March 2012

Rays + Laughter = Pure Magic

Coming into Spring Training, the Tampa Bay Rays have 20 of the 25 members of the 2011 squad back for another chance at the brass ring. That fact by itself is amazing, but considering the youth and talent of this group, that could also be a seasonal occurance for a while. And with that familiarity of the personnel comes a consistency, a confidence and most of all a bond that almost nothing can break.

Humor seems to be the bond of this young squad. From veteran 1B Carlos Pena producing a small masterpiece with resident comedian C Steven Vogt impersonating Rays skipper Joe Maddon to a nationwide acknowledgment of this talented group off the turf by INF Eliot Johnson as he nails ESPN’s resident leprechaun Tim Krukjian, humor rules the Rays roost.

From their great road trip ensembles of years past, to their annual Spring talent reveal, this Rays team knows the value of a giggle, belly laugh or even a practical joke. That lends a lot to a young team fighting for an identity. It bonds each member a bit tighter together and with that comes a more refined unity needed over the grueling 162 game schedule.

No matter if it is a joke, a story or even a off-the-cuff impression, the antics this young team does in the dugout, clubhouse or even in public shows they do not take themselves too seriously and know their day job comes with stress, but comic relief is only a conversation away.

Some might not guess, but this humor also keeps peop-le in check. How can we all forget the sunflower seed shower given to Rays P David Price during a live interview in 2011 when fellow hurler James Shields decided Price needed a bit of props/sunflower seeds for the interview process. I still chuckle at the mention of this event because it firmly illustrates the loose vibe in this clubhouse and the players ability to not take themselves so seriously.

Laughter by itself is also a great indicator of the closeness and unity of this Rays squad. For to laugh at yourself or others and take it with a grain of salt is the measure of this team grasping the reality that every win is critical, but sometimes steams has to be let off, and laughing is better than a more votatile alternative.

Joking around both before, during and after the game has been around for as long as players have taken to the diamond. It is a productive way to let off steam, do karma patrol action to players who’s follies might be known or personal as well as keep themselves loose and ready for anything. As long as this team stays in this humerous state, I think this team can go as far as their on the field talents take them. But if the laughter tends to cease in the clubhouse and on the field, then it is time to worry about these guys.

Et Tu Boras

 

It was just a matter of following the advice I was given. Right now I think that was the best thing for me to do and now I’m ready to play baseball” – Jeremy Hellickson

Some might see this title and think I have lost my frickin’ mind. That for some reason I can intertwine the fabled Ides of March within the scope of Spring baseball and somehow make it all click. Maybe I am being a bit overprotective, possibly seeing imaginary phrases and wording that emulate a future disaster of fiscal proportions, but the above comment seems  a bit too familiar, too bland to be without an ounce of peril.

Most of the time when I see a comment like that I do not read behind the words. I do not try to find any puppet strings or hidden earpieces, but then again only a handful of current Tampa Bay Rays players have slick willie agent Scott Boras conveniently stored on speed dial. Maybe it is Boras well-known snake-in-the-grass reputation and past darkened dealings that have me questioning his latest “wisdom” to Hellickson, or maybe I am waiting for the other cleat to fall.

Maybe it is the Rays recent stamp of approval on a 2012 salary of $ 489,000 for Hellickson that has me wondering what Boras is up to considering he let his client leave an extra $5,000 on the table by not accepting the Rays 2012 salary offering of $ 494,000. Possibly it is a bit of my own paranoia kicking in full steam knowing that agents do not give approval for decreased contract numbers unless there is an ulterior motive, or future planned détente or some sunshine at the end of their own rainbows.

Maybe it is Boras past track record that makes you automatically think there is an underlying darkness or positioning when a Boras client takes less money, or the cold reality that Hellboy is firmly entrenched with the Rays barring a trade request, and the Rays hold a few cards of their own knowing Hellickson doesn’t go to off-season salary arbitration for a while. For some reason Boras playing nice has me worried and sweating right now.

Winning the 2012 American League Rookie of the Year award should have gotten Hellboy at least a sizable bump in pay besides a $ 5,000 bump. That fact by itself makes me wonder what Boras has up his sleeve. Could Hellickson’s advisor be playing nice right now knowing the Rays will have a number of hard fiscal decision to make in the Winter of 2012, possibly making Hellboy even more valuable Rays pitching commodity. That definitely make leaving some Rays chump change on the table at this moment more appetizing to Boras who knows fully that this recent show of good faith will only appreciate in future value.

 Hellboy’s cool and calm demeanor even after his Spring debut suggests he is just operating as his management team advises him, and will go with the flow knowing good things are coming. If you have ever talked to Hellickson, he is not a protagonist, not an instigator or evil entity. Hellboy is a guy who can throw the ball with authority who wants to play this kid’s game as long as possible before heading off into the outside of baseball world. The biggest part of that menagerie is the pure fact someone has to be the heavy, and Boras fits that bill to a T.

My biggest worry right now is that Boras who knows the importance of good young pitching to this fiscally challenged Rays team is just waiting for his moment in the Sun to strike, like a coiled viper. And with that comes the backlash that Hellboy is ” difficult”, has over zealous management In the end, baseball is a business. Boras is trying to give his client good advice, provide for his future both as a player and beyond, plus take home a little something for his worries and sweat.

Boras is a master at give and take, possibly setting up a future dealing with a present back slide or quiet moment .Hellickson possibly signed with Boras knowing full well he does what is needed long and short-term for his clients no matter the collateral damage. I fear that not only will the Rays feel that cold steel in their ribcage, but the Rays Republic also will feel the pain and burn from this recent action.

My biggest concern is that Boras might exercise his influence over Hellickson at some point in the near future and the Rays will pay dearly for this one action in the Spring of 2012… all over some pile of money left on the table in March.

 


New Fire Churning in Upton’s Belly

I spoke with him at the 2012 Toby Hall & Friends Celebrity Golf Classic. He was excited, energetic and anxious to hit the field “officially”. I have to admit, over the last 4 Springs when I have talked to the Tampa Bay Rays CF  B J Upton, these phrases never came vividly into my mind.

Some will want to discount it immediately as Upton knowing he has to produce, make his name shine above the madness even before the Trade Deadline mark in late July. Other dark forces will destined it to Upton possibly entering his “walk” season knowing if he wants a big payday like former Rays LF Carl Crawford, now is the time to put the exclamation points after his name.

But with all that diverse and circumventing opinions and comments swirling around like the waters of the Rays Tank, I truly have a hunch that Upton finally feels a part of this team. Over the past 2 seasons his confidence inside the clubhouse has soared, and players now look to him for inspiration and pointers. Finally Upton seems to feel that veteran vibe, and it suits him, especially this Spring.

Say what you want on me pounding the drum hard for Upton, but his work ethic in the off-season, and his presence at Charlotte Sports Park even earlier than Pitchers and Catchers Report date shows his agenda firmly has the Rays best interest stamped prominently upon it. This is the Upton I have been waiting for to emerge and want to lead this young squad for a long time.

Of course it is only the first Spring contest, and all his pre-Spring rituals and workouts did play into his great start today against the Minnesota Twins on the Grapefruit League’s Opening Day.  You want to get really excited about Upton’s 2-for-2 day with a run scored, a double and a spirited triple to RCF. Possibly Upton has found that focus he has swatted away in the past, found terra firma in the Batter’s Box, finally feels confident and ready in his Rays skin. The next 33 days will fly by like the wind, and hopefully Upton can make the Rays Republic confident the 2012 edition of the B J Upton Show will be a “must see”  event.

As I talked to him on the 10th tee, Upton was excited that the Rays starting rotation would be all returning, and a few tweaks could make them even stronger for 2012. Was anxious to see if the MLB persona of Luke Scott was just an act, or if his psychological warfare and rampant dialogue was just the sort of things to rev the Rays machine somehow reminiscent of the energy and volatile emotions displayed in the past by ex-Rays wild child Jonny Gomes.

This is a guy who is harder on himself than any reporter or fan. Who knows his legacy has bruises, tarnished spots and some question his motives and intellect at times. But I truly feel by October we will have seen a different side of Upton at the plate, possibly making a lot of those darkened moments from the past washed off his reputation like the clay from his cleats. It is about time we get introduced to Upton, the team leader and not just the Rays resident scapegoat.

 

 

Blogger’s Note: It is that time of year again. Spring Training to also rid myself of the Winter fat and get my brain tuned in for baseball. I will attempt to stretch out my creative process, bring some new items to light and get into seasonal writing shape before the Rays officially open the season against the Evil Empire on April 6, 2012. Going to be rough, there are going to be tired moments, writer’s block and maybe even some moments where the whole process comes up resembling a no-hitter scorecard. But one thing is for sure, I am excited to again be writing about actual baseball and not hoping for it……Play Ball!!!!

Luke Scott-Motivational Rays Republic Speaker


I truly have to say it, I like the brash style displayed recently by new Tampa Bay Rays Designated Hitter Luke Scott. Some will say his recent Red Sox quotes went beyond the usual brash and pointed commentary that any usual Major League Baseball player will mutter. But didn’t he say bluntly state what most of us in the Rays Republic have come to know as fact from 1998 until 2008. Red Sox Nation arrogance ran rampant within the confines of Tropicana Field before the Rays squashed the red beating hearts in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. Before that moment, we were never considered the “team to beat” by Red Sox Nation. In that one moment, the momentum of confidence and commitment seemed to shift suddenly towards the Rays side of the rivalry fulcrum.

And whereabouts in Scott’s banter and rant did anything untrue rear its ugly head. Sure his voracious comments were a bit pointed, but competition and confidence breeds that sort of ramblings. And Scott has witnessed more than a few seasons of playing in the highly charged emotions that come with playing in the  AL East. I truly think Scott said what has been sequestered deep inside most of the Rays Republic’s guts for so long, and got the attention of everyone in baseball, not just the vocal and vindictive Red Sox Nation Army So now at least one Rays player’s true feelings are open for all to see, wonder who else in the Rays Clubhouse has these same volatile emotions churning in their gut.

I would be the last person you would ever consider “timid”, but the reality was I did take more than I gave from the Boston faithful in our earlier seasons. I  can attest to letting more than a few raspy Red Sox comments bounce off of me because we had not “walked that walk yet” aka the playoffs. Back then I know I gave an extra ounce of respect to the Red Sox Nation’s fans that came into Tropicana Field basically because we (the Rays) had not ventured into that sacred October dance. Now that scenario is null and void.

Of course the first factoid out of any self-respecting Red Sox fan would be they have more titles, even a World Series title while the Rays missed their chance in 2008. True, but  the Rays also do not have over 100 seasons of baseball to thrust our chests out about, and over the course of the last 4 MLB seasons the Rays have definitely put together more post seasons and more wins in the regular season. Think about that one for a long moment Bean town fans.

Now I am not proclaiming we are the ” team to beat”, I am announcing it. To get to the playoffs from now on, you have to win in Tropicana Field. You will have to post a winning slant in the seasonal series and either put your foot on our necks or pay the consequences.  Gone are the days of the timid and inexperienced Rays. 2012 will bring a more seasoned Rays crew that are eager and anxious to send more than a few more corks skyward towards the Trop’s Teflon roof. This is no longer your older brother’s Rays team, there is a new motivational sheriff in town and his name is Scott….Luke Scott.

No longer can Tropicana Field be considered, “Fenway South” where Red Sox unis and caps outnumbered the home folks. The Rays trademark cowbells now drown out overblown and arrogant “Let’s Go Red Sox” chants along with countless Boston baseball biblical facts which now fall upon deaf Rays Republic ears. The revolution has ended, and we are the home team now….and forever. Now, the Rays Republic has grown a pair, and can stand toe-to-toe with facts, figures and banners to prove we have arrived, and take our share of future titles and playoffs spots.

Sure Scott has a lingering history of being a bit abrasive, a bit of a vocal bully as it were, but maybe that is what this Rays teams needs. Maybe it is time for this team to transform into a squad that takes the mantra “No more Mr Nice guy” and begins to turn it up a notch, go for that ceremonial jugular and feast upon the weak and wicked. Maybe it is time for this Rays squad to become more evil, mean and nasty both on and off the field like their fellow Nor’eastern brethren.

Maybe here in our 15th Rays season it is time for the Rays Republic to remind themselves the Trop is our home turf and we should defend it’s honor.  Maybe it took someone like Scott to bellow to the heavens and remind us we do not play in “Fenway South”. That St. Petersburg, Florida is a  great travel destination where “opposing team’s winning chances go to die”. Maybe it is finally time for us to take our Southern hospitality and charm and stow it away for not only our Boston brethren who used to berate and basically us weak and worthless to eat those words as they sulk out of the Trop after another Boston loss.

Maybe Scott was the one Rays player’s voice needed to put that pronounced exclamation point back into our destiny of reclaiming our insurgence back into the spotlight in the AL East. So what if the MLB instituted a possible additional post season slot, the Rays are playing for the gold, not the bronze. 

Maybe Scott reminded us that the AL East competition starts now, in the Spring Training where the entire division rests on the west coast of Florida. Maybe his small seed of assertiveness will spawn and escalate throughout the next few months, finally maturing and vested come October. I am beginning to like Scott more than you can imagine, but then again, I am a Renegade.

E-10, Photographer Throw High and Wide on Rays Spring Photos

If the recent Tampa Bay Rays Team Spring photos is any indication, I am starting to think the Tampa Bay Rays 2012 season is going to be more back to the basic, nothing flashy or disrupting to the status quo of the “Rays Way”. Maybe I was anticipating a re-visit or renewal of the grandeur and glamor of the Rays 2010 Spring Team photos that took my breath away, and made you wanted to see more of them.

2010 Evan Longoria Photo

If the 2012 Team Spring photos are any indication, this season is going to be a bare bones, nose to the grindstone, no huge frills and spills kind of season…not that this is a bad thing, maybe I set my expectations too high this season. But then again, it is Spring and hope has to grow eternal and unbridled.

Sure the 41 photos recently uploaded to the Zimbio webpage by photographer Jonathan Ferrey had some unusual and classic poses within their compositions, but somehow a large glove-full of the Rays possible 2012 roster personnel missed their camera time with the Zimbio photog. At least we know Rays 3B Evan Longoria got a few extra shots. Maybe dating a Playmate does have some photo advantages, but a total of 13 individual photos? Longo is one of the cornerstones of this team’s offensive and defensive foundations, but so many other cogs of the machine are missing, lost their possible chance in this annual Rays ritual of Spring.

Jeff Salazar

Sure C Mark Thomas and OF Jeff Salazar who are both Rays Spring Training invitees got their respective mugs/poses on a photo, but missing were a huge slice of the Rays other core players like starter Wade Davis, Rays Bullpen members JP Howell, Brandon Gomes, Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, and newcomers Burke Badenhop and Josh Lueke.  Is it even imaginable that each and every one of these players somehow missed the vocal call for photos? Am I the only one who feels it is purely insane that 2011 American League Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson would have, could have somehow missed his 2012 photo chance, or was it a captive selection of players designated by the Zimbio photographer?

I have not even begun to scratch the surface of the possible MLB bolo report put out since the “Legend” Sam Fuld, infielders Jeff Keppinger, Ben Zobrist, and Eliot Johnson must have mis-placed their “memos” possibly on their photo chance. Even more disappointing is that Carlos Pena somehow missed the photo cut…Really?

Want another firm kick in the proverbial teeth, the only catcher featured in the photo shoot was Jose Molina, and that was only for 1 photo. Heck even Reid Brignac got more photos than Molina, and he is not guaranteed a starting slot. I know there is a growing army of female Rays followers who would love to see a recent photo of Robinson “Honey Nut” Chirinos or even Jose Lobaton, but they will have to drive to the Charlotte Sports Park and take their own this Spring.

Maybe I got used to the flash and glamor set forth by those 2010 photos that had every single member of the Rays squad, including the Coaching staff in some sort of pose or hitting posture with the added sun flare somewhere within the photo framing. Maybe I was expecting something grand, a statement by the Rays this season as they start their 15th season.

But there were some positives in this set of photos of the 2012 Rays. We got to actually see what top Rays prospect Hak-Ju Lee will look like in a Rays uniform. We already know Lee can dance, and his bat has some magic in it, but seeing him in the Rays whites definitely makes you eager and hoping for the Rays future shortstop to make some additional magic happen during his minor league season so we can see him in that uniform possibly in September.

Maybe I am nitpicking here a bit, but I have come to expect more, especially after that grand and fabulous 2009 Spring photo package. Heck, even Rays skipper Joe Maddon had a possible glamor shot in 2009 that to this day might be one of the best photos of the Rays newly extended Manager.

I possibly wanted something again to “pop” off the screen of my computer, wished for another set of dynamic photos taken that would get my blood pumping, the sweat beading around my cap and the Rays Republic making photo copies of the team photos for signatures in the future. Not sure if any of these Rays Spring photos will be seen on the sidelines before games in 2012. Certainly doubt it (shudder).

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