February 2012

Valuable Rays Asset Leaves a Lasting Homegrown Legacy

This weekend a valuable cog of the Tampa Bay Rays promotional machine will have stripped off his name badge, put the last box of precious bobbleheads in his car and said farewell to Tropicana Field for the last time as a Rays employee. I decided it was only fitting that this same Rays figurehead we have all seen on the sidelines and walking with celebrities and concert performers should get his last round of applause via a Q & A session.

Most members of the Rays Republic have talked to Killingsworth during his rise from the bottom of the Rays promotional food chain to his final position as the Senior Director of Marketing for our Rays. But did you also know he has a MBA from the University of South Florida and also attended Flagler College and Jacksonville University? Even more amazing is this is the same guy who caught the Wareham Gatemen and celebrated a 1997 Cape Cod title with current Rays 1B Carlos Pena.

I walked into Killingsworth’s office this past Monday already knowing his next destination, his heartfelt feelings about this great franchise and decided it was only fitting that I give the rest of the Rays Republic one last glimpse into the man who will take his walk-off jaunt around the Rays promotional bases with the Rays 2012 promotional item, the Zim Bear. I got a feeling this one item might just be better than his other promotional gemstone, the Carlos Pena toothbrush holder.

It is not many people who get to work in the sport that they love and cherish. What was it about the Rays organization that sealed the deal for you back in 2002 and made you eager to board the Rays staff?

Growing up in the Tampa Bay area and St. Petersburg specifically, I followed the teams that almost came here with near misses with the Mariners, the Giants, with the White Sox. It was tough, Spring Training in wonderful, I was a Cardinals fan because of Spring Training up to that point but back in 1995 I remember I was playing a HS baseball game (Shorecrest) and I told my mom to skip the game and go down to the Trop to get one of the first jerseys. Back then it was the black D-Rays jersey so I could be one of the first to wear it. Being such a fan of the development and the beginning of the Rays franchise in 1998 and to it come to fruition to the area and to work for your hometown team is a dream come true.

I heard through the grapevine while studying for your MBA at USF you did a thesis on the idea and program that ended up being the basis for the Rays highly popular College Night at the Trop?

One of the great things about my MBA and USF is that I got to take a subject I wanted to explore after I graduated and a career path. I got a team together and put together a project\thesis for my final year at USF and I picked the Rays as an organization I wanted to study and got to meet people like John Higgins (Senior VP of Administration/General Counsel ), John Browne and other high level executives and submitted my marketing plans for the Rays. The challenge then as it is now is to drive attendance and one of the areas I focused on was to drive up attendance among college students and young professionals. In that proposal I came up with the College Night and that was something I was lucky enough after graduating to join the Rays and implement a year later. There was a nice run there where College Nights were full every Friday night, and even sold out for about 3 years in a row. Very excited to put an idea into reality and that was all because of USF and ultimately helped in me landing a job with the Rays.

You started out on the ground floor as a Rays employee, who was your mentor, your “Yoda”?

My first boss, John Browne (former D-Rays VP of Sales and Marketing ) was the guy who hired me to the Rays and gave me my opportunity. He saw something in me that maybe some other people might have overlooked. He believed in me and one of the things I try to carry on in what John Browne did when he approached his employees is to always take the time to listen and to really “hear them out”. What I mean by that is he eliminated all of the distractions, and nowadays there are even more distractions than there was in 2002. What I try to do is take a piece out of his book and take time with my staff whenever they need me. When we meet on a regular basis we always get away from the desk , away from the cellphones and distractions and I really hear them. We really communicate openly, and I think John Browne laid the groundwork for me to always follow that trait to become a successful manager.

Saw a Tweet recently on Twitter where a Rays fan asked David Price about the Rays possibly doing a Rays dog bandanna for our canine fans? What do you think of that idea?

I love that idea. We get some of our best ideas from fans, ultimately they are the consumers of the giveaways and we take all the ideas and expand on them. A dog bandanna is a wonderful idea. We are actually close to potentially doing a Dog Day here at the Trop something we have wanted to explore here for the last 7-8 years and we are finally all comfortable, and I think we got the (St. Petersburg) Fire Marshall comfortable with letting dogs in here. The bandanna would be a perfect tie-in. We actually thought about a dog bowl as well. Any dog item would go over well with the dog loving Rays team we have here. (I know Astro and Jango would love it)

I have to ask, did the Rays win any outstanding recognition for their 2010 baseball sensation the Carlos Pena toothbrush holder? Is there an MLB version of the advertising Cleo?

The Biz of Baseball awarded us with the Number One promotional schedule in all of baseball and the Number 1 promotional giveaway. We were very honored to receive that nomination and our fans reacted to that as well. Carlos Pena thought it was “one of the neatest things he had even seen.” I look forward to Cruz (future Rays LH C ) using it someday.

I was shocked at the recent Rays Fan Fest when we sat down and you told me of your next career destination. I guess it is time now for the rest of the Rays Republic to know where Brian Killingsworth will be on the 2012 MLB Opening Day, and your new job title:

I am the new Vice President of Marketing and brand strategy for the St. Louis Rams. It is definitely bittersweet I have so many great years putting in 10 years with the Rays. Went through a lot of ups and downs. The team is in a position now where it is built for success on the baseball side. I’m extremely proud of what the organization has done to align itself with the solid foundation on the business side. There are a lot of quality people that are apart of this that can definitely take over the reins, but I’m excited about a new challenge to work in the NFL. I see so many parallels with the Rams with then old D-Rays of 2005-2006 and feel I am getting in with the Rams at a point where we can turn around things on the business side and the football side will take care of itself with a new Coach and a new GM and a new direction that I hope wonderful things will happen with the Rams as well.

It is the NFL off-season, but with the NFL Draft only weeks away I suspect you will hit the ground running in St. Louis. Will you take the great groundwork you did with the Rays and convert it NFL-style?

I hope so. That is one of the things I’m excited about for going to the NFL is a whole new challenge and a whole new learning opportunity for me. I have a lot of ideas that I have put into practice here (with the Rays) and done successful case studies for that work in baseball and that is one of the reasons I was attracted to the leadership of Kevin Demoff ( Rams Executive VP of Football Operations/Chief Operating Officer) who has provided the direction and laid out what the Rams want to innovate in their business practices and want to do some exciting things. I think I can bring a lot of my ideas there and they will be accepted and we can build the brand. Something that the region will be proud of. That is my challenge to get to work with the wonderful people in their organization right now and do as much as I can to help spread the Rams brand throughout the region and to go it.

On a personal note, I remember when your young son Cruz was born you projected him as a future left-handed catcher for the Rays? I got to ask, with the geographical change now, could Cruz have become a possible Cardinals prospect?

(Laughing) Maybe, but maybe he can play quarterback for the Rams as well.

I hate that this will be the last question, but what will you miss the most when you leave the Trop for the last time as a Rays employee?

I’m going to miss a lot. I’m going to miss the friendships made throughout the organization, throughout the game day staff , the clubhouse. There are so many people who I have grown with here that I am going to miss. Most importantly the relationships here, the relationships with the fans. I saw a lot of them at Fan Fest and I’m going to miss seeing kids run through the gates and getting their bobbleheads and getting so excited knowing that I had a hand in bringing some joy to kids and hopefully that part I can carry over to the Ram’s family. I will miss everything about it, the people, the relationships, the building. I am pretty fond of the Trop. Then good thing about nowadays is that you can stay in touch and you can always be close. I will always be a Rays fan, and will watch them on MLB.TV and possibly make a few road trips down.

Most of you might not know, but it was Brian who I consulted back in November 2007 asking him if I should again write this very same blog. I am proud of where it has gone, and I have Brian to thank for reminding me why I love writing and this game again. I will miss our seasonal back-and-forth “guessing game” on the Rays concert series. I still write as a result of that first consultation, and many great blog ideas and storyline s have transpired because of those emails and chats.

Personally I wish everyone who has ever ventured into the Trop got at some point got a chance to know Brian in some way. He was an adamant ambassador and treasured asset of “The Rays Way” and I truly wish him more than the best as he re-brands himself now in the NFL. Brian has the passion and true love for this game and his job so few other people possess or can hold a candle to. It has been an extreme honor to have met, spoken and known Brian during his Rays tenure. It will truly seem eerie to me on Opening Day when I look down behind Home Plate and do not see you standing there.

I know you are going onto something new and exciting, and great challenges await you, but I want to personally wish you and your family not only future happiness, but continued blessings and good tidings. I hope you take your past Rays successes are wear them like a badge of honor, for you have truly served the Rays Republic with brilliance. You said in a recent email the Zim Bear was “your walk-off”. If that is the case, it was an extra-inning Grand Slam off your former office’s window and into the Rays Tank. Nothing would be more fitting  an ending for your Rays tenure.

Glad I Attended the 2012 Jesse Litsch & Bechtel Financial Celebrity Tourney

I truly believe it is an event like no other in Tampa Bay. From the evident bonds between teammates and the golf participants this golf tournament is more than just 8 hours of fun, sun and conversation, it is truly life changing. When I first volunteered for the Jesse Litsch & Bechtel Financial Celebrity Golf Tournament last season, I spent a majority of my time cooped up in the clubhouse not getting the full jest and personality of this awesome tournament, but in 2012, I decided to do things a bit differently.

Maybe it was the inspiration I got from seeing young Connor sprinting and being a kid around the golf course before the guys even hit the links that inspired me. Here was a kid who was battling that demon, the big “C” who was cheerful, spunky and all around a young guy you wanted see beat not only this aliment, but anything in his wake. It got me pumped up, and with that I walked all 18 holes of the East Lake North Golf course on this day.

Connor was one of the tournament’s charitable recipients this season, and I could not think of a better way to not only honor his courage and smile while facing such an ordeal than to give a pound of sweat and maybe a few aches and pains getting photos I left behind in 2011. This is an organization that brings together not only the young and veteran members of the Toronto Blue Jays organization, but other professional players from the Tampa Bay region, even a few Tampa Bay Rays. I talked to Rays SS Reid Brignac earlier in the week and he was upset he would miss this tournament because of a prior commitment.

But those assembled for this great event that not only will help Connor, but will also give funding to programs like The Boys & Girls Club and The Bike for Kids program which is a charity in conjunction with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department to give bikes to underprivileged children during the holiday season. And all this started when Litsch and Bechtel first talked during a similar golfing event back in November 2008.

They say sometimes the best things happen on the golf links, and with regards to this tournament, that is exactly how it unfolded. In its third year, this event has not only grown in the silent auction arena providing countless great adventures and signed memorabilia, it brings together people from all walks of life and bonds them into a common goal and objective to have fun for the day while bringing in financial help for the tournament’s charities.

But this is not your father’s usual golf tournament. Sure you have the shotgun start, the usual wild pants, hats and decorative ensembles that go together with such events, but the pairings of celebrity and amateur golfers brings a conversation, and common interest and maybe even a possible kinship that could spawn another tournament just like this one.

I have got to say as I cruised the golf course from the 18th hole to the first tee in reverse, I wanted to get the vibe and energy that makes this event unique and a “must attend” event each Spring.

Got to admit, I got that in spades, but it wasn’t enough to win the card game on that one particular tee. But this event which is focused firmly on its charitable funding also doesn’t take itself too serious not to have some fun during the day, even with events straight out of what must have been a Pledge Captains’ fraternity play book.

I mean you had kick, punt and pass holes for additional yardage that most though former Bucs kicker Martin Gramattica would own. That hole by itself was worth the mileage walking this golf course as both young and old tried to bring back a bit of past glory, but few seemed eager and willing to re-visit that piece of time. Still, it was a hole where also laughter ruled the day and even a few comments vented towards participants whose past football glory let them down on this day, shanked to the left or right of the fairway.

Remember I spoke of the Frat angle, that is the 10th hole. A huge Red Bull tent where Litsch camped out for the day along with a killer sound system, very spirited ladies providing beverages and even photos along with a long drive contest that proved to be not only water challenged, but hair-raising at the same time. Of course I also got a ball jettisoned my direction by recently retire Rays C Toby Hall, but the ball ended up high, wide and not very handsome, hopefully missing someone in their backyard. Still, this half-way point of the course had the vibe and energy of the entire event and it kept me not only going, but provided me with a chance to sit and chat with many of the day’s duffers, including former Rays P Doug Waechter.

But my favorite hole by far was the baseball tee. I know there were more former or current baseball participants in this assembled logjam of golfers than any other sport, but moist of us never had to hit a ball off a tee, and much less with 4 other people behind us critiquing use like the MLB Network. The one golfer that didn’t surprise me with his swing was former Rays SP/RP and new Cub Andy Sonnanstine. Maybe it was the fact I was just off to the right of the tee box about 150 yards, but Sonny actually stroked one within 10 feet of me just shy of giving me a bruise to remember.

I even saw one golfer do a “Happy Gilmore” approach and nail a ball a good 140 yards while his grandson did more damage to the tee than the white Rawlings ball.

Still you get the jest now that this tournament takes it focus seriously but while on the links talks, bonding and bringing together people who want to support these charities is priority one. Fun might rule the day, but serious matters including some high bidding on packages and auction items ruled the roost after everyone was done for the day on the greens. Again there was the autographed bats signed by each celebrity participant of the tournament that this seasoned peaked out at $ 250 each bringing more help and financial muscle to the charities.

All the whole there was an assembled hum and buzz in the room as everyone talked either about the upcoming baseball season, their daily good and forgettable moments, or just wanting to meet and bond with their table mates. Charlie Belcher from the local Fox affiliate again was the Master of Ceremonies and did a great job as usual bringing together the assembly at the right moments to honor the day’s best golfers and offer some great comedic moments. I was glad I detoured myself this season out onto the golf course. There was different vibe outdoors even with the cold bit in the air, the humor, and relaxed attitude of each of the pairings as we crossed paths was inviting and a great experience.

This is definitely one of those I want to volunteer my services to as long as possible, for their outreaching arms to the community is inspiring, and it is great to see a local MLB player and a heavy hitter in the financial field give back with an equal amount of rejuvenated vigor and vitality.

In the end I want to again thank Jesse, Kevin, George and the entire participating group from organizers, volunteers and participants for again bringing a warmth to my heart with their outward display of great giving back to this region. You can bet without a doubt I will be back in 2013, just save me an opening, because I am ready, willing and able to again participate in such a great charitable adventure.

Bloggers’s Note: I want to apologize to Jesse and Kevin for the delay of this post. When my laptop went down, I was afraid I had lost these photos, but I was able to pluck them from my dead hard drive and also post other photos to my free Flickr photostream. Again thank you for the memorable moment and I truly look forward to the 2013 edition of this great event.

Will Davis Wade into the Bullpen Pool?

The one thing that always seems constant in baseball is change. I know that sounds more like a comedic riddle you might hear on a sit-com, but it is too true in baseball. The game is an ever-changing microbes always feasting on the element of change and forcing its hand whenever possible. So why doesn’t Tampa Bay Rays starter Wade Davis go with that flow and at least have an open mind to possibly taking a short-term stint in the Rays Bullpen. What is the worst thing that can happen?

For one thing, he could like it and not want to ever go on that every 5 day ritual. Seriously, the balking and chatter now coming out of the avid bear hunter sounds a lot like the same vowel and constants that were uttered by former southpaw J P Howell when the Rays brought up the same idea back in 2008 after a few horrendous outings. So far the change of rituals seemed have done wonders for Howell.

Sure it will take some getting used to, and adjusting of both your schedule and workout regimen to get you into a habit of getting your arm loose in ½ the time, and basically being “on-call” for all 162 games. But it beats the alternative of alienating a Coaching staff that likes your work ethic, applauds the way you approach the game by suddenly not wanting to embrace a change that could benefit not only you, but the Rays chances over the course of a season.

And maybe the Rays want you to take that lone spot of long reliever that usually is vested to a player who has a starter mentality, but also has the cunning and wilds of a reliever. Buck up bow hunting camper, you got the intestinal fortitude and the determination to not only own this spot, but make the position your own, and possibly find yourself destined for another path that could reward you greatly in the future.

It is not like the Rays are trying to convert you into the closer role like they did Esteban Yan or Seth McClung and you find yourself in a fun house of emotions and transitions trying to switch back and forth from starter to reliever to starter again before your arm either falls off, or your confidence hit empty. Look at it as a blessing, a bit of a seasonal vacation that could again produce a starting gig if fellow fishing/hunting buddy Jeff Niemann falls off the healthy wagon again in 2012.

Take it as a time to explore an option that might surface again in your latter baseball years and see if it has a nook or cranny that fits your style of baseball before spouting off or acting like the upset teen on that 16 hour trip in the backseat. I have faith in you Wade. You have shown time and time again to adjust on the mound between innings, the Rays are now asking if you might adjust through a course of a month to accept a new assignment, a new adventure, a possibility of a change in your long-term baseball livelihood.

Who knows, you might get out on that mound in the bottom of the 6th or 8th inning with a lead and just as quickly the competitive juices within you take over and you strike out the side and flash a smile on the way to the dugout rail. Just give it a chance. It is not a gurgling hot tub that will burn you up, it is a switch in-game situations and mannerisms. Heck, think about that 600 pound bear you bagged a few years ago and go after each hitter with authority if it helps you get the job done.

Just wade into the pool, check the water out and see if you can make the adjustments, ritual changes and quick muscle relaxation needed by today’s reliever corps. If you have any problems, there is always that “dude” down near the end of the Bullpen who also fought kicking and screaming when he first made the move to the Bullpen. Now you can’t keep J P away from the Bullpen. Try it for a bit, you might possibly find out it suits you better than starting, and has less stress and still pays you the same….kind of like a “win-win” situation.

Rays Fan Fest 2012 was a Walk-Off Grand Slam

Pulling off an event the size of Rays Fan Fest must keep some within the confines of the Tampa Bay Rays 4th floor sleepless, anxious and maybe a bit stir-crazy at times. Hundreds of emails, untold hours of planning, confirmations and re-confirmation must make it a logistical nightmare that rivals a major NCAA bowl game. All this energy, physical exertion and mental numbness accumulating with a huge bang over a 7 hour period.

If the crowd was any indication, then this year’s Fan Fest might be a precursor to another extraordinary Rays MLB run to who knows what new plateau. The building felt different when I entered on Saturday. Maybe it was the simple fact I was not in the first wave of fans for a change, or maybe it is the electricity and anticipation that was heavy in the air as I strutted into the tilted roof home of the Rays. Everything seemed bolder, more vibrant, more animated this year.

From the MLB Alumni wiffle ball contest that featured a Grand Salami by the Big O, former Marlin Orestes Destrade or the presence of former HR slugger Roger Maris’s son and grandson, the Trop just seemed more colorful and ready for exploration. With the added Internet celebrity factor and exclamation point in the wiffle ball contest of Sean Steffy (@Wiffleball28) who is better known as the world’s greatest wiffle ball pitcher. I was transfixed on the game even as Travis Phelps had an HR dashed by the big hands of Eric Knott. It was great to see kids running the bases, all smiling, giggling and giving up high-fives to the former MLB players.

As some people mumbled and grumbled about the $50 autograph wristband, it was not lost to me that the event helped build a nest egg of over $100,000 for the Rays Baseball Foundation and the ALS Association Florida Chapter. From Rays skipper Joe Maddon and his new dark brown locks to even hearing Kyle Farnsworth reading to children without any intimidation, the event truly was one for the record books. And the crowd expanded to bulging capacity more than once as travel around the Trop during this Fan Fest was very packed in, but respectful.

The event even had more than a hint of animal presence as the Rays new mascot DJ Kitty got his first moment on the AstroTurf, and Rays SP David Price brought his canine wing-man Astro to the event, which sparked photos, conversations and general smiles from people of all ages. DJ Kitty sporting his trademark huge Rays 2008 AL Championship ring has evolved a lot since his first appearance on the Rays Jumbotron. Now he will be another added fan experience at Rays game along with Raymond.

The kid’s Interactive zone was packed with excited kids, parents and Rays staff member as pint-sized future Rays dashed through obstacle courses, threw pitches or try to hit one into the LF seats in the wiffle ball field. During all of this Rays players made spot appearances at the basketball game, the High-Five Station at the end of the Run the Bases event, plus talked to friends, family or just anyone you chose at the Metro PCS Call-A-Friend table.

I still marvel at how much the Pepsi displayed have also become a spectacle ever since I erected the first one back in 2004 on the field. It has become a feature backdrop not only for the Rays/Pepsi Fan Wall of Fame inductions, but for panel discussions and fan interaction with Rays players and personnel. From my first mild-mannered 1,000 case display to the present monstrosity on caffeine, it was again a constant background for photos and memorable pictures with kids and fans. Everywhere you looked on this day you saw smiles, people exchanging greetings and awaiting the new 2012 season with enthusiasm and glee.

This event for so many signals the end of Winter and the insurgence of not only Spring, but the renewal of our favorite game. Fan Fest means so many things to so many. Some came for the great deals on collectibles and autographed items in the two selected areas of sales merchandise. From team authenticated items near the old stick ball court beyond the left field seats to the huge outlying of items in the usual Corona Beach section, there was something for every Rays fan, even an old cap commemorating the Rays 2004 trip to the Far East (I bought one).

I secluded myself in my usual post 1 pm section near the entrance point for the Rays players in Section 134 not only to say hello and greet some of the Rays long and new faithful back to the Trop, but to also see their faces as they came up the tunnel and saw that huge amassed crowd. To a t, the players all seemed to take an extra second at the top of the stairs to take in the whole spectacle and immerse themselves in this great Rays Fan Fest vibe.

I even got a chance to see the first meeting of Rays new DH Luke Scott and owner Stuart Sternberg just beyond the Rays autograph area. Sternberg who few down from New York especially for the event must have a sore face today from all of the smiling and love shown by the fans at this year’s event. Some say this season is critical to the Rays future success in the region, and if the crowd is any indication, baseball is alive and well in Tampa Bay.

I could also see from my vantage point the smiles on Rays staffers from Fan Hosts to the Rays Promotions Department as the hum of voices and energy in the Trop inhaled and exhaled throughout the day. I gazed down the Rays promotional schedule and saw more than a few “must-have” items that not only peaked my interest, but had some sentimental appeal. Who would not want a Evan Longoria mini drum set, or hold onto a Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore or DJ Kitty figurine. From the Rays Opening Day schedule magnet to their last promotion of the season, the Rays fan favorite bobblehead, this is definite another Walk-off win ( do not forget the Longo Walk-off figurine on 4/21) for this Rays Department.

This season’s Fan Fest was a monster. Both in attendance, the level of excitement and even the plucking of Rays host Rusty Kath with a wiffle ball that is sure to be a Youtube sensation (currently only 74 views, but climbing). From Sternberg down to the Rays interns, there has to be an added level of excitement and confidence heading into Tuesday’s report date for Pitchers and Catchers in Port Charlotte, Florida. If this Fan Fest is any indication, it could be a great season both on and off the field for the Rays organization. And it all started with this annual rite of Spring by the Rays. I am giddy to see what unfolds next.

 

Random Rays Fan Fest photos on my Flickr photostream

Rays Fan Fest Autograph Times

I promised a few of you I would post the Tampa Bay Rays Fan Fest autograph participants and their relative time online as soon as humanly possibly. Well, they came out earlier today and of course I was in the middle of working for a living. So without further ado, here is the tentative autograph time for the Rays players to sign at this years Fan Fest.

Do not forget, if you want to participate in the Exclusive Signing Opportunity ($200-500), you have until midnight tonight to make your purchase for this special event away from the usual hustle and bustle of Fan Fest.

Table 1 Table 2 Table 3 Table 4 Table 5
10:30 – 11:30 a.m. Ryan Reid Tim Beckham Jeff Keppinger Ricky Orta Kyle Farnsworth
11:30 – 12:30 p.m. Brandon Guyer Burke Badenhop Robinson Chirinos Brandon Gomes Matt Mangini
12:30 – 1:15 p.m. J.P. Howell Matt Joyce Wade Davis Sean Rodriguez Jose Molina
1:15 – 1:45 p.m. Evan Longoria Don Zimmer Jeremy Hellickson (open) (open)
1:45 – 2:30 p.m. Chris Archer Carlos Peña Desmond Jennings Alex Cobb Matt Moore
2:30 – 3 p.m. B.J. Upton (open) (open) James Shields David Price
3. – 4 p.m. Luke Scott Fernando Rodney Cesar Ramos Jose Lobaton Josh Lueke
4. – 4:45 p.m. (open) Nevin Ashley Romulo Sanchez Stephen Vogt Craig Albernaz
** Schedule subject to change

To My Favorite Valentine….Baseball

It gets me all giddy inside. The anticipation, the excitement, the thrill of knowing one of my greatest loves in this World is only days away. Baseball to me is my first and only true love who has stood the test of time. Others like the NFL, NHL and defunct NASL lost their luster and soon were just memories tuck into darken alcoves within my mind.

Someone asked me today why I have such a deep devotion and love for this game. The same one that can have you on the edge of your seat one moment, then crashing down in disbelief in another. Well, to be honest my long time love for this game started a long time ago in a series of batting cages that have long since been replaced by residential blight. My first memory of the game was going to the miniature golf course on S. Pasadena Ave across from my dad’s friend Jim Brook’s gas station going 18 holes then getting into a cages to hit some balls.

My first field I ever played baseball on as a 8 year old was a back lot clay and semi-grassed enclave at the Little League Regional Headquarters just between Gulfport and St. Petersburg, Florida. It was here I first had a grounder come up and bite me in the nose (broke it), experienced the joy of hitting a ball as far as I could throw it, and made my first head-first slide. It was a couple years later when I played in the concrete arena (stadium) and against some poor kid I slugged one out of the park and onto the railroad tracks that ran just North of the stadium.

My love for the game started young. I did not know the true exploits of Don Zimmer and Stan Musial who used to come to my father gas station and fill up their cars during the Gas Wars era. They would throw the ball with me a bit after I did their windshields and checked their oil and air in their tires, but I shudder now in disbelief I did not venture into my baseball books or research the Sunday paper’s stats sheet to know of their greatness.

I still hold that same young kid within me every time I enter Tropicana Field or venture out to Spring Training practices or games. I still carry the glove more for sentimental reasons than to catch a BP or foul ball. Heck for years my glove sitting on that green painted metal pipe that ran down the concrete wall in Section 138 was more of a fixture than me sitting in my Season Ticket seat. I still thrill when a ball comes in hot with sound streaming off it and hear the “pop” of the glove as I grip it or feel a sting from its impact. Usually a kid near me is the final recipient of the ball as I have many now, and want to give other that same thrill and love of this grand game.

Maybe that is why this game has never soured for me, even during those awkward first 9 years of the Rays when victories were slim and frustrations mounted within my belly wanting something special to happen like stealing a win on a walk-off or shutting a high power offense via a display of power by striking out the side for the save. The sound of the ball off the bat still sends my heart a-flutter, watching a player run towards a ball at the wall and leaping either to crash on the wall or come down with that white sphere within his grasp still excites me to no end.

My favorite baseball movie is still “For the Love of the Game”. Not for the aspect of a pitcher throwing the game of his life on his last outing, but the flooding of baseball memories that will be fodder for conversations and trips down memory lane for the rest of his life. The recent upturn of the Rays fortunes since 2008 have kept me wishing and wanting for more, hopefully seeing a ticker tape parade and being able to kiss or hold that glorious golden trophy myself as so many other greats of this game.

I am about to hit the big 5..2, and now am starting to get into a baseball frame of mind and physical state to some day possibly play with the Kids and Cubs down near Vinoy Park. Sure at that stage in my advanced level of baseball skills I will not be the speed demon I was in college, or even hit one 327 feet down the line, but the chance to play baseball with people like myself who’s kinship with this game has not waned or been shackled would be not only a tremendous thrill, but another thing to make off my lifetime Bucket List.

Baseball holds a huge part of me firmly within its grasp, and on a day when loves rules the air, ground and seas I consider myself blessed to have discovered this game, cherished its traditions and idiosyncrasies to a T, not blinking an eye in the process. On this constructed day of affection and bliss it is time for me to again profess my undying devotion and honest commitment to always be there for the game, take the good with the bad and cherish the moments as if they were my last. The valentine is usually a heart-shaped reminder of love, commitment.

For me that symbol is a diamond that encompasses four 90 foot sections, it is the sounds and actions played out upon that perfect field among those young at heart who remember their first hit, throw and cherish it always just as myself. The elements of my valentine fits in my fist, with 9 inches of circumference covered with white cowhide and red stitching. I swear when I leave this Earth they will open me up and find a pearly white baseball where my heart should be…..Or at least I hope they do.

Happy Valentines Day

2012 Toby Hall & Friends Celebrity Golf Classic

Professional athletes have a special format and platform to help educate and introduce us to charities and organization that are among us that without their support or enlightenment might go unnoticed or suffer financial downfalls and possible extinction. This is one of the many reasons I have chosen to be a part of the annual Toby Hall and Friends Celebrity Golf Classic. Well, that and helping out one of my true baseball friends.

His 2012 event again was overflowing with support from the baseball and sports community of Tampa Bay. From the Tampa Bay Lightning to former and current athletes coming together to help support Hall and The Miracle League, the event was a winner from the arrival of the first golfer. This year the event took on a different feel for me. Hall had announced his official retirement as a player earlier in the year, and now his focus and determination was focused and pin-pointed towards helping those organizations that touched at his heart strings.

I also took on a different face within the classic this year as I was on the opposite end of the camera lens taking photos of some of the golfing pairings, and getting some unseen shots while accompanying Hall and his entourage around the course during the days events. It was great to see former Tampa Bay sports icons like Tampa Bay Bucs RB Mike Alstott, T E Dave Moore, K Martin Gramatica. and the Bucs mega fan Big Nasty made the region’s football presence known at the event. Other NFL participants were Kansas City Chiefs TE Anthony Becht and former Jets, Bengals and Bucs OL Matt O’Dwyer.

As usual, the Major League Baseball community both in Tampa Bay and with a bevy of former Rays made the bulk of the events celebrity attendees, each bringing their own spin and special moments to the event. Current members of the Rays showing their support for the former Rays backstop included SP David Price who formed Team Price along with teammates SS Reid Brignac and CF B J Upton. Also attending the event was SP James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb and RF Matt Joyce who all acted as celebrity golfers in the classic’s pairings.

But Rays players were not the only one having fun on the links this day, Rays Third Base Coach Tom Foley, former Pitching Coach Chuck Hernandez, Bench coach Bill Evers, former Rays Hitting Coach Steve Henderson and former Rays OF and current Montgomery Biscuits Coach Ozzie Timmons made their rounds Thursday. Former Rays bat boy and current Toronto Blue Jays P Jesse Litsch was also on hand as well as FSN Sports and Rays Television broadcast man-on-the-move Todd Kalas who came out to support the event plus performed some spontaneous Awards Dinner MC work that inspired the evenings auctions.

Several other former Rays and long time supporters of the classic which included a pair of new Chicago Cubs, LHP Trever Miller and RP Andy Sonnanstine, plus new Indians RP Dan Wheeler who made their annual show of support for their former teammate. Former Rays backstop Gregg Zaun again brought his humor and great vibe to the event along with Washington Nationals OF Jason Michaels who again brought his unique putter and local radio “babe” and original Hooters icon Lynne Austin who I still owe a Bloody Mary. Local NBA icon and restaurant owner Matt Geiger also showed his tall and big presence on the links.

It was a great day on the greens and fairways and I had a great time talking and shooting the breeze with many of the celebrities and amateurs who took to the links. With great weather and great bonding on the golf course, the night’s final event brought the whole day to an eventual climax. Along with the raffles and awards presentation, Hall then introduced a group that had touched more than his heart strings to the assembled crowd.

Hall spoke of his recent introduction to another great baseball related group called Buddy Baseball that pairs a volunteer with a special needs player and they bond both on and off the field. His emotional moment touched so many in the crowd, and showed us another great organization to not only keep an eye on, but help develop into the successful model The Miracle League has become around the Tampa Bay area. Hall presented the group with a $ 4,000 check on this night, and with it came a rush of emotions all over the room and with the players and staff.

So many of the works and events that athletes do both in Tampa Bay or around the country do not get their “just desserts” within the local media. I volunteer for these events every Spring not to glamorize the athletes involved, but hope to inspire and promote others within the region to also join the path to helping these organizations have continued success and expansion into other Tampa Bay regions. Knowing that Hall has included the Baseball Buddies group now with The Miracle League charity it is a great moment for special needs kids and adults around the Tampa Bay area to have that unique baseball experience and enjoy the game.

Post Script:

I will be posting all my additional photos of the 2012 Toby Hall & Friends Celebrity Golf Classic on my Flickr page (Rays Renegade) if you might desire to re-post or download a photo for your own.

Toby Hall’s (Surprise) Retirement Party

It was suppose to be a pairing party in advance of the 2012 Toby Hall and Friends Celebrity Golf Classic. It was suppose to be one of those meet and greet opportunities for the duffers to meet other members of their foursome, and also celebrate another awesome tournament. That was the plan Toby Hall had in his mind before he entered the Courtside Grille last night.

Instead it became an impromptu Retirement Party complete with the obligatory pine wooden rocking chair that party invitees were asked to sign and give their well wishes to Hall as he embarks on other adventures in his post MLB life like watching his kids grow up, and devote more time to his charity and other worthwhile endeavors. It was an event I did not want to miss.

There were people coming out of the proverbial woodwork for this honor like former Rays owner Vince Namoli who looked very relaxed and had even lost a few pounds. Former Rays Pitching Coach Chuck Hernandez came to the event as well as former Rays Bullpen Coach Glenn Ezell and current Bullpen Catcher/Enforcer Scott Cursi. The showing of support from former players on a night usually reserved for the menial task of assigning pairings was a complete success.

 In the crowd was also former Rays OF Randy Winn, Toronto Blue Jays Pitcher/ Rays Bat boy Jesse Litsch, hurler Boof Bonser and Tampa Bay Bucs Defensive Back Ronde Barber. On the screens around the bar played a photo montage of Hall’s days both at Triple-A Durham, Tampa Bay and his stint with the White Sox. Food was plentiful, drinks were flowing and the room held a great vibe of well wishes and a few well placed cards and present for Hall and his family.

As the pairing were being announced, it was immediately noticeable that this season’s tournament had a few extra Rays names being bellowed out like P David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, SS Reid Brignac, CF B J Upton, RF Matt Joyce along with Rays farm Coach Ozzie Timmons, Jason Michaels and the always entertaining Gregg Zaun. Former Rays RP Trever Miller, Dan Wheeler Andy Sonnanstine, Rays Coaches Tom Foley and George Hendricks plus that strapping young lad, FSN Florida/Rays traveling ambassador of good times Todd Kalas. The event seems to have exploded this season with the addition of several Rays player who will be first time attendees this year. The show of great support for Hall and his main charity, the Miracle League should make this the best tournament turnout and fundraising in the Toby Hall Foundation’s history.

It was a great time to show our admiration and respect for a player who gave his all for the Rays, and is still considered the best to ever squat behind the plate. Hall may be leaving the game a bit earlier than he expected, or wanted, but his foundation, his children and his wife will be more devoted attention. If Hall takes to his retirement that way he called games and hit at the plate, then he will again be hitting for the fences. Go get ‘em Toby!

Anxiously Awaiting the Rays Report Date

I do not know about you, but the next 14 days will surely seem like trying to get that last drop of molasses out of that stupid bottle. For as the climax and celebration of Super Bowl is finally beginning to get out of our ears and thoughts, now the baseball world begins to get their Spring priorities right and think of the American Pastime. With the last bit of cool crispness in the air, it will be time to pound a few dozen balls into newly oiled mitts and try out a few new pitch variations, and hopeful improvements.

14 days until the Tampa Bay Rays again try to mess up the status quo among the American League East. 14 days until we see what Rays starter Jeff Niemann has up his sleeve to make this team fall in love with him again and possibly jettison another piece of the Rays rotation puzzle to a destination unknown. Or will the magic that Rays rookie Matt Moore displayed in late September and October translate into a slot on the MLB roster, or a few months vacation in Durham until Niemann’s first anticipated soreness issue. This could only start a countdown for Rays SP Wade Davis too as teams are watching his every move as the Rays are surely going to have to make at least 1 painful starting pitching decision before the Rays Opening Day on April 6th.

14 days until we find out if new Rays RP Fernando Rodney will take a moment with Rays starter James Shields and try to get a fresh prospective and grip on his Change-Up. Shields would seem to be the perfect candidate for Rodney to chum up to considering his variable speed pitch is considered one of the best in the majors.

14 days until we see if the off-season was the time needed for Rays leftie J P Howell to again become “the Dude” providing long curves and a renewed vigor and vitality to his fastball, possibly topping 89 MPH by the season’s start. I truly hope and want Howell to have a revitalized Spring, or he might be re-named “ The Dud”. Along with Howell, there is considerable chatter on if the Rays will again hold onto 3 southpaws which could mean a trip to the minors or elsewhere for fellow left-handers Cesar Ramos ( no options) and Jake McGee (1 option).

14 days until we see who out of the Rays young backstop stable of Jose Lobaton or Robinson Chirinos want the Rays back-up gig and produce defensive gems and offensive dreams from a position with loads of talent, but lacking in MLB catching experience. That will also be the moment we see just how much in the gas tank for “the other Molina” Jose. Will he excel at the Rays weak spot in the batting order, or become another Rays casualty destined to watch the young bucks get the starts while he mends.

14 days until we see the sophomore effort of Hellboy take place. Will he again find his demonic rhythm that had everyone in baseball envying the upstart Rays? Can Hellboy improve on his walk to strikeout ratio, and more importantly improve on his ground ball ratio to let his great defense behind him help him gain victories and accolades. Will the young right-hander finally become comfortable in his 3-slot knowing he can be a series exclamation point behind the two top aces, Shields and David Price.

14 days until we see if Price can gain some consistency by not trying to change grips during a game and totally trusting the grips that got him to points in games without diverting from the game plan by toying with his art. 2012 will also be the season where Price can either gain a foothold on immortality by posting numbers worth of his new salary and being that stop gap starter that should be the Opening Day starter and player who can get that needed win.

14 days until we can see if the “B-brothers”, RP Brandon Gomes and ex-Fish Burke Bradenhop can secure roster spots with an impressive Spring. Also on our minds firmly in 14 days will be the talent escalation of the 2 “Alexs”, Cobb and Torres. Each throwing from a different side, but each wanting a roster slot and a chance to show their worth to the Rays this Spring. Coming into the Spring it seems Gomes has a clear shot, but as we all know, things can change before the calendar changes to April. All 4 players mentioned in this paragraph have minor league options, and the Rays could play a game of “mix-and-match” early on during the season with any of the 4 spending time both in St. Petersburg and Durham.

Also firm in the Rays Republic’s mind is the elbow health of Kyle Farnsworth who put up career numbers in 2012, but had a few episodes with soreness that some thought was a pre-cursor to possible Tommy Johns. 14 days the Rays will see if his off-season rehabilitation and strengthening program brought results or more of the same.

I truly think the Rays have aligned themselves with 3 closers now, who could all be used in certain situations and firmly close the door on the opposition. Farnsworth and Rodney might have the early nods, but I truly think Joel Peralta is going to be the thunder under the dome this season. I saw a spark of it late in 2012 when Farnsworth sat due to his soreness, Peralta showed beyond a shadow of a doubt he could inherit or be destined as the Rays closer. I thought he might ascend to that spot in 2011, but in-synch with Farnsy, the two became a consistent 1-2 late inning punch for the Rays.

14 days when I will be personally sad not to see former Rays Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos giving off a loud belly laugh as he heads to the practice fields. It will seem odd, but new Bullpen Savant Stan Boroski not only has the credentials, but the familiarity with this Rays staff moving from his Assistant Pitching Coach role to an on-the-field mentor to the Rays staff.

14 days until we see if young catching prospects Nevin Ashley and Stephen Vogt can turn a few Rays heads, possibly moving their own name up the Rays depth chart with impressive Springs, maybe even outing one of the present favorites for a back-up role. Ashley and Vogt have the offensive chops to be with the Rays, but with the catching corps becoming clouded in 2011 with extra pieces and rehabbing players, they might have slipped out of the Rays minds as future weapons.

14 days until at 10 am the gates open and we embrace “officially the Rays 15th season in the Bigs. 15 years where coming into this point in the season there were tons of questions with few answers. This season there are tons of answers with clarifying questions dotting the landscape…for now. Port Charlotte comes alive when the team get back into town. The sky seems bluer, the air has a nice crispness to it and the grass awaits their footprints. 14 days until we can again firmly boast, and await our 2012 Rays. Look, already 15 minutes closer as you finish reading this post.

I Have Empathy for Josh Hamilton

There are legions of fans around Major League Baseball worried, anxious and fearful of the recent events that have cast a dark shadow around Texas Ranger slugger Josh Hamilton. Some will cast the disconnected and justification analogy that it was “only a few beers”, while others who have fought addictions in the past know it is a steep decline once you let an old evil habit invade your recovery efforts, even for a slight moment.

The incident actually happened earlier in the week in a Dallas area watering hole, well within the eyesight of the community that has taken Hamilton in as one of their own and showered him with respect, admiration and support for his past addiction downfalls. I wan to, but I can’t blame the barkeep who set down that first temptation in front of Hamilton, it was Josh’s job to push it away with authority at that moment. Instead he heeded that temptation.

There is a reason most addicts believe there will be trials, tribulations and stumbling points along their journey to sobriety and abstinence. Addictive personalities are said to be hereditary, but I also know they are socially birthed. Commercials have glamorized certain adult beverages as social tools, useful instruments to become accepted, wanted and even desired. Its intoxicating effect can be alluring not only by taste but by the legions of people around you also downing this same elixir and providing the same cause and effect dance of “Adult beverage+People=Fun times”.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Most of us know this verse as the “Serenity Prayer”, adopted by 12-step programs, Alcoholics Anonymous and other addiction clinics. In fact this was an unnamed prayer originally penned by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr during a sermon in 1943. Some might say they are simple words with elegant phrasing and the promise of strength, resolute and courage.

Addiction can be a mean and vengeful mistress. She doesn’t take responsibility for her actions, she tries to destroy even the most basic family unit and devoid s life’s simplest aspirations, and she tries to run your life by blinding our minds and bodies into another addictive realm always oblivious to the chaos and destruction she has produced. She is a malignant disease that has to be constantly tamed, trapped and secured, or she can en gulp you again with spite and vengeance

People might downplay the importance of the public and Hamilton’s inner circle forgiving him and accepting his tumble, but it is imperative he hears those well wishes, being embraces with encouraging comments by fans, friends and family to show firm affirmation that his efforts and struggle with his demons are respected. Acceptance can sometimes be the thin threads towards abstinence when fighting addictions

In the next few days Hamilton will probably board a plane for NYC, meet with the MLB’s staff and medical experts to again pull his life within the lines. Who knows the path from there. Whether the final outcome be more treatments, rehab or even time away from the game to gain fortitude and conviction again, Hamilton has the embrace of the baseball community during his fight.

Addicts accept within themselves that they could be tempted and fail. It is a reality they try and shutter out, but it is a situation that can pounce at every corner and segment of their lives. Internal strength, conviction and the knowledge of others behind your efforts means the world to someone struggling with addictions. I see addiction as a secondary passenger within us. It is inactive within us, then come out in moments of weakness hoping to capitalize when our walls are down and our emotions steeped to the rim of the glass.

I have admired Hamilton since the first time I met him. I was in the Rays Clubhouse in St. Petersburg, Florida delivering Pepsi products when Hamilton took the field again after MLB and the Rays gave him a chance to be a recovering role model and a ball player again. I truly believe the measure of a man is not how fast he gets up off the canvas when life sucker punches him, but how he takes that event and transforms it into a learning experience, and an enlightening moment for others to also use for inspiration.

If you haven’t picked up on it by now, I spent 6 months in a local drug program Straight Incorporated in my mid-teens. Addiction caught me spinning out of emotional control , bewildered and confused after a sequence of events from my father’s death and the euthanasia of my friend/dog Hansel plus the pressures of being a budding athlete. People wonder why I rarely drink a beer at games, now you know. I do tempt myself, but I think I have it under control…until I don’t.

I hope Josh knows there are people like me out here wanting the best for him. Hoping for the tendencies and addictive triggers to be invisible or vanquished.  I hope Josh knows with clarity people like me will extend their hands to help in any way…Empathy has a way of helping you do that for others, especially your baseball friends.

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