Reminiscing Before the Rays Spring Opener
It is about two hours before we again get to hear that first “official” thump into the catcher’s mitt to signal the official beginning of another fantastic Major League Baseball season for the Tampa Bay Rays. And it is great that Mother Nature decided to participate today with a nibbling cold breeze circling through the stadium, and the warming heat from that big orange ball in the sky are both making this first day of real baseball tingle, just like an early childhood Christmas morning.
Hate to admit it to the baseball world, but I am a sentimental old fool when it comes to the game of baseball. Some say I am too emotionally and mentally attached to the game and that has produced some interesting flashbacks over the last few days. To me, it is just a reminder or a mental revisiting of some past Rays Spring Training Grapefruit moments that stand out in my mind. And there has been a bit of a revolving continual flashback video within my mind’s eye recently that hopefully will diminish with Guthrie’s first pitch. But they are great moments to me, and ones that always bring a smile to my face.
But even with a head nod from Rays reliever Dan Wheeler yesterday in the rain-reduced workouts at the Rays complex, another vision came of the young Wheeler being one of the only members of that first Rays Draft class to make it all the way to the top beginning with his fantastic Spring Training back in 2000 when he also won the Al Lopez award for the then D-Rays. It brought back times of seeing someone like Travis Phelps who was drafted so late in the 1998 MLB Draft you would think he would be a scout or in another line of work instead of coming into Rays games as a reliever and reminding people around Tampa Bay that confidence and talent can get you what you desire in life if you mix in a healthy dose of determination into the equation.
And not everything rushing through my mind has been a good time. There was a moment on March 19,2005 right after seeing possible future Baseball Hall of Fame member Roberto Alomar trotting off the Progress Energy Park infield for the last time with his head down that it donned on me he might have just made his last Major League Baseball play, and then within a few hours notice, Alomar announced to the baseball world he was retiring from the game due to vision and back problems. And the duo night’s announcements of both Alomar and outfielder Danny Batista leaving the game on the same date left some of us gasping and wondering if the team might be cursed.
But then memories like 2008, which was the Rays last season training in St. Petersburg, Florida come to my mind. Visions of Rays pitcher Scott Kazmir predicting while he was rehabbing an elbow injury that the playoff was the goal of the 2008 team. And maybe set into motion during that Spring Training quote nugget during a Spring Training interview out at Rays Namoli complex, this team formulated their foundation and cemented their confidence for the entire season. Instantly this team began to win those 1-run games that Spring.
And combined with emotional games against the Yankees in which Yankee farmhand Shelley Duncan was dishing out some baseball justice, this team came together on the clay and dirt of Progress Energy Park. And that cosmos of emotions built up right up until the March 23,2008 game against the Cincinnati Reds when the team played their last Spring Training game ever in the stadium where they had held every Spring Training game since 1998. For they were going to relocate 80 miles Southward the next Spring in the seaside hamlet of Port Charlotte, Florida taking over a refurbished former Spring home of the Texas Rangers. And that last sell-out game held a bevy of emotions that overflowed into the grandstands and grassy berms.
Even if the Spring Training game have been transported to our South, the Rays team taking the field today know what is ahead of them. With Rays Manager Joe Maddon discarding the mathematics and bringing on the abbreviated, we are entering a new Rays era. “What’s Important Now” is the new mantra. Maddon chatted a lot with Ken Ravizza, the Rays performance consultant and sport psychologist who actually came up with the Rays new possible T-shirt phrase, breaking the Rays Manager’s string of number-induced team slogans. Staying in the “present moment” is going to be key in the way the Rays play this Grapefruit season.
Breaking from the untold failures of the Rays past has been accomplished. This new Spring edition of the Rays will again try and control the controllable from today’s game throughout 2010, with an earmark to correcting past inferiors and mental stop signs. The team seems to be focused towards the immediate future, and what each and every one of them can bring to the table. I commend them for the early acknowledgment of what has to be trimmed and better defined for this team to again taste champagne in October.
But I am also a student of the past, and I personally know that sometimes you have to go back to review the past before you confidently step forward. So today as Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett steps into the batter box against Guthrie there is a heightened sense of renewal in the air here in Sarasota, Florida.
There is new orange paint surrounding Ed Smith Stadium, but there is also a crispness that only a great Spring Training baseball game can deliver, and a refreshing rebirth in “The Rays Way” this Spring that should lead to lofty heights and great results. And with that, it is time to watch some last minute preps toward seeing baseball for the first time in 2010. I am excited, reminiscent of the past, and also eager to see the future…Play Ball!