Some days when you drive down to Port Charlotte,Florida to watch the Tampa Bay Rays during Spring Training, the ride seems like it take forever and a day. Somehow the miles seem to drag on, and by the time you hit the Torch Blade exit, you are already on the verge of being spent. But not today. Not on the day that the Rays officially start their 2011 season. Opening day in Port “C” is always a time to renew friendships, bask in the light that is the new season, and most of all, begin to work on the base for that great Summer tan.
With David Price set to hit the hill, followed by a Tall reliever that brings it from the clouds, mixed with the facial gold from the “Garfoose” master, Rays baseball has arrived in 2011. From the moment I hit the line near the gate today, the buzz was on the new blood and some of the old Rays. James Shields, also known this time of year as the privateer “Graybeard” is anxious to get his year started on Sunday, erasing the doubts and clouds from around his 2010 performance.
Then you have the young bloods like Chris Archer, Brandon Gomes and Cesar Cabal, each collectively fighting for their MLB life (Cabal), while Archer and Gomes most likely are just hoping to set a beautiful impression on Rays Manager Joe Maddon and Pitching Coach Jim Hickey as a secondary option if an injury takes down a starter or long reliever.
All three have a boatload of possible MLB potential, but we know one will definitely start in the minors (Archer). Cabal will be fighting for the right to stay with the Rays as a Rule 5 player that has to make the roster, or be offered back to the Red Sox. Gomes, who was part of the Garza deal wants to show his new employer that they made an intelligent investment in bringing him into the Rays fold. All three will get their chance to impress on this first day of action.
There is a buzz around the gates of the INF Elliot Johnson finally getting another chance to crack the Rays infield, even on a part-time basis. His game has been elevated, but will it be enough to stave off the advancements of veteran Felix Lopez who also wants that vital roster spot. This infield utility spot might have more than a few sets of eyes watching as it’s competition starts today. But most of the chatter circling the closed gates seems to be on who the Rays might choose as their Opening Day starter.
Do you go with Shields, who has owned that spot for what seems like decades, or do you pass the mantle to Price this year? There are varying opinions on this, but my sentiment is to see if Shields rebuilds his arsenal, then make the educated decision. It can not be an emotional pick just because Shields is the veteran. It has to be for the overall good of the team, and for the player involved. If Maddon and Hickey feel adamant about the possibility of Price having the same success in the top spot as in the two slot, then it is a no-brainer….Or is it?
The potential of the number 2 guys in the American League East is impressive. Jon Lester in Boston, Brain Matusz in Baltimore, Phil Hughes in NYC and a possibility anyone from Scott Richmond to Brandon Morrow manning the 2-slot for the Blue Jays. The number 2 spot might be the essential spot to decide a series win or loss in 2011. The top slot might have lost a bit of it’s luster as the “terrible two’s” might be the 17-20 game winners this season.
But today is about Spring baseball. It is about the return of the game that left us wanting more in October. It is time to fill our collective bellies with the food of the game, get to know the new players, plus provide the first enthusiastic push of emotion heading into the March 31st Spring finale on the new AstroTurf in Tropicana Field.
Sure we want to see the new guys, but the old favorites and the guys who have teetered that thin line with the Rays might be another great storyline to watch in the coming weeks. Dirk Hayhurst, coming back from injury should make a play for one of the three potential unclaimed Bullpen spots.
The first day of live pitching for J P Howell might be one of the most anticipated events this Spring as the Rays reload their vacant Bullpen. The emergence of possibly someone like Matt Bush, who started his career as the first overall pick of the Padres, then had a few unexpected moments before making his rebirth as a reliever.
The stories are all there. Enough for writers from every corner of the Tampa Bay area to scope out, research and analyze until their eyes blur. But today it is all about the rebirth of the season. The first step towards not only competing, but putting the competition back on their heels. Some say the next three games against the Pittsburgh Pirates is a bit anticlimactic, but this young Bucco team is hungry to make the same Spring jump the Rays did in 2008 and 2010. They are hungry to see the “W’s” multiply.
So I was sure to plop on the sunscreen and apply a bit of logic to a first contest that would have bugs and flats moments, but give us a sense of what to expect in 2011. This is a great young squad that should be a pain in every team’s plans in 2011. It is a team reloading itself for the potential of having another string of highly competitive years, with a full arsenal of budding MLB stars ready to knock on the door. This might be the beginning of a beautiful Rays era started on the mound today by one of baseball most likable young stars.
Some would say that Price is auditioning for that Opening Day nod today, but I beg to differ. I honestly feel Price is showcasing the next wave of Rays talent that is bubbling just below the surface and want to make an impression on the fans to know their names. Guys like catcher Robinson Chirinos, outfielder Brandon Guyer and Sam Fuld. When the Rays finalize their 25-man roster in less than four weeks there might be a few surprises, and a few disappointments.
But it all begins today, with an expected sweltering humid Florida afternoon game, offset by the cooling notion that baseball is back. I do not know about you, but I have waited for this moment since October and I can’t waif for these rot iron gates to swing open….Let the Spring begin!
But then sparkling memories like the Spring of 2008 come rushing into my brain like the Gulf of Mexico surf. This was the beginning of the “Magical Season of Rays Baseball”, and their last time training in their hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida.
Breaking from the untold failures of the Rays recent Spring pasts has been accomplished. This new Spring edition of the Rays will again try and control the controllable from today’s initial game throughout 2011, with an earmark to correcting past inferiors and mental stop signs. The team seems to be focused towards the immediate future, and what each of them can bring to the table.
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 Reid Brignac steps into the batter box against the Pittsburgh Pirates there will be a heightened sense of renewal in the air in Port Charlotte, Florida.
There is still the frsh pain smell on the wall of the Rays offices just beyond the Port Charlotte stadium pronouncing the Rays 2010 American League East title. Also in the air this Spring is a renewed crispness that only a great Spring Training baseball game can deliver. Potential meets expectations, just as the bat meets the balls this Spring.
Man, here we go again. Not even two days before the beginning of the Tampa Bay Rays 14th thrill seeking journey through the 2011 season and I am already extremely tired from the massive jump and down stomach wrenching trip we took since the being shown the dirty end of the Game 5 finale of the 2010 ALDS in Tropicana Field.
Believe me, I do not mind the twisty gut checks, the sudden drops of talent or even the unsuspecting high steeping emotional road this team is going to have to endure to again be considered anything better than the “Show” (Third place) category. But I am still a bit wary of increasing stomach shifts upwards towards the Adam’s Apple with the vulnerability of this team set dead center for everyone to poke a stick at right now.
Sure I am expecting more than a single intense emotional drop in 2011 that not only takes your breathe away, but does something to overall mode of team confidence and inner soul that can not be repaired by just a few spotty wins. That is where the images and actions of guys like Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon will make their first precision-point impact on this young squad. Anything else would be a step in the wrong direction and could send mix signals to the young team in Carolina Blue. Already there are plenty of those brooding dark D-Rays souls who are beginning to hark the warnings towards people like me about the possible enduring 2011 side effects of believing in the whole hype and propaganda machine’s message before there is a formidable concrete foundation under this team to amply support it through thick and thin. Believe me when I tell you here, there is no “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey anywhere hidden upon and around the clutches of my I-Pod music mix.
I am reminded again and again in the recesses of my optimistic mind that these same dark dwelling remnants of D-Rays carnage of losing possibly have not even attended a single Rays Spring Training game since the Rays took their gloves and bats from downtown St. Petersburg to the woodsy fauna of Port Charlotte, Florida back in March 2008. Could this disheartening band doom and gloom still be stuck emotionally and visually in the muck and mire of their season-ending Rays emotions pertaining to a pre-2008 celebratory season.
I would be setting myself up for a serious case of heartbreak if I had not seen this club on their first day with my own eyes. Seen the desire and the passion set deep within their eyes and know the character of these Rays souls. Sure there was a mass exodus that rivals rats from a sinking ship, but still the Rays schooner is afloat and steaming for another MLB season. But still those with dark clouds just seem to haunt my existence right now. Or could they be the eventual realists and I am the dream with my head in the clouds?
Not sure anymore. Not sure of much expect this team has heart, soul and maybe a little extra that people are discounting right now. Possibly this team has that scent of fate and destiny within their DNA, or could it be another spiraling season like 2009 where you are not sure where the Rays would land, or if they would again set themselves on a solid surface. My emotions are not generally shipwrecked on an isolated island, but the image keep popping into my mind that I might be the optimistic one. I am might be the one to call this team to arms, I might be just a little too pumped up for the ride.
But that is the fun about a season you can not script. A team that has unlimited potential and possibilities that could explode or implode within a matter of minutes or games. Sure there will more than a few heart-wrenching losses or close defeats, but will that define this team as “lonesome losers” or possibly hexed? Or will the stark reality hit me around mid-season that this team is reloading, not competitive enough to thrash their way to the top. I am not betting again this crew, not for a second.
Even though youth will command the stage from the rotation to the bench, this team has the tools to fight the good fight and come out on top. The Bullpen might be a huge question mark, but it was also at the end of the Spring of 2010…and they only became the best Bullpen in the American League. I am a total optimist. Always have been, always will be. My soul tells me this team has the vinegar and bravado to stand up to an opponent on paper who could crush their dreams.
But people forget this Rays squad has tasted the sweetness of the postseason, and are hungry again to take the next step. Collectively this is a redesigned and re-focused team that is eager to again to take that next step to reclaiming their spot in this league. On the horizon will be teams that on paper might have the firepower or pitching finesse to handcuff their pursuits, but if it was so easy, then the Yankees or Red Sox would be handed a playoff berth in April.
I do not predict seasons. There are too many variables that can go wrong with a single throw. But, I will enlighten you to one thing that constantly swirls around in my head about this 2011 Rays squad. They are going to take their lumps, dish out their own brand of punishment and eventually gain the respect they lost when their 2010 season came to a premature close. Statistically this Rays squad might not be pretty, might not have the multi-faceted weapons of their past, but they can take this ride with glee, glory and finish it with a unexpected rise to the top.
Remember, in 2010 the Rays were considered the third best team by most prognosticators from sea-to-shining sea. They might have cut their case a bit close by winning on the last day of the season, but that struggle made a lot of these young Rays hungry to take the ride again and again. People discount the last game heroics of the Rays. It not only handed them their second American League East title in three seasons, it gave them the best record in Major League Baseball.
Not bad for a team most people in baseball destined for a supporting role with no much chance of receiving the end prize. But there will be those unexpected twists, turns and gut-check moments that will define this Rays team. Set them either on a course for glory or early gold tee times. This rollercoaster ride is officially about to begin. Please store your keepsakes, sunglasses and valuables in a place that will not lose them to the carnage that will ensue. So buckle yourself in tight because this one is going to be a rough and tumble trip, but I truly feel deep in my gut it is going to be a ride to remember……trust me.
I was pleasantly intrigued. extremely excited, and definitely interested when I got a friendly nudge from a few MLBlogs.com friends telling me I should apply for the MLB Dream Job position.
I gazed for what seemed like an eternity at the MLB.com page outlining the responsibilites and qualifications for this hallowed MLB position. Even the red boldfaced type headline prompting me to “Live Every Baseball Fan’s Dream Job” just kept my heart skipping and palpitating like Ricky Ricardo playing those Babalooon bongo drums.
This was the type of job within MLB hierarchy I had daydreamed about countless times in my 20′s usually while sitting at the copy clerk desk writing game summaries and doing proofreading duties for my human interest sports articles. But this 2011 MLB position had an exciting and grand social media twist. Certainly the technology aspects of the posts is not a roadblock for me.
I love trying to find 140-characters to describe or even condense an emotion or action. I instantly knew that I had to apply as soon as possible for the position I was born to hold. To say I was anxious when I began to input my information onto the MLB application would be an understatement.
This is definitely the type of job I would have gone solo into the Octagon, even against Chuck Norris and fought to the death in my 20′s. Heck possibly in my 30′s. The aspect of watching MLB games today has evolved into an alternative life form since my first taste of baseball back in the mid-60′s, but that evolution of technology only makes me salivate more, and want this position.
The almost surreal aspect that I could take into my blue eyes a possible 2,430 individual games, then gleefully dissect them into precious moments, then tell the baseball World about it blows even my vivid imagination. Even the first section on “Qualifications” just seemed like it was tailored to have someone like me jumping for joy at the opportunity. Let’s see if I can qualify for the position first:
* Strong writing skills
This one depends on who you ask, but I think I have some mad skills at times, plus I already have a blog reader base (thanks to the MLBlogs.com community & the Rays Republic). Ranking consistently in the Top 10 on the “Latest Leader List” has to be a cherry on top.
* Strong verbal communication skills
I think I can articulate and talk with the best of them, but I am not that “stat” driven baseball guy. Sure I like the quirky side notes and interesting factoids about MLB players or teams, but I can talk you ear off.
* Strong Organizational skills with the ability to give attention to multiple things at the same time
You kidding! I pride myself on having Media Guides, hand-outs and even a few personal tidbits at my side at the ready. Multi-tasking…when was the last time you saw someone outside the Press Box in the stands writing during a game and actually cheering…Check mark!
* Must be a baseball expert.
Here is a grey area. I have a good knowledge of the history and rules of the game, but I learn something new every day about baseball. I feel having an open mind or a varitable sponge at the ready makes me a stronger fan. I go into games and situations with a open objective. That translates into a more positive results, and a fresh pair of eyes. I actually think being a baseball expert limits you ability to adjust and flex your mind.
* Must be comfortable in front of the camera and be able to present a positive public image.
Well, I have been in photos, and videos for the Rays in the past, including a speaking role in “Braveknobs”. I have more of a face for radio, but I am all for the camera….Bring it on!
* Must have a witty and creative personality.
You are talking to the Rays fan who wants to print up “Garfoose Crossing” signs for the regular season. I love coming up with small interesting ideas or even venturing into small projects that tend to show my diverse range of story directions. I like to write myposts once,proofread them, then post.
* Must complete a background check to the satisfaction of MLB.
I have not even gotten a speeding ticket since 1999. Not saying I am as clean as Mr. Cleans white T-shirt, but there should not be anything in my past that would pop a huge red “X” upon my character…allegedly.
From there the position goes into specification of having to live within the Big Apple for the entire MLB season. Now even though I love my Rays within an inch of my own existence, a job like this only comes around once in a lifetime. I guess if selected I can have some sort of optimistic “Empire State of Mind”, but I will gaze upon the Rays from afar nightly ( I promise).
Who in their right baseball state of mind would not jump at the chance to see all MLB regular and postseason contests either by video or in person….No one! That bit in that paragraph about “must be present” at the games, if I had the MLB Dream Job position, stadium security might be the only ones keeping me away from a game. But then I always have MLB.TV if that happens (lol).
I would be as giddy as a school girl if I had the credentials and ability to cover, ask questions or even be a part of any press conference, media event. Imagine evn getting a opportunity to possibly sit on the grass at the 2011 All Star Game during the State Farm Home Run Derby and listen for that crack sound of the ball speeding off the bat from field level…Can you say once in a lifetime.
There is this funny sentence that states I “must share thoughts regarding games and topics of MLB interest via daily blogging, vlogging and through social media platforms. Do they know me? I am a budding social butterfly of the social networks. I currently post every day on MLBlogs.com, plus just past a huge plateau (1,000th post and 500,00 page views). Social media will not be a hindrance in any way. Heck, this position is a huge platform to get my overall baseball views out there. Count me in an that with a vengeance.
I think my writing has transformed a lot during my time at MLBlogs.com. I love to write about charity events, concerts and even the special little things that happen out of the usual fan’s eyesight. These thing intrigue me, and even if I am not selected, my style will not cease.
I enjoy my little patch within the MLB World, but sometimes you have to try and spread your wings and see if you can fly. Expanding my views, location and possibly my mind is an exhilarating thought, and one I would be eager to engage. Change is what keeps us out of the muck and mud of a stagnant existence.
I submitted a 500-word essay that started off with a personal experience that set my own MLB lifestyle in motion. It was about how as a young Little Leaguer I was playing the hot corner in a game and a ball hit a rock, clay, or maybe a boulder in front of me and the speeding ball took an extreme bad hop up into the bridge of my nose.
My Coach wanted me to come out of the game since blood was trickling down both of my cheeks, but I screamed at the top of my little lungs, “Brooks Robinson wouldn’t come out, neither am I!” That is the basis behind my MLB Dream Job application. You only get one shot at this life, and if you balk, take a step back or falter for a moment….something gets by you and it is lost forever.
Maybe that is why I yearn for a chance at this position. I gave up my journalistic dream because of a family situation and I am reminded of it every day. But I found the strength again to write, to give my opinion, to seek out the unknown and known facts of the game to educate, entertain and hopefully inform people.
The act of competition can be a great motivator and a great equalizer. Hopefully MLB seethe strength, committment and stamina I have not only for writing, but in life itself to give me a shot at this position. Hopefully one day I will be posting from the MLB office in NYC telling you about my wild first day.
If not you can be sure I will be reading your first day’s adventures at the MLB Dream Job. Either way, I will comment, and live vicariously through your muses and writs during that entire year…You can count on it!
I am extremely upset right now. I am conflicted right now with a bout of “justice will be served” and a “Jack Rudy” type mentality swirling in my mind. This is not only getting too commonplace, but this senseless violence has now crept into my baseball life with the blunt force of a hammer to the back of the head. I was on my way back from the grocery store late last night and saw the St. Petersburg Police vehicle with its light filling the night as it sprinted down 4th Street at breakneck speed.
It wasn’t until I got home and turned on the local cable news program that I learned that another officer was down in the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida. Instantly I was hoping it was not either officer Lopez, or my ex-college roommate Lt. Wyatt. Instantly my heart sunk thinking another family would have to go through the unbearable pain. I prayed to every identifiable deity I could think of wanting a positive outcome after already seeing two other SPPD officers fall this year. But this one struck me deep to my center core.
This one became so personal it outraged me, angered me to the point of wanting to go out and search for the culprit myself. Saddened me to the core because this sleepy hamlet is not the kind of town you would associate with violence, much less an act upon a law enforcement officer. I had just attended a charity golf tournament that very morning at the Feather Sound Golf & Country Club to help the families of two other SPPD victims of violence. But this one. This one senseless act has me almost ready to go Charles Bronson on someone.
I am sorry if I offend anyone today with this post, but I got to vent. I got to let this go, I got to get the emotion out before it eats me alive. We lost another valuable member of our Tampa Bay Rays extended baseball family last night. It wasn’t until this morning that I knew it was the same baseball savvy officer who has laughed, joked and even been at our side for so many Tampa Bay Rays games down near the Right Field Bullpen area.
I can not remember a single game day that I did not see officer David Crawford, even in street clothes attending a game down in that region of Tropicana Field. One instance really comes to mind right now. Someone had hijacked my ticket out of my back pocket while waiting to get into the Trop., and Crawford was outside patrolling before the doors opened. He noticed I was in the ticket line to get a replacement ticket for the game and immediately got word out on his radio that my ticket was gone. It was personal, it was the right thing to do, it was totally what he did for his baseball friends.
But he was more than a baseball friend to me. Through the years talking to this 25 year veteran of the SPPD we spoke about so much besides baseball. My uncle, Harold Smith had been Chief of Police in St. Petersburg and we talked about his early photo in the Police station’s main hall with him on his motorcycle taken in the 40′s. I met his wife when he came to a game off duty dressed in an old Rays shirt almost blending into the crowd. But he could never blend totally.
For he was the guy you remembered after the first encounter. Whether it was one the job, or outside the ballpark his huge personality and heart just grabbed at you. He also had a good baseball mind. Keen to the little nuances of the game and eager to strike up a baseball-related conversation. I can not remember how many games started with me chatting with Crawford during BP or even him catching my eye as I walked down the Trop stairs to my seat. I knew I was in my baseball home when I saw him.
It has not even been 12 hours yet and I still find myself so emotional about this senseless act. I have busted a few cherished items, pounded a baseball against a concrete wall until it has almost gone misshapen, I have not slept a wink. This one was personal to me. Cut me to the core, and will hurt for a long time.
The 2011 games will not be the same for me. Sure the excitement and the action will go on around me, but I will gaze back towards the Rays back Bullpen “Clubhouse” area waiting for Crawford to appear. But this time, his laugh and large personality will not appear, and that saddens me to the core.
Late last night (Tuesday) the St. Petersburg Police had a young 16 year old come in with his parents to the Police Station. After several attempts of pre-fabing a story, the youth finally confessed to the crime. 16 years old and his life is over. He had just turned 16, so he might have never gotten a drivers license or even finished school. Now he will be charged with First degree Murder and because of his youth arrests mostly with property crimes, he might be tried as an adult and spend the rest of his life inside a prison.
I am sorry, but nothing, not even the action of being stopped and questioned by a police officer is reason to pull a firearm and fire upon them. This was a kid that was not a hardened criminal or a habitual violent offender. Now agreat baseball loving fan, a friend, father and husband will forever be gone from our gaze.
Senseless doesn’t begin to describe it. I am not a huge god-fearing man, but I thank the Lord for the quick resolution and the action of closure, but I am still angry that David Crawford will no long joke, laugh and stand a post in the RF corner. I hope he gets front row seat to the ballgames in heaven…he deserves it!
You know to this day people all around the World still possibly daily refer to him as “Hootie” and not by his given name. But that is one of the drawbacks of being a singer in a band. Sometimes your name can get lost in shuffle. Missed by millions when even on the CD cover it lists you name as Darius Rucker, not “Hootie”. You have to wonder if anyone ever called Ian McCulloch by the name “Echo” since he fronted Echo and the Bunnymen.
But even with the common name snafu hitting his ears every day, you have to think Rucker has risen above the strife and is feeling pretty good about his solo career. Sure the South Carolina native might get a little annoyed at the constant name misfortune, but after 5 studio albums and 6 Top 40 chart hits…you can let some things slide.
Rucker also has a unique Rays connection line having just playing in a golf foursome with Rays fan Kevin Costner and Bill Murray at the PGA Pebble Beach National Pro-Am where Rays All Star Third Baseman Evan Longoria also attended.
Rucker name has been “officially” announced by the Tampa Bay Rays (I told you via Twitter months ago) for the Saturday, May 14 show after the 4:10 pm Baltimore Orioles contest. Especially great is that on May 13th, Rucker will celebrate his 45th birthday (May 13,1966). So maybe Rucker and I can celebrate together since that concert date is also my birthday. Since the Rays have gone 0-13 on that date (May 14th), possibly Rucker & I can high-5 after he helps us break our losing streak on that date (I am betting on it).
Most people might not know that Rucker finished his first solo R&B album back in 2002 and the album did not chart any of the singles. Then six years later after signing with Capitol Records and redefining himself more towards his Southern roots, his first single “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” showed if he stayed true to his country twang, he was on the road again to stardom.
Another really amazing thing to come about after the release of this first single off his “Learning to Live” CD is that Rucker became the first African-American artist to chart a number 1 hit since ex-baseball player Charlie Pride back in 1983. Suddenly the World rediscovered Rucker in this solo light and he also had hits like “It Won’t Be Like This for Long” and “Alright” shoot up the charts to the top spot, with “History in the Making” falling just short at number 3.
Still the rejuvenation of his music also made him the first African-American artist to ever win the New Artist Award at the CMA Awards in 2009. It was also only the second time that an African-American singer had ever won an award from the Country Music Association (Pride was also the first). His latest Cd ” Charleston, South, Carolina 1966“ pays homage to his hometown and the year of his birth.
You can bet his father, who Rucker only saw on Sundays since he was a singer in the gospel band called “The Rolling Stones” is now glad his son decided to follow his childhood dream of singing. Looking forward to hearing Rucker sing in Tropicana Field,. I am wondering if it will happen on “Country Night“, or possibly the popular “90′s Night“.
No matter what themed night Rucker performs on it has to feel like a million miles away from his stint on the celebrity “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” , as the singer at Tiger Wood’s wedding (along with the rest of the Blowfish) or as the chicken tender crisp cowboy on a Burger King television ad.
Rucker, an avid sports fan who has the Miami Dolphins logo tattooed on his body knows that when life throws you a curveball, you just lean back and crank it to the Moon. That is the type of clutch singer who could end a Rays May 14th losing streak. Heck, maybe we can get lucky enough to hear Rucker do another stirring National Anthem like the one he did at this year’s past Sugar Bowl game in the Superdome. He sure sounds amazing in domes!
The moments surrounding the entire exhausting day are still spinning around aimlessly in my head. Pulsating through my eyes and ears still are the photographic moments, enthusiastic greetings of baseball friends, and again hearing a buzz engulfing Tropicana Field. The last time I sat in this stadium, another team was celebrating.
Today it was to again witness a seasonal rebirth, a reincarnation of the recharging baseball spirit. It was time to get our collective baseball on! When the doors finally were thrown open as a symbol of a new Tampa Bay Rays season, I was overcome with a emotion of the expectations, the unforeseen, and the grandour of another season “officially” being kicked off along with 25,000 of my fellow Rays fans.
As I first rushed in from Centerfield, a Pepsi monstrosity met my eyes. I was the first Pepsi person to build a display for the Rays/Pepsi Fan Wall of Fame 7 years earlier, on my own induction day. Before me stood a wall of power, agility and almost 20 hous of labor. But it was a labor of baseball love, and bigger than anything I could of ever imagined. Then out of the corner of my eye was the object of that day’s affection for me.
There on pallets stacked almost 4 feet tall were 1 foot square parcels of the old Tropicana Field FieldTurf. The same turf that saw champagne dripped on it in 2008 and again in 2010. The same turf that was in place during the first Rays No-hitter in 2010 by Matt Garza, or the first Rays cycle by B J Upton in September 2009. So much history had been spilled both by sweat and celebration on that dark green carpet. Now it could be all ours with a $ 25 donation to the Rays Baseball Foundation. A small price for something that holds so many memories in its fabric.
So much to do during Fan Fest, and so little time. I decided to take astroll back towards the Centerfield entrance and view again, the Rays Holy Grail, The 2008 American League Trophy.stood before me with a brilliant Rays inspired background. To this day, that trophy still has a special allure,and makes me want to embraced it just like I did back before the 2009 season. But this time, it was out there front and center for all Rays fans to also celebrate and have their photos taken with this glorious piece of hardware. That is what Fan Fest is all about…possibilities.
Suddenly my eyes began to refodus towards Home Plate, and lo and behold stood new Ray Johnny Damon dressed in a “22″ jersey giving a high-5 to a young Rays fan who had just finished running the bases. It was great to see new Rays Johnny Damon take some time out of his busy day to come greet a few special Rays youngsters as they crossed the plate. Damon had a prior committment that day and only had a few moments, but a few kids will get a moment that will be cherished when they get older. Thank you Johnny!
I spent a few moments listening to Damon during his radio interview with local Brighthouse Sports anchor Rock Riley before taking a trip down “booth row”. This houses all the radio station, special promotional partners of the Rays, plus the Rays club tables. I stopped by the “Maddon’s Maniac table and met for a fewmoments with coordinator Matt Fitzgerald looking at the new 2011 gray “Maddons Maniac” design. Fitzgerald also pointed out the new dark blue T-shirts for the “Golden Rays” (over 55 Rays) which also had a beautiful new “GR” insignia on the design. Both designs were amazing, and sure to be popular Trop items this season.
After a quick check-in at the Wall of Fame table to let them know “Mr. Lucky” from the class of 2004 was in attendance, I was off to the Yard Sales of all Yard Sales located in the Corona Beach area in Leftfield, and also out in Leftfield Street in the stickball court region.
Used game jerseys from the past, including the 10th Anniversary jerseys were going for only $ 100. Along with signed balls, used bats and even a few other momentos most would have thought long gone. A 2010 Rays Media Guide, Yearbook went for the unheard of cost of only $ 2 (they cost $ 20 in the Team Store during the 2010 season). Buyers were everywhere getting some of the best Rays deals, and also helping the Rays Baseball Foundation.
I took another lap around the stadium watching as kid’s played numerous games from a speed trial while running from first to second base. A wiffle ball Home Run Derby area that looked like Ebbets Field, plus the always popular pitch speed booth where young hurlers could see if their velocity had improved over the Winter.
Took in the numerous vendors selling Rays merchandise along the curve of the infield clay and also experienced a small sampling of the “Little Cooperstown” baseball display that an avid Rays fan has assembled throughout his life. Took the yearly visit through the Rays Clubhouse where I got to see the now famous GTMI Board. GTMI stands for “Get The Man In”, which Maddon stressed profusely during the 2010 season. Those 4 letters might have been a small catalyst that eventually got them the Rays second American League East title in three seasons.
It was only a little after 10 am and already the autograph line was getting full for the 12 pm signings for Evan Longoria (Table 1) and B J Upton (Table 6). I strolled around the ballpark a few more times even hitting “radio row” again, plus the Fox SunSports table where roving television reporter Todd Kalas was signing for fans.
Kalas was at Fan Fest for a long time today considering he had to do a telecast for the USF Bulls Basketball game that evening. That just shows the dedication goes beyond just the players for this event. Before he left that afternoon, Kalas had stripped off his Carolina blue Fox/FSN polo shirt and reappeared in a dress shirt and tie ready for his departure to USF. But the mood was upbeat and extremely enthusiastic all over the stadium about this 2011 Rays team.
It was now about 12 and Longoria and Upton had not arrived yet to the Trop. Seems there was an accident on I-75 coming Northbound. For those who do not know, the I-75 corridor from Palmetto to Naples is under going some construction and repair work to widen the highway. One section of I-75 North was already 2-lanes before the accident. Afterwards it pushed everyone into a single lane for a short distance, which backed up traffic for miles.
I took another lap around “Radio Row” which was just in front of the Rays home dugoutnear the area between the two dugout. I made sure to stop by the Rays Radio Network table and congradulate Dave Willis on his recent 3-year deal to stay as a voice of the Rays. In front of the visitor’s dugout was the MLB Alumni signing tables. There event featured 40 former MLB players signing FREE autographs for the fans.
I was looking forward to seeing ex Rays Dave Eiland (now a Rays Special Assistant), OF Jason Romano, and relievers Roberto Hernandez and Travis Phelps. Hernandez was accompanied by his young son, who also is a local budding baseball player. But I was intriqued to see Phelps wholast pitched a few years ago for the Tigers in the Spring. People forget he is always going to hold a distinctive record in MLB history. Phelps was drafted by the Rays in the 89th Round of the 1996 MLB Draft. No one else…ever will make it to the MLB level from that spot.
It was now around 12-ish, and Evan Longoria and B J Upton had not arrived yet for their 12 pm signings. Word spread quickly back behind the blue curtain that an accident had traffic backed up a bit on I-75 coming North from Port Charlotte,Florida. The Rays were enroute, but were delayed by traffic. The section of road from Palmetto to Port Charlotte is undergoing a huge upgrade in lanes and interior changes. I know from traveling the route just a few days earlier that not paying attention could cause a huge mess.
Finally both Upton and Longoria arrived and began signingfor the fans. The 1pm and 2 pm Rays players also had a bit of a delay, but it was much less than the huge time lapse of Upton and Longoria. Rays RP Andy Sonnanstine also wore a T-shirt honoring the two slain SPPD officers during his Season Ticket holder photo op, and his panel discussion with fellow pitcher Jeff Niemann. J P Howell took a moment to chat with me before heading off to do his photo opportunity with Sonnanstine, then do his “Reading With the Rays”.
Even with a few bumps in the road. The new AstroTurf at Tropicana Field brought about some comments as to its “bumps”, but after 25,000 pairs of feet, plus the upcoming gymnastics event and St. Petersburg Boat Show, the turf should have settled a bit more in place. No matter what, Dan Moeller and his Rays groundscrew will have theTrop surface in tip top shape before the Rays final Spring Training game on March 31,2011.
The Rays Fan fest attracted 25,000 Tampa Bay fans. It also helped raise over $100,000 dollars for its affiliated charities through donations and the Yard Sale. It was the perfect ending to a great day of celebrating the upcoming season, plus remembering those less fortunate in our community. Once again the Rays showed they know how to throw a Fan Fest. Sure there were a few flies in the ointment, but that will only make the Rays staff work harder to bring another great event in 2012…I can’t wait!
How cool is it that the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays home Opener is going to be on April Fool’s Day….and it’s a Friday! What a way to begin the 2011 season, with a banner raising and a few pranks, jokes and maybe even a Garfoose sighting. Even if all, or none of that happens on that first day of April, the Rays Republic will again have some nifty giveaways and promotions to fill our Fridays and Sundays.Now these are not the only days that giveaways will be dished out to the Rays faithful, but on Wednesday, June 29th and Thursday, August 4th, you know that the masses will be all carrying those famous Rays chertiest as the Rays bring back another great “Park & Recreation Day” environment within Tropicana Field. Too bad Zach Grienke went to Milwaukee. We all know how much he simply loves those banging monstrosities while pitching.
Starting with the traditional schedule magnet given out on that first night, really quickly the Rays promotions machine kicks into high gear, even during that first weekend. On the next day, Sat, April 2, the first 15,000 Rays Fans will receive an Evan Longoria Gold Glove replica presented by DEX Imaging. But the fun doesn’t stop there, on Sunday the Rays will distribute special American League East Banners provided by Rays sponsor Sweetbay Supermarkets.
But back again for another go-round is the popular T-shirt’s given out on Friday night games. In all a total of 12 different designed Rays inspired T-shirts will be given out to the first 10,000 lucky fans thanks to the good people at Captain Morgan’s , who presides over the Friday Fest festivities with glee. The only exception in the T-shirt promotion this season is that on May 13 and August 5, the first 10,000 women will receive the giveaway T-shirts.
Hopefully the Rays have inspired Rays starter James Shields to again design a special T-shirt with Rays fans in mind. The 2010 black T-shirt featuring a downward facing griffin was one of the most sought after T-shirts in the Tampa Bay area schools. Could the Rays have gone to the Shields well twice and come back with another gem? You will have to wait and see.
Kid’s again play a significant part in the Rays promotional items as 12 items will be geared towards the younger Rays fans, with the last promotion on Sunday, September 25th being decided by a vote by the Rays kids. But in between The first week in April and the last weekend in September, there will be a very interesting assortment of promotional items just for those 14 and under. Kids will be able to get a Rays fire hat ( 9/11/11), or possibly a David Price Superhero Action Figure (8/21) or maybe they are more into linens, like a Raymond pillowcase (May15).
Also on tap for the kids will be a Joe Maddon Bank giveaway (5/1), A David Price Arm Sleeve (4/17) and the always popular Raymond’s Back-To-School Set (8/7). But it doesn’t stop there. Kids can also be the envy of their friends on Sunday July 3, when the Rays give out an exclusive DJ Kitty Puppet. But you didn’t think we would stop there did you? Riding on the heels of the best baseball promotion in 2010, the Rays have stepped up their game and will present kids with an Evan Longoria Cereal Bowl and Spoon set on September 4th.
But the hits just keep coming. Back again will be a grand assortment of bobble heads starting with a wobbly-headed doll of new Ray Manny Ramirez on May 29th followed three weeks later by a B J Upton bobble head (6./19). And it wouldn’t be the Rays if they did not also provide a little more, like a Johnny Damon Bobble head on July 17.
Again, the Rays have stepped into the box and cracked the ball over the centerfield wall possibly again having some of the best promotions in baseball. Over the years we come to expect the unexpected from the Rays promotions department. Again they pulled a big white rabbit out of the hat and provided some great incentive for the Rays Republic.
From the T-shirts and bobble heads all the way to their unique variety of trinkets and toys for the younger crowd, the Rays Promotions team have delivered…just like you knew they would. Still patiently waiting for a vuvuzela promotion.
What? something has to freeze over before that is approved….okay I can wait.
With the time ticking away faster towards the doors finally opening at the Rotunda entrance to Tropicana Field, maybe I can give you some information that could make your day more organized. In this post I will be including the (subject to change) Autograph locations, including Table numbers for all Tampa Bay Rays players and minor leaguers participating in the Fan Fest experience.
You might see pretty marquee names missing from the tentative list. Johnny Damon has a prior commitment on this day, but rumor has it that he might just be somewhere in-house at Tropicana Field, possibly greeting the early admitted fans. When the Rays list went to print there was no indication that Manny Ramirez would be participating, but if the last few days have been an indication…We might have a ManRam sighting within the Trop.
But before I get to the recent list and locations of both Rays players, plus the more than 30 Major League Baseball Alumni who will be singing for FREE during Fan fest. There are a couple of other activities I think you will want to Make time for, because they should be interesting and entertaining for all involved.
The first would be the “Reading with the Rays” program which will be held in RightField Street. The event will give you child a chance to sit and listen to an actual ballplayer The Rays have found this reading experience well received in the past as Rays players visited Tampa Bay area school during the regular season.
Starting the event off at 1:15 pm will be recently acquired OF Sam Fuld. At 2:15 pm, OF Brandon Guyer will begin reading and turn the book over to Rays reliever J P Howell at 3:15. Possible Rays Opening Day starter James Shields will begin the last segment of the day at 4:15 pm. This should be an excellent chance for your kid to meet and listen to an authentic MLB player share the gift of reading.
The Pepsi Stage area should be another high energy hub of fun and frolic as the Raymond Stage Show begins the day’s festivities at 11 am, then is followed by the Induction ceremonies for the class of 2011 Rays/Pepsi Fan Wall of Fame. Right after the conclusion of the Wall of Fame inductions, at 1:15, Rays top prospect Desmond Jennings and local resident Casey Kotchman will begin the first of four Panel discussions.
They will be followed at 2:15 by pitchers Jeff Niemann And Andy Sonnanstine taking the stage to talk about the upcoming 2011 edition of Rays baseball. At 3:15 the fellow pitching duo of David Price and Dirk Hayhurst will take to the mike and possibly be one of the more entertaining events of Fan Fest. You can almost anticipate the “Garfoose” questions even now. Batting clean-up this day for the panel discussions will be Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports fame at 4:15pm.
|Time||Table 1||Table 2||Table 3||Table 4||Table 5||Table 6|
|12:00 – 1:00||Evan Longoria||Sam Fuld||Casey Kotchman||Reid Brignac||JJ Furmaniak||B.J. Upton|
|Chris Carter||Desmond Jennings||Russ Canzler|
|1:00 – 2:00||Ben Zobrist||Rob Delaney||Leslie Anderson||Tim Beckham||Sean Rodriguez||Jeff Niemann|
|Ray Olmedo||Daniel Mayora||Alex Cobb||Brandon Guyer|
|Justin Ruggiano||Chris Bootcheck||Albert Suarez|
|2:00 – 3:00||David Price||Alexander Torres||Chris Archer||Joel Peralta||Felipe Lopez||Jake McGee|
|Jose Lobaton||Robinson Chirinos||Dirk Hayhurst|
|3:00 – 4:00||James Shields||John Jaso||Bobby Ramos||Dave Martinez||Matt Bush||Kelly Shoppach|
|Richard De Los Santos||Derek Shelton||Jim Hickey||Jonah Bayliss||Juan Cruz|
|George Hendrick||Ricky Orta|
|4:00 – 5:00||Don Zimmer||Nevin Ashley||Cesar Ramos||Tom Foley||Cory Wade||Jeremy Hellickson|
|Craig Albernaz||R.J. Swindle||Stan Boroski||Brian Baker|
|Cesar Cabral||Stephen Vogt||Dane de la Rosa|
The always popular Metro PCS Call-A-Friend event will be back again in 2011 with Rays OF Matt Joyce and starting SS Reid (Briggy Baseball) Brignac taking the stage to call your friends, neighbors or possibly a jealous friend who had to work on Saturday. Replacing them at 2:15 will be Uber-utility man Ben Zobrist and 2B Sean Rodriguez. Remember , all proceeds from today’s event will benefit the Rays Baseball Foundation, the ALS Foundation, the St. Petersburg fallen officers through the Jeffery Yaslowitz and Thomas Baitinger Memorial Fund and the Salvation Army. Be sure to go on over to the first annual Rays Yard Sale where collectibles and memorabilia from 1998 to today can be purchased with the proceeds going to the above charities.
Also you will have a chance to buy a MLB Authenticated Mumm’s champagne bottle from the 2008 playoff celebration, plus a 1 foot piece of the champagne soaked clubhouse carpet for just $ 25. You can also get a piece of the former playing surface of Tropicana field for another $ 25 donation. Both items are in limited supply and should go quickly.
Also on hand will be over 40 former Major League Baseball players including a signing time from 11am to noon that will feature former Rays players P Dave Eiland, closer Roberto Hernandez, RP Travis Phelps and recently retired OF Jason Romano. This free event will also have a collectible MLB Alumni poster that will feature the name and player photo of a majority of the players signing on that day. Below is a list providing all the players and their times that will participate in the FREE Fan Fest autograph signing.
Tomorrow during the Fan Fest event I will also be Tweeting live @Raysrenegade starting around 1 pm giving some interesting tidbits of information every 15 minutes on several members both new and returning that have been invited to the Rays Major League Spring camp. Going to be a great day, and those in attendance, come on by the RF seats and say hello. I would be glad to meet you…personally. Got to go now, so much to do, and so little time…..
Got to tell you, yesterday was extremely fun. The 78 mile trip seemed so long getting there, even with the red hued Sun poking out of the morning haze as I crossed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, but I was on my first mission of the Spring.
I always look forward to the first day of workouts. Punxsutawney, Pa. might have their “Phil”, but when you finally see Rays First Base Coach George Hendricks pop out of the clubhouse and begin his strut to the field….It is a true sign of Spring. Along with the usual classic Spring Hendricks sighting, I got a special gift to begin the 2011 Rays baseball season.
A first glimpse of Manny Ramirez dressed in a blue and white track suit walking towards the Rays clubhouse with his father. A half hour before the first glimpse of Rays blue this Spring we got some “Manny” time, and I totally approved of it. Sure I might have only had a second of chatter with ManRam, but he seemed all business and ready to roll. I like that in a player.
As if they were all wearing precise Swiss chronological devices, at the chime of 10 am, the rolling doors on the west side of the Rays clubhouse opened wide up and out cam our Florida “Boys of Summer”. I was extremely psyched to see the familiar faces, and also finally face to name of some of the new arrivals through trades and minor league signings. I got my first “official” Garfoose signing, got to also take in the mini dreadlocks look of young pitcher Chris Archer.
J P Howell strolled out looking thicker in the shoulders and new Rays Adam Russell just looked like a seaside condo. But the playfulness was also at hand as leftie David Price made a hovering newspaper writer his personal bubble gum holder and other veteran Rays pitchers began to make the round trying to place names with faces on this first day.
One of the most interesting moments was seeing Rays Bench Coach Dave Martinez come out in full “Caveman” fashion with a full-blown beard and a swagger. Rays catcher John Jaso also carried a few more whiskers than usual after his 2010 off-season adventure in the land of the Mayans. I was actually afraid Jaso was going to be speaking in Mayan or Spanish when I first talked to him.
Rays owner Stuart Sternberg also made his yearly pilgrimage down to “meet with the troops” and make his yearly confessional to the Tampa Bay media. Sternberg was more than candid on his optimism for the region, and emphatically told the assembled masses he has not been approached by “outside” communities wanting to entice the Rays away.
Sternberg did not wear his usual Caroline Blue sweater vest that had become a bit of a Tampa Bay tradition on the first day, but his smile and to the point remarks made it clear his intention was to work in harmony with this region towards an eventual stadium situation. As Rays skipper Joe Maddon took his assembled army on the path of what is expected this season. Another Way” was a phrase used often and with emphasis in his lecture.
That energy and vibe also carried on to the fence line as Rays fans watched as the Rays pitchers and catchers stretched, ran some agility drills, then went into their pitching group for various other exercises and eventual running. But this was the day to hear the hard popping sound of the ball striking the mitt leather. This was the day for the franchise to again find the pieces of the puzzle and assemble them in such a way to possibly prove everyone. I was looking forward to see the pitchers’ throw for that first time.
To see what kind of slide and dice Hayhurst had on his pitches, or see the great break on his fastball that archer is famous for in Team USA circles. But it was also time to see Rays minor leaguers like Alex Cobb, and Rule 5 pick-up leftie Cesar Cabal throw for the first time in the Major League camp.
I was especially excited to see what Cabal had knowing he would have to occupy a Rays roster spot all season long, or be offered back to the Red Sox. You can bet the Rays will do everything in their power to not let the Boston get Cabal back in their system. The leftie will have to show this Spring the confidence the Rays had when they plucked him off the Red Sox farm system roster this Fall. So far,
I like the drop on his pitches, and he could be a real underdog to possibly taking the left-hand specialist spot in the Rays Bullpen. I honestly think he will be given every opportunity to make this Rays squad and be a significant member of this rebuilt Bullpen. Most came out to see the guy that is sure to have his say in who will be the last pitcher on the hill.
Kyle Farnsworth did not try to elude his intimidation factor one iota today as he made sure to pop the glove and stare in on every pitch to Jaso during their first side session together. As they finished, Jaso made sure to go out and shake Farnsworth’s hand.
First day impression means a lot to me. Maddon has already left his mathematical equations and rhymes at the door and went with the eloquent and to the point “Another Way” mantra for 2011.
Somehow I see it being done another way. I can fully imagine and see immediate success in the 2011 twists and turns in the “Rays Way” as it is modernize to fit the 2011 goals and aspirations, to incorporate this young bunch of impressionable youth with seasoned veterans like Ramirez and Johnny Damon.
Looking forward to that first Grapefruit League game on February 26 in Port Charlotte. Hopefully in that contest towards the beginning Maddon will utilize the first of his multi-dimensional lineups for 2011. But today was all about the pop of the glove and birth of another season.
Today an owner embraced the Tampa Bay area with enthusiasm and open arms while a few young pitchers’ left immediate impressions and glimpses into the Rays future/ A future Hall of Fame member came walking into the clubhouse like a kid in a candy store eager, willing and happy to be there while teammates assembled outside mingling and meeting each other for the first time.
It was a day of meetings, first greetings and a first glimpse into the 2011 mind of Maddon. It ain’t nothing but a Rays Spring thing.