March 2011

Siegal Pitched like a Real Roxstar

 

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TBO.com

             Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection,
                                          The lovers, the dreamers and me.”

                                                                                       -Kermit the Frog

How can you not want to stand up and cheer for someone who quotes the almighty Kermit in their blog post. Come on, he is the quintessential optimist. And to use one of his quote to announce yourself to the MLBlogs public is down right genius in my opinion. But who is this mastermind that not only used our favorite sock puppet as a pawn, but also packs a bit of a wallop herself.

Justine Siegal is pulling off her own version of the American Sports Dream this Spring, by throwing Batting Practice to Major League Baseball teams from Arizona to Florida. In all ( as of 3/18) Justin has pitched to six teams, and I bet there are a few in the wings wanting to also witness this historical baseball moment.


shapeimage_1.jpgBut was the moment any bigger for Siegal who grew up idolizing baseball players and their skills, and now she would have the chance to give back in a unique and special way. Sure there was the Japanese knuckleballer who broke into the minor leagues in 2010, and a few women have thrown against MLB players in the past, but Siegal was a Coach for the Brockton Rox, who once had Ranger OF Josh Hamilton on their roster.

She came with intensity, she came with pride, she came with a pretty wicked pitching arsenal. Here was a woman who had a college Coaching pedigree at Springfield College, had professional Coaching experience, and is now throwing for the pure joy of it to MLB caliber hitters. All while her young daughter Jasmine got to watch her mother perform baseball history with each flick of the wrist.

Here she was on March 10, 2011 throwing in the Port Charlotte complex of the Tampa Bay Rays, and growing a crowd with every crack of the bat. With every pitch, every grunt and sweat bead, the slogan of “Baseball for All” on Jasmine’s baseball jersey was singing like a choir of angels to the assembled ballplayers who all possibly had female teammates on their Little League teams.

Justine_Siegal_pitc_778859e.jpgBut today, Siegal was on that mound behind that pitching fencing throwing for each and everyone of them that either switched to softball, or somehow lost the dream. of playing ball. And Siegal didn’t just go up there and lay in pitches, she had a few get away from her, made a few nifty dippity-doo’s, but also had a smile on her face the entire time.

Funny how a chance conversation with Rays Manager Joe Maddon in the lobby of the Walt Disney Swan & Dolphin Resort during the 2010 MLB Winter Meetings had escalated to this time on the mound. Maddon was leaning against the fence talking to the usual media assembly as Justine took the mound and began her day’s work.

And the crowd quickly thickened on the sidelines as the Toronto Blue Jays had taken the field warming-up and getting ready for their chance in the cages. Her first throw into the cage was a strike. She was feeling it, into the moment, about to show that this Coach, pitcher and Mom could compete. That she could “bring it”. That she belonged in this game.

Even after a few solid thumps off her pitching, Siegal got into a rhythm and started to put the ball in there with a nice velocity, a great rolling ease and got into her own sense of a musical cadence.

064e7fc9cbdfbe44feaeaba67bbf8bee-getty-109314852nh004_cleveland_in.jpgBut little did Siegal know that one that cold December day she had bent the ear of the one person within Major League Baseball who loves who loves to champion the inspirational people of this game. Little did she know that she hitched her star to the right man, the right motivator and someone who wanted her to have success.

I sat there in the stand watching her throw pitch after pitch and never got up from my seat once. She seriously had talent and a great ability to guess the exact location for the Rays players taking their BP against her. One player (he will remain nameless) even swung and missed at a beautiful breaking pitch and he got a instant catcall from the assembled players watching.

But Siegal did herself and every female who ever imagines throwing on playing between those fine white lines a great service. She showed that the fairer sex is not always demure and fragile, but can have the heart of a champion and want dreams and aspirations for herself and her young daughter.

Talked to a member of the Rays field staff after she left the field and he remarked that she had a great session. One he will always remember. Not because she was a woman, and not because she was a special invitee to do the honors, but because she had the stamina and ability to provide quality BP to a MLB squad.


Thumbnail image for 539w.jpgI think Justine seriously just had me when she came out on the field at the beginning of B P with her hair tucked into a ponytail and wearing that Rays number “15” jersey. She owned that assembled crowd that day. She threw an amazing BP session, and she showed that she belongs…..quite an accomplishment that started in a place that Walt Disney called the “Happiest Place on Earth”.

Sorry to disagree with Walt, but Justin Siegal just seemed in harmony at that moment standing on that raised pile of clay throwing the ball like she always knew she could, to MLB caliber players….That seemed to be the “Happiest place on Earth” for her on that given day.

Rays Announce First Four Saturday Concerts Artists

 

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G4W0063w.jpgBesides the beginning of play by your Tampa Bay Rays, this might be the second thing you have been looking forward to this Spring. That’s right today the Rays will announce their first four Rays/Hess Express Saturday Concert Series guests, and they are impressive indeed.

One of the acts kind of leaked out early in the Spring, and we already know that Darius Rucker will perform on Saturday May 14th after the Rays take on the Baltimore Orioles (4:10 pm First Pitch). Now we just have to figure out which themed night Rucker will be performing on, then a few more options will fall into place.

Two of the three acts to announced on Friday made my list of the best acts of the 20th Century. One had an iconic song that both men and women could relate to, and not only with their significant other. The second band was on the rotation list of every pop station in Tampa Bay during my High School and College days.

Both of the above bands will fill the outfield of the Trop. with people clamoring for wristbands so they can get a up close and personal moment with these great artists. One of Country musics most exciting young female singers will also grace the Rays stage after her mid-May wedding to another of Country Music’s heartthrobs. I guess this one is a bit easier to figure out, so let’s start with her appearance.


miranda_lambert_01-x600.jpgMiranda Lambert
has come a long, long way since her finalist gig on the 2003 edition of “Nashville Star” and finished in third place. But from the moment she signed with Epic Records, her career has just exploded as if ignited by one of her debut albums songs “Kerosene“. Remarkably her debut album by the same name produced 4 top 40 billboard hits.

Even after Epic Records closed their Nashville division, Columbia Records picked up the talented blond singer and helped produce her second album, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend“. The album’s title track failed to get substantial airplay, but the album did have 3 exciting singles, “Famous in a Small Town“, “Gunpowder & Lead” and “More Like Her” which were all Top 20 chart toppers, with “Gunpowder & Lead” zipping up to the Top 10 spot on the charts.

But it was their third try, with the “Revolution” album that showed the Country Music fans her true essence and talents. Five singles got significant airplay from the album with Lambert’s number one hit, “The House That Built Me” not only spending 4 weeks at the top spot, but also garnering a Grammy, CMA Award and a nice keepsake from the Academy of Country Music. Interesting enough, Lambert also got nominated 9 times for the CMA Awards, a nominations record for a female in a single year.

miranda-lambert-blake-sheltonjpg-723b03cb324ce4e8.jpgAs if thing could not get better for the young Texas native, her romance seemed to blossom after she began dating fellow Country singer Blake Shelton including Lambert singing background vocals on Shelton’s 2008 single “Home“. She also co-wrote and recorded “Bare Skin Rug“, a duet with Shelton. In true Southern style, Shelton proposed to Lambert after receiving her father’s blessing on May 9, 2010. You can bet love will definitely be in the air that night as the newlywed takes the stage in front of over 30,000 rabid Rays fans. Lambert will hit the stage on September 24th after the Rats take on those pesky Toronto Blue Jays (7:10 First Pitch)

 

 

 

 

I can still remember singing the ballads and soft rock anthems of this next group as they played on my car radio while cruising down the Florida beaches. This group had that kind of vibe that attracted the ladies, plus they had some good song for driving, or just cruising down the motorways. I still remember wearing out a copy of “Hi Infidelity“, which sold over 10 million copies and charted 4 Top 40 hits.


REO_Speedwagon_Hi_Infidelity_CD_cover.jpgREO Speedwagon
has just finished a tour with a former Rays concert guest, Pat Benatar. The band is also reissuing “Hi Infidelity” which is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2011. Did you know the band originally took their name from the REO Speed Wagon, which was a flatbed truck/fire engine combo developed by Ransom Eli Olds (REO), who also founded Oldsmobile, a division of General Motors.

As most band, their origin started with them playing cover songs in local campus bars and Frat/Sorority parties as a way for each of the bands members who were students at the University of Illinois to gain some extra experience and money. The band finally signed with Epic Records in 1971 and sped off to Bridgeport,Connecticut. Before “Hi Infidelity” took the band to new heights, their most profound single was “Riding the Storm Out“.

4764173013_4632622c20_z.jpgHow popular was “Hi Infidelity“? It spawned 4 hits, including their number one hit,“Keep On Loving You“, a number 5 hit, “Take It on the Run” then “In Your Letter (#20) and “Don’t Let Him Go (#24). the album remained on the charts for 65 weeks, including 32 weeks in the Top 10, plus 15 weeks at the top of the charts.

Their next two albums “Good Troubles” and “Wheels are Turning” did well commercially, but did not approach the success of “Hi Infidelity” but produced hits like “Keep the Fire Burnin’“(#7), Sweet Time (#26) plus their last number one hit. “Can ‘t Fight This Feeling“. Just as the end of the 80’s were approaching, the band had to adopt the lyrics of the song “Roll With The Changes“. The band will perform on April 30th after the Rays take on the Los Angeles Angels (1:10 pm First Pitch).

The band even released an online video game “Find Your Way Home“. It was the first download able casual game produced with a rock band and was cited by numerous publications as an innovative marketing product for a music act.

00012094.jpgThe third band is one I am really excited about. They are a band I have sang on stage for a while in the darkened Karaoke bars and rock bars in the Tampa Bay region. They have had 14 Top 10 singles and sold nearly 9 million albums in the U S alone. Their iconic tune “Iris” from the Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage movie “City of Angels” brings both old and young fans singing the chorus in concerts and having to wipe a tears or two from their eyes.

If you guessed the Goo Goo Dolls, you are batting 1,000 today. A wild factoid about the band, lead singer John Rzeznik originally did not sing the band’s early tunes because of his shyness. The band’s name actually comes from a “True Detective” ad for a toy called a Goo Goo Doll.

Another wild story about the song “Iris” that spun the band towards stardom after its inclusion in the “City of Angels” soundtrack, Rzeznik was experiencing a severe case of writers’ block and was on the verge of quitting the band before the song came into his head that launched the band to Worldwide fame.

 

“Iris” was actually added to the triple-platinum album “Dizzy Up the Girl” and included other hits “Slide“,” Black Balloon“,” Broadway“, “Dizzy“. The new direction of the band helped them invite a new legion of fans to the band’s music, and most of their concerts do not include hits wrote before 1995.

The band also gave back to their hometown of Buffalo, New York on July 4, 2004 when they did a free concert in a downpour that also contained a great cover rendition of “Give a Little Bit” made famous by the group Supertramp. The single reached the top of the Adult Top 40 chart in 2005. The Goo Goo Dolls will hit the stage on August 6th after the Rays tackle the Oakland Athletics (7:10 pm First Pitch).

49947_6a00d83451b05569e20120a5426d81970c-800wi.jpgSo there you have it, the first four artists that will be performing after particular Saturday Rays games during the 2011 season. From Rucker to the Goo Goo Dolls, each band has its set of devotee fans, and more than a few casual fans who will be surprised when another hit is played that they had not connected to the band in the past. From REO Speedwagon to newlywed Miranda Lambert, love will be in the air in the Trop. during the Rays/Hess Express Saturday Concert Series Saturdays this season.

This is not the final Rays concert list for the 2011 season, there will be more great concert announcements coming in April. I can tell you I will be their front and center ready to rock out and bob my head to the great music being offered on Saturday nights. Oh, and bonus baby, we get to see a great Rays game beforehand…….Charlie Sheen would definitely rate this Rays concert series first four acts as a surefire “WINNER”.

 

 

Time to Again Raise the “Unique” Bar Rays Fans

 

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Every once in a while a fan does something so incredible you hope people around the Major Leagues got to see their perfection. Sometimes getting a professional baseball player to notice you, even for a nano second takes a bit of intelligent thinking or genuine costuming.

That is why this San Francisco Giant fan really caught my eye, and hopefully he also got the attention he garnered of the object of his affection, Giants closer Brain Wilson. So much was made of the obvious manipulation of Wilson during the playoff of a ample supple of “Just For Men” or some other male hair product.

We kind of forgot that someone, somewhere possibly under the age of 9 would emulate or even show up in the ultimate homage to Wilson, a full back beard complete with a blackened f aux hawk on their head. It is one of those signs to people like me that sometimes the fans do have the creative juices and abilities to still make these players take a double take and possibly a chuckle or two as they head to or from the field.

ap-a9cccdf97d6345caaec0db91c4c5932f.jpgBut what is so amazing about this young fan is that he made sure he got up front, on the first row and thrust himself in the perfect spot for his idol to see, respond and hopefully grant him the wish of a signed baseball. In this era where some athletes get as bad rap, or even get pushed into a negative label, seeing a young kid emulate a hero, even for a moment just feels right.

I am not sure if the Rays fan will do the same thing, but I hope they do. I truly expect to see more than a few f aux hawks materialize around the Trop. over the course of the season, and maybe even a few full beards to show an homage to Johnny Damon or Rays Bench Coach Dave Martinez.

 

Sure I am expecting a few “Manny” dreadlocks, or possibly a pompadour or two to show some support for Evan Longoria. But will there be anything shown by the Rays Republic in 2011 that would be considered super out of the ordinary in imagination or creativity. Who can forget the sheet propped up in the Checker’s Bullpen Cafe a few years ago asking if the “Rays Wanna Sign My Sweet Spot”.

lCA0E3Y6V.jpgThat kind of imagination and creativity get someone like me excited for my team. Maybe that is why that move by that young G-men’s fan means so much to me. These guys hears their names or nicknames hollered at them all the time by kids, adults and even a few overly excited female fans.

I am looking forward to seeing some new and original signs, T-shirts and possibly costumes during Rays games this season. So that is your task Rays fans, to one up the great and unique persona presented this Spring by that miniature Brian Wilson in Arizona.

We have some really creative mind wandering throughout the Rays Republic, now it is time to put your thinking caps on and come up with an idea or creation that will make a player or even someone like me do a double take…..So the mission is easy…

Come on out and give us your most creative, most original costume idea, even if it is not for an autograph….Possibly you could end up on this blog…..Or even better on National television so the World can one up you too.

 

 

Change in the Rays Pitching Hierarchy

 

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There will be an interesting air of change coming to Tropicana Field for the Tampa Bay Rays on April 1, 2011. It has nothing to do at all with the iconic day of pranks and laughter, but will definitely designate a change in the Rays pitching always evolving hierarchy. For the last three MLB Opening Days, this spot had been reserved for Rays starter James Shields. But in 2011, the Rays will go another direction.

Some within the Rays are saying that Rays starter David Price finally took that last step in his evolution this Spring and won the Opening Day nod on merit, not a changing of the guard at the top of the Rays rotation. Price has shown every ounce and sediment of maturity you want out of your top dog ( sorry Astro), and the elevation to the “ace” spot is one from tireless work, dedication and confidence.

This Spring, while Shields is still fighting to lose the dust of despair that hung over his 2010 season, Price has surged, especially in his situational pitching to vault his name up into that top echelon with names like the Yankees C C Sabbathia, or Red Sox hurler Josh Beckett. This is not to anoint Price the “next big thing”, but to be so young, yet so successful at a young age can have its perks.

Could the final decision to give Price the ball and the mound on Opening Day against the Baltimore Orioles on Friday, April 1st be a firm indicator that the Rays powers-to-be have rewarded Price in making that last final step in his evolution this Spring to take on the “ace” role with confidence and the strength needed to propel this reloaded Rays team towards the top again.

l_0658e95923904836b1bec8f2f12f889c.jpgAlong the way Price had to step over the fresh carcass of Rays starter James Shields, who had been the Rays Opening Day guy for the last three seasons. Some might think this was also a purposeful wake-up call for Shields, who is entering the last year of his contract before he his a series of 1-year options from 2012-2015, to again find that essence that made him the Rays top option in the past.

Still, it is a firm spoken indicator that Price is finally going to have the training wheels firmly taken off and fly against some of the best pitchers in baseball. Some might think taking the number one spot is an award of its own, but it comes with a huge amount of peril. No longer do you have the secondary option of not facing your rivals top tier guy, but the pressure and focal spotlight will be driven towards you, as a leader. So, is Price the new poster boy for Rays pitching, with Shields standing by his side as a colleague?

2011Report Day 165.JPGGoing to be interesting to see the seasonal path of these two. One considered the Rays “greybeard”, or longest tenured Rays starter who might face more than control and velocity problems this season. I expect to hear Shields name more and more as the season approaches in response to a inquiry by the Colorado Rockies for another pitching weapon. His last few starts might either cement him towards staying with the Rays until possibly the end of July, or finding an early exit visa to another locale.

One pitcher is experiencing the highlights that every kid who throws the rock wants in his lifetime. The other is fighting a change of his entire complex pitching persona, and hoping to again bottle lightning in the bottle. But this could be a blessing in disguise for Shields. Less pressure, but not less need to win. The Rays did the same for former Rays starter Matt Garza in 2010, dropping him from the number 2 slot down in the rotation.

The response gave Garza the chance to rebound mentally, physically and emotionally to propel his pitching to another level. Could the same subconscious act happen for Shields? I hope so. He is the kind of pitcher that can mesh a pitching staff together. Bond everyone with a common thread, and I expect him to be at Price’s side instead of plotting to get his top spot back.

This is what the Rays want from their mature leader who has logged over 200 inning for the fourth straight season. If Shields can be the guy who can push Price in the back to be better, or even stand there and help him when he falls, his importance on this team will triple and those whispers of an early departure will vanish into thin air.

Watching the present walk in front of the past is sometimes difficult because you know there will be growing pains. But this Rays staff has been confident for years with their overall make-up, and in 2011 this transfer at the top of the rotation might actually work to everyone’s advantage. I wan to commend Shields maturity and gracious demeanor as his streak as a Opening Day starter ends.

2011Report Day 335.JPGHearing this action by the Rays staff announced so early in the Spring Training process is an indication of the team going towards Price as their leader in the future. Hopefully Shields can adapt, conquer and find his former pitching way this season and propel himself forward.

Change can always come with conflict, expectations and a weird desire for the past. Hopefully the conflict will be that the rest of the American League will hate this recent Rays move as the Rays try and conquer their rivals in the upcoming 162 game season.

If Shields does find his breaking ball again, his confidence rise will be rewarded with quality starts, strikeouts and eventual Rays wins. Those changes should scare the rest of the American League. For once, change might be better for both parties, and a hindrance for the rest of Major League Baseball.


“The Animal” is Making a Lot of Noise in the Rays Outfield

 

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I love it when a guy comes out of nowhere and makes a play for a spot on the final 25-man roster. It is especially exciting if that guy is one of the Spring Training non-roster invitees who is beginning to make a whole lot of noise with his play in the field, and at the plate, possibly pushing a young Rays farm system player to the side as he tries to stake a claim on a potential roster spot with the Rays for Opening Day.

Most fans who follow the Rays probably did not do a double-take or even bat an eyelash when outfielder Chris Carter signed a minor league deal with a Spring invite back on January 21st. But I took notice. Here was a guy who former New York Mets Manager Jerry Manuel called “The Animal” for his work ethic and who played 100 games for the Mets last season.

He was another of those under the radar signing by Rays VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman that could pay huge dividends either at the beginning of the season, or if an injury bug nips the Rays. Carter is one of those guys you want on your roster. His bat speaks loud, hitting .263 with 4 HR and 24 RBIs in his limited time up in “The Show” in 2010.


alg_mets_carter2.jpgBut if you look at his history, then you get a real view of what potential he could have as another left-handed bat for the Rays. Oh, did I fail to mention as a pinch-hitter for the Mets in 2010, he batted .328 with a solo HR and 10 RBIs. Sure he might miss the final cut due to numbers, go to Triple-A Durham and fortify a chance for a recall sometime in 2011, but this is a guy who gets hot in the early stages of the season and keeps the fires burning for the entire year.

Carter only hit .336 with 6 HR and 22 RBI before the Mets recalled him after 29 games at Triple-A Buffalo. Heck in 2009, while still in the Red Sox system, Carter had 37 multi-hit games (25 2-hit games) while leading Triple-A Pawtucket in batting average, homers,RBI,runs, hits and doubles.

Carter even had a chance to make his MLB debut against the Rays back on June 5,2009 coming in as a pinch-runner, then getting his first MLB hit off Rays reliever Grant Balfour later in that contest. Carter even has the unique distinction of hitting a 4th inning RBI double to bring home J D Drew with the first run to come across the new Home Plate in the first-ever exhibition game (4/9/2009) at Citi Field.

But this is a guy who has always hit well in the minors, and is showing this Spring that he deserves a long,hard look by the Rays as a viable candidate for an outfield position. Carter is currently hitting .412 with 3 RBI, 7 hits, and only one extra base hit ( double) and a .892 OPS. Carter even had a chance to complete a double play from the outfield in his 16 Put Out opportunities and a 11.25 RF rating, which is tied for third best on the Rays this Spring.

All the numbers point to Carter getting an extended “look-see” by the Rays this Spring, but he is currently trying to push the issue by providing spirited play and a hot bat. The problem is there is already a logjam at the outfield position with both Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon expected to get a large slice of the Left Field opportunities.

B J Upton is probably cemented in Center and Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist with an occasional Sean Rodriguez start should solidify the Right Field platoon unit. It might come down to the numbers the Rays will carry on their bench as to if Carter gets a realistic chance to gain a Opening Day roster spot.

091408_7224.jpgSo far he has done everything right, and provided some offense while former Stanford and current Rays teammate Sam Fuld has suffered at the plate. I am anxious to see if Carter can keep up his offensive number through the rest of the Spring and possibly force the Rays into a long and hard decision concerning his immediate future with the Rays. He possesses the hitting and fielding the Rays desire, but also hits from the left side of the plate like Joyce.

As you can see by the photo to the left, Carter can take the pressure. Here he was dressed up for the Red Sox Rookie Hazing as a buxom quasi-blonde, and he seems to be having fun with it all.

 

 The ultimate decision might come down after the Rays last Grapefruit League  game held on March 31st at Tropicana Field. Maybe by then Carter will know where to store his gear for 2011. Even if the answer is a ticket to Triple-A, if Carter gets off to a quick start, the noise from Durham might be deafening, and a return should be in the cards.

 

But what else would you expect from a guy named “The Animal”?

 

 




The Real Rays Spring Battles are in the Left Side Trenches

 

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One of the biggest battles this Spring has not materialized out of the Bullpen situation, but has surfaced in the grass and clay just beyond the pitching mound. Infield spots once thought to be solidified by returning member of the Rays or their farm system now have a few outsiders eager to take a roster spot.

Around the diamond, the only positions that seem to have any stability long range heading into the final weeks of the Spring is the right side of the infield. We all know that third base is the kingdom of Longoria, but not until recently when Reid Brignac set foot in the clay at the shortstop position did we know just how firmly he was going to plant his feet into that surface.


Brignac has basically closed the door to anyone else trying to take his spot this Spring, bolstered by an impressive .533 Batting Average and a outstanding .667 Slugging Percentage. But some have also whispered it has only been 6 games, and “Briggy Baseball” should not be handed the keys yet to the Rays shortstop job. But we forget this is the spot Brignac has been groomed for since he hit the Rays farm system, and his exuberance and stellar defensive play has only solidified that thinking.


So that leave the Second Base and First base slots where the competition might not be fierce for a starting nod, but also for that coveted “jack of all trades” every teams needs during the season. And here is where the competition really heats up.


AqkbOpJ6.jpgSure Sean Rodriguez, who might be anointed the Rays Second Baseman by the end of Spring camp has done nothing to diminish his claim to the spot, but Elliot Johnson and Felix Lopez will definitely get their own chances to rattle the cages a few times before it is all said and done this Spring.


Rodriguez has stayed in his usual Rays Spring zone hitting .444 in his limited appearances, but has also been m ore than adequate with stellar defense. Johnson has been the one guy you might have been rooting for to finally get his chance to again grace the Rays roster. Most might not remember his short stint with the Rays in 2008, but the Rays Triple-A fixture is more than apt to finally plant his feet firmly in the clay of the Trop.


But Johnson has not materialized in 2011 so far like he has dominated in recent years, In 2011, he has appeared in 6 games going 0-10 with a .230 OBP. Not the type of numbers you want from someone finally getting a chance to gain a Opening Day slot. His 2011 number pale in comparison to his 2009 Spring that boasted a .981 OPS to go along with a .309 average with 3 HR and 7 RBIs. Johnson will need to hit a massive streak in the coming weeks to stave off the advances of Lopez.


Here is where it gets tricky. Lopez has the ability and the pedigree to take the utility job and possibly get some extended play in the infield for the Rays in 2011. And if his first few weeks of the Spring are any indication, Lopez might just end Johnson’s chances in the next week or two just by staying consistent.



c4s_lopez030811_165555c.jpgLopez has put up a .429 in 12 games including a tie with catcher Robinson Chirinos for the second highest hit total (9 hits) on the Rays this Spring. Combine that with Lopez getting some extensive time at Third Base, possibly for a buffer to give Longoria a chance to DH a bit more in 2011. Lopez currently has done everything right for the Rays, including a perfect 1.000 Fielding Percentage in his 28 innings of work.


Right now Lopez is firmly in the driver’s seat to taking the Rays utility position, but Johnson will definitely have something say about it before the March 31st Spring finale in Tropicana Field. But just to the left of the Utility man war might be one of the most interesting fight this Spring. First Base was a sore spot for the Rays with the departure of the offense and defense of Carlos Pena to the Chicago Cubs. Most thought Ben Zobrist might get a bevy of the chances this Spring to contend for that spot, but it has been a two horse race so far with slugger Dan Johnson showing his glove is also pretty good.



g2e22e2000000000000dd17429124703d6ee651020f44c48c1f2f2d4056.jpgJohnson has started out this Spring with a mission to show he has the defensive chop to take the everyday 1B spot for the Rays, even with a defensive specialist like veteran Casey Kotchman on his heels. Defensively it has been a neck and neck race here with each showing brilliance and a knack for being in the right place this Spring.


Even though Kotchman has had the only error this Spring between the two, their innings of work at First suggests that Johnson who has logged 42 innings at First this Spring might have a slight edge on the defensive side. Even though Kotchman has also appeared in 11 games and manned the bag for 51 innings, the Total chances between Johnson (39) and Kotchman (45) suggest this is definitely a two horse race with both possibly getting a roster spot.


Currently on the offensive side of the equation, it is Johnson’s starting nod to lose right now. Even though Johnson has 4 extra base hits, including 2 Hrs recently against the Phillies, his average is dipped even below the Pena line (.160). That might be a concern for Rays Manager Joe Maddon and his staff, but Johnson also has a .222 OBP, which might show a tendency to eye the ball more at the plate than Kotchman.



2232903.jpgStill, Kotchman right now might have the edge on offense, but it is more based on average than a slugger’s mentality. Kotchman’s .393 Batting Average combined with a .414 OBP suggests he is seeing the ball well this Spring. And with a 4 doubles this Spring, maybe Kotchman might be a great match-up for Maddon’s usual line-up maddness when he needs a guy at the plate for average instead of for power.


This brings up the idea that both could possibly make the team, but that might be stretching it a bit. With the Rays possibly carrying 12 pitchers, that leaves 13 rosters spots for the fielding side of the ball. Pencil in Longoria, Jaso, possibly Shoppach, Ramirez, Damon, Brignac, Rodriguez,Upton, Joyce, and Zobrist and possibly Justin Ruggiano or Sam Fuld fighting it out for the fifth outfielder spot .


Suddenly you have only 2 viable open Rays roster slots for the four guys currently fighting it out on the left side of the infield. The Rays do have the luxury of having Zobrist also playing outfield, which could jettison both Ruggiano and Fuld possibly to the minors or being traded. That would leave three spots (without a change in the 12-man pitching staff) with one lone player in the foursome coming up with the short straw.

If you want to see intense competition on the Rays over the next three weeks, do not look to the Bullpen, look to the left side of the infield. Four guys will be fighting for their MLB livelihoods over the next few weeks with each vaulting and falling in their secure spots as the games become fewer. Johnson and Kotchman could both gain roster spots based on their collective offense and defensive might, but the Johnson and Lopez battle is far from over……Let the real competition begin……Now!

 

 

Immersed in the Zen that is Maddon

 

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When you walk into the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse, the quote jumps out at you. In English, Spanish, Korean and Japanese, the words embody the man in the office at the opposite side of the room. Some have called Rays Manager Joe Maddon a “modern day wisdomist of the first order”.

His frequent quotes from famous philosophers, modern day thinkers and even a few song lyrics project an image of a mind always at work. That last one might be the best description of the Rays top dog. He is always thinking, reading, mentally playing out scenarios, match-ups and situation, and it is not always on the ball field.

Maddon is a devote cyclist  who has favorite treks in every American League city, and should add a new National League trail when the Rays travel to Milwaukee in late June. This is a guy who can chew gum, manage and tweak a line plus think about future situations all at the same time.

Clubhouse2.jpgI am starting to think maybe it has something to do with being a catcher? Some of the best, and most entertaining quotes ever to come out of a baseball players’ mouth have been uttered by those blocking, trapping and positioning the glove behind the dish. From Yogi Berra to Johnny Bench, great thoughts, saying and even a few ramblings have come out of the bruised and battered fraternal position.

 

I have been a member of the Rays group, “Maddon’s Maniacs” since the first meeting, and always look forward when the skipper is coming down to talk to us. His cool and intelligent candor along with his poise and grace in speaking about his young stable of baseball ponies shows he respects effort, and rewards guys who think intelligently while playing the game as well as show hustle and effort.

Maddon’s mantras and exclusive saying have been posted on T-shirts, spoken about in countless ballparks and has shown that the game has evolved from just going by your gut feelings and hoping for a chance. By using his encyclopedia sided binders full of stats, situational results and even a few penciled in side notes, he has taken the Rays from being those lonesome losers of the American League East to the penthouse in two of the last three seasons.


Jostu.jpgJoeMa1.jpgWhen Maddon was first hired by Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, some people within the Rays Republic did not see a direct correlation of how Maddon was going to effectively build on what former Rays Manager Lou Piniella instilled and drilled into the Rays clubhouse. But Maddon used his brain, he used his instincts and he bonded with his players out of respect and the admiration for the hustle and mind.

Maddon became the perfect mental and physical architect to rebuild the Rays foundation. He did it by employing a attitude that 30 minutes after a game whether they won or lost, it is pushed away and time to prepare for the next day. That is a huge departure from the old Rays thinking, and one that possibly got this young team to focus, play the game at a different level and finally mesh together as a team.

Thanksm.jpgEven with the possibility of a step backwards in 2011, Maddon remains focused, firmly planted in his baseball foundation of playing all the game, then sorting it all out. That approach is new in this region for sports. In a community of mostly transfers and transients from other regions, Maddon has instilled some “Namath”, some ” Lombardi”, and even some “Casey Stengel” into his game philosophy.

Not too many fans root for their Managers, but I do. As much as Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena brought glory and rings to this team, it was Maddon and his mantras that provided the cement, the glue the mud that held this team together. Always wanting to play upon his team’s playful nature, he provided road trip themes like the All-Black and All-White traveling parties.

l_9b2aa898a5f24f8ca6ec7e35c99b3a43.jpgAdd to that the Cowboy/Western style, BRAYSers, Soccer jerseys and Chicago Blackhawks gear and you get a Manager who wants to build on his team unity from within. Kind of remarkable how fast the Rays have gone from hovering below the .500 mark to posting three impressive seasonal records in a row.

It all started when the Rays did not go after the popular Bobby Valentine, pushed away the possibilities of Joe Girardi or Mike Schmidt to take a computer spreadsheet loving statistician who made his best decision while perched on the dugout rail.

No matter if you like his mantras, philosophies or even his witty post-game banter, you got to love the winning spirit, the spirit of exceeding expectations and pondering the gray areas of the game for answers. He is a perfect example to show that the era of volumes of sports information at your disposal plus the fast pace of the game can be correlated into one solid package.

Maddon was donning the binders and notebooks back in the 1990’s before most Managers even knew of the extensive factoids collected on anything baseball related. He is not the pioneer of mixing hitting and pitching match-ups to his advantage, but he is coming closer to perfecting it one game at a time.


Maddon is a mind musician, and he is playing the game of baseball at his own rhythm, grace and speed while producing awesome results and a new Rays legacy. Someday Maddon will possibly put all his knowledge and methods together in some form of written material, and it would instantly be the hottest commodity to own in baseball.

All this from a Manager that most thought might be a lifetime Bench Coach who eventually made the with with a bang and even made one of his early critics a true Maddon fan….me.


Rays Harvesting a Great Bumper Corp of Backstops

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Five years ago it seems like it was the sore spot of the Tampa Bay Rays farm system. For some reason catching did not seem to be the Rays thing. After Toby Hall, the Rays did not seem to have a viable prospect in their system who might make it to the Major League level.

 

Sure the Rays had farm system catchers who could hit, play some solid defense, and even throw on a frozen line to second base to get the speediest of base runners. But the obvious problem was there was no one with even two of those traits in the system.

But just like everything else within the Rays system since 2007, Rays VP of Baseball Operation Andrew Friedman and his Scouting crew quickly honed, molded and transformed some of the Rays farm system borderline catching prospects into bona fide Major League Baseball caliber backstops.

Suddenly the Rays seem to have a bumper crops of backstops all emerging at the same time with only a limited amount of space at Triple-A and possibly no room at the MLB level. So let’s take a look at the few of the names on everyone’s lips in the catching corps of the Rays this Spring:

Most people considered John Jaso a great offensive weapon, but his catching fundamentals and procedures had a lot to be desired. But after the Rays committed to working with Jaso before, during and after Spring Training in 2010, the young catcher responded with a stellar game behind the plate.

Suddenly Jaso was stopping the pitches in the dirt that used to get by him and pushed base runners into scoring position. Jaso began to gain confidence and began to rocket the ball to second base having one of his best seasons of his professional baseball career. Most people forget Jaso started out at Triple-A with the Durham Bulls before the Rays recalled Jaso after Kelly Shoppach went down with his first injury on April 13,2010.

Jaso seized the opportunity and became only the 14th rookie catcher all time to serve as the primary catcher for a Rays team that made the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. With help from Rays Bullpen Coach bobby Ramos, who also used to serve as the Rays catching instructor, Jaso worked long and hard to separate himself from the rest of the Rays catching corp.

Jaso also took the lead-off spot in the Rays line-up 45 times in 2010 becoming the first Rays catcher to earn that spot, plus posting more time at the lead-off spot than any other rookie catcher in MLB history. Jaso had 59 walks leading all AL rookies and combined with his 39 total strikeouts, Jaso posted the best BB to K ration of anyone with over 400 plate appearances.

Coming into 2011, Jaso has renewed the focus to improving on his 18 percent rate in throwing out base runners by working extensively before Spring camp in finding a more reliable and quicker release point, plus working on his leg core in the weight room to bring stability and agility to his throwing motion. In essence, Jaso is trying to take his game to the next level and become an all-around catcher.

gLy7kH6u.jpgSome considered Nevin Ashley, the Rays heir apparent to the Rays second catching spot once Kelly Shoppach’s 2011 contract is off the books. Ashley has been considered the Rays farm system’s best defensive catcher the last two seasons, and seemed to have stepped up their game during the 2010 MLB Spring camp and during the Grapefruit League season.

Rays Manager Joe Maddon, a former catcher himself liked what he saw from Ashley during the Spring, and Nevin took that new confidence displayed by the Rays and put it into his game during his rapid climb through the Rays minor league system. Ashley even got a chance to provide some important insurance for the Rays during the American League Divisional Series as a non-rostered third catcher after former Rays catcher Dioner Navarro had a mental meltdown and took his equipment and went home in October 2010.

Ashley caught 41 percent of his base runners while with the Montgomery Biscuits early in 2010, and sported an impressive .992 Fielding Percentage. By comparison, the MLB average in 2010 was only 23.1 percent. How impressive was Ashley in the Spring of 2010, he only hit .474 (9-for-19) during only

9 Spring games,and got his first HR off Red Sox hurler Josh Beckett.

The Rays had such high hopes for Ashley in 2011 that they invited him to their Rays Winter Development Program held less than two months ago in Tropicana Field that helped highlight the attributes of the some of the Rays most promising prospects. High praise for a backstop who caught Washington Nationals top prospect Stephen Strausburg’s professional debut in the 2009 Arizona Fall League.


96UaelsQ.jpgA third name has quickly risen on the lips and scouting reports for the Rays. A former infielder who only took over catching chores three seasons ago in the Chicago Cubs farm system, Robinson Chirinos is making such an impressive display this Spring that some whispers within the system think he might leapfrog Ashley as the heir apparent to a Rays back-up catching slot.

Spring is still young, and Chirino’s offensive display including a 2-run rocket shot Home Run today to help defeat the Boston Red Sox is only hgelping to build on “El Chef’s” cult status for 2011. In the same way so many within the Rays faithful fell in love with Jaso’s hustle and confidence in 2010, Chirino’s is quickly turning into the best piece of the return for sending Rays starter Matt Garza to the Cubs this Winter.

How can you argue with a appearing in double digit games (10) this Spring for the Rays sporting a .289 Batting Average with 5 extra base hits, 8 RBI and stellar .944 Slugging Percentage. And this is not a fluke either. Chirinos posted a .999 OPS, which ranked 8th among all minor leaguers in 2010, and topped every catcher in the entire minor leagues.

And just like Ashley, Chirinos was considered by “Baseball America” to be the best defensive catcher for the second season in a row in the Cubs system. Chrinos also threw out 31.8 percent of his base runners at Double-A and Triple-A in 2010. Hit .438 versus left-handed pitching and .271 versus right-handers in his two minor league stops in 2010. Was placed on the Cub’s 40-man roster on October 29, 2010.


ap-185362e763d9467e8818ea332f0865eb.jpgSuddenly the once barren wasteland that was the Rays catching corps is bearing fruit close to the Major League level. All three of these catchers have limited MLB, or no MLB experience, but this bodes well for the future of Rays catching for a long time. There are other Rays catchers in the Rays minor league system currently paying their dues and making noise themselves.

But the noise and banter about these three potentially lethal Rays backstops will help cool the Rays scouting department’s yearning for the next great Rays catcher. Jaso could possibly lead-off 120 times in 2011 breaking the single season record set by Jason Kendall in 2004 while with the Pirates.

Ashley could make it difficult for the Rays to keep him at Triple-A with a solid start, or an injury at the MLB level. And then there is the Wild Card, Chirinos, who could prove to be the best of the rest and make Shoppach expendable before the end of the month. Rays catching has come a long way since the yearly rental of guys like Josh Paul Charlie Johnson or even recent retiree Gregg Zaun. Finally maybe the Rays backstop will get some respect. If one of the Rays starters can break that 20-game win plateau, you can bet he will celebrate with the guy behind the plate first….and that is the way it should be.


Rays “Company Man” Keeps his Silence

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Sometimes the simple game of baseball can be so complex and so covert it would surprise you to find out some of what you have seen with your own eyes was not even planned that way. Spring Training games is the time for Coaches and Managers to tweak the game plan, possibly tinker with a pitcher’s delivery or mechanics hoping for a positive outcome.

Then suddenly something just seems to go so horribly wrong, and no one is the wiser. The pitcher takes the eventual storm from the blustery outing, but underneath it all, something might have been afoot.

This happened recently during a Rays Spring Training game and neither the Pitching Coach, Manager or even the Rays player involved ever revealed that a undercover pitching mechanic change was behind the whole fiasco. Spring Training games are the perfect time for pitchers’ to try and address a pitching angle change, or a shift in their mechanics without the general public being able to focused on it.

With games not being televised, sometimes these pitching changes can go completely under the radar, unless you know what to look for, or possibly the opposite. Sometimes a pitcher has a tendency while learning a new grip, angle or even pitch to telegraph that pitch, and then the scoreboard lights up like a pinball machine.

l.jpgThis recently happened to one of the Rays most silent partners, reliever Andy Sonnanstine as he got rocked hard and heavy in Spring Training game against the Baltimore Orioles. During a prior Rays Bullpen session there was talk of changing a bit of Sonny’s delivery, and both parties in question decided to work on the change and possibly use it during his recent spot start.

Some might say the 2.2 innings posted by Sonny was disaster, but underneath it all it was not about the 5 Home Runs, two by Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis. For Sonny to even stick with the game plan and the pitching change and not throw it all by the wayside when trouble hit the fan says a bunch about the confidence Sonny has in the Rays staff’s ideas.

It is easy to second guess the change, or even try and want Sonny’s head for giving up 6 early runs in the contest, but Spring is the time for teams like the Rays to try these hidden magical moves when series victories, divisional standings or even just absorbing a “L” is not a huge hindrance.

Can’t say I would have had the same mental fiber and confidence in the change as Sonnanstine to stay with the plan, but that is why the Rays staff have always liked him on the roster. He is one of those “throw-back” hurlers who will pitch his arm off if it will get his team a win or help in the long run.

But still, did the Rays staff really have to stay with the pitching game plan after the first inning saw 3 quick Baltimore blasts and a 4-0 deficit. When a pitcher is putting himself out there trying something new, you would hope the Coaching staff would have a short leash with the change and get the pitcher out of there before their confidence level hits rock bottom.

Same thing happened to James Shields in Toronto in 2010 when he got rocked hard by the long ball and stayed out a bit longer than anyone, even Shields expected. You want to second guess, you want to rant and rave, you obviously want success in the end. Spring baseball can sometimes be reminiscent of Recon Ranger training.


Sonny1.jpgThere are covert offensive weapons being fortified and trained (rookies), secret strategy meetings and maybe even a clandestine BP session or two going on. But the end result is that sometimes what you see during the Spring really is half the story.

But that is what Spring baseball is all about. It is not all about the wins and losses, those stats do not transfer to the regular season and do not guarantee even a good season.

Sure I would have loved for someone from the Rays staff to say that Sonny was working on something and it did not work. Possibly give the Rays faithful some hope that Sonnanstine is not experiencing some pitching problem, but trying some adjustments, or fine tuning before the season starts April 1st.

But then that would make me guilty of baseball espionage by me trying to decipher the who, what when and how without a veritable flashlight to see into the darkness. Plus it might cost me my Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, or possibly my membership in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen… Okay the last one was a stretch.



Old Florida is Vanishing One Small Town at a Time

 

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One of the biggest things I have learned during this Bay-2-Bay trek is that my late Father was a true road warrior. He would pack our Mom, both of us brats into that old white Pontiac station wagon that featured the rumble seat that had us facing the traffic and motor all around Florida and destinations East of the mighty Mississippi River.

This long road trip had given me a more defined level of respect and admiration for a man who would pack his car, travel night and day to see his kid’s smile, have lifetime moments in the Smokey Mountains or see his children swim with glee in the Pacific Ocean for the first time (even though it was 52 degrees). It kind of made me mad I never did this before, or might never again. but I am doing it now, and it is time to relish these final 500 miles until my St. Petersburg driveway.

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hkhkhkh.JPGIt wasn’t until Saturday morning when I crossed the mighty Mississippi in a blinding rain storm that it hit me. The America of my youth, where you could get saltwater taffy or pecan rolls at the Stuckey’s was rapidly disappearing. That America’s main roads of my youth like US Highway 19 also known as the Georgia-Florida Parkway in it’s day is slowly being phased out by the fast paced travel option of the Interstate, and with it, some levels of Americana have been put to sleep.

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perry5.JPGI decided to take the ” old path” home to Tampa Bay. Bypass the spiff and glamor of the Interstate 10 and 75 to discovering some of the small towns just beyond my Interstate perripherial vision. I exited off I-10 and got lost for a few minutes in the new urban sprawl that has graced the first few miles of the Interstate landscape. You know what I am talking about 2 miles of new accommidations, clean gas stations and multiple food options, most of the fast, quick and fatty versions before revealing the old Florida charm and landscape.

Suddenly, I was back in the old Florida I knew from trips around the state staring out of the back window of that station wagon rear window. Instantly I had the urge to wave, smile and want big trucks to honk their horns as they passed me on that stretch of road. I remember motoring vintage style. But as I went through the first few small towns along this trail, I noticed that the sleek and fine-tuned motoring habits of today had left behind a few unforeseen casualties.

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perry2.JPGSome of these small towns have seen their hotels, motels and corner gas stations of their youth seem to age before their time. Fall into disrepair or become abandoned as their owners either gave it their all, or threw in that final bath towel. What I visioned that day was the rural decay that the Interstate had left in its wake. Some small towns struggling on their outskirts, but still so proud and standing tall within their cores.

Thumbnail image for wwb.JPG
wwa.JPGI remember when I was young, I used to hunt with my Father in a pact of land North of Weeki Wachee, Florida. You might know it better as the attraction that was home for many years to a World Famous Mermaid show, then added a water park, then changed hands as the City of St. Petersburg, Florida became it’s landlord. It then went back into private hands, and that owner incorporated the park into his own municipality complete with aquatic and non-aquatic citizens.

It has since been redefined once again as a county park, complete with mermaids, river boats, and even water slides. But this tract of land North has now been mowed down, leveled and converted into the present site of the Weeki Wachee High School. Wonder if the locals know that for years that was a sacred hunting ground for Florida white-tailed deer, complete with 5-8 point horns.

034.JPG
swane.JPGEven some of the roadside icons of my youth have started to disappear, but some have been re-purposed, or re-designated into items that almost made me miss them for their blending into the background now instead of being front and center and popping out at you. Things like the old steel bridge that hung over the Swanee River for so long, now sectioned off in an isolated park along side this famous river. Or Dino the dinosaur that presided over the old Fina station, now repair shop.

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swane2.JPGEven this river has changed so much just in the last few decades. One of the photos I attached shows the water lines dropping, the huge difference in water levels that can even be seen in the photos of the newer bridge support columns, with no chance of it going back to being the Swanee of my youth. Sure in 1998, after a huge rainy season in that section of Florida, it did rise 20-odd feet, but the pattern of rapid water table drops began again the next season. Now even the water was showing its age.

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Thumbnail image for mopo2.JPGI guess what I am trying to drive at is that maybe we should take those one tank trips more often off the beaten trail. Have a few home cooked meals in the town that spawned your locale before the fast and furious lifestyle hit us between the eyes. I had the most amazing breakfast this morning at a small Mom & Pop Cafe’ that made daily homemade sausage and gravy, eggs done with the cheese ( old classic Velveeta) churned into them and two strips of bacon so thick I could tie them to my legs and walk across that Swanee River.

winery.JPGThat is something I did not do enough of on this cross country trip. I did not go off the beaten trail unless it was for a truly ulterior motive (Tombstone). I still have not stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon, howled at the Moon during a cold desert night, or ate that steak I was dreaming about at K-Bob’s in Fort Stockton, Texas. I cocooned myself within the confines of the Interstate corridor.

I instinctly chose the clean and sparkling, instead of venturing into the unknown paths even for a few miles. I can promise you this, the next time I take a trip to Port Charlotte, Florida to see the Rays this Spring, I will take the “Tamiami Trail” also known as US-41 South and see if any of the sights of my youth besides the Ringling Museum still exist. If I go East, I will venture on SR-60 or SR-50 again sampling Florida like I have not for countless years.

wwd.JPGMaybe I am just getting older. Maybe I am just becoming more sentimental as a gracefully ( hopefully) age. But honestly, I am doing it for more than myself. I am doing it for the man who put three other people in a car one stormy night near South Georgia while on vacation and drove for a day and a half with a Hurricane bearing down on us from the rear finally camping out in a hotel room on Virginia Beach as that same storm followed us there.

I am going to go “old school” next time, hitting the highways and byways long forgotten my Map quest, Google Street View or even AAA. I am going to become that quintessential road warrior just like that guy I admire, who never complained, never argued, but seemed content to drive, see and enjoy this great land. I think it is time for all of us to re-institute our own versions of an old family classic….the Sunday drive…..Happy Motoring.

 

 

 

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