You never quite know what sensibilities are going to “play out” when the Tampa Bay Rays let photographers bring about their own illuminations on the team’s character, or is that characters. You only have to look back to the Feb. 25, 2010 Rays Photo Day shots where the photographer that day used the natural sunlight of Florida as sparkling and illumination points on the photos of that season squad.
Sure they were embarking on a new strand of light called the post season that spring and the Sun made more than a few spectacular effects in a variety of photos from that spring’s squad. Then in 2013 it seems the Rays photos were a bit more subdued than usual with some playful spots of individuality, but the photos overall seemed to illustrate a unison or harmony among the troops.
Of the 26 photos already released from the Rays 2014 Photo Day, there is again a underlying theme that clearly is visible and unique all to the Rays way of team chemistry. This spring photos show a calm, a essence of a more tranquil and centered squad of players who see that goal in the cross-hairs and calmly and professionally plan to be the team that “eats last” come November 2014.
You see a more relaxed Papa Longoria with the Rays leadership crown solidly planted upon his head along with fellow Clubhouse General David Price presenting himself quite Zen-like in his photos awaiting the approaching Opening Day more with zeal than strife.
But then you have the other side of the Rays coin also displayed in the type of Gasparilla-infused notions and action of Rays reliever Josh Lueke both in his biting of a baseball, to juggling and possibly showing that some fun must come with all the stress of competing and delivering your goal.
I enjoy seeing the fight and fire as well as the comedic notions that make up a M L B team. Not everyone can be serious all of the time and sometimes that moment of tongue-in-cheek humor or even dawning a gladiator’s mask can deliver more energy and fight into a group than any Knute Rockne oratory.
The Ying and Yang of this year’s released Photo Day shots also shows the ebb and flow that will ultimately exist within the Rays this year as leaders and jokers can come together tone their antics and abilities to the highest achievement levels and produce memories and events that we will speak about for years.
From the high points of Longoria who with a consistent effort in 2014 should ultimately by-pass and become the sole Rays all-time leaders in such categories as HR, RBI, Extra Base Hits, doubles and Slugging Percentage before the end of 2014 to Myers who will again be called on provide the same kind of energy, production and raw unharnessed spirit that saw him take home an American League Rookie of the Year trophy, this team will rise and fall on both the chill moments and chaotic scrambles that make up a 162-game campaign.
Sure this is but only a 26 frame cross-section of the character and characters of that will become the heart and soul of the 2014 edition of the Rays, but if this is any indication of what we might have in store for us for a 162 game haul…..I’m ready to buckle in and take the rough with the fun for it’s almost time for the games to matter and I can’t wait for that last day in March………..But I don’t think Lueke will have to eat too many balls this year because this team looks and sounds hungry enough to push it to that last meal….and maybe have room for a champagne-infused dessert.
All photos taken by Zimbio.com photographers. They do so many other M L B teams photos each spring. Search their website for your team’s spring photos. I do have a Facebook link with the latest 26 and any additional Rays Photo Day shots I find past the submitting of this blog post.
As I have mentioned before, the day I get to check out the Tampa Bay Rays new edition of their Media Guide is a day filled with adventure, intrigue and maybe even a little whimsical fun. Glancing over the awesome moments of our brood of baseball buddies always bring to light moment uncaught by our eyes and ears in the stands and produce stats and figures we never really realized for our guys who battle upon the turf.
So I decided to stay in the hurler mode today for my 2nd installment of the special career notes and humanitarian efforts of our firemen down on the First Base line who we affectionately know as the Bullpen. Depending on the type of relief corps your team possesses, they can either give you a warm feeling or outright panic when a starter begins to show fatigue.
Lucky for us here in Tampa Bay our relievers have shown more pluses than minuses over the last few season, but glitches do happen. Also we do not know yet if the Rays will carry 11 or 12 pitchers going into the season, so I’ll just take a coin flip and list the 6 guys I think might comprise the ‘Pen and a few names to possibly watch this spring.
Jake McGee: Jake and his wife Morgan went a bit “Italiano” this past November visiting Venice, Milan and George Clooney’s hangout Lake Como. During Christmas Eve this past year, Jake and his wife also visited local foster families in Reno, Nevada and provided the kids with Christmas gifts.
McGee is 2013 ranked second in the M L B among reliever southpaws with an average fastball velocity of 96.3 mph. The mark was the highest among American League leftie relievers. McGee also posted up second among all M L B relievers with throwing a fastball on 93 percent of his pitches. Makes sense McGee has been working on a few additional pitches this off-season to keep hitters guessing in 2014.
Even though Gomes only appeared 26 times in 2013 due to a right lat. Strain which sidelined him for 88 games, he did go 3-1 last season and split his season almost down the middle 14 games before/ 12 games after returning) between his injury stint. Could be a pitcher to watch this spring as he wants to show the Rays he is durable and consistent.
Cesar Ramos: He learned English at a bilingual preschool in Los Angeles, Calif. His parents immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico 34 years ago seeking a better opportunity for their family. Cesar also has sister named Elena.
16 of Ramos 47 appearances in 2013 were 2 innings or longer which was the 4th highest number in the American League and most by a Rays reliever since J P Howell’s 23 in 2008. Ramos also secured his first M L B save after throwing 3 scoreless innings in Cleveland on May 31st.
Joel Peralta: Considered quitting baseball in 2002 following a demotion from Double-A Arkansas to Class-A Cedar Rapids while with the Angels. His older brother Frank persuaded him to stick with it and Joel responded by going 5-0 with 21 saves and a .95 ERA with the Kernels (THANKS Frank!).
Peralta led the majors in 2013 with 80 relief appearances, which puts in 2nd overall in Rays history behind Randy Choate (85 in 2010). It was Peralta’s 3rd straight season of 70+ appearances (227 over 3 seasons) and the cherry on top is Peralta led all M L B relievers with 41 Holds in 2013.
Heath Bell: Who knew the All-Star closer was also such a force in the kitchen? Bell made 24 gingerbread houses from scratch for his kids school. Heath hopes to meet Duffy, the Ace of Cakes this year when the Rays travel to Baltimore and would like to compete on the Food Network pastry competition show Sweet Genius someday.
Pitched in 69 games last season for the Arizona Diamondbacks. It was his 7th consecutive season of 60+ appearances. Ranked 3rd among M L B closers in saves (166) over the last 5 seasons. With Mariano Rivera now retired, only Philadelphia closer Jonathan Papelbon (173) remains in contention for the overall top spot.
Grant Balfour: Most people might not know Grant’s father after completing his rugby career became a leader in developing and promoting Australian baseball and served as the G M of the Sydney Blue Sox before retiring last August.
Grant saved a career high 38 games last season with only 3 blown saves. Over his last 24 appearances in 2013, Balfour had a 92.7 percent save percentage, 4th best in the AL and in A’s team history. He beat out his own 92.4 percent mark set in 2012 for the 4th spot. Converted 62 of 67 (92.5 %) save chances over the past 2 seasons.
Juan Carlos Oviedo: He might be one of the biggest question marks this spring in regards to the Bullpen. The team took a gamble on 2013 by signing him while he was rehabbing after a Tommy John’s surgery. They released him in the off-season, but quickly resigned him and invited him to spring camp. If healthy and firing on all cylinders this spring, could be a factor in the team’s Bullpen makeup and possibly send someone above away in a late spring trade.
Oviedo logged 92 saves from 2009-11. That total was 8th best in the M L B at that time and ranked him 3rd on the Miami Marlins all-time save list.
His last time pitching in a professional games was July 14, 2013 while with the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs.
As always, do not discount the names of Jeff Beliveau, Brad Boxberger, C J Riefenhauser, Josh Lueke or even Kirby Yates of not making noise in supplanting one of the above pitchers for a spot on the Rays 25-man roster. Even if none of these names make the final roster before Opening Day, their names will again be heard possibly at some point within Tropicana Field in 2014.
Also worth circling might be the name of Erik Bedard who might have a chance to fill the Rays long reliever role with their 2013 hurler. Alex Torres traded in the off-season. Bedard could also be a great fill-in starter in-house option for the Rays if he were willing to accept a non-starter gig in 2014.
Tomorrow we will hit the factoids concerning the players who should be deemed the starters in the Rays infield for 2014.
I swear every season when it arrives either in web file form or a hard copy I seem to give off a squeal of joy like a little kid on Christmas morning. That’s right, the 2014 edition of the Tampa Bay Rays Media Guide is sitting in a file on my computer, and I just cannot wait to flip the pages and see what interesting and tasty morsels are hidden within its covers.
We all know it will have the historical pomp and circumstance of the Rays entire franchise’s history, be a wealth of information on records, oddities and a listing of everyone who has worn a certain number in the team’s history. Wildest part with every year the pages expand just like our history and I truly cannot wait until I have a hard copy in my paws so I can savvy it like a fine chocolate and divide its many layers up throughout the season with little morsels of trivia tidbits for my social media followers (@TheRaysRenegade).
First off how about learning a tasty bit about our team’s come from behind proficiency in 2013:
The Rays 13 Walk-off victories in 2013 tied the club record set in 2011 and 11 different players recorded a walk-off RBI, most in team history. Only 2 Rays had multiple walk-off hits last season: Jose Lobaton and Desmond Jennings, whose 2-out single on May 27th vs the Miami Marlins drove in Kelly Johnson for a 7-6 win.
Let’s start off the factoid journey with guys who should make up the Rays starting rotation in 2014:
David Price: David’s foundation, Project One Four had its best fundraising effort in 2013 and raised over $130,000. From its annual banquet, golf tournament and bowling events. On March 29th, in Tampa, Fl., Price will host his 3rd Annual Bowl for Kid’s Sake to benefit the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program. The event raised $27,000. In 2012 and $42,000 in 2013.
Price posted astronomical numbers to rank 1st in the M L B after his return from the DL by posting up 131.1 innings pitched with 4 complete games, 13.8 pitches per inning pitched and 0.89 BB/9 innings pitched. His 2.53 ERA and 9 wins also ranked 3rd in the A L.
Alex Cobb: Cobb is a huge supporter of our military fans and with good reason. His older brother R.J. is a commander in the 4th Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division of the U S Army and was awarded a Purple Heart after a Humvee explosion in Iraq, lodging shrapnel in his hands. His brother made a full recovery and served 16 months in Iraq and returned earlier this year after a short stint in Afghanistan.
Cobb showed superior resilience in 2013 after he posted a 5-1 record with a 2.41 ERA in 9 starts over the Rays final 6 weeks of the 2013 season after sitting out June 16th-August 14 following a concussion after taking a line drive off the bat against Kansas City in the Trop. “Cobbster” also started in 2 of the Rays postseason victories with a win in the Wild Card game against the Cleveland Indians and Game 3 of the ALDS against the Boston Red Sox
Matt Moore: Matt stayed very active this past offseason in New Mexico mixing in bike rides, hot yoga and doing hikes up to 4 hours to extend his energy threshold. (I also know Matt swings a golf club right-handed and is pretty lethal with a putter).
Last season Moore tied for third with the most victories in the American League (17) and had the 2nd highest winning percentage in the AL with a .810 mark due in great part to his stellar 17-4 record.
Chris Archer: During the 2013 offseason in Clayton, NC, Archer was names Mr. Christmas and lit the lights of the city’s Christmas tree. At thanksgiving he handed out 100 Butterball turkeys to needy families.
Despite not arriving in St. Petersburg until the Rays 55th contest, Archer led all rookie hurlers in ERA (3.22), Opponent’s Average (.226), complete games (2), shutouts (2), and WHIP (1.13). He was also 2nd in innings pitched (128.2) and 3rd in wins (9).
Even though Jeremy Hellickson will miss 6-8 weeks of the 2014 early season due to injury, he has to be included as a major cog in the Rays machine in 2014. Time will only tell how long it takes Hellickson to return after having arthroscopic surgery to remove loose bodies in his pitching elbow.
Jeremy Hellickson: Hellboy has grown close to Des Moines, Iowa native Carson Cooper who is a 10 yr old who is fighting Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Jeremy along with family friends helped form Kids Living Brave this offseason to help support kids and their families with care packages as they battle cancer. Hellickson put on 2 “Pitch Perfect” baseball clinics this winter as a fundraiser for the organization.
In 2013, Hellickson was the only Rays to reach the 30 starts mark, but saw his ERA blossom to 5.17, the 3rd highest among major league qualifiers. To put this mark fully into prospective, coming into the 2013 season Hellickson had the Rays lowest career ERA at 3.06. Jeremy was 1 of only 2 M L B pitchers to post over 10 wins (12) and have an ERA over 5.00.
Let’s not forget a few facts on the bevy of pitchers who will fight it out this spring for a chance to get a few early season starts as Hellickson mends:
Alex Colome: Credits Triple-A Durham Bulls Pitching Coach Neil Allen for a significant change in his mechanics, making him more upright in his delivery. That was significant as Colome did not allow an earned run in his first 2 starts, the first pitcher to do that since San Francisco Giant pitcher Ryan Sadowski in 2009.
Nathan Karns: Made his M L B debut on May 28th in an InterLeague contest against Baltimore versus an Orioles starter who was only making his 2nd career start. Karns went 4.1 innings allowing 3 runs in the Nationals 9-3 victory.
Jake Odorrizo : During spring training in Arizona a few years ago while in the Kansas City system, Jake and his agent had a close call in the desert when they got lost for 2 hours on four-wheelers as the Sun was setting. They had no water with them and finally found their way home after finding a road.
Next post, trivia bits on players who should comprise the Rays 2014 Bullpen corps.
Today the Tampa Bay Rays announced the first 4 musical acts that will make up the 2014 Rays Concert Series schedule. As always each concert will be free with the purchase of a game ticket for that date, and the music will fill the tilted roof of the Trop after the conclusion of the game.
As has been the tradition, Rays fans can also get a bit “up close and a little personal” with an additional charge for field access passes or wristbands that can be bought before the concert dates on raysbaseball.com/concerts for an additional fee .
One of the early highlights to the Rays 2014 Concert series schedule has to be the announcement of LA-band Weezer invading Tropicana Field after the Saturday, June 7th game against the Seattle Mariners (4:10 First Pitch). Weezer, who has produced and released 9 studio albums over their tenure will definitely have a “Sweater brigade” section down on the Trop’s turf due to their epic tune, “Undone-The Sweater Song”.
Not to be outdone, Weezer will also entertain the Rays faithful with their tunes “Island in the Sun”, Say it Ain’t So” and a crowd favorite “Beverly Hills”. Weezer has sold over 9 million copies worldwide since their inception in 1992. The band has delivered iconic music since their debut release, “The Blue Album” to their 2010 triumph “Hurley” which debuted at #6 on the Billboard 200 chart which gave the band an unheard of 6th straight Top 10 album in a row.
But hold your horse, the Rays did not stop there also bringing in one of the best rhythm and Blues act to ever hit vinyl as the O’Jays will strut on the stage on Saturday, June 21st (4:10 First Pitch)after the Rays vs the Houston Astros matchup.
The O’Jays have been dancing into the heart of music lovers for over 40 years and have achieved 10 Gold albums with 9 hitting the Platinum level and have produced 10 #1 hits from the classic “Backstabbers”, “I Love Music”, “Love Train” and the song most people associate with the TV series, “The Apprentice”….”For the Love of Money”. The group also received one of music highest honors being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.
But the fun doesn’t all belong to the adults and tens this Summer, the Rays have also remembered their youngest supporters by bringing in two kid-eccentric musical groups that will definitely have more than a few fans hoping for a nap after their energetic sets and musical numbers.
Within the foursome of groups announced today one group, The Wiggles will join Z Z Top, Train and 3 Doors Down as a returning Rays musical act asked to return to the Tropicana Field turf on Sunday, September 7th after the end of the Rays and Baltimore Orioles (1:40 First Pitch) afternoon contest.
After being together for a remarkable 23 years together, The Wiggles, who have since their self-titled debut album in 1991. Different from their last visit to the Trop, the group realigned themselves in late 2012 and the former all-male line stepped aside and let another generation take over their kid-errfic fun production. Now you will see Anthony, Lachy, Simon and Emma doing the groups classic numbers and even a few more designed for the ensemble.
Amazingly, The Wiggles have performed over 6,000 show in their career and to put that into a wild perspective, the iconic band, The Rolling Stones have performed just over 1,000 shows in almost double the years as this energetic kid musical group.
But before the Wiggles invade the Trop in September, kids and those kids at heart will get a visit by the Imagination Movers on another Sunday Family Fun Day concert event on July 27th after the Rays and Jays (1:40 First Pitch) concludes. The game will embrace the Rays quest to celebrate Christmas in July with the humorous and all too familiar songs from their great Disney Junior TVas well as holiday classics hoping to transform Tropicana Field into a winter wonderland…for 1 afternoon.
For more than a decade the foursome has tried to emulate the iconic up-tempo stylings of rock legends the Red Hot Chili Peppers as they sing about healthy snacks, beating those bedtime fears and the baseball classic moment of playing catch. Band member Scott Smith said of their performance energy, “ We hope everyone leaves needing a nap”.
So we have the first 4 announced bans that will highlight an early release of the 2014 Rays Concert Series schedule with a few more to be announced at a later date. We can imagine 1 of those announcements will feature a 80’s band to coincide with the Rays August 2nd Saturday tussle with the Angels.
All 4 band speak to different Ray’s Republic segments with some excited about Weezer, other wanting to see the legendary O’Jays and all kids young and young-at-heart eager to dance about to The Wiggles and Imagination Movers. This early announcement might not be a Home Run blast, but the team definitely produced a solid double with this foursome and possibly could score a run across Home Plate with another well placed band announcement in the future. I can’t wait.
“No one did giveaways better than Tampa Bay (in 2013). Action figures! Garden gnomes! Utility belts! The Rays send fans home with more free goods than just about anyone.” That quote was taken from the “Franchise issue” of ESPN, The Magazine about the team’s 2013 Promotional schedule.
Even more exciting is the pure fact that the just announced 2014 Promotional schedule of giveaways is already shaping up to be another step up the promotional ladder as the Rays bring back the popular Tampa Bay Times Tandem program which presents an opportunity for Rays fan to purchase a special Friday game ticket that will include an exclusive one of a kind limited edition keepsake.
Ticket Tandem items of note to be given out in 2014 include an Alex Cobb Military Bobblehead (May 23 vs Boston Red Sox), a Don Zimmer Snowglobe (July 25 vs Red Sox), a Raymond Gnome (August 29 vs Red Sox) and a chance to get your own set of Joe Maddon Wine Glasses (August 1st vs Angels).
And if you can’t make a Friday contest, the Rays will have 18 different giveaway opportunities on select Saturdays and Sundays throughout the Rays season. The Rays will start off quickly in the first week of the season by presenting a Wil Myers Rookie of the Year bobblehead on Saturday, April 5th when the team takes on the Texas Rangers in Tropicana Field.
On Mother’s Day (May 11 vs Cleveland Indians) the first 10,000 women will receive a Rays Sun Hat and not to forget the Father’s Day, the Rays will offer an early gift to the first 10,000 Dad’s through the gates on June 8th when the team tackles the Seattle Mariners will receive a special James Loney Grill Set.
Those over 14 will also get chances to gain a D J Kitty Plush Hat on May 10 when the Rays battle with the Indians), a Joe Maddon Mr. Potato Head figurine on August 2 when the Rays tussle with the Angels or an Evan Longoria 80’d Hair Band Drummer Bobblehead on September 6th when the team takes on the Baltimore Orioles. The September 6th date might also be a wink to an upcoming Rays Concert announcement as why have an 80’s item without an 80’s band (just my thinking).
Kids 14 and under again get their own special keepsakes on special home game Sundays throughout the season as the Rays will offer a chance for the young Rays fanatics to get also get an early start on the promotional schedule as the team will offer a Desmond Jennings Baseball Buddy on April 6th when the Rays go toe-to-toe with the Rangers.
Other Sunday items include a Ben Zobrist Wiffle Ball set on June 22 when the Rays continue their Inter-League bout with the Houston Astros, a Chris Archer Christmas Stocking on July 27th when the team takes on their rivals, the Red Sox, a Yunel Escobar Basketball Hoop will be given out on July 13th when the Rays battle the Toronto Blue Jays, and on August 31st during another Red Sox series, kids can get a Matt Moore Plate and Cup set.
Sunday’s games will also continue to be Tampa Bay Times Family Fun Days in 2014 with free parking for cars with 4 or more passengers and a bunch of postgame activities for kids that will include the always popular Kids Run the Bases as well as a D J Kitty Dance Party featuring your favorite Kitty, mascots and other entertainers.
For a second year, the concourse activities will be complimentary for the 14 and under guests. Activities include the Grand Slam Alley, Power Alley Batting Cages, Speed Pitch, Raymond’s Art Studio and Topps Make Your Own Baseball Card. The Rotunda and CenterField Street area will also feature on Sundays the always popular and busy face painters, glitter tattoo artists, magicians, mimes, stilt walkers, jugglers and balloon artists.
Interesting side note is a few of the Rays past promotional prevalent team members like pitchers David Price, Jeremy Hellickson or outfielder Matt Joyce not having any listed promotional items yet for 2014, you have to wonder if the Rays just did not want to put any eggs in their promotional basket that might not pan out due to a trade or an injury like the one suffered by Hellboy before Spring Training even began in 2014.
It was a prudent move, but I hope somewhere along the line the teams finds way to keep these 3 important Rays in the promotional or fan participation loop as they are fan favorites even without an announced promotional item bearing their name or likeness this season. Even with the obvious omissions the Rays have connected again with a winning promotional schedule posting another sure fire “W” in the win column with their fans.
As has been the reputation of the Rays, the upcoming 2014 promotional schedule has something for everyone and should be another banner year for the Rays not only in terms of promotions, but on putting smiles on the faces of the Rays Republic. Hope to see you out there as I know I will be gathering more than a few of these items and putting them in my collection. See you at the ballpark!
When I first arrived for the 2014 edition of the Jesse Litsch and Bechtel Financial Celebrity Golf Tournament it was a Winnie-the-Pooh kind of blustery day. But a great thing happened just as the teams assembled for lunch before 18 holes of great golf. The skies parted and that warming Sun took charge of the event. But I also want to believe someone up there wanted Connor to have a perfect day.
I got to meet Connor a few years ago while he was struggling with that nasty “C” word. The kid was spunky, friendly and determined to fight this cancer back into submission. I heard from a smiling bird a week prior to the event some fantastic news about Connor, and I was beaming the rest of the day.
So it really was perfect the Sun was blazing and the celebrities all assembled in a half-moon around a make-shift Home Plate as Litsch lobbed a mid-zone pitch in and Connor rocked it high into the left-side section of the field up onto the Putting Green. You see today was a day Connor could celebrate, and all the assembled celebrities wanted to also give him a special and emotional celebration. You see Connor has fought the demon and won. He is now Cancer-free.
As he rounded the bases to cheers from everyone around the circle the celebrities gave him a Home Plate “team meeting” as they all rubbed his head, shook hands and clapped to celebrate this awesome achievement by one truly courageous young guy. I will admit, there was some liquid on my cheek, but I told people it was dew from the palm tree. I was even more honored to photograph the moment and hope everyone remembers Connor fight and to remember Jimmy V’s words, “Never Give Up”.
Connors own charity “Friends of Connor” which supports other children taking on cancer is only 1 of the trifecta of great charities that the golf tournament embraces closely. The North Pinellas YMCA Summer Camps and Bechtel’s Bikes for Kids, which provide bikes and protective gear for children in need around this region and are delivered each holiday season by Pinellas County Sheriff’s department.
After the emotional beginning of the day events the assembled duffers made their way around the beautiful and wildlife-filled EastLake Woodlands North course to take on events like the Long Drive, Closest to the Pin and the always welcome Red Bull 9th hole. This year some amazing food also graced the greens as Skyline Chili (Chili Dogs), Johnny Grits( amazing Shrimp & Grits) and Jersey Mikes (Cheesesteaks) helped keep the golfer full, happy and never hungry.
But of course everyone was either dreading or loving the all-time favorite holes, the tee-ball blast or the Kick, Punt and Pass competition. Every year there are highs and lows at the T-ball hole as some people give it their all and the tee takes the blunt, or some bunt while others like Toronto Blue Jays RP Sergio Santos gets some pre-Spring hacks in advance of Inter-League fun.
I swear the tournament should post up a photographer at this hole with photos of all the participants and hold the pictures as a charity ransom so they do not get popped over the social media channels. Okay, maybe that is just my sinister idea. But seriously, the Kick ,Punt &Pass hole is by far the measure of who still has it and who…doesn’t.
I know a few people dread this hole, but the two pairing I witnessed participate this year did a great job with only 1 shanked punt. You see they first have to kick off a tee, then someone has to punt the ball, finally someone has to bring out their inner-Flute and throw as far as possible and the pairing then set their balls down and go from that mark. Always one of my favorite stopping points as I walk the 18 holes and try and catch people off-guard (in a good way).
Absent from the tournament field today were the Rays contingency who had their Pitchers and Catchers report on the tournament’s date, but the event did have a Rays flair as former players Andy Sonnanstine, Dan Wheeler, Fred McGriff and Coach Ozzie Timmons made their ways around the course. There were also over 2 dozen members of the Toronto Blue Jays farm system from top prospect Aaron Sanchez to MLB showing support for the event.
Again the evening was not only highlighted by the always amazing Silent Auction, but by the antic and jovial personality of local television icon Charlie Belcher. He was out there along with his wife visiting the various greens chatting with the golfers and providing liquid refreshments. I can honestly say he is one of the best MC’s in this area and is always fun to watch as he presents awards during the evening’s final moments.
From start to finish I always enjoy the event as each gear from George’s precision from start to finish, to Jesse & Kevin Bechtel’s involvement on the course and beyond to the conversation and sights I get to witness each year. It was another Home Run of an event and it all started with a walk-off Grand Slam by a kid wearing that great Toronto Blue Jays cap. Connor may have stolen the show this year, but Litsch and Bechtel and eager to go to bat for each charity for the next 364 days.
Here is a link for additional photos I took at this year’s Jesse Litsch & Bechtel Financial Celebrity Golf Tournament.
It gets me all giddy inside when the second week of February comes to a close every year. The anticipation, the excitement, the thrill of knowing one of the greatest loves in this World can again entrance my mind and soul with visions of rawhide, ash plus pine mixed with smell of popcorn and roasting peanuts. Baseball has always had a special part of my heart. Some might say to me it is my first and other would bold to venture my only true love who has stood besides me in days of woe and exhilaration and has truly triumphed the test of time. Others like the NFL, NHL and the revitalized version of NASL somehow lost their luster in my past and somehow became only just simple cherished memories tuck into darken alcoves within my mind and heart. But baseball has always been on the tip of any conversation and thought, even in the dead of Winter.
Someone asked me once why I have such a deep devotion and love for this simple children’s game. The same game that can have you on the edge of your seat one moment, then in an instant you can see it all come crashing down in disbelief as defeat rears its ugly snout.. Well, to be honest my long time love for this game started a long time ago in a bevy of batting cages that have long since been replaced by residential blight. My first loving 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 at the northern end of the old Corey Bridge where I had to endure 18 holes of Putt-Putt before I could ramble into the chain-link fence batting cages and begin to fantasize Home Runs to win championships or secure a walk-off win.
The first real grass and clay field I ever got to play baseball on as a 8 year old was a back lot enclave at the now gone 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 into Second Base successfully. 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. I always wanted to hit one into the Royal Palms cemetery but never got that kind of power.
My love for the game started young. I did not know the true exploits of Don Zimmer, Mickey Mantleor Stan Musial who all used to come to my father gas station (Wittig’s Motor Pool/ Pasadena & Central Ave) and fill up their cars during the 70’s Gas Wars era. Sometimes if they needed additional work like a LOF or tires they would throw the ball with me a bit in the oil-soaked alley behind the station or we talked about baseball as I cleaned their windshields, checked their oil and air in their tires. 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 true greatness to the game. But maybe that was best as they showed themselves truly and did not throw up walls or images that was false to themselves off the field.
I still hold a piece of that same young kid within me every time I enter Tropicana Field, or venture out to Spring Training practices or games. I still carry my infielder’s glove more for sentimental reasons than to catch a BP or foul ball. Heck for years my glove sat on that green painted metal pipe that ran down the concrete wall in Section 138 it somehow became more of a fixture than me sitting in my old 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. Who knows that ball could awaken his own love for the game of baseball.
Maybe that is why this game has never soured for me, even during those first 9 awkward years of the Rays existence when victories were slim and frustrations mounted within my belly wanting something special to happen like stealing a win on a walk-off or seeing one of our hurlers shut down a high power offense or seeing that ultimate display of last chance power pitching as our closer strikes out the side for the save. The crack 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. The whole essence of it can still send chills down my spine and 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 take a memory photo with that glorious golden trophy myself as so many other have in the past.
I am about to hit the big 5..4, and now I am starting to get into a baseball frame of mind and physical state to tryout and play some form of this grand game with the legendary group 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 347 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 take off my lifetime Bucket List. Plus I hear chicks still dig the long ball.
The game of baseball will always hold a huge part of me firmly within its grasp, and on a day like today 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.
So for me the symbol of a valentine is shaped more like a diamond because its shape encompasses the four essential 90 foot sections of the field infield dimensions. It brings with it a stupendous harmony of sounds and actions played out upon its lush foliage and grit that brings about an odd state of perfection played out in unison upon the field by both those who seem ageless and those who are eternally young at heart.
It is upon that field the we again can imagine our first hit, throw and cherish it for its complexity and simplicity intertwined in our love for the game. 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. So I have to ask……Baseball, Will you be my everlasting Valentine?
Happy Valentines Day
Every year about this time I can be found heading to a local big box store eager to buy a dozen Major League Baseball from Rawlings for the upcoming Tampa Bay Rays Spring Training schedule and Fan Fest. I always love how each baseball comes in it’s own precious cardboard container with tissue paper protecting its pearly white exterior in anticipation of me plucking it out of my bag for a player to sign and then add to my always expanding M L B autograph collection wall. Every year at this time I try and formulate a sketch of a battle plan to get the signatures I need to fulfill that season’s rostered player, or get a player I have wanted in my collection for some time. Instantly there are additional thoughts banding through my brain of who should sign these new pearls, where events I will ask these players, or should I just tuck them away for later use at another juncture in the season.
The moment I do take these white spheres out of their first “home”, the smell of the ball with it’s pleasant leather aroma can send me into a avalanche of embracing baseball memories and fills me with a flood of emotions. Recently I was floored and shocked to discover this icon of America’s favorite pastime has not been manufactured within our countries borders for some time.
That’s right, the baseball we all chase and want to feel in the pit of our gloves or hands is no longer produced in the United State, or even in North America for that matter. Since Rawlings became the official provider of baseball to Major League Baseball back in 1977, not one of the 108 stitches into that old cowhide has been sewn on U S soil.
It shocked me that a company that is located within the baseball-frenzied mid-West region of St. Louis, Missouri would outsource such an American icon, plus not even produce it within our own hemisphere.
Then again, Rawlings has been doing a bit of country-jumping since its inception in 1887. Most of us would not seemed shocked or amazed to find out Rawlings moved its baseball operations outside the continental United State back in 1969 to Puerto Rico. Even though Puerto Rico is a American unincorporated territory, most imagine it as our future 51st state. But how the baseball manufacturing exodus is only in its beginning phases of its journey.
Finally the company decide to move their total baseball manufacturing machinery to cost-efficient nation of Costa Rica after the Haitian political climate became increasingly volatile and the company feared its operations could be compromised by the unrest. Rawlings set up their production facility in the small town of Turrialba in which the baseball manufacturer built a 80,000 square foot facility that employs over 700 local workers in the early years of production.
This factory initially produced a staggering total of 50,000 baseballs a week, with each employee producing up to 30 balls a day with the balls’ journey from raw cowhide material to being shipped to a M L B ballpark in as little as 21 days. All told, the production of Rawlings baseballs brought a $21 million dollar windfall for the Costa Rican economy.
This developing country nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea is the locale Rawlings has been sending their cowhide, twine and hard cores to be made into the American icon. It is still shocking to me that the one item we all want to possess in our gloves, or have our favorite player sign for display on our shelves and mantels in manufactured so far away from the sounds and actions of the game.
Suddenly that smell mesmerizing my senses from my new pearly white baseballs is taking on a distinctively different scent. At least the baseballs we see being used during the M L B season does come from an “America”,………. Central America.
Cooler Weather Couldn’t Dampen the 2014 Toby Hall & Friends Celebrity Spring Training Golf Classic Spirit
Sure the weather might have been a bit unpleasant, but not a single soul seemed beaten by the weather as all who assembled for the 7th edition of the Toby Hall & Friends Celebrity Spring Training Golf Classic knew first and foremost the day’s real winners were the Miracle League and the Buddy Baseball organizations within the Tampa Bay community.
It wasn’t the same old, same old during the annual Toby Hall event held this year on February 7th, it was one of those days where the weather prognosticators were off by a chilly 12 degrees and unexpected bouts of misty precipitation that never seemed to dampen any of the assembled golfer’s moods. Every foursome I witnessed this day whether with winter clothing or shorts and windbreakers seemed no worse for the wear and anxious to play the 18 holes at the new vista, the Feather Sound Country Club.
I was talking to Tampa Bay Rays Hitting Coach Derek Shelton who told me early tournament arrival Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey told him of the cold and possibly damp prediction of the day, but each showed up in Rays sweats and shorts smacking tee shots and drives into the mist towards each hold adorned with the Toby Hall black and red tournament flags.
Some did bundle up like former Ray Fred McGriff, but other like the Bucs Big Nasty, Mike Alstott and Rays pitcher Matt Moore braved the day with a little less covering but warmed by the true essence of the day which was to show support for the Miracle League and Buddies Baseball. Everyone got into the early spirit as the Rays official DJ, DJ Fresh warmed everyone up with music and Arby’s once again provided a hearty lunch and sweet treat for the assembled golfers.
No matter where you went on the front or back 9 holes of this remarkable golf course you could hear the laughing and stories being by celebrities and members of their golfing foursomes and it carried throughout the air. From the Long Drive hole where you almost could forecast a sonic boom from some of the great sounds coming off these custom-made drivers to the Closest-to-the-Pin competition or Straightest Drive competition was in the air, but charity always scored double-eagles. Even got to see another side of Bay New 9 anchor Jen Hollaway and that strapping young lad, the Rays Todd Kalas.
Some might say I’m waxing a bit too poetically with this, but truly I did not hear a single gruff or grumble all day long. From the first moment of registration to the final raffle and award given out at the post-tournament dinner at the Carillion Hilton, not a single person seemed weathered by the day events buy exhilarated by the day and gave even more of themselves in the Silent Auction.
Sure both the participants and Hall may have yearned for sun-kissed dry day, but the assembled masses who participated in this edition of the tournament could only rave and smile when asked if they had a “good day”. Sure some people got a bit shilled and possibly wet, but nothing dampened the hope and spirit of the event and even a few new faces I talked with were already wondering about a 2015 date.
That is the sign of a great tournament when just as people finish the days event they already want to plan for a return engagement. Once again Toby Hall and the Professional Golf Events team who provided not only a great 18 holes of golf, but possibly the weather also got these golfer more in tune with the true meaning of the day’s events and Hall’s charities reaped that emotion.
So I raise my glass once again to the organizers, Toby and all the golfers I met and chatted with this year…See you again next February when we all again assemble to help the Miracle League and Buddy Baseball achieve even greater moments.
Additional Photos from the 2014 Toby Hall & Friends Celebrity Spring Training Golf Classic.
Going to be sad to see the end of the Ice Cream Man’s era with the Tampa Bay Rays. Going into the winter off-season you could have hedged your bets the team would unload possibly a player striding the pitching rubber, not one crouched down 60 feet 6 inches away. Maybe the writing was on the wall for catcher Jose Lobaton the moment the Rays traded for a respected and well-tooled catcher like Ryan Hanigan.
Not helping in Lobaton’s increasingly unstable situation was that the other “Jose” in the Rays catching corps, Jose Molina had signed a team-friendly contract with an eye on a bit of a reduced role in 2014. Suddenly it didn’t seem like why, but when Lobaton would get a call from the team announcing a trade, but there is no way any of us thought this adventure would venture into February.
And trade chatter is being heard from vista’s like Cleveland, Washington, the south-side of Chicago, Flushing, Phoenix and even Denver that Lobation could/should possibly be looking for a temporary abode in Arizona for Spring Training, not Port Charlotte, Florida. Hopefully a deal will get done fast and swiftly as pitchers and catchers are beginning their journeys to their Spring Training camps and if he isn’t a Ray come February 14th, Loby got some hurried planning to do.
Lobaton has to be an attractive option for a team wanting to bring in a young but experienced backstop. His .249 average during the 2013 season mixed with 7 HRs shows he is gaining the ability to not only be good behind the plate, but can deliver standing on either side of the dish. Switch-hitting catchers are a bit of a rarity in the MLB, and Lobaton has shown by his .736 OPS from the left side he should garner at least a few phone calls from every one of those cities mentioned above for their respective catching units.
He has a gold star attached to his name right now as a Super Two arbitration player who is excelling at a position where a team could acquire a player with his talents and experience knowing he will not hit the free agent market until 2017 or 2018 at the earliest. We have already heard reports over the winter that the Nationals would love to find a capable young backstop to pair with W Ramos, and Lobaton definitely fit the criteria.
Also in Lobatons favor is the pure fact he has been with the Rays during their stretch runs over the last few seasons and has post-season experience as well as his ability to come through in the clutch with power displays and ice cream runs. The Indians with their favorable park dimensions could utilize Lobaton’s left-sided goodness especially as the team wants to try and secure Carlos Santana at the First Base bag in 2014.
You can see the White Sox interest as they might not be totally all in favor of Tyler Flowers being their everyday catcher, and the Rockies and D-backs might be looking at Loby more as a young talented insurance option should injuries again plague their catching corps. And do not discount the fact teams already know Lobaton comes at a good value after he avoided arbitration earlier this off season with a $900,000. 2014 Salary.
Worst part of Molina re-signing and the team trading for Hanigan is the pure fact the path is blocked for any significant amount of time behind the plate for Lobaton in 2014. Another factor that will play into another team getting Lobaton is the fact he is out of minor league options and would have to go through the waiver wire to be shipped back to Triple-A Durham if he did not make the Rays 2014 Opening Day roster.
So we have hit on the positives for teams wanting Lobaton’s services for 2014. And with every player there also comes some uncertainty or liabilities.
One simple reason for a trade is in fact a by-product of the team’s trade for Hanigan and the keeping of Molina. Lobaton is not a defective pitch framer, but the Rays other 2 options at this time trump Lobaton’s ability and he might be considered average at best in getting borderline strike calls.
2 other glaring liabilities of obtaining Lobaton might be career stat-wise he is considered to be below average backstop in getting to balls in the dirt which would be a red flag to teams that rely on breaking pitches outside and low.
What a team might also offer for Lobaton might hinge on if they think they can correct his most illuminating flaw, a career 16 % Caught Stealing percentage mark. If a team can imagine fixing any of the 3 flaws in Loby’s bag of tricks they could come out as a winner in any trade offering.
In the end, the Rays know they might have to take a little less in return for Lobaton no matter his offensive upside because the team would have to make a difficult decision to retain him after March 31st.
Also with reporting dates quickly approaching, a team would want to get Lobaton in camp as soon as possible as he would need time to not only adjust to a new team and techniques, but get an early spring edge on the learning curve of catching and pitch calling for a new pitching staff before the season begins.
Hopefully the trade process is short and sweet and Lobaton is off to join his new team before their report date. You can only hope Lobaton begin to show some new prowess in scooping the ball this spring, digging down deep in the bowl to block pitches and deliver that sweet swing that always ends with ice cream.