January 2011

Tampa Bay’s Own Casey Kotchman Added to First Base Mix

 

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Zimbio 

Anyone who has attended a Rays game in the past knows that when Casey Kotchman came into town for a series, there was a line at the Visitor’s dugout. Former teammates, Kotchman Baseball School students, coaches and even friends have been known to surround the dugout rails for a moment with the former Seminole High School star before Rays games. Now the Rays dugout might be feeling that pressure as the Tampa Bay area product is coming home to play for his hometown Rays.

The addition of Kotchman today to a $ 750,000 minor league contract with incentives could become another fine tooled feather in the cap of Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman as he pieces together another contending ball club. It instantly fills a need for the Rays, plus provides another ounce of proven ability to a club most thought was going to roll over and die for a few seasons.

The signing of Kotchman shows the Rays value ability as well as staying within the limits of their thin pocketbook, and might be another off-the-radar pick-up by the frugal Friedman. Bringing in local star Kotchman could also have a clear double-edged sword effect on the Rays roster this Spring.

In one clear instance, this move will automatically raise the level of corner infield talent and ability at the First Base bag and provide a great measure of not only healthy, but needed competition between Kotchman and Dan Johnson this Spring. On paper, this signing might look a bit one-sided with Kotchman winning by a landslide the defensive side of the overall 1B equation, but as we already well know, the mind of Rays Manager Joe Maddon doesn’t always follow common baseball logic.

Kotchman has appeared at First Base 581 times in his MLB career with Los Angeles/Anaheim, Atlanta, Boston and Seattle. Johnson has only manned the First Base bag only 21 games total in his Rays career.

You automatically see Kotchman as a key defensive replacement for departed past Gold Glover Carlos Pena. Even though Kotchman, who sports a .998 lifetime fielding percentage including only one error in 116 games for the Seattle Mariners during the 2010 season, it isn’t as clear cut on the offensive side of the numbers.

With both Rays First Baseman taking their swings from the left-side of the Batter’s Box ( same as Pena), the ultimate winner of this Spring battle might come down to a few more intricate pieces of either players arsenal such as OPS, RISP. And possibly strikeouts. All First Baseman indications prior to the signing of Kotchman seemed to be focused on a Ben Zobrist and Johnson platoon, but the addition of the sure handed glove of Kotchman might actually provide a bit of outfield controversy this Spring.

The Rays Brian trust must have a plan in mind prior to this signing, and possibly a platoon action could be configured also with Kotchman and Johnson in mind. Looking at their offensive numbers, Kotchman has not produced as fluidly as he did from 2006-2007 when he was with the Angels.

Then again, Kotchman has been kind of pigeon-holed offensively over the past few years in platoon action while with the Mariners, Red Sox and Braves. If Kotchman can prove that his .219 average and 75 points fall off his slugging percentage was a fluke, he could see significant starts at First Base for the Rays. Kotchman actually on paper looks a bit like Pena in that when he gets into a solid rhythm at the plate, he can turn on the magic.

I still think it is Johnson’s spot to lose. The Rays have kept Johnson close to them for a few years for some reason that defies some of our own logic. Possibly the Rays have the gut feeling that with extended playing time and at bats, he can return to his pre-2007 offensive numbers he held while a member of the Oakland A’s. Back then, Johnson hit 42 Home Runs in 3 season and produced 162 walks.

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BleacherReport

I want to wax poetic here and think that Johnson’s 2008 Home Run against Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was the greatest HR in Rays history, but some think it was the right guy at the right time only. Personally I would love to see Johnson get an extended 2011 try at first for the Rays, but considering his batting average against right-handed pitchers hovers below .200, but Kotchman only get a slim lead based on his own .239 average against righties.

An interesting tidbit is that Kotchman went 1 for 10 (.100) on turf in 2010 while Johnson only went 13 for 63 (.206). But if you look at a factor like On-Base Percentages, Johnson has a slight leg-up on Kotchman .343 to .280. It might just come down to something as simple as run production and game day match-ups to decide who out of this pair might get the nightly starting nod.

With runners in scoring position, Kotchman sits closer to .300 against both left-handers and right-handers while Johnson sits under .200 against right-handers. The numbers tend to bunch both of them close into a possible platoon situation with Maddon again possibly tinkering with his line-up nightly to get the slight edge. It might ultimately come down to plate discipline. Johnson’s posted a 25-to-27 walk to strikeout ratio while Kotchman leaned more towards the strikeout 35-to-57 in 2010.

By no means does the signing of Kotchman signal the end of the Johnson idea at First Base for the Rays. It just muddles the waters a bit and provides each player with a dynamic where they have to produce to get a shot at manning the bag full-time. But each player seems even in regards to right-handed pitching, so neither has a solid chance to cement their name on the line-up just based on which side the pitcher lines up on the mound.

2011 has been a year of surprises so far for the Rays. The addition today of Kotchman has to be viewed as a positive move by the franchise to give the Rays more depth and defensive ability going into Spring Training. Going into the February 20th report date for all players to the Rays Spring Training Camp, I am going to give a slight edge to Kotchman at First Base. I still think it is Johnson’s to lose, but I got to support and root for the hometown guy…Sorry D J.

Woonsocket Rocket Heads into the Sunset

 

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I remember it like it was yesterday, the Ted Williams Museum was holding a silent auction just beyond the sun-drenched grandstand of Progress Energy Field during the final Spring Training game ever at the facility and I was down underneath the stands bidding furiously for number 10 of 20 produced lithograph portraits by renown sports artist James Fiorentino of one of the Rays budding star.

I did everything in my power to possess that mesmerizing portrait, not for its collectible value or even its future fiscal nature, but because on that canvas was one of the most exciting players in Rays baseball to me. He was one of the first true Rays produced stars to emerge from the Rays farm system and provide instant relief to the Rays Republic.

But there was another admirer standing close to me that day who kept the bidding fast and hectic and if not for the pure grace of me being left-handed, and quick with the stroke of a pen, this authentic piece of Rays history would have slipped from my grasp.

I had successfully won the auction, plus an additional Ted Williams Museum authenticated second photo of this same Rays athlete. I had gone 2-for-2 that day and left happy with a portrait under either arm…It was a great day.

This portrait was of the same Rays athlete who made his Major League Debut just over four years earlier on Opening Day, March 31, 2003 and his inspired outfield and hitting prowess impressed not only the Tampa Bay locals, but the national media also showed him a bit of love as he ended the 2003 season with a third place finish in the 2003 Rookie of the Year Award. Only 3 years after being selected in the First Round of the 2000 MLB Draft, he had made Tampa Bay fall in love with his hustle, determination and charisma.

This same series of 20 Fiorentino inspired portraits were commissioned just after that stellar rookie season. A lot has happened to this athlete since this photo was done and the time I put it firmly on my home wall. He has been to the World Series, been in many magazine articles and photos including a great cover shot from above during the 2008 World Series.

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Most people might not know of his artistic side with practical jokes and molding Styrofoam cups into portrait works of art while sitting in the Rays dugout. Or of his ever changing facial motif that has gone from clean shaven, to a bushy moustache, to a full grown “Grizzly Adams” beard.

Things beyond his immediate control began to dictate his career since 2005 when he endured an ACL tear, Tommy John’s surgery and an aliment that would take down an adult elephant. On March 12, 2008, I was huddled underneath those same Progress Energy grandstands when he addressed the baseball world and took a hesitant step back from the game he so loved.

The defining quality I have always remembered and admired about this athlete was his determination and strength to push beyond the boundaries of normalcy. His decision to fight this aliment, helped him progress to actually get a chance to celebrate his franchise’s first post season bid with a lot of the same players that went through the Rays farm system with him.

His ultimate tenacity was rewarded in April 2009 with the pre-game presentation of a glistening diamond encrusted ring to commemorate his part in the Rays 2008 American League pennant. This amazing career might have only lasted 8 MLB seasons, but this is the same athlete who began 2010 as a Rays special roving instructor before signing a MLB contract late in 2010 and again help his teammates celebrate another postseason berth.

He has endured pain and suffering that would have most players packing their gear and going home forever. Instead of giving into utter temptation, this player sought out medical answers and was not going to let this aliment define him. Even in that 2003 Fiorentino portrait, you can see the confidence, the swagger, that innate desire to not give in to the norm and fight until exhausted.

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In 2008 when he took a step back from the game, it was not with the intentions to retire and fade into the background. From the moment he first set foot on the turf at Tropicana Field, to his recent retirement announcement at the tender age of 29, this athlete envisioned the “Rays Way” of playing the game even before Rays current Manager Joe Maddon’s even entered the Rays clubhouse for the first time.

I am going to miss Rocco Baldelli. He is the only Rays player I have ever forgiven for going to play for a division rival because he was fulfilling a life long baseball dream.. Baldelli will not wander far from the Rays light as he will take a position within the Rays front office as a Special Assistant possibly working wit the next great Rays athlete.

That 2003 rookie season portrait will still stay hung above my baseball collection. Because when I think of early Rays baseball, Baldelli is the first name that pops into my mind. Somewhere I think even DiMaggio would be smiling about the way the “Woonsocket Rocket” played the game.

 

 

 

Tasty 2011 Fan Fest Morsels to Whet Your Rays Appetite

 

 

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By now most of the Tampa Bay Rays Republic members have either read the MLB.com blog post by fellow MLBlogs.com’s own Bill Chastain giving you a rough outline of some of the great events planned for the Rays 2011 Fan Fest. Or possibly you have heard a few more fantastic developments through the Rays “Sunshine Telegraph” on other Fan Fest revelations being thrown out into the Rays-verse.It has made more than a few of us hungry for baseball, and ready to consume some more Rays memories, but it is about to get even better. I got a few more really tasty morsels I have digested over the last few days, and want to divulge today hoping it will give the Tampa Bay community even more reasons for all baseball fans to flock to the Trop on February 19,2011 and touch and experience Tropicana Field’s NEW Astroturf II surface.

But that is just a small tapas plate of the new revelations currently getting me salivating and eager to be pressing my nose to the Trop’s Gate 1 window waiting for the Fan Hosts to throw open the doors. I know I will not be able to experience this one event, but the kid’s press conference with a actual Rays player still sounds like the thing of dreams to me. What I would give to be under 14 again and be able to ask any one of the Rays players a serious question about the game.

Just when you thought the Rays had outdone themselves in their 2010 Fan Fest, they go all “Raiders of the Lost Rays Gear” and provide a glimpse back into the Rays early past with a Rays Baseball Foundation Yard Sale that will showcase past items from as far back as the 1998 First Season. All proceeds of this Yard Sale will go to help organizations throughout Tampa Bay. Believe me, the items that have already been told to me have both my wallet and my mind excited and anxious for the doors to swing open.

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TBO.com

One of the items I am most excited is a chance to purchase an actual MLB authenticated piece of the Rays Clubhouse carpet that has seen champagne spilled upon it more than a few times. And if that doesn’t get your pocketbook spinning a bit, how about possibly purchasing your own slice of fabric from the Trop’s old FieldTurf surface for your very own. Think about that package for a moment, you can get two pieces of Rays history, both authenticated by MLB, and you get to help those in need in the Tampa Bay community. Definitely sounds like a “win-win” situation to me.The Yard Sale will also include the usual fare of game used equipment and jerseys. And the greatest thing about the 2011 Rays Fan Fest is that it is still FREE to enter and take in the magic, with only a few events possibly costing you anything out of your pocket. I will get more into this in the coming week as to the events that will cost you some money at Fan fest, but remember again, all proceeds will benefit the Rays Baseball Foundation.

The Rays have even added in the last 24 hours the incentive that a portion of the overall proceeds from Fan Fest will also go to the families of two recently deceased St. Petersburg police officers. Great to see the Rays reach out with a kind hand to help a pair of families in need right now.

There will be the always popular events like the complimentary Clubhouse Tour, and the Metro PCS “Call a Friend table with a revolving array of Rays players returning this season. A great addition to the Fan Fest fanatic pace is a unique reading section where an actual Rays player will spend time and read with the kids.

This is extra exciting to me especially since Dirk Hayhurst was signed by the team . We could have a live rendition of the “Legend of the Garfoose“. Got my fingers crossed that we also might be able to hear JP Howell or his wife Heather Hennessy-Howell possibly reading the children’s journey, “The Adventures of Dangles“. This one section of Fan Fest could turn into a virtual Home Run by the Rays promotional department with a overcrowded area filled with kids of all ages listening into the stories. (Heck, I might try and sneak within hearing distance).

These are just a few reasons to red-circle the date of Saturday, February 19th on your calendars or set a vocal cell phone alert to be in line at 10 am when the Tropicana Field doors open on that date. Possible treasures from the first Rays season, hearing a Rays player read with or to your child, and maybe having someone like Evan Longoria call your boss or best friend.


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This is one of those early moments of the season when finally you can breath and know that Spring is just around the corner and the sound of a bat on the ball is near. This season you can not only make Rays memories during Fan Fest with autographs, possibly get a high-5 from a Rays player as you cross Home Plate or take home a piece of Rays history for yourself.

So far the 2011 Rays Fan Fest is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in the team’s short history. Daily I am getting more and more tidbits of Fan Fest information and it just seems to escalate the excitement and the push for mid-February to get here faster.

 

 P.S.

 The profile photo was taken during my 2004 induction into the Tampa Bay Rays/Pepsi Fan Wall of Fame ceremony

 

Have You Tried the Rays NEW D&M Sandwich?


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Got to tell you, when I first heard the signing rumblings recently about Florida-born Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez possibly signing with the Tampa Bay Rays, it made me ………extremely hungry.Yes, you heard that right, I became famished, and eager to sit down and digest this whole enchilada bite by bite. Not sure why this idea of “food” as an analogy point crept into my mind, but the more I focus in on the Rays Republic’s knowledge on these two iconic aging stars, the more my thoughts seem to melt into an ever expanding culinary direction.

The extremely wild part of it all is tat I instantly imagines a homemade Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich when thinking about these two players signing with the Rays. If you really look deep into this equation, the two of them were brought in to be a cohesive bonding agent for the Rays offense. Both have strengths and abilities that will benefit each other, and with their confidence and leadership, could mesh this unit into the perfect PB & J.

Of course Damon is the Peanut Butter with his smooth stroke at the plate and good running style. Coming to a team like the Rays that use the stolen base as an additional means to produce scoring opportunities, Damon will get more than a few chances to stretch him self from the heel to the crown of the bread loaf, and smother himself. Most might think I would pick Ramirez for the peanut butter since he does have his “nutty” tendencies, but the P B is all Damon.

Not the crunch variety either. I honestly think this was a great move that will actually streamline the Rays running game and produce some great numbers for Damon in 2011. Most people are downplaying the positive aspects of Damon coming here, but remember, the Detroit Tigers were not known for their love of the stolen base last season. Now the big question might be where to insert Damon into this line-up to take advantage of this speed-based offense.

That brings me to another reason why Damon is peanut butter. You see, it is not jelly and peanut butter, but peanut butter and jelly. With that culinary distinction, Damon should hit lead-off. Some might suggest B J Upton there with his speed and power potential, but I see Upton actually hitting second and give Damon chances to not only score runs, but possibly put pressure on the opponent’s defense to make the hard plays.

But you can’t have PB & J without the jelly. Ramirez is still a great hitter. Just because some of his power numbers have taken a spiral downward since his 50-game in-season vacation while with the Los Angeles Dodgers doesn’t mean it was “juice-induced”. Jelly is all about the preservatives, pectin and the ultimate fruit tastes that push this classic sandwich to the next level.

Living in FL, I have gotten to know odd flavor concepts in jelly from orange to guava escalating into my new favorite mango. Ramirez is like a ripen mango, and ready for the picking. He was not happy in La-la Land, and at times his play on the field showed brightly to the fans that if Manny is not happy….Manny takes to playing the game on his own level. Hence the mango jelly.

It is an acquired taste. Some people would be repulsed by it while others savor the exotic nature of it all knowing the difference is what makes it special. Hence, Ramirez is the Manny Mango in my jelly-based opinion. Ramirez was brought here to protect the Rays golden asset, budding MLB hot shot Evan Longoria in the line-up. Ramirez’s ability to hit it long and hard, or just produce period makes him a great protector for Longoria in the Rays line-up.

Playing mostly at DH for the Rays ( except during Inter-League), it is a chance for Manny to show the rest of the American League that he can make the transition from everyday field player to Designated Hitter. This is a chance for the Rays and Ramirez to desperately inject a new tangy and intoxicating bit of favor to the DH position without the bitter aftertaste of the Burrell DH era. In short, it is Ramirez playing for a possible 2012 audition as a AL DH.

I really feel deeply that Damon and Ramirez aka Dam-Manny come as a unique flavor profile package, not unlike the mentioned peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Heck, the idea that the Rays lost out on signing Andrew Jones is muted instantly by the basic premise of the BOGO (Buy One, Get One Free) situation where the Rays produced a “win-win” situation by getting two prolific scorers for one low price. That kind of grocery savvy reminds me totally of the Rays favorite grocery chain (Sweetbay).

When in your wildest notions would you have ever expected to see these two players EVER in the Rays Carolina blue jerseys. But coming within a month, when they report to Port Charlotte, Florida for Spring Training,. Waiting for them will be a young team with a hearty appetite for winning, and a want to succeed.

Most people expected me to possibly throw this deal under a microscope and find fault, blame or even a dab of sarcasm at the expense of the new duo, But this deals makes me extremely hungry for a pure fact that it feels like the perfect sandwich. Together both Damon and Ramirez give the Rays a two headed approach at American League hitting this season, where if they had signed Jones, it would have been one flavor all season long.

With the addition of these two talents, we will definitely see either Damon or Ramirez at times camped out in the Rays outfield with the NEW AstroTurf II under their tootsies hopefully performing amazing plays. The addition of the two hitters also give the wheeling and dealing line-up machine of Rays Manager Joe Maddon two more weapons in his daily arsenal to take down the Red Sox and Yankees from their predestined podiums.

Damon and Ramirez fit together like peanut butter and jelly. Together they can make a tasty treat that will make you smile and get you excited. But apart, they become two different taste platforms that do not go well on their own merits. I am still feeling a bit hungry, and I think it is time for me to venture into the kitchen for a hearty snack. Maybe I will conjure up a special D&M sandwich, better known to people outside Tampa Bay as a PB&J…..

 

 

 

Warning: Garfoose Is Loose in Tampa Bay!

 


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Photo by Pat Manfredo

Got to tell you, I am really excited about the possibilities of possibly having a right-handed half moose, half giraffe who will be given a fighting chance for a roster spot this Spring on our Tampa Bay Rays Bullpen staff. And no, I am not talking about the Tall Texan Jeff Niemann who resembles a World-wide toy store Giraffe either.

The animated and finely illustrated character I am referring to is the creature that first festered out of the mind of relief pitcher Dirk Hayhurst, the highly acclaimed Garfoose. If you have not read any of my past posts about this mystical character, please feel free to hit this link, which will get you more in tune with the Garfoose frame of mind.

What is extremely exciting is not only will Hayhurst get a fighting chance to win a spot in the Rays Bullpen, but his mire presence in the Bullpen even this Spring will have droves of kids of all ages clambering for a brief moment with an acclaimed author ( The Bullpen Gospels ) , bus also the originator of this highly addictive baseball eating melting pot.

Sure some of you might also be excited that Hayhurst is also a socially active baseball player who is known to post more than a few particularly mind-bending 140-character posts to his Twitter account, or even to his own website just to see if you are awake and thinking. But I like those kind of people.

The Rays Bullpen can use more guys like Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos and his motorcycle dance and Salsa moves to cut the tension like a knife. For some odd reason, I think a Bullpen with Hayhurst on it will never be a boring place to view during a game. Not since John Rocker or Rusty Meacham has the Rays Bullpen had someone you knew had distraction written all over them, even before Spring Training starts.

But also it could be an amazing mind melting experience if you can get an artist/prankster like Rays long reliever Andy Sonnanstine and Hayhurst possibly together on the same bench….. Think for a moment at the amount of imagination and ability assembled just under those two Rays caps and it definitely should have you smiling.

It is not a ” sure thing” that Hayhurst will even get a legitimate shot at being on the Rays bench, but I am a glass half full kind of guy. With the Rays Bullpen in definite reloading mode, and the possibility that some of the recent additions to the Rays roster could find an early home at the Rays Triple-A affiliate, the Durham Bulls,

I find it highly probable with a great Spring the Garfoose will be on the new AstroTurf at Tropicana Field helping the Rays as they raise their 2010 American League East Championship banner to the rafters. And even if Hayhurst does spend some quality time at Durham, imagine the possibilities of a half-giraffe, half moose getting to know a snorting bull like Wool E Bully…up close.

I mean the idea instantly has me clicking and checking Hayhurst blog today as he introduced himself to the Rays Republic and was extremely excited about the future. With Fan Fest barely a month away, could the addition of the originator of the Garfoose to the Rays suddenly bring some extra incentive for kids to want to drag their personal chauffeurs ( parents) to the Trop on February 19th to meet Hayhurst in person, hoping for a Garfoose sighting or two….

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You can bet between now and then I will be picking up the dusty covered “The Bullpen Gospels” still sitting on my coffee table and reading it from cover-to-cover in anticipation of the first time I get to chat with Hayhurst. Over the last several years I have met and talked with Hayhurst before, but never really talked about writing or his minor league odyssey..

For some reason I have the feeling Hayhurst would be an amazing guy to sit down and interview, or possibly just pick his brain for knowledge both on and off the pitching rubber. I love this signing.

More for the potential of greatness that Hayhurst could possibly achieve in 2011 than for the outer lying presence of his imaginary “friend”. Having Hayhurst in Tampa Bay will never be labeled “boring”.

But seriously, when was the last time you looked into the Bullpen before the 6th inning to see what madness might be occurring, lurking or possibly sighted with his antlers rising above the front row. Welcome to Tampa Bay Garfoose, I will keep a few baseballs handy especially for you.

 

 

Time for Upton to “Put Up or Shut Up”

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Chris O’Meara/AP

We have been waiting since 2004 for the true potential to show its face boldly and proudly in Tampa Bay. Several times in the last few seasons we have seen it show its face, but somehow slink back into darkness like it has never existed. I have been one of his biggest cheerleaders since Tampa Bay Rays B J Upton came back up to the Major League level in 2004. I have seen him go from the Rays future at shortstop that season to one of the most promising centerfielders in the game, but the whole package has never stayed with him for an extended period.

But this season the gloves are off. I am not going to drag him through the mud or even tarnish him at all. I am going to let him do that himself now. As of Monday, January 17,2011 when Upton became the highest salaried player on the Rays squad, it is time for his “game” to “put up, or shut up”. This is the last grasp at the straw, the last Fandango, the long stretch for that elusive brass ring. When you give the Rays Republic 4.85 million reasons to call you out, you have to respond.

There is nothing I would love to see more than Upton to have a career season where he posts the type of numbers we have been salivating for since he first came up for good in 2006. But that season we saw that Upton was not our shortstop of the future as he played his final 16 games EVER at the position. Suddenly he was a thrust into the “hot corner” for 13 contests, and made his first journey into the Rays outfield.

But his outfield test lasted only one game in that 2006 season. Upton spent his field time from 2005-2007 basically bouncing around the infield from Third Base to Second Base looking for a solid “home” before the Rays put him into centerfield where a certain mystical magic began to materializes before our eyes.

On Opening Day in 2007 when the Rays put Upton in centerfield to start the season, it was a second coming for him. It was a chance for Upton to get a reprisal, a rebirth, a solid chance of redemption so he could reinvent himself with the Rays. To finally bridge that ever expanding gap between his potential and ability by providing superior defense to go along with his rocket arm.

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Steve Nesius/AP

On that day, Upton’s game both on the field and at the plate seemed to mesh into one, finally Upton showed everyone the player we always knew he could be. Sure the rust and the uncertainty in the vast expanses of Centerfield reared its ugly head, but all in all, it was like a hot dog meeting a bun for the first time….it looked like a perfect fit.

Suddenly at that point in 2007 it seemed that Upton was the real deal. People were becoming excited about Upton’s transformation. During 2007 we all witnessed the first blossom of Upton’s hitting potential as he slugged 24 Home Runs, 25 doubles and posted a .300 batting average. Upton’s game had finally collectively assembled itself and he was living up to all his past hype.

In between 2007 season and today something derailed within Upton. Some say his past shoulder injury has given him back hitting habits or stances. That his propensity for strikeouts ( averaging over 130 for 4 seasons) has shown his hitting game to either be too passive or overly aggressive. In addition, his power seemed to be pushed into the darkness again as Upton has only hit a combined 38 Home Runs, including 18 in 2010.

Upton did however unleash another weapon from his arsenal as he elevated his stolen base totals from 22 in 2007 to over 40 stolen bases or more over the past three seasons. It seemed he was coming out of his shell on the base paths, but still had trouble getting there.

But now for Upton, there can not be no more excuses. As the highest paid member of the Rays roster, his bat will be called upon nightly to ignite scoring chances, produce runs and become the offensive weapon we have all collectively been waiting for since 2007. There is no more time for excuses or apprehension, the team will need every hit, every stolen base and every ounce of ability within Upton to succeed. The pressure is on, and hopefully he can adapt and pull his weight, or he will be gone by the end of July.

That is a hard statement for me to make, but it is realistic. If Upton struggles in 2011, not only could he lose his Centerfield perch, his spot in the line-up, he could lose the right to wear those Rays colors. When you begin to make the type of money Upton has over the past two seasons, things are expected of you. Great things. This team, with its limited fiscal resources can not hang onto a bad investment for long, or it could cripple the overall plan of the Rays front office. Upton is not the only player to be firmly placed on the hot seat this season, but he is the only that will be pushed, prodded and poked to live up to his potential, or be gone.

With players in the minor leagues knocking at the door for a chance at this level, it is truly put up or shut up time for Upton in 2011. Upton doesn’t have to be a Carl Crawford clone, but he has to push his game to the next level both in the field and at the plate to lead this team either from the lead-off spot, or deeper in the line-up.

Upton has matured a lot since the first time I met him at 17 years of age when he first got a chance to put on a Rays uniform. His community and charity persona has escalated and proved he cares and is proud of his accomplishments. It is time for his bat to talk the same talk. To provide stellar moments of glory for both himself and his rebuilding team.

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Chris O’Meara/AP

No longer can Upton keep his game semi hidden by the darkness, it now needs to explode loud and proud into the glowing Florida sunlight. I have personally witnessed Upton’s game expand explosively from A to M, but now he needs to take the next step and thrust it to Z. If he doesn’t, if he can’t, then it is finally time for myself and the Rays to look for another solution.

12 Rays players have departed the Rays since the ALDS loss to the Texas Rangers. But if Upton doesn’t provide that spark, that needed push in the Rays offensive machine, then I am willing to forego the teary goodbye. It is that final moment to either put up or shut up. Hopefully we can hear Upton’s voice screaming to the heavens because right now this is his team. He needs to either lead or get out of the way… for good.

Rays and Kaboom! Build Another Safe Tampa Bay Playground

 

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Photo by TBO.com 

It has been almost a month since I put down my flat-head screwdriver and my open-ended 5/8 wrench after the completion of another great playground in South St. Petersburg, just a few miles from Tropicana Field. Does it really feel like a month since the Tampa Bay Rays staff, players and even their owner Stuart Sternberg spent a blustery afternoon back on December 18,2010 building another Kaboom! inspired safe playground from drawings and designs submitted by local children back in October, 2010.

It was really inspiring to the tenth degree to see employees of the Rays ECOT organization again bring their tool belts and construct not the first, but the second Tampa Bay regional playground in the last year and a half. But even more impressive is the common fact that the Rays are the only current Major League Baseball team to construct a Kaboom! Playground……….. so far.

Over 200 volunteers from the 2010 American League East Champion Rays along with members of the James B. Sanderlin Family Center and a large assortment of local community volunteers. Everyone was eager, with hammer in hand to began the construction after the short Kick-off ceremony and volunteer deployment. But this was an event I did not take my camera to as it was for the kids.

This new playground that we lifted, nailed, bolted and sweat into place will replace an older aging playground that will give over 300 community kids a safe place to play. More exciting is that the playground’s design was taken from drawings and designs submitted by the same local children who attend events at the James Sanderlin Center on a daily basis.

It was great to see the Rays “Three Amigos”, Sternberg, Rays VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman and Rays President Matt Silverman hoisting lumber and plastic pieces into place along with their fellow employees and staff. Says a lot about the Rays internal community within the Trop that so many Rays employees devoted their time and efforts to such a great cause.

And for some of the Rays ECOT organization, it was a second step into the playground storm as their initial hammer time was back in 2009 when the Rays built another Kaboom! System in Riverview, Florida, about 25 miles to the East. That day’s build was one of the over 180 Kaboom! playgrounds that will be built in the United States in 2011. Simply put, Kaboom! Hopes that in the future it can put a great place to play within walking distances of every child in America.

It was a great experience seeing over 43,740 square feet of safety surfacing moving in unison by the volunteers and Rays that day. The bright colors of the equipment meshed in well with the mission of providing a safe and sturdy for every child in this South St. Petersburg community to enjoy this park for a long, long time. I want to again commend the Rays and their employees who took the time out of their busy off season to come out and help this region of St. Pete become safer and a new area of fun for kids of all ages.

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Photo by TBO.com

Sometimes we focus too much on what is happening within the confines of our favorite teams to not always look at some of the great things done in the off season and during the regular season by our MLB team. From the top to the bottom, on this day Rays fans, employees and hundreds of tired volunteers stood and watched the ribbon-cutting and the onslaught of kids personally checking out our work. Even Rays Manager Joe Maddon got into the fray picking up a drill and hammer to help build a better playing environment.

Makes me smile inside to see this team give like this to their local communities. With so much being written about the dark-side of sports or even an ensuing firestorm going back and forth about a future home for the Rays. It was great to see everyone involved come together and mesh under a common goal.

The sore muscles and aches seemed to melt away instantly after seeing the first kid’s laughter and smile while exploring his new and exciting playground kingdom.

If you want to know more about Kaboom! And their mission, feel free to click the link and see for yourself what you can do to help bring a safer playground environment for children in your own community. Can’t wait to help with the next one!

 

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Going to Miss the Rays Aussie Bloke

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I somehow knew this moment was coming, but still it’s hard to finally accept. He was the one player of that large Tampa Bay Rays Free Agent mish-mosh corps that I thought might just be out on a Winter walk-about and would again this January somehow wander back to the Rays brood for 2011.

Maybe that was really wishful thinking to imagine that such a return could possibly be in the cards for RP Grant Balfour, but I wanted to believe as long as possible that it could happen.

Instead I am now a solo participant in a local St. Petersburg Outback Steakhouse holding my own private Aussie funeral dirge complete with an I-pod filled with the musical rhymes and verses of Colin Hayes (Men at Work Lead Singer) ringing through my head.

Surely I could have picked the upbeat styling’s of either AC/DC or even Midnight Oil as my musical accompaniments as I pound a oilcan of Fosters, and eat a hearty Blommin’ Onion.

But this is a solemn celebration of Balfour’s new multi-year contract. It has been one of those days where I will rise a middy or two as I begin a sit-down of bountiful tucker (food) and possibly one last XXXX (Queensland brew) to wish him the best and a long career.

I sit her pondering the notion that Balfour has taken his leave and gone onto the big smoke ( big city) of Oakland and I will have to settle for conversations only 3 times this year when Balfour again visit’s the Trop.

Talking to Balfour has became a game day ritual for me, standing there by the RF retaining wall near my seat joking with him, I am really going to miss my old Tampa Bay Rays Bullpen mate.


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I guess the best way I can finally put closure to the loss and sorrow within my chest is to ponder and spout a few Aussie terms and nuances I learned from you over your Rays time as a faithful farewell to my favorite bloke from Oz (Australia).

You know Grant, I was hoping the furphy (rumor) of your Rays departure was premature and totally bollocks before I heard the good guts (accurate information) about your grouse (very good) contract offer in Oakland. I consider you a bonza (really great) Aussie Grant that I used to have many a chinwag (conversation) with daily either during the game or at Batting Practice.

I truly hope you do not consider me an irritable ear masher (talks too much) or even a drongo (slow-witted bloke). I still consider it so crook (sick) what that Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey did to you last season during your BP open slather (free-for-all) that cost you unwarranted disabled list time. It was totally onus (unacceptable) and showed what a nong (fool) Hickey really can be at times.

I do hope you make a good fist (to do well) in Oakland and hopefully when you come into our humble homestead again we can wring hands and possibly go down to a local billabong (watering hole) and hoist a few stubby (375ml bottle of beer)to your success. G’day ol’ fair dinkum (really genuine) cobber (friend).

Farnsworth Brings Intimidation Back to the Rays Game

 

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StPeteTimes.com (unknown Photographer)

Sometimes I think in pretty abstract ideals and put together some really “out there” suggestions that might take most people a bottle of Mezcal to comprehend or embrace my sometimes obscure reference points. And I am fine with that. I mean, I am a lifetime Pepper for gosh sakes (Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too!). Last night I was in one of those usual states of odd combinational thinking while watching the NHL Tampa Bay Lightning (they won 3-0) take on the potent Washington Capitals squad.

While sitting at the game bundled up in my pre-2008 Rays Winter outerwear jacket, I began a quick cold climate aided thought process emerging wondering why Major League Baseball team’s have never selected or signed a player just for his physical intimidation factor?

Sure there have been guys like former MLB players Ty Cobb and LHP Randy Johnson that have made more than a few of their MLB peers quake when they hit the rubber, or was getting a sizable lead off First Base. This type of intimidation is a primal human instinct and sometimes needed to have success at this level. I am talking about a singular player who can be labeled as an “enforcer”, a guy who will take no backtalk and will prove his measure and means with his fists if needed.

The reason I bring this idea even up is that in their recent past, the Rays have had two distinctive mano-on-mano moments (during 2008) where just this type of rugged barbaric presence was not only needed, but could have quelled the on-field bravado in advance knowing this one lone figure could emerge from the dugout or Bullpen to go headhunting.

We all remember the Cobb-style thigh spiking of Rays Second Baseman Akinora Iwamura by then Yankees First Baseman Shelly Duncan back in the Spring of 2008 after Rays INF Elliot Johnson plowed into Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli and sent him to the hospital and the DL. During that Rays moment, the immediate enforcer role was taken on by Rightfielder Jonny Gomes. He was a student and admirer of the professional wrestling circuit, and Gomes took his run-in role seriously tackling Duncan from behind as both benches and Bullpens cleared.

Then again on June 5, 2008, during a Rays versus Red Sox game in Fenway Park, Boston outfielder Coco Crisp took exception after a pitch from Rays starter James Shields plopped him and charged the mound. Again it was Gomes who got there after a missed haymaker punch was thrown by Shields at Crisp, but the boxing savvy Crisp ducked the punch before Gomes again took him down like a linebacker to the green grass.

But with Gomes leaving the Rays fold and doing his thing now with the Cincinnati Reds, the on-field antics and bench clearing brawls over the last two years have resembled line dances like the Hustle or the Electric Slide more than standing up for your teammates. The 2009 tussle between the Rays and Cleveland after Indians catcher insulted Rays Manager Joe Maddon seemed more choreographed than spur of the moment. Something seemed to be missing in this Rays clubhouse. Something intimidating seemed to have packed its bags and wandered away, and was not to be refilled by another soul.

Who knows, maybe that past Rays intimidation factor instantly returned yesterday when the Rays signed RHP Kyle Farnsworth to a two year contract. Maybe a little more physical heart and intimidation was in order since it clearly has been missing since Gome’s departure. Can Farnsworth’s intimidating presence firmly prove fruitful to the Rays psychological bag of tricks

This entire realm of pugilistic or barbaric thinking was escalated by a ESPN,The Magazine poll that asked MLB players who was the one man you would not like to see clench his fight and head your direction in a bench-clearing incident? Farnsworth was the clear winner in the poll, and that could definitely play into the Rays advantage in the late innings of a game. Farnsworth could be utilized in the 8th inning set-up role vacated by departed Dan Wheeler, or possibly be posted up as a Rays closer to cement and increase the intimidating pulse.

Farnsworth threw around 94.5 mph in his tours in Kansas City and Atlanta in 2010,and there is no sign of him slowing down any time soon. But his overall 27 saves in 12 seasons might point more towards him taking Wheeler’s spot and letting Joel Peralta man the closer role. Still, the image of the “Rick Vaughn” look-a-like with his wide rimmed glasses perched on his face adds to his character on the mound. This will be Farnsworth’s 6th team in 12 seasons, but could easily escalate into a career defining moment as Farnsworth will be looked upon to provide a veteran stalwart point to help maintain and stabilize a evolving Rays Bullpen mix.

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RSBS.mlblogs.com

Most people might not know that the ray is actually closely related to the shark family, but they only have their lone barbed stinger as their source of self defense. Being the human counterparts of this fierce combative familia, possibly the Rays have finally solidified a member into their fold who can teach some of the other Rays more timid relievers or starters a thing or two about on the mound intimidation and how to use that wisdom to their advantage on the hill.

In 2010 the only person feared on the Rays roster might have been Rays starter Matt Garza, and his facial hair might have provided most of that notion. With Garza gone to the Windy City, the Rays might have picked someone they feared in the past to become an ally to their team and provide a bit of his on-the-mound presence knowledge to help the Rays future.

At first I did not like this signing because of what Farnsworth had done to us in the past on the mound. On April 29, Farnsworth came on in the bottom of the 6th inning with his team down by 10 runs and threw 2 complete innings while striking out 4 of 8 Rays hitters in the Rays 11-1 blowout. It was the only time in 2010 he would face the Rays.

Intimidation plays a great psychological role in the game of baseball. At any moment a team or their players play coy mental games against their opponent both in the field and at the plate. This Farnsworth deal might be one of those signings that do not add up on paper, but in regards to what he can produce both mentally and physically for this rebuilding Rays team, Farnsworth has heavyweight potential…even before he clenches his fists.

 

 

Final Photo Homage to the “Spittin’ Cobra”

 

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I really don’t know why it has taken me almost 5 months to finally posting an image homage of Tampa Bay Rays starter Matt Garza’s bobblehead.

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The Rays Marketing gurus’ up in the high floors of Tropicana Field had the vision to have it in place by the time Garza took the hill for his No-Hitter on July 26th, just a day after the David Price image was removed from that same spot in Rightfield. Somehow I lost not only my focus in regards to these Garza photos, but the actual photo file until today.

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Maybe the Fathead style comedic image of Garza’s bobblehead that just seemed to keep staring at me through his morphing stages also possibly telepathically transformed my mental facilities in oatmeal after digesting a Garza neurotoxin that had me somehow postpone his 2010 bobblehead photo image transformation until today?

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Could it have been the mystical workings of the “Cobra-Chameleon” that made me hide the images and as he went through his daily metamorphosis at the hands of Rays reliever Andy Sonnanstine, the Rays budding team artist and resident practical jokester.


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Even when Sonnanstine was assigned to the Hudson Valley Renegades (love their name) for a week, the transformation were handled by passing the torch to fellow former Rays Bullpen mate, LHP Randy Choate.

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There has to be some sort of logical reasoning why I could not complete this mental mission before today. It is really not normal for a rabid Rays fan like myself, to forget something as memorable as your team’s first No-Hitter, especially at Dome sweet Dome.

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But ironically I did. Maybe all the glitter that turns to gold surrounding that harmonious July 26th performance was somehow still riding in circles within my mind to this very day.

Maybe I was simply just a emotional and mental wave of cosmic energy that intermittently got frozen in my mind and finally began to thaw and revealed the (file) path to the lost Garza treasure of photos.


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From the transformation of the simple facial hair growing daily to the final image of Garza sans I-Pod and a well placed bubble gum balloon above his cap, it was a set of images I hope I never forget again.

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And now with Garza taking his glove and being traded recently to the city that gave us Vienna beef hot dogs and deep dish pizza, maybe it is apropos that these great images of the changing Garza bobblehead are finally unveiled today.

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I will miss the “Spittin’ Cobra. His heart and fighting spirit were inspirational, and his confidence was always riding in the red zone. Garza was one of those guys who emotionally pitched like his hair was on fire and took every single pitch and hit to heart.


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So I guess this is my way today to officially say “goodbye” to the guy who always signed for the kids on Sunday after he threw on the field. Maybe this is my “thank you” to the player who attended both Gameworks events for Season Ticketholders over the last several years. Maybe this is my photo remembrance of a Rays player who can grow facial hair….unlike me.


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Or possibly it is these lasting images of Garza that I want frozen forever in my mind. Of him showing that smile, wearing those 80’s louvered sunglasses while listening to his music and getting ready to do battle on the mound.


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Maybe there was a cosmic reason his images are locked away in my mind. Maybe he is a Rays player I never wanted to forget.

 

 

 

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