June 2012

Is Lobaton the Rays Catching Answer?

Still not sure Tampa Bay Rays catcher Jose Lobaton is the answer to the Rays catching deficiency. I thought heading into this season we could of seen the emergence of Lobaton finally taking the Rays reigns and leading this team, but time out rehabbing an early injury has stymied his maturation processes and left the Rays with a big void behind the plate.

Even now upon his return Lobaton has produced mixed results and possibly the Rays may be eying a few catching possibilities with the Trade Deadline just 5 weeks away. The possibility of Lobaton taking the majority of the starts behind the plate for the Rays is diminishing with each and every start he doesn’t impress or show production. The Rays have invested a lot of their faith in the Venezuelan former Water Polo player, but so far he has only slightly risen above the water crest and showed he can handle the full-time duty.

 Since his return from the disabled list, Lobaton over his 9 games has shown something the Rays have been lacking from their backstop position this season. Lobaton has seemed to have found his hitting groove sporting currently a .308 average and a nice.823 OPS. But even with his 8 hits, power is slowly coming to his game, almost to the point of being non-existent. And that is troubling to me since this spot in the Rays line-up needs to have that occasional “pop” and ability to keep pitchers honest with the top of the line-up just around the corner.

 
What is glaring to me in hindsight is the .091 average Lobaton sported during his rehab assignment as a possibly picture to what could evolve over the next 5 weeks. I shudder to think the Rays could handle or sustain any variance of Lobaton’s average getting anywhere near fellow catcher Jose Molina’s sub-par .183 batting average. If the Rays catching corp can not produce power numbers with any consistency over the next 5 weeks, changes will definitely be in the wind.

 I should just look at the bright side of it all that since Lobaton came off the DL, he has sported 4 hits and 2 RBI in comparison that he had produced previously only 4 hits and 2 RBI in his time in 2011. Possibly with Lobaton being 1 of only 2 Rays to even muster a hit off of Chicago White Sox pitcher Chris Sale when he dismantled the Rays offense, I can cut him a bit of slack for now.

 When Lobaton made the Rays Opening Day roster after a up and down Spring Training, I wanted to put eggs in his basket, hoping he had what this team has desired for a long time… a true leader and power behind the plate.

Possibly I’m expecting too much out of this young player in a short amount of time, but with the Rays season 1/3rd of the way completed, a positive force behind the plate could be instrumental in this team heading on a wins run that could prove to be the deciding factor come September.

 Lobaton’s throwing ability bothers me right now. Sure he as an adequate arm, but a .166 (1 of 6) Catcher’s Efficiency is not making me any more confident or supportive of his possible long-term reign behind the Rays plate. But maybe I just need to give the guy a chance, let him mature and expand into his role and revisit this again in 5 weeks. By then we will all know if the Rays have faith in his expanding leadership and bat, or if another body will man the dish with Lobaton possibly looking on from the dugout. I’m hoping personally the guy finds his way and shows why both the Rays and the fans have been awaiting his return.


So how wild is it that in the last two days the Tampa Bay Rays have seen themselves submarined into Third place in the American League East, then with 2 spirited wins vaulted again to the high ground leading this high-intensity division. Better get used to it Rays fans, because this roller coaster is going to be an endurance race, and with all things said and done, the Rays will make a few tumbles and rises before 2012 Game 162.

No other division in baseball can boast everyone of it’s members above the .500 mark, and teams that comes into every game with a legitimate chance of victory and staving off defeat at all costs. Pretty amazing if you think about it that a 5-team collection of members who go from the Penthouse of payroll spenders, to the most frugal talent investors in the majors all sit poised and ready for their own individual ascents and falls this season.

I believe this is the latest the Baltimore Orioles have held onto even a visual on the top spot in a long, long time. 4 victories currently separate worst from first. Amazing still is the simple fact if the Boston Red Sox create a victory over the Washington Nationals this weekend, the AL East will be the only division with all of its members sporting at least 30 victories. Think about that for a second, we are barely over the 1/3rd mark in the 2012 season and if this kind of pace keeps up, every member of the division could be on or about the 90 win mark in late September.

Sure some say the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays will begin their tumble soon, but what if they don’t? Could this be the season that the status quo in the AL East of the big money powerhouses being supplanted by the also-runs, or will the grind of the 162 game schedule finally makes it mark and possibly a former World Champion be looking upwards all season long wondering what they have to do to vault out of the cellar.

I truly believe it is going to be that kind of season in the AL East. The top spot will not be confined to Rays, O’s or even pinstripes, but be a game of tag with each having their moment at the top before someone comes and wants that throne again. Some say it will take a monstrous movement by the Red Sox to get back into this division, but 4 games is not a huge deficit, especially for a team with that kind of history of coming back from insurmountable odds and claiming a piece of the post-season pie.

I really do not count any of the five teams out from securing at least 2 of the post-season spots this year, but if this division keeps up its torrid pace of wins, possible 3 of the 4 slots could boast AL east contenders. But in reality, that is what most baseball people believe that extra Wild Card spot was created for, the AL East also-run who has the potential to win it all. Not trying to degrade or put down any of the other divisions in the American League, but currently each has 2 or 3 members hovering in the mid-to-high 20 win plus position at this time.

Sure the current standings favor the Rays, but any sort of losing streak, hot hitting and winning by any of these divisional rivals and the Rays could again go from the top spot to the Bronze medal in less than 2 days. Each of these 5 members of the AL East want their name printed at the top tier, and if this current pace keeps up, each could have their moment in the Sun before the season fully unwinds.

Do not underestimate the Orioles or Blue Jays. Both clubs have their own weapons currently either healing or developing that could decide their final positions, and with the Trade Deadline less than 5 weeks away, one could make a move that solidifies their contention, or produce an inevitable free fall.

Historically this division has been closely contested and positions changed nightly until the eve of the All-Star break. We have seen either of the birds (O’s or Jays) sport a lofty spot in the standing only to see them fall from grace around that moment in the schedule. For some reason deep down I think 2012 will show a change to that pattern.

Possibly the pesky birds will keep their flight patterns true and clean until September when the AL East does their yearly inter-divisional battles that ultimately separates the contenders and pretenders. This division has matured and become so competitive because each of these teams knows it has to find their own ways to stockpile victories and keep their rivals at bay. Can’t wait to see what unfolds in the next 2/3rd’s of this season.

LL Cool J Charmed The Trop

Renegade Note: I apologize for this blog not getting its fair share of views on Sunday through today. For some reason my Laptop is not smarter than me and did not read my mind and push “Publish” as I wanted. Just goes to show you technology is only as smart as the guy who is pushing the keys down.

 I can honestly say without a shadow of a doubt last night’s Tampa Bay Rays concert artist LL Cool J knocked out Mommas, Pappas and maybe even a few Baby bears with his classic tunes. I truly felt like time pressed backwards with the first beats from the turntable and I found myself again in the early days of Hip Hop watching someone live tonight who’s tunes and tales blared not only back in those younger days through my own car’s speakers, but still finds play time even today.

 Heck, “Going back to Cali” and “Mama Said Knock You Out” are still on my travel I-pod tunes list because even today it can get me to press that accelerator a bit, possibly bringing out the bad boy in me (which is not hard to to do). I was standing there is the photo pit eager to get a shot of the longtime Hip Hop marvel, but I got mesmerized by the beats coming from the turntable and almost forgot what I was there for. But that is what great music does to you, it transforms you out of your comfort zone and into a state of harmonious bliss.

 From the moment LL Cool J hit the stage until his final note, this was one concert if you loved early Hip Hop and its root artist you truly did not want to miss. It was a perfect mix of old and new tunes with some special moments, especially for a few lucky fans. I was up front for his first venture into Tropicana Field complete with roses and smiles for the ladies, heck got trampled when he threw one just behind me and the massive army of arms went for the delicate flower.

 LL Cool J fans have always known the laid-back singer/ actor to be cool, calm and a bit of a charmer, but who in their right mind would have guessed he would actually take the glistening lollipop charm from around his neck and pluck it into the sea of eager hands and into the fingertips of one lucky soul. LL Cool J took the gold chain from around his neck complete with a lollipop charm designed by Mrs J (Simone I. Smith) and flicked it into the crowd on the right side of the stage. I know you want to know more about this charm, so here we go….

 The fashion statement in question was actually a part of her “ A Sweet Touch of Hope” collection that she created with the help of The American Cancer Society. Simone, a cancer survivor herself created this stylish lollipop charm in crystal and jeweled enamel in the 12 birthstone colors. Simone’s collection also includes earrings and bracelets, but on this night…it was all about the lollipop. I am not sure which of her awesome designs was around her husband’s neck on that faithful day, but here is a link to her website in case you also would love to have a lollipop, bracelet or buy something to support the American Cancer Society in California.

 It was wild early evening as LL Cool J began to wind down his concert, and in that period of time I saw an old Fraternity brother and ex-roommate who would have been dancing and grooving physically to the beats if not for him wearing his uniform. He came over to me and was adamantly excited to see someone on stage we both listened to in our cars back then, and who was about in our age bracket, but still performing like he did all those years ago.


It was one of those nostalgic moments you wanted to be thrust upon you so you could remember a day when music had not only a message, but artists who put it all out there within the boundaries and crosses so many cultural boundaries with their message and beats. I remember seeing LL Cool J as he was seated in the gold cart and about to be escorted across the AstroTurf of the Trop. backstage to a Meet and Greet session. He just tilted his head and gave me a nod again showing me he was as cool a cat on the stage as he was in real life. Can’t wait until he comes back again….Maybe in 2016?

LL Cool J Concert Photo Portfolio

 

The Rays Wa

I think I might have finally found the seed that formed the Tampa Bay Rays serene sense of brotherhood. It always seemed to me to just be a bit out of focus or range, but I truly feel I might have figured out and maybe cracked Rays skipper Joe Maddon’s long held secret to his team cohesive unity….I might have finally dug up a simplified version of the orgin of the mystical “Rays Way”. But who knew I only had to remove the “Y” to find out it might actually be the “Rays Wa”.

Why did it take me so long to realize this simple concept was foreign to our shores and this great group element did not sprout from the American terra firm. This belief of wa is a complex little entity, yet its simplified and time honored value system that derives out of respect for authority, devotion to the group as a whole and instills a slice of the honor and pride of the Japanese Samurai tradition finally makes sense to it all. This mashing of the Far Eastern elements that have been instrumental in the Japanese adoption of our game make it unique, and before now, totally foreign to the style and type of baseball played in this country.

The concept of wa into baseball probably came from the impromptu baseball games in Japan during post World War II. As the Japanese culture and population began their love affair love for baseball, the game internal elements began evolving more in tune with the Japanese beliefs and traditional system. With that evolution came intricate changes and nuances that made it distinctively a Japanese version of the game we treasured. Maybe someone once gave Maddon a copy of Robert Whiting’s “You Gotta Have Wa”, which goes into deeper this delicate team dynamic told through the thoughts of a American writer who witnessed first-hand this intricate ballet of team chemistry while living in the orient.

Both countries play the game with the same equipment, rulebooks and even the same bravado and lust for victory, but each have their own personalities and traits that make their style special, and wa is as important a part of the Japanese game as the bat or the ball. The US version of the game celebrates the individual achievements within the core team concept, while in Japan, the basis is more team-oriented and celebrated, on and off the field.

The more and more I researched on the concept of wa, the more Maddon and his implementation of this grand system made sense to instill into the patterns and routines of his young team, possibly building their unified team bond through the introduction of this time honored testament of team cohesion. Made total sense to me that Maddon, who is a great scavenger of past positive elements of baseball borrowed and re-configured parts of the “wa” culture and made them MLB-friendly evolving this aura of respect, honor and continuity into his early Rays foundation.

This transition started way before the Rays introduced Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui to the local media this Tuesday, way before former Ray Akinora Iwamura stepped into the Rays fold. Maddon might have been shaping this proven and team unifying element even before his hiring as the Rays Manager. Possibly this could have been a mantra in the works long before his name and the Rays combined into their now successful association.

We all thought this concept of group harmony was unique to Maddon, but we also knew he loved to bring back time honored traditions and elements of baseball’s past. This could be Maddon’s way of honoring the team concept by basing it on a time tested and honored tradition that started beyond even his former California shores.

This country immortalizes the individual effort more than the team concept. That sense of one person making a difference has been grounded into our psyche for as long as we have played sports. In Japan, “kojinshugi” the term for individualism is considered a bit of an obscenity. There is an old Japanese proverb that states, “ The nail that sticks up shall be nailed down”. What better way to illustrate the Japanese endeared concept of unity as opposed to individualism.

I might be wrong in finally having found the element that makes Maddon’s special way of bringing his team together and having them bond for that 180 day grind more believable. But to me, wa seems to be the founding element at the base of Maddon’s popular themed road trips that promote unity, imagination and form a cohesive shell of cooperation between Maddon and his troops as they embark on their travels. Even the way the Rays collectively go about their game of not showing intense emotion at random moments speaks highly towards the wa foundation of respect for the game and its officials as well as other players.

I have always wondered what the essence of Maddon truly was that took players once deemed as borderline MLB players and sometimes troublemakers and suddenly they become transitioned into model team leaders and enthusiastic players who stayed within the lines both on and off the field. Is it Maddon, or is wa more of a secret power than we ever realized People see the Rays clubhouse as a “Fraternity house” of different personalities, cultures and beliefs, but underneath could the floor of this exciting team be actually based on the concept of wa?

The Rays Wa”, still has a great ring to it, maybe it will catch on in the stadium stands too.

 

Editor’s Note:  I included photos of the Rays road trip themes as a show of this team unity. It might not go perfectly with the essence of the posting, but it shows the always evolving Maddon philosophy and his team’s eager thrusts towards fulfilling this “wa” venture.

 

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