December 2011

Possible Rays Off-the-Turf New Years Resolutions

The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears and new eyes. Unless a particular man-made New Years resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective. Unless a man starts on a strange assumption that he has never existed before, it is quite certain that he will never exist afterwards.” – G K Chesterton

As we venture towards the approaching cusp of the New Year, I am reminded why teams like the Tampa Bay Rays do not make their New Year’s resolutions known. Maybe it is that realistic fact that the tricky part of it all is sticking to the resolution once the Sun takes it apex on January 1st. Maybe it is hard for some within the franchise to admit that this franchise is another year “older or wiser”,that they are blinded by the shining  clarity that the loftier the resolution, the tougher it is to hang onto as the year unfolds. It takes steely nerves to live by what you divulge and resolve past the first day.

The resolutions I am noting today are just observations, translations or possible seasonal revelations that the Rays organization could encompass in their bag of New Years resolutions. Each of these 3 resolves have a different demographic target that currently lies within the existing Rays Republic community. One resolve would pay a visual homage to our ever-expanding Rays past while another bring into the light a culinary segment that is exploding around Tampa Bay. The third is a possible revisiting of a past “perk” by the Rays Front Office that might seem minimal to some, but has left a small segment of the Rays Republic wondering what their overall value is to this franchise.

Let Them Eat:

The first resolve is for the possibility of the Rays and their concessionary vendor Centerplate  to unify and take a bold step in the concession stand black hole and make one of their Trop locations ( Centerfield Street) become a “pop-up” stand. Using the current fad of “pop-up” restaurants, the Rays and Centerplate could have a different local eating establishment come in and provide a different food concept or gastronomical experience. Think Monstah Lobster during a Red Sox visit. Short-term catering options that could trend with visiting team’s locales or even bring a certain culinary air of the unknown Tampa Bay regional cultural nuances.

I am one of those people who miss the American Sunday Plate concession stand where Chef Enzo and his wife on Rightfield Street. I miss their signature homemade peach/apple cobbler, meatloaf, mac and cheese and that special finger-licking bucket of ribs. Why not see if some of the local Tampa Bay fringe eateries might want to venture into the Trop for a 10-game home stand catering venture with 4 signature dishes, a few sides and possibly even a devilish dessert. Centerplate do not get me wrong, I enjoyed the Everglades BBQ experience in 2011, but maybe I just hunger for more. This franchise has been very upfront in the past promoting their sponsor restaurants with vigor, but has it generated the capital for the sponsor that was envisioned? A short-term “pop-up” even for 10 games could get fans to sample the goods of a local eatery like the Z-Grille, and bring in fans post-game to again dine on those fares featured in the Trop  (Dr. Pepper ribs).

This could open up  a new customer base for these small restaurants, and maybe  the Rays can incorporate another growing food fad into the mix. Maybe an olive branch could be extended to the budding food truck community ( Fire Monkeys)  who are gaining a sizeable foothold in the Tampa Bay region and the food could be another way for the team to get those fringe Rays prospective fans into the stadium and let the way this team plays entice them to come back again and again. To me it sounds like a gastronomical “win-win”, but the potential fo even a slight attendance boost is a tasty side dish for me.

Perks Worth Revisiting:

My second resolve is for the Rays to take a firm stand and combat the mounting Season Ticket Holder apathy aliment that is gaining legs. It was not so long ago this segment of the Rays Republic had some special perks besides their seat discounts and gifts that made it worth the 81-game investment. Now it seem the  trinket cupboard is bare and some long time Rays Republic Season Ticket members have decided to explore game packages and small allotments of tickets as opposed to footing a huge upfront financial investment into the team. The foundation is not crumbling, but it does have a few cracks.

I have heard from some Rays Fan Wall of Fame members who wish for the golden days (pre-Stu) when we got all of the promotional items so we did not have to fight the 5:10 masses to get our Rays trinkets. We even got the under-15 selections which went great for giving gifts to younger friend’s kids, planting a seed to them becoming future Rays fans. I used to get my promotional item when the gates opened, hold onto it and see if a young fan was sitting in my section who did not get an item and I would give it to them knowing I had one coming to me later in the season via the yearly Season Ticket perk. There is still one mid-season event I wish the team would bring back again. I loved the All-Star Celebration parties held on the turf with food, games and the All-Star game telecast on the big screen as we all lounged on the field either on blankets or chairs eating take-out food. bought beverages or provided eats and just having that special Rays All-Star united experience.

It was a great event held before the era of Stu back on July 12,2005 and July 11, 2006. This is one of the yearly Rays events I have missed the most, more for the chance to mingle with Rays fans than for the simple fact of sitting down in Centerfield and looking upwards to the Teflon roof of the Trop. I still have vivid images in my mind of the phrases on those Rays invites stating: “You are our Most Valuable Player” (2005) or “Season Ticket Holders will take over the Trop!” (2006) These events used to make me feel like a small important cog of the Rays machine. Now I feel more like replaceable oil that can be changed at a moment’s notice.

Shining  Examples of the “Rays Way”:

The third resolve could easily be done. It just takes a solid decision and possibly a can of paint and a brave maintenance man. I went to Dallas for the Super Bowl a few years ago and had my breath taken away when I witnessed the Cowboys Ring of Honor in person. Not only does it convey the importance of that player in the team history, but it symbolized a team and fan’s love and ultimate respect for their former heroes and role models from the gridiron. I think the Rays need just that same symbolic example of honoring their past now that we are entering our 15th season.

It could be included on the facade of the 200 or Club Level of seating starting outward on either side of the current Press Box locations. There is more than enough space for future additions as the list grows towards the corners, plus even if the Rays do finally commit to a new home, it can be incorporated into the plans and just be re-instituted in the new venue. Without a shadow of doubt the Rays “Yoda”, Don Zimmer has to be the first name etched in this collection of great Rays. Some might say it should be Wade Boggs or even Fred McGriff who grace the honorary ring first, but to me Zim has all the prototypical Rays qualities you want both from a on-the-field, and in-the-seats standpoint. Top to bottom he is a Tampa Bay resident, a role model and a wealth of baseball stories, knowledge and experience worth of such an honor.

Well, these are my 3 possible 2012 resolves for the Rays as the New Year beams brighter upon the horizon. Some will say I should have addressed the Rays impending on-the-field issues and left these sleeping dogs lie, but I take great pride in my past, present and future dealings with this great franchise and think that sometimes things need to be instituted, re-invented or brought back to life to make being a member of the Rays Republic special again. These 3 resolves can be achieved, they can be enacted and they can be turning point to regaining some of the lost beams of light that have escaped the brilliance of the Rays Republic.

In advance, I wish all my loyal readers and those who stumble upon my writs a grand celebration tonight on this New Year’s Eve. I also wish you safety and the courage of resolve in seeing your own personal resolutions blossom into beautiful bouquet of obtainable goals and life aspirations.

HAPPY NEW YEARS from Rays Renegade

2011 is Almost in the Books, but What a Season to Remember.

Usually around this time of the year Tampa Bay Rays blogs begin to countdown their top moments of the season. It was a historic season by many aspects. The team posted their third trip in four seasons to the October party, but also we saw so many of the Rays post their own moments of wonder and amazement it has to have all of us giddy with emotion knowing there are less than 100 days before the fun all begins again for 2012.

We saw the emergence of “the Legend”( Sam Fuld), the formulation of the “Magic of Kotch” (Casey Kotchman) movement, and also saw the further maturation of the Rays top tier players David Price and Evan Longoria. We saw Sean Rodriguez move across the diamond to the 6-hole and show why he has always been a prized reward of the Scott Kazmir trade. Desmond Jennings came up and proved once and for all he is not a “Crawford”-clone, but has his own power, style and base-stealing magic.

Matt Joyce proved he had the stuff to hit left-handers, and Ben Zobrist again show the “Zorilla” style traits we all fell in love with during the 2008-2009 campaigns. From starters to Bullpen the Rays hurlers showed promise, unexpected magical moments and the durability of the staff graybeard as James Shields merited Cy Young consideration.

2011 was suppose to be a rebuilding season, but the only rebuilding the Rays did was on their reputation and solidarity to fixate on that post-season goal and drive towards it with vigor and vitality. This season will not go down in Rays history as the most productive on paper, but the 91 wins posted by this squad were 1 better than their rivals the Boston Red Sox and produced another champagne moment within Tropicana Field.

Rays Manager Joe Maddon instilled a “Find Another Way” mantra on his troops early this Spring and several players in the Rays fold responded by showing their abilities are on par with this league even if their MLB service clocks show minimal numbers. Jennings might have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt in 2011 he should be the heir apparent to the Rays lead-off hitter the Rays for 2012. Joyce finally got the at bats to prove he can be the Rays everyday right-fielder and run producer.

All five members of the Rays 2011 posted over 10+ victories with Shields leading the field with a 16-12 record. Not only did Shields lead his young Rays comrades in “W’s”, he also topped the squad in innings pitched (249.1 innings), strikeouts (225) and ERA (2.82 ). Filling in gaps within the season the Rays saw the promise of brilliance of Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and the late season relief pitching of Alex Torres.

Pitching definitely defined so many of these great Rays moments, but the bats did not remain silent during the carnage. We saw new closer Kyle Farnsworth struggle but post a career high with 25 saves, but we also saw the season toll takes it effect on one of the most intimidating players in the game. But the Rays Bullpen which featured 3 lefties for most of the season closed down offenses with RP Joel Peralta providing his own brand of set-up brilliance as well as posting 6 saves. From inning 1 to 9 this Rays team’s pitching tried to set the tone and bring home a win on a nightly basis.

Who will forget that Home Run hit by Longo to seal the Rays post-season against the Yankees on the season’s last day in extra frames about the same time ex-Rays LF Carl Crawford missed a dying quail in Baltimore to propel the Rays into the October party.

With that singled out win on the last day of the 2011 campaign, the Rays ended up posting their only winning September ever with a 16-10 record. It also secured the squad’s third straight 90+ win season, How pale does that starting 1-8 record look now in retrospect as corks exploded within the Trop’s confines and players and fans celebrated together.

Rookies earned their Rays letters this season at an alarming rate as Moore, Brandon Gomes,Torres, Jake McGee and Jeremy Hellickson combined to bring home 8 of those 16 September victories among them, further showing the promise and prosperity that should bring about more moments of celebration and excitement in 2012 for this talented 5-some. Each of these 5 hurlers definitely earned their Rays letterman’s sweaters complete with a shaving cream pie.

But even with the emergence of the rookies, some of the Rays players saw their season as constant reminders of the ever-changing MLB environment. Pitchers J P Howell and Andy Sonnanstine began the 2012 Spring Training with high expectations and a want to show their abilities for this team. Sonny ended up in Triple-A Durham for most of the season, and Howell who came on later in the season never seemed to find the right groove or positive upward momentum. But that is the joy of the New Year, resolutions can be made, and the past is just that…past.

The 2011 season has long been put into the record books, but 2011 is slowing winding down towards it’s last tick of the clock and should be remembered as a season of true fortitude, ever-present resilience and a combined team-wide confidence stemming from the veterans to rookies that this team could win on any given night.

But still if I had to pick a moment of clarity for the Rays, a scene that showed the drive, commitment and determination of this squad it was on the 180th day of the season, in the 12th inning Longoria proved once and for all he is the man to follow on this squad even before his 31st Home Run made human contact in the right field stands. So as we begin to enter the 15th season for the Rays, Sonny has found a new home with the Cubs, Maddon has darkened his hair a few shades.

Changes are still in store for this team before they cross the Port Charlotte, Florida threshold this Spring. Some players have solidified their spots on the roster while others have the Rays scouting and Coaching staff wearing out the erasers on their pencils trying to mesh and mold this squad to take that next step. Can’t wait for that crystal ball to fall in NYC soon because that will symbolize that 2012 is squarely upon us, and the memories of 2011 are just that…fond and precious memories.

2011 All-Holiday Super Hero Squad

Several years ago I started a MLBlogs.com Holiday tradition by posting about my personal character selections for that season’s All-Holiday squad. The first squad selected back in 2008 was composed of characters we all know and love from our favorite holiday movies and shows. The usual suspects were invited on the team like George Bailey and little Ralphie, and of course Rudolph.

Since the “Evil Empire” took the trophy in 2009, I could always hit the “Stars Wars” human and machine  memory banks  and find more than enough characters and antics to post a pretty good line-up. This holiday season’s roster will be based on Super Heroes. So let’s get on with the formal introductions of my All-Holiday squad for 2011.

So with no further ado, let me introduce to you the 11 players of the newly formed   N’oreastern  Blizzardthe, second franchise of the  North American League

Starting Pitcher:

This was a tough decision knowing that so many  great super heroes could throw a baseball not only through a strike zone, but through the stadium backstop and wall. I decided to take it in a bit of a different direction.   He might be the youngest of the Fantastic Four, but the Human Torch  was an easy choice for my starting pitcher. This decision did come with some possible  side effects with the baseball actually vaporizing before it gets near the plate. But I have a plan.

With the definite  possibility that the other team could  chart his flame path to  try to steal his pitch locations, I asked  Jonathan Lowell SpencerStorm  to throw an extra puff of trailing  smoke  along with  the ball to cover its path to the plate. I also dipped all 13 dozen game balls (the same number as the MLB uses per game) in a flame retardant liquid that would not leave a residue, but would leave the ball intact for numerous flights  to the plate.

First Baseman:

I decided to go with my gut instinct here and put
Mr. Fantasticaka Reed Richards, the leader of the Fantastic Four at first base bag as much for his intelligence in the arts of alien biology and physics as for his vertical and horizontal dexterity. Because he could conveniently stretch out far and wide, it made him another clear choice because of his flexibility get errant throws and also provide superb dives and lunges for balls hit either to his left or right.

Second Baseman: 

Here is the position where I am thinking I will get the biggest feedback in the form of the player I picked for this spot. I decided to give this spot to Super Sentai, who was actually the basis for the popular Power Rangers characters. Unknown to most of us in the United States, this Super Hero series has been translated and brought to other cultures around the world from Brazil,Italy, Spain and Portugal to even the US where they were transformed into the Power Rangers. Super Sentai is my only super hero that has come from overseas to play America’s game, and has found his  rightful place among my team.

Shortstop:

Spiderman aka Peter Parkerwas one of the only super heroes to not be a protegé’ at one point in his development. Parker seemed a natural and true choice for this position if you consider his web-shooting ability along with his uncanny spidey-sense. That essence of instinct and range makes him a natural for the spot. And with the mantra, “With great power comes great responsibility” spoken to him by his late Uncle Bob, Spiderman could actually maybe be a nice clone of a certain “Evil Empire” shortstop with his remarkable range and throwing accuracy.

Third Baseman:

I decided the Hot Corner should be patrolled by
Spawn.  Because most 3B’s are viewed as baseball mercenaries, this former CIA agent fits perfectly into the mold of a MLB 3-bagger. Considering his character has been known to morph and change during the course of his adventures, this might transform perfectly for him at third base where I though his uncanny ability to transform and stand tall and firm while guarding the line might be the perfect trait for this position. And knowing that games can be won and lost down the Right field line, his ever-expanding bag of tricks from  sprinting in for bunted ball to making odd angle throws or even making full-body dives over the bag to snag balls screaming down the line at the speed of light makes him the perfect choice.

Catcher:

This line-up spot was actually very easy for me. The character taking this spot has to dive, block and basically be a human wall to the
Human Torch’s hot tamale pitches. That is why Thing from the Fantastic Four was the perfect pick.  As the founding member of the Fantastic Four, Thing also can be the field general that every team needs behind the plate. Born Benjamin JacobGrimm, he was an avid football player, which will make him a perfect wall when he stands in front of the plate and blocks a runner from trying to score on him. And with his orange-colored skin, he will be an easy target for any member of the Blizzard’s pitching staff. Add on his comical tag line of: “It’s clobbering Time”, and you get one of my team’s pure power hitters.

Leftfield:
I wanted to use one member from the Batman franchise here. For that reason I selected the Batman (Christian Baleversion) who could be the most productive and intimidating based on the uncanny ability to leer into the infield might keep guys from trying to stretch singles into doubles. Just a glare from his eyes might freeze a runner between bases and hesitate just enough for him to get a quick throw in and nail him for an outfield assist. Added on the fact he has enough pieces of equipment on his utility belt to scale any wall, even the Green Monster and bring the ball back into play. Plus the caped crusader has some pretty cool rides which translates nicely into the MLB lifestyle.

Rightfield:

Here is another spot that I thought demanded that I have one of the fastest super heroes in the corner outfield to cover the Centerfield-Rightfield gap. For that reason,
Flash seemed to be the perfect fit. I decided that the Scarlett Speedster would be a nice deterrent to teams trying to not only run on his arm, but test his abilities to get to almost any ball hit his way. One of the greats attributes a Rightfielder can have is teams’ fearing what he will do once he has the ball in his glove or hand. Flash gives me that extra jolt of confidence that if a runner is trying to score from third base, the throw will be at the plate with authority.

Centerfield:

This one was actually another one of the easiest positions to fill on this roster. Who else but
Superman (Christopher Reeves version) could patrol the gaps and distances to the centerfield wall. Partner that with a great ability to keep the ball in the park hit at any height, and you get a solid defensive outfielder who also can bring some super power to the plate.He could take a bit of pressure off Batman in Left field, but it would be on a purely speed basis to secure the out and not be an ego thing. Mark that with his solid personal makeup and you got a guy that the fans would also enjoy having him autograph a ball with his eyes, or even pose for pictures strutting his muscles.

Closer:
Here is a spot I did not include my initial 2008 squad, and I felt terrible about it. Every team needs a guy who can button down those close games and give them that needed push to hold a team scoreless and then win in walk-off fashion. For that reason, I think the Punisher is the perfect man for the job.

Not only does the Punisher have those human flaw trademarks we all know and love in our closers, he has that anti-hero trait that most MLB closer possess and use to their advantage. As Frank Castle, the Punisher will use whatever methods are needed to get a positive end result. That, is the ultimate goal of every closer, to have the game come down to his abilities and he conquer them single-handedly.

Designated Hitter:

I think there is only one choice considering it has to be a position of power and great energy. Without a doubt, the prefect DH would have to be the Incredible Hulk. Just on his pure ability to hit the cover off the ball. Hulk has the ability to change, so he could be his green imposing self at the plate, and transform into his human form and become a speed merchant on the base paths. But, for the sake of argument, I think he will try to maintain his angered state throughout the baseball game just for team confidence.

So there you go. This is my player selections for my Christmas 2011 roster of the newly formed second team in the North America League. Unlike the AFL or even the USFL, this baseball league will continue to expand with at least one team forming every Christmas season until we have enough teams to play every day of the holiday season. This is my own little personal Winter League experiment, and with three teams already in the books, it will be fun to watch both the N’oreastern Blizzards, Evil Empire and the Polar Express playing on a cool and sunny Florida baseball diamond near you. Admission is free and remember, a hot dog always tastes better at the ballpark!

Happy Holidays to everyone from Rays Renegade.

Wishing Toby the Best in His Post-Baseball Journey

Still not sure when I met him for the first time, but over the many years of knowing him, I always considered him a friend. The last time we spoke at length was February 2011 just after a he had completed a festive round of golf at the Jesse Litsch + Bechtel Financial Celebrity Golf Tournament. He came up to me and asked how thing were going, really interested in knowing how I was doing, that was the day I realized Toby Hall and I were friends.

It saddened me today to learn of Hall officially retiring today from the game he loved, and loved him back for so long. I still remember standing in Matt Geiger’s restaurant Courtside Grille hearing the whispers that Hall had signed a contract to possibly play for the Texas Rangers in 2010. Hall was still trying to rehab from  a nagging shoulder injury, but was enthusiastic and excited when I asked him about the rumor.

He could have made a big announcement that night during the wrap celebration of the 2010 Toby Hall and Friends Celebrity Golf Tournament, but he did not reveal the exciting news that evening. But that was vintage Toby. Here was a guy who for years would stroll out to my seat in Section 138, even when wearing the Chicago White Sox uniform and shoot the breeze for a few minutes.

Over the years whether it was a post-game appearance at Ferg’s for a few moments, when I volunteered for his golf tournament the past 2 seasons because of the admiration and support I have for the events causes.  During each tournament Toby always extended his hand and asked those question “friends ask each other” and that meant the world to me.  Honestly I can count on 1 hand the people I consider true  baseball friends. Hall is right up there near the old thumb.

I know it was a hard decision and realization to make this decision. I have been there, done it, and it was emotionally draining, physically comforting and most of all, the right thing for himself and his growing family. Baseball has given him so many great things, and maybe it was time now for Hall to devote his energies to family, his foundation and whatever the future has in store for him.

I am not going to quote stats, but I will say he was one of the friendliest Rays ever, and today’s announcement is a somber moment for the Rays Republic. Sure this blog tonight might seem more like a Toby Hall admiration society newsletter, but if you truly know Toby, it was right and fitting to thrust this into the cosmic universe.

One of my cherished possessions is still a game used bat and catching gear worn by Hall at a Rays silent auction. Along with a signed mini helmet in the old D-Rays motif, they have a special corner in my home. Hall played 586 games for the Rays franchise, the most ever by a catcher and the 5th most in club history. He leaves the game with a career .262 batting average with 46 HR and 269 RBIs, but his true legacy is the way he signed for everyone and treated people with utmost respect.

I truly look forward now to Thursday, February 9, 2012 for the Toby Hall Foundation-Miracle League Celebrity Gold Tournament at the Bayou Club in Largo, Florida. You can bet on that date

It’s been a great journey” Hall told Marc Topkin of TampaBay.com, “ I’m going to hang out with family, concentrate on my foundation and have my agents start looking into my next journey.”

And you know that at your annual Spring Golf Tournament this February I will seek you out and shake your hand not only for the game day magic firmly etched into my memory of you playing the great game of baseball, but for being the person you are, and the player we have all grown to respect and wish the best in his time away from the game. I know I can speak for the rest of the Rays Republic and wish you Godspeed, luck and fulfillment in all areas of your life.

Were You The One?

Recently columnist John Romano of the “St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times” wrote an editorial stating the Tampa Bay Rays possibly could be one bat away from reaching the last series again in late October. Some have chuckled at this notion while others have taken his conjecture with a grain of salt, possibly whisking the sodium chloride over their left shoulder for luck just in case he is right.

I know Romano’s main premise is encircling the Rays need for one consistent weapon that empowers this team and acts as their point man during struggles and setbacks. A player of stature and confidence that evokes fear in other team’s, possibly with good reason. Names like Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and even former Ray Carlos Pena quickly come into my mind, but will the price for their services be more than the Rays can muster? Will they quickly be termed “not the one’s”.

Could it be possible my own ideals are more far-fetched than Romano’s? Maybe I am insane to think the entire 25-man roster can transform into one cohesive and consistent unit that nightly can get the job done. For 2 MLB seasons we have seen this Rays club get battered and beaten early in contests and somehow get back off the turf and watch as a Rays du Jour hits the plate or mound and deliver the final death-blow to an opponent. Maybe it is time for this team collectively to take a giant leap of faith in regard to reaching the individual zenith.

Maybe it is as simple as each member of the Rays 25-man roster to take their own game to their next level, to bring about a rude awakening of the slumbering weapons already harnessed within the Rays arsenal. Maybe Rays Manager Joe Maddon should adopt a “Were You the ONE Today?” mantra for his 2012 squad. Possibly that is why this mantra speaks to me in such a way. A total unit is only as strong as its pieces, and this Rays squad has shown in the past it can play with anyone on any given night and post a “L” up on their side of the scoreboard. Did you forget, the Rays did beat the eventual World Series winners in their InterLeague series at the Trop, and outscored them 16-9

Because the Rays payroll is already hovering over $50 million mark for 2012, is there realistically room enough under their ceiling for another impact bat? Considering the potential power and hitting on this team, when all their cow-nosed Rays line up in a row and consistency rules the day, this team is a run scoring machine. The current 2012 roster has the talent, the potential and the ability to combine and prove sometimes the unit as a whole is better than the “one”.

Over the past few seasons we have seen players like Cliff Floyd who showed so many on this team how to be clubhouse leaders and professionals but did not translate that on the field with authority. We saw the Trop termites seemingly destroy “Pat the Bat”, and saw pieces of the puzzles like Brad Hawpe, and Hank Blalock post high hopes, but quickly that balloon burst and again this team was as square one. The “one” big bat concept has not evolved here, possibly doomed to fail from its onset.

But over that same period of time, the Rays Top 5 have produced some impressive numbers and have grown on and off the field. Young players like Matt Joyce, Desmond Jennings and Jeremy Hellickson have shown the 5 can expand into even larger omnipresent spectacle possibly becoming a shimmering 25-point star. We have seen shining bursts of the talent and power from players like Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, B J Upton plus pitchers David Price and James Shields as they have all shed brilliant light upon the Trop.

Maybe this is insanity speaking, but these five points of the Rays star need to shine brighter in 2012. The great thing about elevating your game is it becomes infectious to your team. Each player on the Rays roster wants to be the “one” on a daily basis. Could it really be as simple as combined pitching energies and offensive forces combining to add up to one win, one defining moment, one potentially moment of clarity for this team?  If this 2012 Rays team can harness that and mold it into a consistent vessel of power, then the sky is the limit for this team in 2012.

2012 Needs to Be the Year of the Stadium

It seems like so long ago. The prospect of a waterfront baseball park down within a simple Home Runs path of Tampa Bay looking towards the St. Petersburg, Florida iconic inverted triangular Pier seemed destined. At that time it seemed the Tampa Bay Rays would begin their 2012 season under a bellowing sail and among the legion of stars that grace the Florida night sky.

I still remember the impromptu hot dog and soda celebration given by the Rays just after the conclusion of their final Spring Training game in Progress Energy Park. Kids were running the bases, parents were basking at the proposed views and changes that would grace this patch of land within the next few years. Expectations were high, and the Rays even made an effort to commemorate the new stadium with a simple gesture in the outfield.

Stenciled in white chalk in the Right-Center field green grass was the proposed placement of the future Home Plate keystone facing towards the Northeast. This symbol showed the promise, the excitement and the hopes of future All-Star games and festivities would center around this iconic parcel of land just to the South of the growing steeples of condos and offices in St. Petersburg.

Funny how we now sit within days of 2012 and since the Rays closed the book on this proposed stadium location, they have been mired still swinging at the plate, not even reaching the first steps towards pursuing another vista in the region. Committees have met and been dissolved providing resolute opinions and suggestions, but still the open lines of communication between the Rays and the community seem muted.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has been more than adamant that Tropicana Field is not adequate, or even fiscally able to uphold this region’s baseball legacy. Only the Rays and the maligned Oakland A’s sit in perpetual motion in regards to new vistas to call home. At the turtle rate the Rays stadium is moving, the A’s will have traveled the road to San Jose and been in their new digs for 5 seasons before the Rays break ground.

But the simple fact the Rays are silent should bother all of us who live in this region. I consider the team a regional asset, a barometer that shows if we are a Major League town, or a sleepy hamlet that is destined forever for tourism not baseball. With the Rays standing firm and silent, the decision by baseball to award a franchise to South Florida first in this state seems to have been a genius move.

I was really looking forward to the former stadium revelation and construction. I would have sneaked upon the grounds and watched as the inner bones and fragments were placed, my emotions would have grown as the stadium took shape and the sail was unveiled to fill from the pre- sunset sea breeze. But all that is moot. All of that excitement, that exhilaration has been boxed up, carted away, possibly forever.

2012 was supposed to be a year of renewal of the passion and love for baseball for this region. The site of Progress Energy Park would have been underneath the infrastructure of the new facility, but the emotions and residual haunts of baseball would have filled the halls. Now soccer is played in this stadium site. The city has invited teams from other countries to train here trying to at least grasp some of that Spring magic again, but the true essence of baseball only seems to aptly survive here from April to October, then it takes a long hibernation.

Back on that afternoon as I stood in the Batter’s Box and stared towards the Northeast I could never imagine in my wildest nightmares this region would fight amongst itself perpetually suspending any attempt of building or imagining a Rays future stadium anywhere in this region. As of now there are no ongoing discussions, no released plans, no small-scale models for us to glance at lovingly. It is like the progression of any kind of baseball facility for the Rays has been erased, systematically eliminated and cast off for now.

I might stroll out into the Progress Energy Park outfield on April before heading to the Trop for Opening Day and stand in that same spot where once sat the make-believe Batter’s Box and point my Louisville Slugger towards the Northeast hoping for a sign, hoping for a revelation.

April 2012 was supposed to be a celebration, a final epiphany of this region to bask in the embrace and afterglow of baseball, a time of celebration of the Ray’s 15th MLB season with a state-of-the-art new digs along a picturesque slice of Tampa Bay. Instead this April Progress Energy Park will be vacant, open to the elements with only one Rays fan in attendance paying homage to the enthusiastic 2012 time-table and the memory of that bellowing sail.

Tuesday was Not a Sonny Day

Tuesday morning was not a particularly “Sonny” day for me. Sure I knew that the cards were stacked high and solid against the Rays closet jokester and team trivia buff from possibly garnering an arbitration hearing, but I held a slim sliver of hope for the impossible. For this was the quiet prankster who emerged with a triumphant team-wide display during the relatively short Dale Thayer phenomenon, and who was instrumental in the “porno moustache” caper during a Florida Marlins series back in 2008. This player was as much a consistent part of the Rays team character during his tenure as Rays Manager Joe Maddon.

Here was a player who was so in-tune with Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s quips and quirks that he was  a covert Maddon Delta force commando with his comedic plays and daily transformations in 2010 of the figurine images on the right field wall. From the popular and comical road trip attire to team sponsored events and Season Ticket get-together, this player was all Tampa Bay, and I was glad to have known him. But that is just a small shovelful of the magic and outlandish things that made Andy Sonnanstine a team favorite.

Sure most of the people in Section 140 remember him as the Bullpen player who grabbed fists full of bubble gum and showered them with the sweet confection. Others knew him for his literal side, the one that could quote stats and Rays team trivia with more insight and more depth than the Rays own broadcast historians and fact-checkers. Sonny was a guy who with a glance could have you either laughing or knowing instinctively that you must have missed out on a special Rays moment.

Did you know he was the first of the post-2007 Rays to get a dog and make him a huge part of his off-the-field routine. Sonny was so into his “man’s best friend” that in 2011 he would travel almost 160 miles daily to the Rays Spring Training camp and then back home to his Gulfport abode to be with his canine (golden retriever) roommate “Murphy “. Maybe that was one of the reason I grew to like seeing Sonnanstine being a devoted dog dude myself.

The again my kinship with Sonny might have blossomed with his daily journey into his artistic side as he changed the Matt Garza and David Price figurine Fathead decal put up on the Right field corner back in 2010. Daily I would be transfixed the moment I entered Tropicana Field wondering what accessories, what facial or body transformations would await all of us in attendance. Even being sent down to Rookie Hudson Valley, Sonny found a willing accomplice in Randy Choate who put the finishing touches on his Price masterpiece while Sonny sat on the pine bench 1,300 miles away.

Sonny was the consummate “company man”, a person who Maddon and Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey knew would do whatever was needed to secure an advantage. His biggest day of flexibility came via a Maddon line-up card malfunction (5/17/2009) against the Cleveland Indians. Sonny committed to the start, then picked up a bat and brought his own offensive pop to the game and his eventual victory. On that day Sonny became the first pitcher since Chicago White Sox starter Ken Brett (Sept. 23, 1976) to be listed on a game’s starting line-up card as a hitter.

He was a guy who was born in a pitcher’s body, but had the mindset and confidence of a power hitter. Some of the most entertaining Batting Practice events of this past seasons came on the days the Rays pitchers got into the cage and took their hacks. Sonny loved to hit and leaves the Rays with a lifetime .318 batting average. Sonny was such a frustrated hitter he took his past 2 Rays team individual photos in the Spring with a bat on his shoulder. Now that is a commitment to hitting.

Sonny leaves the Rays organization with fond memories. Take April 19, 2009 start is a great testament to the magic that can come from Sonnastine’s arm. He went to the mound opposite White Sox hurler Mark Buehrle and produced his first complete game, which included a 3-hit shutout. But there was an additional bit of essence that was all-Sonny on that day.

Sonny combined that night with Beuhrle and completed that contest in a remarkable 2 hours and 2 minutes, the shortest game in Tropicana Field history, plus Sonny faced only 29 batters and at one time retired 17-straight, both club records at the time. On June 18,2010 Sonny earned his first MLB save in an impressive way retired 3 batters while the tying run was anxiously awaiting a hit ball at third base. Ice water truly ran in his veins that night in that balmy contest against the Marlins.

Then in late 2010 Sonny became an author collaborating with MLBlogs.com’s own Tucker Eliot to produce the popular “Tampa Bay Rays IQ: The Ultimate Test of True Fandom” in paperback. Seems only natural the artistic flow of a writer would enter into the versatile Sonny persona since he did attend Kent State University with fellow MLB author and Rays teammate Dirk Hayhurst (Bullpen Gospels).

Some say the last nail was firmly struck in Sonny’s coffin when the Rays trade for fellow arbitration player RP Burke Badenhop from the Marlins on December 10th. Badenhop might not have the rubber band mentality of Sonnastine to go from starter-to reliever and back again without recourse, but his 58.5% ground ball rate peaked the Rays interest pushing Sonny firmly to the outside of the team circle of trust.

Sonny will truly be missed by the Rays Republic for many reasons. From his gum barrage, to his artistic impressions and clothing selections, Sonny has always been a disciple of the “Rays Way”, a consummate professional, and someone you never could turn you back on because of his spontaneous prankster mentality His antics and memorable moments will resonate within Tropicana Field for a lot of us for a long, long time. Viva la Sonny!

Pondering the Rays Pending Tender Decisions

This is one of those times that Major League Baseball players who are within the salary arbitration process either dread or look forward to with glee. It is the time that their clubs either shower them with confidence and acknowledgment Spring. The Tampa Bay Rays are no different, they will have to decide within the next 24 hour period who is worthy, and who has put on a Rays jersey for the last time.

You might think the process is easy, but with 6 players et to enter the arbitration pressure cooker in this 2011 off-season, I truly think only half of this group which includes LHP David Price, CF B J Upton, RP Joel Peralta, RP/SP Andy Sonnanstine, SP Jeff Niemann and former closer J P Howell can rest easy.

Two of this group could be non-tendered on Monday, while a third could possibly be tendered with a quick resolve to trade them before the arbitration process unfolds this Spring. Only Peralta seems on completely sturdy ground with an impressive 2011 campaign, and an estimated $ 2 million arbitration salary. A great set-up man like Peralta would easily set the Rays back possibly double what Peralta could get in arbitration, and that makes him a safe bet to be with the team this Spring.

Instantly members of the Rays Republic will be scratching their heads wondering if I had taken a hallucinogenic or have lost my friggin’ mind because I did not include the Rays ace, Price in this category. I would think the team is already in closed-door discussions with Price and his agent possibly trying ti iron out an extension, or possibly a viable financial situation that would keep both Price and the Rays smiling beyond his arbitration years.

Price has always been a “team-oriented” player, and if he and the Rays can come together on an extension, then we could see Price blossom in a Rays jersey for a long time. If not, some team would unload their farm system for a guy who is still evolving and is a left-hander. With an estimated $ 7.8 million salary for casted via arbitration for Price, without some sort of unilateral agreement between himself and the Rays, his future will become cloudy within the next 2 seasons, which would be a shame for both sides.

B J Upton is another guy who could easily vault past the $ 7.5 million hurdle with estimates ranging from $7.4-7.6 million for the Rays versatile CF. Upton is one of two players currently in the Rays arbitration process who could see himself being offered arbitration, and possibly be dealt before the team reports to Spring Training in Port Charlotte, Florida in mid-February. Still, Upton has the unique distinction of being “affordable” by Center fielder’s price points, but with several emerging candidates, including Sam Fuld or Desmond Jennings already bursting through on the MLB level, Upton has to feel he is not on stable footing.

The other player who could have pulled on a Rays uniform for the last time is RHP Jeff Niemann. Even though Niemann could only cost an affordable $ 3.1 million through arbitration, the Rays have a budding stable of pitching ponies behind the Tall Texan, and his health concerns and in juries over the past two seasons could make him an instant trade candidate and the least likely player to still be with the team this Spring.

Even though the other “silent assassin”, Wade David is also being mentioned in trades chatter, Davis has an extended contract with the Rays already in hand and that makes his situation more stable compared to Niemann. The Rays could still offer arbitration to Niemann knowing they will also explore trade situations and possibly use his salary arbitration as a key point in their trade talks, maybe even including a minor league prospect or money to another team to take Niemann.

So far on the arbitration forefront we have seen a “sure thing” and another arbitration eligible player who can be included in that category, but who might become expensive in the next 2 years. Also we have explored 2 players who might be on the top shelf of trade chatter, and who could even with salary arbitration attached to them be dealt even before their Spring hearings. Also to consider either of these 2 players could also be involved in a sign and trade situation giving their new squad a bit of financial relief, Niemann seems to be the one definite player on the cusp, but he has value on the trade front, so arbitration might be in the cards on Monday for Niemann.

There are still two player who might have pulled on their Rays uniforms for the last time, and it hurts me that both are baseball friends of mine. Both of these guys have sweat bullets for the team and been “company men” for the Rays enduring heartaches, surgeries and even unexpected trips away from the Rays that might have secured their destiny.

Andy Sonnanstine has done everything ever asked of him by the Rays, but with most of the 2011 season in “arbitration purgatory” with the Triple-A Durham Bulls, Sonny might be an easy candidate for the Rays to non-tender. This is a guy who has been comical, serious and multi-dimensional his entire Rays career, but with the current young guns pushing the ceiling for a shot in the majors, Sonny might be expendable. Even his affordable $1.1 million arbitration estimate might be more than the Rays would be willing to fork over for middle-of-the-road starter/reliever with the huge surplus of young talent on the cusp of being MLB ready.

This pains me, but LHP J P Howell took a huge step backwards in 2011, and that could cost him more than money. Sure he was trying to get back into the seasonal flow coming back into the Rays Bullpen towards the middle of the season, but his numbers and velocity took a tumble even with his mechanics at times plaguing his performance. His favor is an affordable $ 1.4 million estimate for his arbitration, and that could possibly push him over the hump and get an arbitration offer from the team.

But you have to consider Howell has stiff competition this Spring with fellow southpaws’ Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos again manning the hill for the Rays. It might come down to the intangibles like leadership, potential and if Howell can regain his velocity and trickery in 2012. You have to think an entire off-season to prep and regain his command and composure would benefit Howell, but could it be too late to impress the Rays brass that he will come back stronger in 2012.

I would love to see all 6 eligible players get a chance to go through the arbitration process for the Rays this Spring, but the numbers might not support such a move. With an early estimated $ 52.1 million payroll for 2012 with arbitration eligible figures included, that poses a 27 percent raise in the Rays payroll projections, and possibly 11 players topping the $1 million salary mark for 2012, any of these 6 arbitration eligible players could be gone to further lower the projected payroll before a single free agent to signed.

This is a critical year for the Rays with the Boston Red Sox’s recent contemplation of staying under the luxury tax threshold in 2012, and the possible addition of a second American League Wild Card spot anticipated, and all financial decisions on Monday could play into the Rays final position come the end of September. The arbitration process has a way of being cruel or kind depending on your position at the end of the day, but it is a viable way for teams to keep themselves solvent and reduce personnel during the off-season.

Peralta, Price and Upton should be on terra firma on Monday while Sonnanstine and Howell might be chin-deep in a puddle of quicksand without any rope or long branches to save them. Still, the one player who might be in the most vicarious position might be the 6′ 9” Niemann. He has the ability but not the sustained health for the Rays to confidently say without a hint of remorse he should get an arbitration hearing. Niemann will certainly get a hearing, but it might be a precursor to his eventual trade from the Rays.

No matter what happens on Monday, these 6 players have brought instances of joy and memorable events to all of us in the Rays Republic and I hope not matter what the outcome they know they will always be Rays in our eyes. Thank goodness the Rays do not have upwards of 10+ arbitration decisions that teams like the San Francisco Giants (13), Oakland Athletics (10),  San Diego Padres (11) and Red Sox (10) on Monday. Those arbitration decisions could dissect half of their roster in one day. Talk about a stressful day.

Moore’s Extention Provides Some Fiscal Stability for Rays

Finally the Tampa Bay Rays have done something positive in the team-oriented arena besides sending Double-J John Jaso to the Emerald City this off-season. The fact the Rays again signed, sealed and delivered another one of their meteoric rising stars by securing the services of southpaw pitcher Matt Moore until possibly 2019.

The deal might seem a bit minuscule compared to the recent quarter of a billion shelled out for new heavenly Angel 1B Albert Pujols, but it gives Moore a bit of financial stability, but also a huge jolt of confidence the team is behind him 100 percent. Sometimes a small financial boost and stable foundation can do more for a pitcher’s confidence than a new pitching grip.

Then again the Rays have become more comfortable over the last few years to giving their rising stars a chance to firm up not only their bank accounts, but give the team a stability in salary escalation that can be monitored with clarity. Some would say the deal Moore made with the Rays will have both sides smiles for a long, long time.

Kind of funny to me that Moore had to think about this deal for a second: “I had to basically make up my mind, was it worth it. I feel like the risk is being shared on both ends and I’m happy where we are.”

Moore is just the latest in an increasing line of Rays budding stars like James Shields, Ben Zobrist, Evan Longoria and Wade Davis to see the team approach them and construct a package that suits both sides of the equation with fairness and stability. According to ESPN, Moore’s contract will be the highest guaranteed dollars and potential earning for a pitcher who has less than 2 years MLB service time.

Moore vaulted past Oakland SP Brett Anderson and Rays rotation mates Shields and Davis who all signed their own exclusive contract extensions after their first full MLB season. That is itself bodes well of the strong opinion and scouting confidence the Rays have in their budding star that he will surpass his 2011 excitement, possibly pushing out someone in the Rays current starting rotation.

The deal also puts the idea of the Rays habitually watching Moore’s MLB service time clock tick away before they can either bring him up to avoid quickening his salary arbitration clock. The deal is definitely a “win-win” on both sides of the coin.

Moore gets a solid $1 million in salary until after 2015, then Moore will begin an ascending odd-numbered salary climb of $3 million (2015). $5 million (2016) and a possible $7 million salary in 2017 when the Rays will begin a 3-year club option phase where the club can decide on his last 3 contract years at a combined $ 26.5 million with a huge buyout of $2.5 million in 2017.

Consider for a moment the magnitude of this contract offer of $39.75 million over 8 MLB seasons. That is just under $2.5 million off the team’s 2011 payroll of $42,171,308. That is a clear and concise affirmation of the Rays commitment to their young left-hander. Oh, let’s not forget, Moore even pocketed a clean $500,000 signing bonus prior to the Press Conference.

Moore might be the first in an expanding list of players within the Rays fold who might have a chance over the next few years to invest their skills long-term with the team and have a nice financial windfall to back their further Rays commitment.

I wonder if Rays Executive VP of Baseball Operations has Jeremy Hellickson and his agent as his next new speed-dial number, I know I would.

I Like Ike

Saw an interesting little blip pop up on my laptop screen today that the New York Mets are taking the aggressive road during the current Major League Baseball Winter Meetings in Dallas, Texas and are willing to throw all their cards on the table and see who from within the MLB crew will wheel and deal with them with their basic roster open for discussion.

The Mets have already secured a sizable investment in their reliever corps, and now are setting their sights towards a few other weaknesses going into the cold off-season. With the new ownership basically opening the doors for a MLB-sized garage sale, I wonder just how marked up the price would be for the Tampa Bay Rays to possible pick a particular name off that roster and secure a possible 2012 answer for one of their own glaring weak spots.

There is one name that just keeps flashing brightly at me from among the Mets roster. He is a player who interests me a lot, and who has shown some bright spots in his early MLB career and could possibly grow into the 1B slot for the Rays for several years instead of the team bartering and buying into short-term solutions at the position. An interesting sidebar to this is that current Mets First Baseball Ike (Issac) Davis was initially drafted by the Rays back in the 2005 MLB Amateur Draft in the 19th Round.

Davis ended up spurning the Rays and enrolled at Arizona State University. That might have been a very wise decision career-wise for Davis as his number grew and his offensive power-stroke emerged and he elevated his game enough to be picked with the 18th pick of the First Round during the 2008 MLB Draft by the Mets. Another intriguing sidebar is that Davis is the son of former MLB P Ron Davis who played in the league for 11 seasons. The pair became the 197th Father-Son combo to both play MLB caliber baseball.

Some might discount my desire for Friedman to possibly discuss Davis as “wishful thinking”, but I think the Rays Executive VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman and his covert ops scouting deployment squad should take a few moments with baseball gang from Flushing , NY crew swirl a few players names ( possibly SP Jeff Niemann or C Jose Lobaton) to see just how much the Mets are truly dangling their players to the masses.

Then again, the Mets might be a bit “trade shy” of the Rays since the pain still lingers a bit with some of the front office staff about the Kazmir-Zambrano trade fiasco. But that should be water under the George Washington bridge by now, and if the Rays collect a few interesting names both from their MLB or farm system, the Mets could use them as clear fodder to go after another player of their choosing. Heck, why not possibly investigate who the Mets have on their radar and the Rays, Mets and a third-party come up with a solution that will give everyone a Cheshire cat grin.

Davis has the admiration of his teammates, especially former Mets, no Marlins SS Jose Reyes. Tell me this is not the kind of glowing testimonial that would not have you knocking on the Met’s hotel room door asking about Davis “ People talk about hit hitting, but he is one of the best defensive First Baseman you will ever see for a player his age”. That quote alone should perk up Friedman’s ears towards at least investigating Davis.

Davis did not have a great 2011 due to a lingering ankle injury he sustained back on May 10th when he rolled his ankle during a routine pop-up near the pitching mound. Davis gutted out the injury off-the-field doing rehab and working to try to bring the ankle back into playing strength before the end of the 2011 season. Still, the defensive-minded 1B posted some pretty impressive offensive numbers for his second MLB season.

In 139 at bats in 36 games, Davis had a .304 Batting Average, a OPS of .925 and hit 7 Home Runs and 25 Rb I’s. Some say the injury might have prevented the former 2004 High School All-American from posting a breakout season. Davis is ripe on the MLB vine right now, and the Rays should pluck him before someone else comes in and takes him away.

Davis has the defensive skills, the budding offensive power and is a humble and down-to-earth player that quickly became a Met’s fan favorite. All three of these facts fit perfectly into the Rays list of trading for potential players, and with Davis set to make possibly under $500,000 for the season, he fits the fiscal ramifications of being pursued by the club.

Problem with this is simply what is Davis worth on the Rays scale? Is he worth a small cache of minor leaguer’s and a MLB caliber player. Would the Mets possibly take Niemann or Wade Davis plus maybe another Rays pitching farm hands like Alex Torres or Nick Barnese with a kicker of one of the Rays budding catching prospect from Lo baton to Nevin Ashley.

I personally would call the Mets, possibly for at least a sit-down, possible discussion on the true availability of Davis, and if he is on the table, strike while the iron is hot this Hot Stove season. The Rays could bag a young maturing First Baseman who they can financially control for a period of time, plus plug a huge gap on the left side of their infield with a player who could have All-Star potential. Then again, who knows, maybe Friedman has already ventured into this garage sale, taken his notes and is awaiting a moment to make his move…..plus Davis’s trademark # 29 is available….better get Westy on the Batphone.

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