up to the Rays and throwing 16 extra innings in the Major Leagues in 2008. Combine that with his 2009 total of  165.2 innings with the big club this season, and he also might be about ready to cross into the new systems red danger line for yearly pitching totals. But with each pitcher maybe getting three more total starts each, the possibility of adding 15+ innings to those totals seems to be garnishing no concerns from the Rays.


Brian Blanco / AP


This new system is as curious to me as a new girlfriend. You know you like it, and you know it is right for you, but you are afraid of the consequences if it falls apart and you are left in the ruins. There will be a huge bit of discussion in the off season by both the fans, media and the Rays themselves as to the merits and demerits of this new found system. But in the end, if it can reduce injuries and keep guys playing longer in their careers and with more explosive stuff, then it might just be the savior of the pitching game.

But the system will have to be flexible to adjust to each teams needs and wants and not be written into stone tablets for all to follow with a strict code of obedience. The system will show its flaws soon, and it is how we adjust to those waves of ups and down as to the future of this system with the Rays. “Going with the flow” might be the term for the rest of 2009 and 2010. For if we do transfer a bit of the workload onto a competent Bullpen with guys secure and ready for anything, then this system and the Rays fan can again see glory coming their way. 

 

Should Shields and Garza be Shut Down?

 




Jim Prisching / AP

Recently I have been hearing more and more chatter about the Rays shutting down Rays starters Matt Garza and James Shields before the end of the 2009 season. There are several great reasons for this to happen, but the most compelling  answer might be that if the Rays are not playing for anything in particular, like a playoff berth, maybe they should shut down their work horses before the Rays last home stand of the season.

This makes  a lot of sense for several reasons, but the clear facts that the Rays have other pitchers in their Bullpen who could take some of the slack off both of the starters. over the Lance Cormier, Andy Sonnanstine and Jeff Bennett could  throw some valuable innings right now to  perserve both Shields and Garza for the 2010 season.

And there lies an interesting situation for the Rays Caoching staff. All three of these Bullpen pitchers  have at one time or another been spot starters either in the minor or major leagues. And the possibility of each or all of them pitching at least 4-6 innings of work could take some of the pressure off the Rays staff. But real problem might be in convincing both the competitve Garza and Shields that they can take a rest because of what they have both done since the beginning of the 2008 season.

The reality of shutting both of them down does merit a great amount of thought since both guys will either be passing or nearing their  innings pitched totals for 2008 in their next two starts. Neither pitcher has anything to prove to the Rays staff or fans. We know they have been the studs who have gone out there every 5 days and thrown their arms off for this team in both 2008 and 2009. And maybe a little more pitching information on both of them in the last two seasons might make this decision a whole lot easier for the fans to digest.


Gail Burton /AP


Considering that in 2008, Garza and Shields were the only pair of MLB pitchers to toss 2 complete games each while allowing 2 hits or less. And that statistic alone is a monumental feat for a team that has always struggled with their starting pitching to hold a degree of solidarity. But if you add to that overall mix the fact that both of them also threw an additional 25 innings each during the 2008 Post Season, and that by adding those innings  to either their 2008 or 2009 pitching totals, it would take both of them way beyond their previous top inning marks in the Major Leagues. 

And a  honest fact that might have eluded most of the Rays fan base is the odd fact that Shields will easily become the only Rays pitcher to ever throw three straight 200+ innings in a season with his next start. And Shields, os also the only Rays starter to ever throw 2 consecutive 200+ innings in a season. Shields has been a thoughbred during the last two years throwing 215 innings in both 2007 and 2008, and that mark was only 9 innings short during both seasons of the 2002  pitching record set by ex-Rays Tanyon Sturtze (224).

During the 2008 regular season, Shields went to the hill 33 times for the Rays and posted a 14-8 record with a 3.56 ERA. To further boast the reputation of Shields, only Toronto’s Roy Halladay (471.1) posted more innings than Shields (430) in the past two seasons in the American League. But in 2009, there have been times that it actually looked like maybe he was having a “Post Season Hangover” because of the extra 25 innings tossed in the 2008 playoffs.


Elaine Thompson / AP


Add his 33 starts to his 4 starts in the post season, and Shields went to the hill 37 times for the Rays just last season. And during his last 10 starts  so far in 2009, he has averaged at least 6 innings of work before leaving the game. But during that time, Shields has also seen his ERA slowly creeping up from a 3.70 to 4.03 ERA. This might be a subtle change, but it might also be an indication that his arm is beginning to tire a bit, and shutting him down could prevent injury or complications in 2010.

But the same scenario can also apply for Garza. Even though in 2008 he did miss a few starts due to a radial nerve irritation situation in April and missed 16 games on the disabled list. But even with his missing a few starts in 2008, the Rays gunslinger threw 184.2 innings last season and also tossed an additional 25 innings in the post season. Garza took the mound for the Rays in 30 regular season starts, and like Shields also started 4 games in the Rays run to the 2008 World Series. That would push Garza’s 2008 total to 209.2 total innings, which is a lot for any pitchers first full-season in the Major Leagues.

And in 2008 he responded  to the Rays challenge with a 11-9 record and a 3.70 ERA in those 30 regular season starts. But it was his two srats in the 2008 American League Championship Series that established Garza  as a threat every time out on the mound. During that series he allowed only 2 earned runs in 13 innings and posted a 1.38 ERA during the ALCS 7-game series against the Red Sox. But it was his stellar performance in Game 7 held on October 19,2008 that has endeared him to Rays fans forever.

During that contest, Garza threw for 7-innings and produced a 2-hit, 1-run gem against the Red Sox while striking out 9 Boston hitters. It was a truly gutsy clutch performance, and a feat that eventually garnered him the 2008 ALCS Most Valuable Player award by allowing only 7 total hits in his 13 innings during the 7-game series. In doing so, Garza became the youngest pitcher ever to win the ALCS MVP award while holding Boston to a .226 batting average and gaining victories against, Red Sox starter Jon Lester in both their starts in the ALCS.


www.tbo.com

And in 2009, Garza also has push onward and upward  and had classic Rays moments, but also had outings where it looked like the carry over post season innings might have given him a bit of arm fatigue. Garza has posted only a 7-10 record this season with a 3.84 ERA. Though todays game, Garza has already made 29 starts for the Rays,and has surpassed his 2008 inning pitched total by a 1/3 of an inning (185).

Over his last 10 starts this season, Garza has averaged 6 2/3rds innings of work, with only one outing against the Los Angeles Angels  did he throw less than 5 innings. In that contest on August 10, 2009, Garza lasted 3.1 innings and surrendered 4-runs on 6-hits while also being tagged for 2 homers in the outing. And Garza has gone at least seven i
nnings in his last two starts for the Rays, which was beneficial to the Rays as they sorted out some Bullpen malfunctions. 

Coming into tonight’s game against the Orioles, it is possible for  Shields to have a total of three more starts in 2009,  he should be going to the hill in the Rays last road trip of 2009 to Texas (Sept. 25) and  could have possibly two more starts at home against the Orioles ( Sept. 30) and the season finale against the New York Yankees on Sunday,October 4th.  Garza himself could be in line for at least two trips to the mound to conclude 2009, starting with a possible start against the Rangers (Sept. 26) and take the mound again in his last home appearance on October 1st against the Yankees.


Mike Carlson / AP

To decide to place either player on the bench for the rest of the season will be a difficult decision by the Rays. But the great fact that the Rays have three long relievers right now on their roster, and could even bring up an additional long reliever or starter after the Durham Bulls finish their playoff run, this give the team realistic options to shutting the pair down soon. Either way, the Rays could possibly shut down both of their top pitchers by the time the team returns from Texas on September 27th.

The Rays Coaching staffs decision has to be based on the total number of innings thrown by the young pair, with an eye towards the 2010 season. I actually see them maybe sitting down Garza after his start in Texas since he already has peaked out at around his 2008 innings totals. Shields might get two more starts at the most before they should shut him down.

Both pitcher should be proud of this seasons efforts and the level of stability they have established in both of their pitching in the last two seasons.  Subtle adjustments and pitching grip changes might be in order for both in the off season, but their collective 2009 seasons have given the Rays a chance to strive towards their post season goals all season long. 

Both pitchers have also established themselves among the best young arms in the AL East, and should develop more in 2010. I just hope both pitchers take the possible “shut downs” as a career positive and not a demotion or negative at all. Both have produced countless memories for the Rays in 2009, and I give both of them a standing ovation and a huge round of applaud for their efforts. If the season has no possible merits for the post season again, and the honest fact that the additional innings could increase their chances of injury, then they should be shut down to conserve  a pair of the Rays best resources.
 


Marc Avery / AP

The Rays starting pitching did not set the league on fire in 2009, but it did raise a few eyebrows to the competitive nature of this team, and the Rays should again be fighting for the division league for many years to come. Shields And Garza are two valuable member of the Rays future plans for success, and everything should be done in the team’s power to conserve and eliminate any possible injury situations in the last couple of weeks of the season. For we all want to again see both of them celebrating and having the time of their lives in the post season. And if that means sitting them right now, then that is the right decison.

Rays form Sunburst Entertainment Group

 



SunburstEG.com


When the Tampa Bay Rays first introduced that they were going into partnership with the United Football League earlier this season, it seemed like an odd marriage of the two sports. Not only did it seem a bit odd that the Rays were only going to host one game at Tropicana Field that season, but the aspect of getting into a multi-sport ownership relationship at the time seemed to be odd at best.

The team originally decided to acquire ownership stakes in the Florida Tuskers of the new UFL venture. The newly formed Sunburst Entertainment Group will begin with baby stepson the ground floor of the highly competitive field of multiple sports management.  The creation of this new arm of the Rays front office machine will push them into new directions to bring more high quality, affordable and family-oriented entertainment to Tropicana Field after and maybe even during the Rays seasons.

When this venture was first announced about a month ago, I was at first skeptical of the total involvement of the team’s ownership in such a bold and virginal adventure in this new league. People still have some open wounds from the disbanding of the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies and the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits and some in the community did not see the correlation of this league in conjunction with the NFL. Some people have commented that this newly formed league might morph into a  lower level feeder system to keep ex-professional and non-drafted athletes in shape and  give them game situations to prove they could play the game at the highest level.

But that is not the only reason for the formulation of this sports and entertainment group. For its main attraction to the Rays will be the added secondary business plan and marketing tool to open new venture and horizons for the Rays and its fan base. Within the last month more light has been shined upon the UFL initial interest by the team and it seems there is a solid foundation  where once I envisioned a weakness in the system by the newly formed consulting group. 


SunburstEG.com

The multi-faceted  future business formulation with the launch of Sunburst Entertainment Group, and their direct involvement in the UFL’s teams operations should help elevate the team’s foothold and ultimate footprint in the sports and entertainment community both locally,and hopefully nationally within time. 

The Sunburst Group will be owned by the Rays, and will use a variety of current day-to-day operational functions and business plans currently used by the Rays to attract fans and additional revenues for the team. One of the  key areas of the current Rays front office that has risen to the top of its game in the past two seasons is in the top priority of their sales, marketing and promotions departments in formulating a bigger fan base for the team. Using this valuable resource to tap into the well-oiled machine to coordinate and facilitate future non-sporting events to Tropicana Field in the Rays off-season, and during their road trips in the coming years can only be a plus, plus to the Rays management team.

Even though Sunbursts focus right now will be more within the Tampa Bay region, there is an possible future expansion eye toward expansion into reaching farther beyond the Tampa Bay community to become a major player in the sports and entertainment consulting industry. Sunburst will try and duplicate and utilize the highly successful Rays sales, marketing and fan experience groups to establish a strong foundation and in the future coordinate with other area sports and entertainment sources to maybe broaden into cross sports promotions and events. 


SunburstEG.com


Sunburst will take upon the task of finding and establishing a growing foundation of non-sporting events throughout the year for Tropicana Field. By standing side-to-side with the Rays current resources and internal expertise, Sunburst will strengthen the Rays opportunities within the region to become more diverse and bring other entertainment options to the Tampa Bay community.

A similar venture was created by their AL East divisional rivals, the Boston Red Sox in 2004 and is currently produced more than $200 million in 2008.

New England Sports Ventures created the Fenway Sports Group to add business lines alongside the popular baseball team, whose revenue growth is stymied by the limited seating at Fenway Park in Boston, Mass. The Fenway Sports Group has expanded into other sporting ventures to even purchasing a NASCAR team now known as Roush Fenway Racing.

New England Sports Ventures has also established a sports venue fan photography business and  has produced cross-marketing postgame concerts promotions for the Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins.

Another ownership group that has local Tampa Bay regional ties is the Michigan-based Palace Sports & Entertainment, whose late owner Bill Davidson owned the Detroit Pistons, the Palace at Auburn Hills and the Tampa Bay Lightning and St. Pete Times Forum before selling the Tampa holdings in 2008.

So  there is a firm foundation within the sporting industry for this current venture by the Rays to expand and become a formable player in the Tampa Bay community. The announcement of the Rays joining the ownership of the newly formed Tusker organization was a multi-fold operation, which should take on bigger events and roles within the area in the next few years. It gave the Rays an avenue to explore expanding their sales and marketing tools to utilize and prioritize future revenue streams for the team.

Inside Joe Maddon

 

Prelude:


This is actually a blog I wrote when I was considering taking a position with a sports-based web site as a Rays correspondent. Because of some situation off the Internet, I concluded that the time was not right to thrust myself into publishing at least two different blogs a day for both MLBlogs.com and this rival site. This site is still under construction, but will someday be a nice light in the darkness surrounding the game of baseball with some awesome writers, but I will not be in that fold. So I decided to write a nice piece on Rays Manager Joe Maddon to just let others get to know him a bit from what I see as a fan and as a writer. 

 

Since even before the Tampa Bay Rays began their improbable trip towards a high flying destiny in 2008, most of the old school baseball world outside of Tampa Bay, or even within the Anaheim,California community, some people have never really gotten to know Rays Manager Joe Maddon from stem to stern. Most Rays fans in Tampa Bay know of Maddon’s long time devotion to road cycling treks that he does both along the scenic corridors of Bayshore Blvd in Tampa, or even when the Rays take their show on the road.

Maddon also takes along his personal bike to Rays away games to explore some of the historic and scenic venues in those cities. Just imagine taking a trek around the Inner Harbor area in Baltimore, or even traversing the trail that Paul Revere took so long ago when in Boston to play the Red Sox. But it is also a relaxation technique used by the manager when decision have to be made, and problems solved for his team. And it is a unique and spectacular thing to exercise the body and the mind at the same time, while problem-solving. Guess you can call it a multi-tasking event with a healthy outcome. 

And within it all, Maddon has been able to become his own type of manager. He was the guy who started to read and print out match-ups and odd Sabermetric numbers way before it became fashionable by other managers. And even if some of his game day wisdom are questioned by some,Maddon truly has his own logical sense and game situation realities that translate well with his job as a major league manager.
 

He even has a “fine” bowl in his office where Rays players, who are found guilty by the either Maddon and his Coaching staff or the team Kangaroo Court have to purchase a bottle of wine for the skipper with each slip of paper divulging their fine amount. He is one of the only managers in the major leagues that I know of who has his own wine rack and subsequent wine cooler in his office for post game tastings and special occasions. And you know that cooler got plenty of good use with champagne and fine spirits during the 2008 Postseason celebrations.

Some of Maddon’s  out-of-season activities might surprise some baseball fans outside of Tampa Bay. But outside of the bay area, most fans do not get to know Maddon, the Tampa Bay area humanitarian. Maddon is entering his 35th season in professional baseball, and 16 of those years has been at the major league level. But few people know of the  unpublicized community efforts and the  great compassion Maddon has for his new adopted community.

One of the most visual and celebrated efforts of his generosity for giving back to Tampa Bay is his annual “Thanks-mas” celebration he has held the last three seasons while he has been with the Rays. Always held between the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas, Maddon along with his Rays Coaches and front office staff have personally shopped, cooked and even served special dinners of spaghetti, sausage, pierogies, pasta and salad for over 1,000 people in the Salvation Army shelters in Bradenton, St. Petersburg, Tampa and Port Charlotte areas.

One of the biggest food hits in this event is the special meatballs Maddon was taught how to make by his mother Beanie back in his home town of Hazelton, Pennsylvania. But it is the smiles on the people that this event serves that is the most special part of this event for Maddon. And the the entire Rays family from field staff to front office folks also coming out and contributing in the event, it has become a highly anticipated event for both the community and the entire Rays staff from top to bottom. 

Another humanitarian/charitable effort held close to Maddon’s heart is the John Challis Courage for Life Foundation. Maddon could even be seen wearing a special bracelet during the 2008 postseason commemorating this Callis’s courage while battling cancer. If anyone has ever taken a step into Maddon’s office, they will see a jersey case with one of the jerseys signed by Challis before he passed away at the age of 18 last August. Challis, a native of Beaver County in Pennsylvania met Maddon during the 2008 InterLeague series when the team went to Pittsburgh to play the Pirates.

The two immediately fostered a great friendship that emerged during between Maddon and Challis. Maddon has since been actively involved in fund raising for the foundation and in November 2008 when he was named winner of the Chuck Tanner Award as Major League Manager of the Year, it was John’s father Scott, who was present to accept the award for him in Pittsburgh.

Another element of Maddon that most people in Tampa Bay do not even want to think about is the fact that he was up for the job in Boston at the same time as Terry Francona, and if things had gone differently, the Rays never would have gained his services, but would have had to plot against the magic that is Maddon, instead of with him. When Maddon won the 2008 BBWAA American League Manager of the Year award, he was only one second place vote shy of becoming only the first AL or NL manager to ever get a unanimous selection for the award.

He get to share that honor with four other managers’ who have come one vote shy of perfection. He even gets to share the honor with a personal member of his staff, Rays Senior Advisor Don Zimmer, who in 1989 while managing the Chicago Cubs came up short while winning the award. But more than ever now people around the country are beginning to remember the charismatic manager for other things besides his vocabulary and situational quotes.

On August 17, 2008, while playing the Texas Rangers in Arlington, he became the first AL manager in 107 years to order an intentional walk with the bases loaded. Maddon had reliever Grant Balfour walk former Rays prospect Josh Hamilton with 2-outs in the bottom of the ninth inning with the Rays winning 7-3 at the time. After that walk, Maddon replaced Balfour with reliever Dan Wheeler who got the last out to preserve the win for the Rays.

The only other time it has happened in baseball history was on May 23, 1901 when Clark Griffin, then a player/manager for the Chicago White Sox intentionally walked future Hall of Fame member Nap Lajoie with no outs in the ninth inning with a 11-7 lead. But that just goes to show you how he values the past of baseball and brings it alive today in 2009.

Some of Maddons current outside-the-box methods come from a meshing of old baseball thought and current cerebral instincts to bring new ideas and rehash old lost tactics for the Rays. And because some of his ideas go against baseball logic, they are original in their intent and is one of the things that makes Maddon refreshing to some people in baseball. His fond admiration for past things that have worked, like the shift for left-handed batters, or the five-player infield have made some other people within baseball begin to question some of his actions.
 

Some people forget Maddon is only starting his fourth season with the club in 2009, and already has the more victories than any other manager in Rays history. He passed Rays Inaugural manager Larry Rothchild on August 23,2008 with his 206th win in a game against the Chicago White Sox.

And some people forget he has had a “taste” of being a Major League manager before he got his first full-time stint in the dugout in Tampa Bay. He got his first taste of the job in 1998, when Los Angeles Angels Manager Terry Collins got an 8-game suspension following a bench clearing brawl  during an away series in Kansas City. Maddon got an additional turn at the skipper post when Collins resigned on September 3, 1999 and he led the Angels the rest of the season to a 19-10 record.

But the most unique moment might have been when Maddon was called upon to replace John McNamara in 1996, who was replacing Rene Lachmann who resigned that August as skipper. McNamara had developed a deep vein thrombosis (blood clot) in his right calf. Maddon took the helm for 22 games, finishing with a 8-14 record. Maddon did get another set of circumstances during his tenure as a Angels Bench Coach when current Angels Manager Mike Scioscia had to leave the team for a short period of time. Maddon lead the Angels to a 33-26 record during his stint with the squad.

But on the personal side of the Rays skipper, Maddon has many fantastic hobbies and interests that generally fall outside the realm of most of his fellow managers. He has been a guest at a White House dinner in January 2009 held by former President George W. Bush. And following his marriage after the 2008 season, Maddon took a small adventure throughout Europe with his new bride and at one point during the honeymoon he even found a Rays fan in a train station Italy.


Mike Carlson /AP

As for his biking hobby, he is a very dedicated biker who puts in 60-100 miles every week. An unknown fact about Maddon in his youth is that he was recruited as a shortstop and pitcher for Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. He switched positions voluntarily to catcher midway through his freshman year. At Lafayette, he majored in economics and he will also receive an honorary degree this summer from his old Alma Mater.

But one of the biggest thrills of his life might  have been becoming the  winning American League Manager in the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis ,Missouri. As the American League skipper in the World Series, he got to take the helm in this years All-Star game coaching the current superstars of the American League. Maddon was only the second Rays coaching staff member to ever appear in an All-Star game with Rothchild being the first when he was selected in 2002 by Joe Torre. It was Maddon’s second All-Star game. He previously got to attend when Sciocsia was the 2003 AL Manager.

Maddon has only been in Tampa Bay for a short time, but his Rays teams and the Rays fans have united around him to show support for his new ways of thinking about the sport of baseball. Along with the fan base uniting to support the manager with the formulation of the “Maddon’s Maniacs” group three seasons ago. From speaking engagements with the group,to small snippets of chats with fans and media members, the Tampa Bay community has gotten to know Maddon deeper and closer than he ever imagined.


RRCollections
 

With the  Rays 2008 success and the recent Rays club fall from grace during an 11-game losing streak Maddon is again trying to formulate the right combination to again get his Rays back into the winner’s circle and try and preserve the team’s second best record ever for the franchise. With the team currently sporting a 72-71 record in 2009, the task is daunting, and the rest of the season might hang in the balance in the next few series. But knowing Maddon and his quick mind and analytical thought process, he will again get the Rays on the right path and finish out the year in style.

Recently, for the first time in his tenure with the Rays Maddon has been questioned and second guessed in the media and by blogs throughout the country. But his general sense of this team is that this is the cog in the pipes they were fearing the entire season, and it is coming at the most critical part of the year. But with his positive re-enforcement and faith in his roster, the future looks bright for the Rays skipper.

September 11th Remembrance

 

Every single American citizen has a unique perspective on the horrific events of September 11th 2001.  For every one of us was going about our daily routines before the events unfolded in front of us. We were all doing something on that day, and our individual angles of perceptions are all stories that we all can share with the world about this grave day in our nation’s history. Anyone over 10years of age will have a eternal mental bookmark image in their minds of those landmark twin towers in flames and smoldering mixed with the ear-piercing sound of tons of steel and concrete falling to rest at the base of the towers.

We cannot change the event or the fate of those who perished that day amid the lives of others who sacrificed themselves so that other could live to tell their heroic and horrific tales of the event. We must never forget the heart wrenching pain and the utter confusion we, as a nation experienced visually together and how we all wondered aloud what our own real worlds would become on September 12th. For the senseless acts of a few on that date have permanently changed a nation’s collective thoughts on horror and terror, and we must always be vigilant to future actions or events.

I just want to state for the record that I am extremely proud of the way the entire country pulled together for the citizens of New York City and its surrounding townships and boroughs that lost members of their community on that day. I am still so remorseful over the loss of those two great towers that beamed a light of freedom and power to the world as a symbol of the landscape of the Big Apple. For it was an International symbol of what we stood for, and what we can achieve as a nation. And for that same reason, it was targeted to be erased not only from our nation’s eyes, but the entire worlds view forever. This is my remembrance of that day in America’s history when even the Statue of Liberty wanted to cry and reach out to its citizens.

I remember that morning I was filling in by helping to run a vacation route that consisted of a vending machine stops that day for my job at Pepsi. Usually I do not fill in like this, but the route has some pretty particular locations on its runs, and had to be completed that day.  I was just coming out of the Franklin Templeton building on Carillon Parkway in the Gateway section of St. Petersburg when it seemed to me that the sky had fallen silent.

I was within 8 miles of the always busy Tampa International Airport, and about 2 miles from the smaller, but activity enriched St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport. As I put my laydowns on the back of my Pepsi truck, I was unaware of the first twin tower  had been hit by an American Airlines flight out of Boston, Mass. en route to Los Angeles.

I pulled my truck into the front parking lot of the Raymond James complex just down the road and the receptionist at the front security checkpoint and the entire Security staff were all huddled near an overhanging television watching the beginning of that days horrific events as I entered the building. 

My pager immediately began to go ballistic with 8 straight emergency pagers from my company telling all company trucks to finish their current route stops and proceed immediately back to the  St. Petersburg warehouse. It was advised by the Regional Vice-President at that moment that all Pepsi company employees and their vehicles needed be off the road in case of a similar episode here in the Tampa Bay area.
Considering we had Mac Dill Air Force Base, which is home to the Central Command headquarters, which is the operating center for all current military operations conducted in the Middle East only 15 miles away, it was decided that if the terrorists were indeed targeting important military and high profile security locations, that Central Command would be a important target. So I decided to forget the vending machines and quickly returned to the warehouse and sat with most of the Pepsi plant employees watching the horrific events unfold in front of me on a television in the main meeting room. 

I could only think about how as a cocky 10-year old boy, my uncle George took me on top of the north tower while it was almost completed and showed me the beautiful sights of New York City from an entirely new prospective. How proud my uncle was of these towers, and coming to work daily with such an awesome cityscape every day just seemed to make him happy to have chosen his profession.

In that moment, while standing in the Pepsi meeting room I tried to get a hold of him on my cellphone and tried to again and again to call him, but at that time hundreds of thousands of people were jamming the cell towers with calls here and towards the Big Apple to check on relatives and friends in the city. I learned much later that some of the biggest cellphone reception towers were located on those twin towers in the heart of New York. The instant influx of calls and messages had overwhelmed the cell phone systems and caused massive busy signals and no signals messages deep within the city.
And during this tragic low point in America’s proud history, the Tampa Bay Rays were in a local hotel based in Manhattan preparing for a game that same night against the New York Yankees. They could not venture out of the safety of the hotel, or even get calls out to loved ones and the team to notify them of their safe confines until hours later. The team sat huddles in a banquet room watching what the rest of us around America was seeing, the symbols of New York burning and crashing to the ground in front of their very eyes.

With the dangers surrounding the New York area at that time not confined just to the World Trade Plaza, Rudy Giuliani, the current Mayor of New York City implored citizens to stay within their homes until it was deemed safe to again travel within the city.  That night’s game was canceled and Ray’s players and staff were instructed to stay in the hotel and not even venture to local restaurants and stores as a security measure. For the game of baseball would have to wait as the city lay hurt and injured before them, but baseball would be a key ingredient to the health of this great city.

When days later, the Rays did finally get to play New York, it was the first day that baseball again got to be played in this great city. And it was an event that evoked not only tears of sadness but of joy that a sense of normalcy was again going to fill the lives of New Yorkers. The pure act of watching 18 men take the field to play a baseball game began the healing process for some in the city. For the city had been in mourning for days and now needed an outward release, an event to boost spirits and morale, an event to celebrate the brave face of the city in this crisis. It might have been the first time in days that the city took a deep breath and relaxed as a whole.

It was a game surrounded by huge emotional episodes and truly patriotic gestures by fans and players of both teams. Some members of the Rays had been past players for the Yankees, while others amongst the Rays roster hailed from the state of New York and felt a huge rush of civic pride and compassion for the city. As a measure of remembrance, MLB had all the players uniforms emblazoned with an American flag patch over the MLB label usually located in the rear of the uniform. MLB also instructed each team to attach to the players caps, a stitched American flag on the left side of the cap, closest to the hearts of the citizens of this nation.

It was a game not played for the competition between these two teams that day, but for the grieving of the nation and this great city.  Both teams were still a bit numb, and it showed in the awkwardness on the field.  But it was a game of release and healing for the fans in attendance and the citizens of this great town at home watching on television. It was a defiant show of courage and the acts of trying to get back to normal, or trying to figure out what normal was from that day on.

It was a baseball game where the score did not matter, for it was a visual sign of rebuilding faith and reconstructing the city’s pride again. It was a time for New Yorkers to grieve, celebrate, and ponder what to do from now on.

And the Rays as a team were honored to be there for their baseball brethren and their city, for it was an honor that they could help this healing process begin for the city by just playing a game. Everyone knows the huge outpouring of the entire country for the citizens of New York City. But with the action of the Rays and Yankees playing a simple ballgame, it brought about a sense of getting back to life, and a place to remember, and a way to embrace life with their fellow man that night.

 

So on this horrific day, 8 years ago, many NYC firefighters, Port Authority and NYPD brave men and women perished in this tragic disaster. I still hold as a memory of that faithful day an old Rays cap from pitcher Brian Rekar that within the brow has his uniform number 35, and the symbols of the “FDNY”, and “NYPD” imprinted on it in black sharpie as his remembrance to those courageous souls. Rekar gave me the symbolic cap after the Rays last game in 2001 at Tropicana Field, and I have had it encased in a see through basketball display case and it is located within eye sight when you enter my home.

Like so many in this country it was a day that I will never forget, or can ever forget the sights and sounds of that event.

But it is still a real joy to me knowing that the simple actions of playing a baseball game helped the healing process in that time of grief and suffering. The city has begun to shed itself of those scars and physical memories, it has collectively healed itself, and the site of those majestic twin towers has been excavated and will someday hold a place for others to come and show respects and prayers for the many who were lost and never found. The area has undergone huge change, but the memories and the emotional pull of that day at Ground Zero will always grow heavy on this nation’s heart.

It was one of the darkest days of this nation’s history where human life and perspective were damaged and destroyed forever. It was also a day that came to remind all of us the courage and the strength that this nation embodies from sea to shining sea. For life has changed in many ways from the events of this date, but the heartbeat of this country remains strong and more powerful with each day. For we lost our collective innocence and patriotic foundation on this date for a short time, but it was built up tougher and more resilient because of the events on September 11th.

For on this date, from now on, we can collectively celebrate the bend but not break mental and emotional bonds that weaves throughout all of us in the country, and make us strong. For this day should not be celebrated as a death, but as a reemergence of the American spirit and determination to fly high like an eagle………especially in the skies around New York City.

 

 

Rain Delay Moments

I have to be honest here. I am very uneducated on the actions and reactions of true rain delays in a baseball game. I do have experience on the field as a player with them, but I have a very limited set of mental resources to remind me of what happens during rain delays with my own team. I mean, we play in an enclosed dome that leaks, but only in centerfield right in front of B J Upton’s position. And even then, the Tampa Bay Rays fans have no real idea of the time involved, or the actions that need to be made for a rain delay.

We do not know about the hustle and bustle of the grounds crew to position and then unroll a massive plastic tarp to cover the infield and keep it from furhter water damage. We do not have a clue on the elements of dictating a rain delay, or even the planning and the execises in boredom that can overtake the moments waiting for a team to “call a game” and send us all home.
Maybe I should consider myself lucky that the three times in my baseball travels that had rain delays, we ended up playing within a few hours and concluded all three games.

But the thing that humors me about rain delays is the simple act it throws the in-stadium video and game crews into an instant panic for a few moments before chaos becomes order. I mean I have been to Progressive Field/Jacobs Field twice for 3-game series in the past, and always the Sat afternoon games have been delayed by liquid sunshine. One game was in the middle of May (5/14/2004) and the other was at the end of the regular season in September (9/30/2006), so the time of the year might not have had a huge impact in the droplets of water. 

And I had a ball during both of those delays. During the first one,I learned a new drinking game a few bartenders who were attending the games as a group, and during the second delay I learned a lot about the Indians teams history while also sitting in the sprinkles just beyond the stadium overhang.  And I relished sitting there during the last half hour of the delay loving the rain and missing it sometimes on my skin during games in Tampa Bay. For it is a special part of the game where the fans can commune and talk about the team, life or just the weather.

 And the only other rain situation I have ever been involved in was on June 3,2005 when I was in Seattle for the Rays 3-game series. During the Sat. night game the rain began to lightly fall, and they began to close that massive steel roof while the game was still in progress below. What truly amazed me was the fact that no one besides me even acknowledged the fact the roof was closing during the inning. It was such a common thing to them only slight glances went skyward during its closure. I was mesmerized watching the huges pieces of metal above me moving with those giant wheels churning towards a closed point. It seemed to only take a few minutes, but for that entire time I was just in total awe of the spectacle.

But what do “normal” fans do during rain delays? For this I have no real information or even knowledge. For I live in a baseball region that employs a domed stadium where the only delays we have is for the electircal situation that come with mega thunderstorms or the odd lightning strike on a nearby substation that flips the breakers and turns off the large lights. Bu that is rare, and only takes 15-20 minutes before the stadium is again aglow with luminated lighting. So what experience do I have in the rain? Well, not much, but I am also someone who could have fun all by himself, and I did have fun.

While in Cleveland, with the rain lightly falling, I went down on the rail by the field taking pictures of the ground crew putting the tarp out on the field. I tried to get the attention of one of the ground crew members to ask about their job, but no one seemed to want to bother with the “Away team” guy. But I stayed down there in that section of seats and let the raindrops hit me again and again. And I decided to sit down by the Visitor’s dugout during the delay and one of my favorite guys on the Rays in 2005, Damian Rolls was out watching the rain fall.

We chatted for a few minutes on why I was there ( personal B-day present to myself), and about the great game of baseball. It was a great moment for me to get to know another one of the Rays, and I did not even notice it was raining harder at the time. As I was getting soaked in my Rays white jersey, Rolls slipped me a Rays green warm up jacket and told me to try and stay warm for they needed to hear my screams during the game. I told him I was seated actually right next to the roof area of the Rays Bullpen in rightfield, and it might take a bit to hear my voice that day.

Rays Manager Lou Pinella then strolled out and predicted it would be two hours before they took the tarp off. I chuckled and he looked my way and acknowledged the Pepsi man. Rolls and I talked for a few more minutes before he said he wanted to go hit in the under stands batting cages and stretch out again for the game. After Rolls left, I wandered around the stadium taking in the sights before meeting a few older gentleman who gave me a short but entertaining history of the Indians franchise.

And at about the 2 hour and 3 minute mark into the rain delay, the grounds crew came out and started to throw down kitty litter or field dry to prepare the field. I laughed that Pinella was only off by a few minutes, but we were again going to see baseball that day in Cleveland. And that is my total, but short history of rain-related adventures. But I know there are scores of other people who read this blog, and who also have had entertaining adventures during rain delays.

Rain is an element some find disturbing, while others love the simple feel of it on their skin. Rain can be romantic or ruin your simple plans. But the rain can also open opportunities for you to explore and even meet new and exciting people while attending a baseball game. I hate to admit it, but every game I go to outside of Tropicana Field I hope for rain. Not to be difficult, but so I can walk around the stadium complex and see things I would not notice if I sat in my seat. Maybe even meet some new friends who will tell me the “hot spot” to hit in the Warehouse District in Cleveland, or a small food vendor I have to see in Seattle before I leave town.

Baseball might be about the game, but for me baseball is also about the experience. And the games that have given me the total experience have been the one that developed into rain delayed contests. I do not get this luxury that much at home. the stadium is not know for their electircal backouts or long delays. So when I travel to other stadiums, I hope and pray that these delays do happen so I can partake in all the oddities and great features of each stadium I visit. And if a little rain must fall……..so be it!

Pitching to Contact

 


Chris O’Meara / AP

There are moments during the game, and also during the post-game that I question this whole “Pitching-to-Contact” system and its basic premise to induce ground balls outs and secure pitch counts for starters. The system seems almost laughable at times when the pitcher’s only seem to last until the middle of the 6th innings at best, and the pitch count as gotten the better of Tampa Bay Rays pitching staffs. But then I see some of the Rays rookies use the system, having been taught it in the minor leagues, and it does show that it has some merit if the right pitchers are used in the system.

And that might be the hidden key that everyone else has missed for the Scott Kazmir trade. Power pitching doesn’t belong in this system. The basic ideal of the system is to confuse and induce ground balls and hittable balls for strikeouts and foul ball put outs to minimalize the scoring chances of your opponent. And Kazmir was brought up as a power pitcher, and we have seen him try to conform to the system, but the system ended up eating him up like a chew toy and spit him out all over the mound. 

How much more acceptable would the idea of this recent trade have been if Andrew Friedman has just said that Kazmir was not a good fit for the Rays pitching system, and that after both sides tried to make it work, a change was needed by both sides to succeed from this point forward. I could have accepted that reasoning in a heartbeat, and known that Kazmir was hurt the last two years trying to conform to a system that was foreign to his own pitching style. But why is it a young power pitcher like Kazmir could not develop into the system, but some one like Jeff Neimann is a natural for it?

There is the ruse. There is the hidden answer to it all, the system doesn’t pick the pitchers to be employed into it, the team does that. And a pitcher like Kazmir and even James Shields were not in the current Rays system under Rays Manager Joe Maddon and Pitching Coach Jim Hickey where they could learn the system at the lower levels, then come up with a total understanding of it all. And that might be the reasoning for the reduced strikeouts and some of the anemic outings by Shields also this season. He is adapting to the system, but it has not clicked with him yet.


Mike Carlson / AP


So what is this “Pitch-to-Contact” system, and why is it as hard to master. Well, first off, it is actually developed to help pitchers keep the ball down and hopefully go deep into ballgames. The system plays heavily on the pitchers physical fundamentals and his ability to fight off fatigue in game situations. And if the system is not taught in the lower levels, it get harder and harder at the Major League level to readjust and rethink your entire mode of pitching. That is why Shields has seen difficult outings and barrages of hits when in the past he would have just powered his way past a batter.

 And there are success stories even within our division of pitchers who have adapted the system and gone on to major success in the league. Toronto’s Roy Halladay converted to this method of pitching in 2006, and his abilities and his stamina have grown every season. Now this concept of pitching to contact is not based on just throwing the ball down the middle and hoping for the best. It is actually playing to the individual pitcher’s strengths and adjusting speeds and quadrant location to maximize their abilities during every at bat in a game.
 

But changing a pitcher’s mindset gets hard the more time he is in the majors. We are taught at a young age to “throw it by” an opponent or even using our breaking ball to set up our “out” pitch. This system throws all of that into a basket and relies more on the ability to induce throwing low into the zone and hopefully getting more ground balls that you defense can easily convert into outs. And this system is better perfected in the minors than at this level of the game. That might be the basic reasons that Rays rookies David Price and Jeff Neimann are having the success they are having this season. They have been taught the system in the minor leagues.

One of the basic rules of the pitching to contact system is getting ahead in the counts to hitters. As we have seen in the past, this has been a true problem for the Rays pitching staff. But this system employs a system of pitching low and to outer quadrants and letting the ball be hit, if it is in the zone more on the ground than in the air. That the past notion of “painting the corner” or trying to just itch the outside of the corners is a thing of the past, and is not a part of this system.  The past belief in “painting” or nibbling at the corners actually is a negative if you want to preserve your pitch count and stay in the game later.  The pitching to contact system can increase your outings if you follow its rules.


Nam Y Huh / AP


The Rays Coaching staff believes that by keeping pitches down, it will lead to more ground ball that their defense can handle for easy outs. And just because this might lead to more hitters getting their bats on the ball doesn’t go hand in hand with more runs crossing the plate.
The point of this is to show that getting hitters to put more wood on the ball will not automatically mean more runs crossing the plate. This is especially true in Tampa Bay in 2008, where the abilities of a talented infield meant more outs for pitchers unafraid to have the ball put on the ground.  For this system to work, a pitcher has to believe in it 100 percent.

You can see where this system could be a pitcher’s best friend after awhile helping him become more pitch efficient and maybe transforming that into going deeper into ballgames, but you can maybe effectively gauge some of that on the kind of pitcher, and what he basically throws to be a great indicator of his success or failure in this system. Here are a few examples brought to light by the U.S.S. Mariners blog back in Feb 2007 on this system:

“Great pitching+great command: You shouldn’t care about pitching advice.
Great pitching + horrible command: chuck it down the middle, let them swing and miss.
Hittable pitches+great command:  You want to live on speed changes and hitting the corners.
Horrible pitches+horrible command: You’re not going to be around long anyways. “

This system right now has its good and bad moments posted all over the Rays 2009 season. I can not say that I truly think that every pitcher on the Rays staff right now is fashioned to use this type of pitching system, or could develop it into his own arsenal to become more effective on the mound. But because the recent influx of the Rays rookie pitchers, and their ability to adjust and transform their pitching styles into this system might be a good indicator of future success. But for this system to truly work to perfection, the Rays defense again has to step up a bit and take it back to and above their 2008 levels.


Gail Burton / AP

I guess you can say that the jury is still out on if I believe this system can be employed by all five of our starters with effectiveness. But right now the advent of the system is beginning to show both signs of good and bad in our rotation. Some need to further adjust their styles to adapt the system totally into their pitching, but some also have come miles in the last few months to use this system to its extremes. All in all, if this system is taught at the lower levels of the farm system and employed all the way up the ladder, the next influx of Rays pitchers will also be able to use and adapt their abilities perfectly to conform to the system.

But right now, the Rays starters are beginning to show some signs of really getting this system ingrained into their every day pitching, and that could be a major thing going into 2010 ans beyond for the team. Who knows if this system will be here in two seasons, or might even be trashed the moment the team doesn’t retain their current Pitching Coach. But the reality of it all is that if the Rays infield defense and the pitching staff can both get on the same wave length, we could see another run like 2008 in the near future.

Rays Fan Favorite Says Goodbye

                                 
                                  www.tbo.com



When I went to my local gas station today to get my morning paper, I had a sense that it was going to be a special day today. No, it was not the clear blue skies, or even the bird chirping above me in the old oak trees, there was a special crispness to the air. I was not sure why at the time, but something just seemed to click in the wrold today. All just seemed pleasant in Happy Valley. So I wentinto the store and bought my usual morning Moon Pie and a Dr. Pepper, then picked up my local paper for viewing back home in the outside porch swing.

And I followed my daily routine that you could set a watch by, first checking out the Sports section, then doing an always mind rousing game of “Catch my attention” with the rest of the paper. I had done this since I first went to college to get my mind used to processing lead paragraphs and getting into that “journalistic mindset” I hoped to use post-education in my life. But a funny thing happened to me this morning. As I was glancing and bouncing from headline to headline, I usually just pass over all the advertisements without a hint of thought and just check the lead-ins of each story on the page.

But today, a great big color ad on page 3-A of the St. Petersburg Times caught my eye and made me smile and reflect on an old baseball buddy who was now miles away looking at a different water scene. For in front of my eyes was a beautiful eye-catching ad done by the Times advertising department, and it definitely made my day. It was the “Goodbye” message from a player we all got to know well in his short time with the Tampa Bay Rays. But above all, it was the closure most of us needed after a fast and furious trade made during the Rays last road trip. A lot of us did not get to say our goodbyes, or even voice a single note of support or “thank you’s” to this guy.

Anyone who knows me also knows I have a special place in my Rays past memories for Scott Kazmir. He has always been one of those Rays players who always made time, even a few seconds for a fan, no matter what was going on around him. And it is that slice of kindness and humanity that will always has me thanking my lucky stars I got to meet such a great player. Kazmir was just one of those guys who when he talked to you, talked like you were friends for a long time, and that was always a treat. Always had a smile on his face, and even knew some of our names and said them out loud when greeting us.


www.yahoo.com

Sure, he might have come over and chatted knowing I wrote a blog, or he might have just come over with the realization that I speak some no BS when it comes to baseball. But just the fact he came over was amazing to me. But if you ever watched him on days where he did not pitch, or “held court in the dugout”, you would get the idea. He knew the fans were important, and he cherished the loyalty that this fan base had for him. But, most of all, he made himself an open book for all of us to enjoy during his Rays career.

The advert was amazing because a lot of Tampa Bay is still on the fence with the deal, and not sure which way to support at times. But in the end, with this visual if him smiling from the page which was firmly in my hands, I knew that he was going to miss us too. Kazmir really enjoyed the attention and the admiration of the fans, both young and old. Heck, he was one of the only players I ever saw right after coming off the Bullpen mound warming-up for a game to go to the Bullpen wall and sign a few autographs. But that was Kazmir.

I have to say, after the way the trade went so quick, I am so glad I got to have a few seconds with him playing a simple game at the Rays Gameworks party jousting for rebounds and making long 3-point shots. That will be my last moments with this great pitcher, playing a NBA-style basketball game moving the joysticks at break neck speed while both of us fed our competitve spirits.  I almost wished I was 20 years younger so i could hang out with him more at that time. But that is how much he put everyone at ease who met him, and that is a special gift that will be with him long into his baseball career.


RRCollections


On a day when the front page of the Sports section mourned the loss of an offensive giant on the Rays, it is funny that page 3-A is going to have the most impact on me today. Not lost in the moment is the visual closure we can now have knowing that when he got on that plane bound for Los Angeles, he might have thought about the fans he left behind. But with this ad, we have that clsoure, that meaning of what this guy meant to us as Rays fans. It might have been a non-verbal “Goodbye”, but I can still hear him talking, laughing and enjoying his Rays tenure……..and with that a single tear came down my cheek.

  

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