March 2010

I Don’t Know Joe…..

 


YahooSports.com

What the heck Joe! Now  you know I respect you a helluva lot, but I am probably not the only one within the Rays Republic today scratching my forehead wondering why you made the move you did yesterday against the New York Yankees in a Spring Training game it seems your team was dominating in at the time. Why would you even think of pulling Sean Rodriguez who was about to put up a possible career achievement like hitting for the cycle and pinch-hit him for Fernando Perez?

 
I am wondering why you did not let Rodriguez at least get a fighting chance at completing his drive for the cycle and pop Perez into the outfield in the bottom of the inning. I mean the guy was about to do something as complex as hitting for the cycle in reverse. In reverse Joe! You watched him in his third game this Spring during his first at bat hit another ball deep enough to go out of the ball park (with some help from the outfield padding) against the Yankees to give your team an early lead.
 

I would be excited just by that feat in itself, but the kid out did even my expectations by then hitting a triple, then getting another RBI double to post 5 RBI on the day, which was the more than enough to help you team post a 11-7 win in Tampa against your AL East nemesis. But still this is gnawing at my frontal lobe Joe, why you did not let the kid try for it. I know the Rays new mantra of W.I.N. or “What’s Important Now”, but to me yesterday, it was letting the kid have a chance to put a firm stamp on his competition this Spring by going above and beyond even your wildest expectations and securing a rare feat, even in the Spring, of a cycle.

 
 

I am just perplexed here Mr. Maddon. I really do not know what to say mostly because I know the Spring Training season is the time to try new and unique situations or plays, but this one really has me so befuddled I almost couldn’t write this today. Here is a player basically about to come out of his cocoon stage and become a regular season butterfly for the Rays, and he gets sat down for a pitch-hitter right when he is about to secure what is considered an almost impossible feat.
 

And I know I am not the only one to consider this situation, and I might read a bit more from local news accounts within the next day or two, but personally, I am a bit bewildered beyond belief. I guess my realization that it is the Spring has to be my mind’s justification for this happening because I know you were not snoozing during the game and knew the scenario that was playing out on the field.

But hidden underneath all of this was the spike of emotion that somehow suddenly seemed to be lacking in your team until they finally rebounded in the top of the eight inning to secure this second win of the Spring for the Rays. I guess there is a lot more to managing that I can see from my seat here within the stands today. But I also see Rodriguez’s missed opportunity yesterday to have a “career” moment as a small blip on the oversight meter that you might have dropped the ball on this one.

 


YahooSports.com


I am more upset with the idea that it could furnish a seed of doubt within a young player’s mind who is tearing this competition between himself and Reid Brignac to shreds, and maybe that is something the Rays brass do not want to see settled so early in this Spring battle. But then again, I am only a fan and not a member of your dugout crew and do not know if there was a secondary reason for this based on match-ups or even the slightest hint of a situational movement by you to pop Perez up there at that moment.

 

So now that I have written my rave and gotten it out of my system, I hope if the same situation happens again in 2010 that we let the guy hit for the chance. Missing the opportunity might be just as bad as striking out in that pressure situation yesterday. Both can pop seeds of doubt or inconsistent decisions deep into their mindset that can blossom and turn this battle into a one-sided affair. But now in my moment of getting it all out, I am again resigned to believing you know what you are doing at all times in the dugout.

For I have a lot of respect and admiration for what you have done since you took the reins in 2007 to change to psyche and the foundation of Rays baseball through your theories, actions and game day quotes that have inspired, motivated and amused us while you have been at the helm. No Captain Joe, I am not calling for mutiny or even a vote of the crew as to that course of action with regards to Rodriguez and his shot at the cycle.

There has to be a gem of wisdom in there somewhere, and even if I do not agree with your action, I will come to accept the move in time. Still, I wanted to see what Rodriguez would have done against the Yankee reliever. Who knows, maybe Rays Manager Joe Maddon made the right decision……maybe.

Ladies and Gentleman…..Elliot Johnson

I remember back in 2008 seeing him standing right next to Akinora Iwamura during the Rays Team Photo. Standing there was this Rays player who is now fighting for his professional life, not even an arm’s length to the right of me, but I really did not know the first thing about Elliot Tyler Johnson at that moment. Johnson was one of those Rays players who had begun the 2008 season teetering on the edge of the Rays 25-man roster and was within an injury or a recovery away from again falling into the Rays farm system…again.
  

You have already known that Johnson has spent only a total of 28 days with the Rays after making the 2008 Opening Day roster following a blistering Spring Training, combined with Rays utility man Ben Zobrist’s 15-day Disabled List visit with a fractured thumb, Johnson firmly earned his first shot up with the big club. But his time in the Majors was short lived as Johnson appeared in 7 Rays games before disappearing again back to Triple-A Durham, where he spent the rest of the 2008 season. 

I had forgotten how not even a month earlier, Johnson had made his Major League debut in the holy confines of Yankee Stadium on April5,2008 in only the Rays fifth game of the season when Johnson got his first chance to show what he could do for this Rays squad. Johnson was that night’s Designated Hitter, and was popped into the ninth slot in the lineup. And I somehow had forgotten that Johnson did get his first Major League hit off Andy Pettitte in Johnson’s second at bat, but maybe I brushed the moment away because Johnson then got picked-off first base by the crafty left-hander. Not the first guy to have that happen to him, but not also a great moment to show weakness in your talents. 

And before these same Rays teammates assembled on those risers back in 2008 for the official team photo, I could have talked with Johnson beforehand, but I missed a great opportunity to chat with a Rays player who is quickly seeing his time with these Rays ticking away with his every step into the batter’s box, or play amongst the dust of the Rays infield. That second hand on the Johnson’s Spring Training clock is beginning to run out on Johnson, as the team is currently focused on other players fighting out their battles this Spring. For when Johnson was sent down on April 27,2008 when the

Rays decided to bring up another infielder Andy Cannizaro, Johnson had only appeared in 5 Rays games and batted only .158 ( 3-19) , but in an instant, Johnson was gone again.
 

And it is a bit of a crime that I have not taken the time to learn more about this guy who won the 2008 Al Lopez Award as the top Rays rookie during Spring Training, or who scored 17 runs and led the Rays 2008 Spring Training team with a .417 batting average and got 23 hits while logging an astounding 117 Spring Training innings. And how most of us within the Rays Republic knew his name only after maintaining the 2008 Rays team mantra of always hustling, even during the Spring Training games, when Johnson came in hard on Yankees rookie catcher Francisco Cervelli on a play at Home Plate during the 9th inning of a Spring Training game against the Yankees at George Steinbrenner Field, and ended up fracturing Cervelli’s right wrist. He instantly became a villain to Yankee fans, and a reincarnation of Pete Rose to the Rays Republic. 

Instantly he became the Rays Spring Training poster child for taking advantage of his game opportunities, but Johnson also became an instant scapegoat from other teams’ who condemned his Spring Training hustle because it was only Spring, and it cost another team one of their bright stars so early into the season. Instantly people forgot the great feat Johnson performed on May 28,2004 when he blasted homers in his first three at bats while playing for the Charleston RiverDogs in their first three innings of play that night. Johnson had started his minor league career with only three total home runs before that night’s breakout performance against the Greensboro squad. As a side note, Johnson had homered in his last at bat the night before in Greenboro, effectively hitting homers in his last four at bats for the RiverDogs. 

And before B J Upton hit his cycle with the Rays in October 2009, Johnson was the last Rays organizational player to hit for the cycle when Johnson hit his cycle on September 15,2006 while he was playing with the Montgomery Biscuits. Johnson was one of those guys who has more than paid his dues within the Rays farm system, but we as fans, discarded him for some reason without a second thought. And during this 2010 Spring Training season when the Rays are seeking a versatile utility guy who can play multiple positions, Johnson might be finally entering into his final sunset with the Rays.


Johnson no longer has any minor league options left in 2010, and Johnson could effectively be gone either by the Rays placing him on waivers, or Johnson could be dealt in a late Spring trade ,and gone from the Rays for good. And even with only two games down in the 2010 Rays Spring Training schedule, Johnson went 1 for 2 today with a triple and scored on a single by outfielder Matt Joyce in the bottom of the ninth inning to defeat the Baltimore Orioles 6-5 today in Port Charlotte, Florida. Johnson is still trying to get his name into the Rays organization’s minds this Spring, and hopefully get another chance to show he belongs at the Major League level.

I do not think I am alone here within the Rays Republic in not taking the time, or the energy to chat it up with Johnson along the Rays sidelines this Spring. And I am totally guilty of not taking advantage of this opportunity in the past, almost forgetting at times that Johnson was even here for Spring Training. Johnson is like so many guys among every Major League Baseball Spring roster who is not invisible, or even unapproachable, but might be caught in that middle ground of players that we always think will be a part of our teams. He always seems to do enough to stay on long into the Spring Training schedule, and we feel they might make that leap again, and you don’t give it a second thought that players like Johnson can be gone in an instant.

And you maybe would not even have recognized Johnson out and about within the Port Charlotte community, or even up in Durham, North Carolina where he still makes his home during the off season. Or that Johnson has conducted local baseball camps for the last three off seasons for the kids and teens of the Durham community, where Johnson also instructs students in one-on-one baseball lessons. Or that Johnson comes from the community of Thatcher, Arizona, which was the backdrop of the Albert Brook’s movie “Lost in America”. Johnson is simply one of those guys who has fallen through our mind’s cracks and might be getting his last chance in 2010, to make this Rays team soon.


For some reason, baseball fans sometimes seem to get a bit of tunnel vision during Spring Training where we funnel our attentions towards our team’s stars and the aspiring prospects, and we instantly forget the players like Johnson, who have been there for so long trying to grab a hold of a chance to get back to the Major League level. And Johnson has been with the Rays since the team signed him as a non-drafted free agent back in 2002. So it is not like he just rode into this Spring into his first run with the Rays franchise this Spring.
 

Johnson has been here so long that some of us, myself included, have made him a bit invisible to ourselves over the last few seasons. And that is a crying shame because this is the type of guy we should be cheering for ,and wanting to see make this 2010 Rays club. And Johnson is not alone on this squad in that manner. People forgot a bit about another long-time Rays farm hand Justin Ruggiano. But you can bet that on Sunday, when I hit BrightHouse Field for the Rays versus Phillies game in Clearwater, I am going to try and call over Johnson and wish him the best this Spring.

Finally, I am going to try and get a chance as a Rays fan to get to know Johnson before he might be gone. And maybe, just maybe, I could then call him over again on April 6th ,before the Rays take on these same Orioles in the Rays Home Opener, and Johnson would be smiling ear-to-ear while still sporting that # 47 jersey…. just like today.

 

Reminiscing Before the Rays Spring Opener


Chris Litherland/Sarasota Herald-Tribune

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.

 
 
More than a few times the moments of 2003 involving Rocco Baldelli kept flashing in my mind. How during that season he set the bar high for Rays rookies to follow him and started that path by winning the 2003 Al Lopez Award given to the top Rays rookie during Spring Training. We saw his brilliance on the field that March and began our love affair with him and Carl Crawford to be a formidable force to be reckoned with for many years to come. Seeing Rocco yesterday at the Rays complex dressed again in a Rays overcoat brought back those emotions.
 
 

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.

 

 
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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.

 

 
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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.

 


 
SPTimes.com

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!

 
 
 
 

Great to See Rocco Back in Rays Blue Again

 

            
             SPTimes.com

It was so great to see former Rays outfielder and all-around good guy Rocco Baldelli standing outside the Rays clubhouse this morning underneath the overhang at the Rays Spring Training complex in Port Charlotte, Florida. It has just been over a year and a half since Baldelli last donned the same type Rays blue outerwear during the 2008 World Series games in Philadelphia, and the Rays colors still fits him like a glove.

But it did also had a bit of an eerie feel to the moment as it seems like such a long period since we saw Baldelli roaming the outfields at Tropicana Field. But there he stood this morning just smiling away with great opportunities in front of him and a chance to get healthy and help his former team’s next generation..

 
 

But even with a..that smile on his face, and his constantly shaking hands with Rays players who also gathered under that awning to see him and wait out this rain shower, Baldelli seemed to have that energized look on his face where he is totally excited to again be with this franchise, and around the game of baseball this season. I shouted over to Baldelli and he waved and then I asked him what number he planned to wear during Spring Training?
 
 

Baldelli just smiled and nodded his head and told me “we will all see soon enough”. A bit bummed, but then again, he has only been here a few hours and maybe Rays Equipment Manager Chris Westmoreland did not have his jersey done yet. I am guessing Baldelli will sport number 55 this Spring, since no one else in Rays Major League camp has that number, and it is twice as lucky as his old number 5 currently sitting on Rays DH Pat Burrell’s back.
 
 

But Baldelli was not just standing there waiting for the rain to stop so he could compete again for an outfield slot with the team, or even a part-time Designated Hitter spot, Baldelli accepted a chance today to come back onto the Rays staff as a Special Assistant with the team, and will be assigned to the Rays minor league camp and serve as an instructor during the rest of this year’s Spring Training. He will concentrate his efforts as a roving instructor focusing on base running and outfield play with budding minor league players like Desmond Jennings and 2009 Draftee Todd Glaesmann.


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Having someone of Baldelli’s caliber and skills in this year’s minor league camp will be great for a top tier prospect like Jennings so that he has a sounding board with a former top tier prospect who made that quick transition to the Major League level. And the Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman jumped at this great opportunity of having an MLB-caliber player like Baldelli to come into the start of the Rays minor league camp to advise and help mentor the next generation of Rays major league ready players. Plus the ” instructor” situation also helps Baldelli by supplying professional level baseball facilities and medical attention as he rehabs from a unspecified shoulder injury Baldelli endured during his 2009 season when he played sparingly with American League East rival, Boston.

And there were a few Rays fans out in the rain with me today wondering why the Rays were civil and open to bringing Baldelli back into the Rays fold after he played for our “arch enemy” last season. And the answer is really quite simple. This situation helps both parties involved, plus it gives Baldelli a chance to realistically see if he might also be open to taking the same Coaching path of former Rays slugger Jared Sandberg and move into the coaching profession after his playing career.

 
 

It also is a perfect “win-win” situation for Baldelli as able to provide certain nuances of the game to the Rays developing players, plus he will be able to rehabilitate his shoulder injury with a Rays medical staff that already knows his past injuries and medical history, and could be beneficial in providing top notch rehabilitation care and treatments while Baldelli also works with the Rays minor leaguers and eventually works out on his own to see if playing again is in his future. But this is also a way for Baldelli to keep his head in the game of baseball and stay mentally ready to play too.

 
 

Think about it for a second here, you are a Major League baseball player and you suffered through months of pain and anguish to find yourself unwanted by your 2009 team and a free agent seeking a shot to compete somewhere, but people know of your shoulder woes, and pass you by, or tell you to get healthy and then give them a call. Baldelli is in that middle “no-man’s land” zone right now between playing, or maybe having to make a difficult career choice in the near future to pursue coaching full-time and mentoring future ballplayers, or getting the chance to regain yourself and your baseball career. How could you not see this opportunity as a positive step to see what you could or maybe pursue after your playing days are over, but also still have your options open to continue with the game.

 

 
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And the Rays have always been open to inviting former Rays players to work with their teams a ample chance to come back into the Rays organization and be a authority figure, or sports mentor to work with other Rays prospects to hone their craft and make them the best they can be in their baseball maturation process. Baldelli is not the first former Rays player to come back to his former club and provide instruction and mentor players. Ex-Ray and current Baseball Hall of Famer Wade Boggs came back to the Rays in 2001 and served one season as their Hitting Coach before leaving the team.

Dave Martinez, who got the first hit in Rays history came back several years ago as an outfield instructor and is now sitting every game besides Rays Manager Joe Maddon as his Rays Bench Coach. And who can forget that 2009 Baseball Hall of Fame nominee Fred McGriff has spent several Rays Spring Trainings working as a Special Advisor to the Rays. Add on that scenario of the consistent growth within the Rays Coaching ranks of Sandberg through the Rays system from his first stint with short-season Princeton to his current post as Manager of the Hudson Valley Renegades for the2010 season.

And Sandberg might just be another budding former Rays player turned manager to some day patrol the benches at the Major League level within a few years. This Rays Front Office has always been open to hiring former players who understand the Rays system, and also adhere to their team’s mantra. And bringing back Baldelli right now just seems perfectly right to me.

 
 

Having Baldelli working out with the next generation of Upton’s, Crawford’s and maybe even another Baldelli just shows his passion and his drive for the little things about playing this game at it’s top level. And it is important to note here that Baldelli is not “retired”, but basically weighing his options and between jobs. Baldelli might have to take a step back like ex-Rays catcher Toby Hall did in 2009 when Hall was rehabbing a shoulder injury and get healthy before finally making some difficult decisions on his baseball future. But I personally would not bet against Baldelli not being wearing some team’s uniform at some point this season.
 
 

There is presently no talk of Baldelli wearing a Rays jersey besides his current Rays gear on his back while he does his job as a roving instructor. But the Rays and Baldelli both have left that door wide open for a future discussion about his plans. And that in itself is almost a mirror-image to the 2009 Spring Training situation where the Rays brought in rehabbing reliever Jason Isringhausen after his 2008 injuries into Spring Training with an eye to get him healthy, then make some personnel decisions.

Isringhausen eventually got healthy and appeared in a Rays uniform in 2009, but Isringhausen went down with a torn elbow ligament and had to undergo Tommy John’s surgery . Could Baldelli be this season’s “Izzy” and be able to again get back to the Major League level?

 
 

Would Baldelli even be open to taking another limited role situation with the Rays similar to his 2008 status with the team, or could there be an eye towards him being a possible in-house alternative/replacement if Rays Designated Hitter Pat Burrell gets injured or off to a weak start in 2009?. All these questions are streaming through my mind, and I know some of you also have those thoughts coursing through your cerebral cortex. But for now, Baldelli is here to heal and help guide and be a source of inspiration and motivation for the next generation of Rays. But that also doesn’t rule out the possibilities of Baldelli not being able to don a MLB jersey at some point in 2010.
 

 
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And there is no guarantee it would even be the Rays classic blue and white, or even a Rays Blue jersey. B ut having Baldelli here is motivation enough for me to feel better about the future of this team. Some web sites have called him the “Prodigal Son”. To some of us, Baldelli never went away, he just was on “vacation” away from the Rays. But in the end, is this the kind of guy you want on your team? Is this the type of former player you want teaching your young players “The Rays Way”?

And can the Rays prospects learn and mature hearing of Baldelli’s past and develop their own pattern to enrich their game before hitting the Major League level? To all three of these questions, I sound a loud and resounding “Yes”. Hopefully in the near future, Rays fans will see Baldelli standing on the side of the field again both his glove and a black bat in each hand, or maybe it will be Baldelli’s arms swaying and pointing a shift to one of the Rays minor leaguers to put him into a better fielding position based on the hitter tendencies, either way, it is great to see Baldelli again in a Rays uniform. Blue just seems to be his color!

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