Am I the only one who felt the Tampa Bay Rays Saturday contests which composed of two split squad contests was out of the MLB ordinary? I mean the team doesn’t set their Grapefruit League schedule, that comes out of the hallowed halls of Major League Baseball in New York City.
Doesn’t it seem beyond just plain odd that MLB would not only split the Rays squad on the opening series of games, but also might have scattered a bit of their diverse Rays Republic fan base with some of the Rays usual fans motoring possibly 40-odd miles to see the traveling portion of the Rays roster as they took on AL East rival, the Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers.
I hate to put it out there, but I feel a bit of the MLB grip here in reference to this odd and peculiar set of Spring opening contests. I glanced over the rest of the MLB Spring opening slate both in Arizona and Florida and did not notice another team having a split squad set of contests this weekend.
That leads me to ponder the question if MLB in their scheduling genius had done this to make it possible for the Rays to not sell out their 2013 Spring Opener in Charlotte Sports Park. I know the Rays would have not only enjoyed but anticipated a better turnout on such a fantastic day, but with the split squads with main players in both locales, it might have split the Rays Spring fan base a bit with people from the Tampa Bay area hitting the home opener, and locales from South West Florida possibly hitting the Red Sox contest some 40 miles away.
Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but this bizarre Spring opening slate also brought to the front a interesting possible Spring attendance transference situation with the Rays having only 4,436 souls in Port Charlotte witnessing a awesome 3- innings of shutout baseball before the wheels began to come off and the team losing their home opener 3-2 to the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates.
Meanwhile some 50 miles away, the Red Sox shoved a sell-out 9,680 fans into their ballpark, but even the capacity crowd could not help the Boston squad to victory as they came up on the short end losing 4-3 to the traveling Rays caravan. Sure the Red Sox faithful make their pilgrimage to Fort Myers each Spring in huge numbers, but doesn’t the difference of ballpark attendance figures of 5,422 souls make for more then me to wonder if this was on purpose instead of built around schedules and the Spring feasibility concerns.
Adding to the mystic here is the fact the Rays sent possibly their starting outfield of Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce and Desmond Jennings to Fort Myers while the Port Charlotte crowd got to see a younger and possibly a roster battle with a Rays outfield consisting of Rays top prospect Wil Myers, minor leaguers Kevin Kiermaier,Tyler Motter and a pair battling for the Rays 4th outfield slot, Sam Fuld and Rich Thompson. It might seem by that teeter-todder of talent the Rays sent their veterans to face their seasonal rivals.
Sure I know split squads try and divide the talent up to an even keel, but it seemed the traveling Dave Martinez-led Rays contingency had the offensive advantage going into their away contest and ended up producing the first “W” of the Spring with mostly a Triple-A laden pitching selection.
I know the Rays would have much rather had a full Rays contingency at Charlotte Sports Park for their Spring home opener, but I have a deep feeling MLB might have inserted a split squad arrangement to test the Rays Spring fan base commitment too. If MLB was hoping to see such an attendance disparity between Port Charlotte and Fort Myers, then they got their wishes.
As I stated before, I’m not a huge conspiracy theory guy, not even deep down inside, but I do feel some of MLB’s fingers were at play when this schedule was formalized. Who knows if the Rays would have sold out their Spring opener if they did not have to send a second squad traveling on Saturday. I want to think the Rays Republic would have come out in droves and gotten the stadium at or near its 6,823 capacity with the berms and stands full of Rays fans.
But I guess we will never know thanks to this bizarre Grapefruit League opening slate of games.
This is the day a lot of us wait for wondering who will smile, who will not, and who just might have the most character in front of the photo lens. When the Tampa Bay Rays take their Team Photos, you never know what will transpire and make itself to the Web. So I hit up a familiar website that usually posts these photos in nano-seconds and took 21 of the photos uploaded and presented them here for you to get a first glance/peek at before the final set is divulge.
As always most of the main characters within the Rays roster got their time in front of the lens, but a few of the Rays team photos did not make it into this first batch and probably will make their way onto the blogosphere some time soon, but I’m hoping they might show a bit more character and possibly a splash of that classic Rays humor we all know and love.
Of course Evan Longoria is not in this first set as he was motoring towards the St. Petersburg area to attend to a bit of baby business, but we know when his photo does surface, he will definitely have a grin from ear-to-ear as Papa Longo heads into the 2013 MLB season. But the 2013 edition of the Team Photos does look a bit tame compared to some of their previous Team Photos since the Rays moved their Spring Training complex 79 miles to the South in the hamlet of Port Charlotte, Florida
Out of this first batch of photos there are the usual pairings like Ben Zobrist, David Price and Rays Manager Joe Maddon that look more like a Glamor Shots shooting than a Team Photo. But the camera again this season seems to love some people while also doing a 180 shift on others to kind of dull their enthusiasm and excitement and make fun of others.Some times the worst thing to do in front of a camera lens is try and look too professional be too serious as the camera doesn’t have a brain and can then tend to make them look more demented or possibly deranged even before the first Grapefruit League contest.
This season the “Grumpy” awards might go to Rays SP Alex Cobb who looks serious, but also has that serial bean ball artist look much like Kyle Farnsworth’s every year photo.Interesting enough, minor league prospect SP Alex Colome might actually get the old moniker I stuck on his Uncle, ex-Rays RP Jesus “Smiley” since his photo looks more like a mug shot than a happy occasion. But that is what sets Team Photos apart.
Not all of them will be masterpieces or utter clusters, but it is the time of the season when you can definitely tell who is relaxed, who might need a long hug, or who should be tackled by Raymond and tickled to the point of a huge smile and giggle.
Still, I think Luke Scott might actually have a twin in the Rays Spring Clubhouse mounted right alongside his locker. Now if he dyed his mutton chops white they might actually look like the tusks of that wild boar currently residing with a Rays Spring starburst cap in the Clubhouse.
But it is still great to see most of the photos are relaxed, tranquil photos that definitely shows who is eager, who is relaxed and who the camera seems to love.
Rays newcomer James Loney seemed to have brought a bit of that old LA vibe with him into the photo day as he looks perfectly calm, cool and collected as the Rays head into their 2013 slate of Grapefruit contests in less than a few days.
Also within the first 21 photos released were SP Jeremy Hellickson, INF Sean Rodriguez, SS Hak-Ju Lee, Desmond Jennings and someone who might just make a player for a rotation slot this Spring, Roberto Hernandez. There will be more photos in the future, but this first crop of Rays Team Photos for 2013 definitely shows the vast polar realms of personalities on this Rays squad this Spring. Not matter what transpires, I can definitely see this team this Spring not being a bore…or is that boar?
Recently I was volunteering at a golf tournament and got to speaking to a pretty well known Catcher who was on the Free Agent market for a bit this Winter. I had met him a few times on the sidelines at Florida Gator games, but never really got into the baseball discussion until about twilight just as the gold tournament was coming to a close. This is a ample backstop who has a World Series ring, a few All-Star selections (2), caught a No-Hitter (Mark Buehrle) and a Perfect Game (Phillip Humber) under his belt and is considered by some one of the most hated, but fiery competitor you either love or hate (depending on if your team can overcome his special karma).
You might have guessed by now I’m talking about Catcher and Orlando native A J Pierzynski who even drove former his CWS Manager Ozzie Guillen a bit nuts with his “gray area of the MLB rulebook and on-the-field conduct. Here I was face-to-face with the guy who possibly pulled off 2 of the most debated plays that seemed to magically bend the MLB rulebook like a slider dipping towards the outside corner of the plate rules. You hate playing against him for his slight of hand moves and borderline antics, but you also know if he was on your team you would defend him to the rafters and beyond.
I really had that almost universal love-hate feelings in regards to the new Texas Ranger Catcher, but what he said that day kind of shocked me, both in a good and bad way. Pierzynski only had a few minutes of time to sign an autograph for a baseball fan who showed up hoping to score some of the athletes scribbles, but as he signed, I threw out a few questions and without batting an eyelash, a few interesting revelations quickly came to light.
I found out he kind of knew heading into the final White Sox games of 2012 that he might not get an offer qualifying or not from his former club, and knew fully expected he would be venturing down the Free Agent highway for the first time in his career. I asked if he had every thought of calling the Tampa Bay Rays and then again without hesitation came the bombshell I knew was lying in the deep grass.
Pierzynski and his agent had contacted Rays VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman about a possible spot on the 2013 roster. Since Pierzynski still has an off-season home in the Central Florida town about 100 minutes from the Trop, A J could have possibly commuted with RP Kyle Farnsworth daily from the Orlando region during Rays home stands. I wonder if Friedman took the call as a courtesy, or if he thought long and hard at what offensive power Pierzynski could bring to the bottom of the Rays lineup, or if his style of play would bring a little havoc into the Rays fold on the field.
In the end Pierzynski was blunt that the money was not a right fit, and he in turn took the Rangers $7.5 million offer. Still I wonder if Friedman had offered $5 million with some offensive incentives if Pierzynski would of thought long and hard and made his “X” on a Rays contract?
We all know the Rays catching corps has been a roller-coaster over the last 2 seasons, and with Jose Molina making a club friendly $1.5 million this year, and Jose Lobaton being out of minor league options the Rays hands might have been tied unless an offer that blew the doors off the Clubhouse had been received by Pierzynski. But then again you have to think the offensive upside of having A J behind the dish along with his ability to frame pitches with the best in the MLB might have merited a longer bit of discussion between the pair.
But Pierzynski is now a Ranger, and will probably be a thorn in the Rays side again this season, but still I wonder just what would have happened if he had somehow found the right combination to entice the Rays to bring him into their fold. If that had happened, I wonder how many of the Rays Republic would have still greeted his presence with a clenched fists or a forgiving gesture of open arms?
I saw a member of the Tampa Bay Rays front office while doing my usual trading card route a few days before that Saturday’s Rays Fan Fest. He seemed really excited about the anticipated fan to player ratio at the multiple events held throughout the day, and believe me, the Rays not only delivered, but a few of their players such as INF Sean Rodriguez and P Chris Archer seemed to be everywhere.
All day long I heard stories of players going above and beyond. We all have heard of Archer inviting a young fan up to the Autograph tales and behind the Rays blue curtain to meet a few of his Rays friends in the “Blue Room”. It was stuff like this, plus the added touch of players reading to young fans, being open to fan’s questions and requests all day long that made a deep and lasting impression as to their investment in this region and this special fan base.
I did not hear a single story of a player turning down a fan, or refusing any request during this special Rays day that is a huge celebration of the season that is now upon us. Heck I think we all might even have gotten a glimpse at a possible Rays future draft pick as Toby Hall’s son stroked a HR out of the curtained off ballfield a few times from the left side of the plate.
I mean I even saw Rays P Jeff Niemann at one point basically depositing basketball over by the hoop carnival games like he was dropping a wad of paper into a wastebasket. And during all of this were a gaggle of screaming and excited kids, adults and a combination of the two relishing in this increased presence of the player this year. Over the past few years as the team has grown increasingly competitive some of the fold reverted a bit back into old habits of selective signings and photos with fans. On this day if they were able, photos were snapped and memories were imprinted forever thanks to their increased visibility.
Combine this breathe of fresh air from the Rays themselves with the over 25,000 fans who walked into the Rays Rotunda on Saturday, this region still craves baseball and made sure other in and around the MLB World knew there was a fan base in this community. Even with the huge turnout of fans to Tropicana Field for Fan Fest, it was overshadowed by the fact the team only drew over that 25,000 visitor threshold 17 times during the 2012 season.
Hopefully the recent blast in the media of supposed apathy and nonchalant attitudes towards the game have been erased at least until the regular season when the proof will be in the proverbial pudding if the fans will again flock to the Trop.
But this day was about the 2 lucky fans enshrined into the Rays/Pepsi Wall of Fame, the hundreds of scavenger hunters snapping pictures around the Trop in hopes of grabbing an Even Longoria signed bat for their collections. Everywhere you looked there were kids, parents and even long time fans walking, talking and making mostly positive comments about the days events. Baseball Hall of Fame member Peter Gammons visited Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s “Thanks-Mas” event prior to his own panel discussion making a few of those fans not only full of Maddon-induced food goodness, but also got to hear a baseball analyst’s take on the Rays and baseball.
Sure there were moments that made you scratch your noggin for a second like Rays INF/OF Shelley Duncan and Rodriguez as a pairing for the “Family Feud event. There were a few scattered “boo-birds” when Duncan was announced, but most have let the Spring incident of 2008 be finally put to rest. Still, it would have been interesting if Elliot Johnson was still here…pairing him with Duncan would have caught everyone’s ear. Still this season’s Fan Fest was amazing in the items up for sale in the Rays Garage Sale to the amount of MLBPA Alumni players participating in the Home Run Derby (won by O’s OF Mike Deveraux), to the huge table of past stars both of the Rays and other MLB vistas.
All in all the event might have been a bit reduced in total time we all spent within the confines of the tilted cap, but it was a day spent watching kids frolic in the batting cages, running the bases and getting a high-5 from Archer as they hit Home Plate. Matt Joyce also made a few more Rays fans as he stayed after his signing time was over and came to the side of the autograph stage and signed for a bit longer for fans who did not get a chance to get to him before his time was over.
Rays new Stud-du-Jour Wil Myers even made extra time for Rays fans who did not know him before his recent trade to the Rays and with Myers taking that extra moment, he sparked a few comments from people hoping he makes it to the MLB level some time in 2013. So now that the Rays Republic got a chance to see and meet a few of our new players to the Rays fold, and a few of the hungry and eager ones wanting a taste of the MLB life, it is now our time to show support for this team not only this Spring, but all the way until Game 162.
The Rays invest a lot of time and money in an event like this, and with 16 of them now in the books I can definitely say without any remorse that the 2013 edition definitely has set a new standard for future Rays Fan Fest’s. I made a tongue-in-cheek Tweet the other day about the whole Rays front office forming a Congo line today and each of them pat each other on the back for pulling off this grand event in style. I think it was Pepsi who sealed the emotions of the day as the Rays staff and players definitely “Rocked the Trop” on Saturday and I do not think anyone did not leave with a bit of Rays swag, autographs or maybe even a former players jersey tucked under their arm. The Trop definitely rocked a bit on Saturday, but I think we were all having too much fun to notice, which is a good thing.
I have mad respect and admiration for Jesse Litsch and Kevin Bechtel. It takes a special breed of person to give back year after year and make an event like their annual Jesse Litsch & Bechtel Financial Celebrity Golf Tournament grow larger and more respected every single year. And Litsch was a pure trooper this year just 4 weeks removed from surgery on his pitching shoulder and was there with energy to spare all day long bringing another huge positive vibe to the event.
We all know this day of charity and great experiences is not just about the fun events like the Punt, Kick and Pass hole, or even hitting the ball off a tee for yardage, it is the bonding atmosphere and budding friendship vibe that encompasses this tournament from beginning to it’s final yearly conclusion that keeps people coming back, and telling their friends to also come experience the awesome event.
I do not know who or what sat Bechtel and Litsch together at that 2008 golf tourney awards dinner, but whatever it was, I can assure it has to have a grin from ear-to-ear because of their successes and forward motion to helping kids in the Northern reaches of Pinellas county and beyond. I have been a part of this grand day for the past 3 years and have personally seen it grow into the “Must Do” event that precedes the reporting dates for most of the MLB teams that migrate to this region in mid-February.
It is this duo’s shared passion and want to give back to their respective communities with a vengeance that has me eager and excited to come North to East Lake Woodlands Golf Course and spend a day with Jesse, Kevin and over a hundred of their golf celebrities and friends who also have charitable hearts. As the tournament has aged, so has their outreach to other needy organizations within this area.
Litsch first got to see a portion of Bechtel’s dream when he attended the 2008 “Bechtel’s Bike for Kids” program during the holidays when bikes and helmets were donated by Bechtel and then were loaded up by Pinellas County Sheriff’s Deputies and distributed around the area. On that faithful night, the seed was planted that spawned this very event and the continuous expansion of focus towards helping more charitable kids programs.
After the success of 2012, the pair began helping the North Pinellas YMCA Summer Camp and have expanded their “Friends of Conner” involvement which benefits and helps children who are fighting cancer.
onner was there again this year and stayed only for part of the day since he had baseball practice at 3pm, but that reason in itself shows Conner is beating the big “C” and is living his life to the fullest. It was special seeing Conner this year get a photo with all around good guy Johnny Damon before the event started, and the pair talked for a bit and I think Conner inspired Johnny a bit that day (He later drained a 30-ft put on Hole 10).
At this year’s event we all got to meet another new “friend”, Dimitri or better known to all of us now as “D-Money”. Here is another crusader who is taking the fight to cancer, winning and showing all of us some amazing golf skills not only for someone of his age, but to the thrill of all of us young and old.
I watched in awe at Hole 9 as “D-Money” hit that ball almost on a string straight to the pin, only missing it by inches or getting a odd roll. More than once during the day Dimitri put his golf ball as close as anyone could, even a professional. If he keeps that up, “D-Money” will definitely get a shot to shoot the ball off a tee at Pebble Beach.
And it is great to see so many of these stellar athletes both young and retired mesh together with their parings and form memories and stories that will be told for years and years thanks to Litsch and Bechtel’s vision. I again walked the entire course and got nothing by waves and smiles from the pairings as they teed off, set up their putts or took a few moment to relax at the Red Bull “Oasis” at Hole 10.
Mixing the grand game of golf with a small slice of athletic challenges bring a unique energy to this event. Sure there is still the usual “Closest to the Pin”, and “Longest Drive” competitions, but the skills sometimes brings the celebrities and amateurs together bonding in both laughter and amazement.
But for me the best time of the event is the roll towards the end of the day. As dinner approaches the volume and capacity of the dining area grows with tales of the day. People gather who might not usual know each other as converse about the event, the silent auction items and even about a few celebrities at the next table or next to them in line at the buffet table. As the evening comes to a close awards are given out, people take a last chance at their auction wants, and new friendships and memories are sealed into us forever thanks to this event.
I can not thank George, Jesse, Kevin and Debbie enough for their hospitality over the last few years as I also got indoctrinated to this event and finding myself each January now saving the date for another round of fun and charity to support this organizations charities and objectives.
If you want a day of fun you will remember for a long, long time. Want to help children in the Northern reaches of Pinellas county and beyond, then you have to be a part of the 5th Annual Jesse Litsch & Bechtel Financial Celebrity Golf Tournament. But be warned, this event is addictive because once you have gotten a glimpse and taste of all the great times and experiences, you will be back again the next year knowing the golf again will be fantastic, the food delicious and the company on and off the course above par.
Hope to see you at the 2014 Jesse Litsch & Bechtel Financial Celebrity Golf Tournament.
Here is a Flickr Link to a photo set of all the pictures taken during the 2012 Jesse Litsch & Bechtel Financial Celebrity Golf Tournament. All photos are public and can be saved to your computer if you want to print them. I never make my photos private so the great events moments can be shared by anyone and everyone.
I do not remember the first time I went out to the Tyrone area of St. Petersburg, Florida and watched my first Miracle League ballgame. Here were kids, some with huge physical disadvantages with smiles going from ear-to-ear laughing, along with their adult co-pilots whistling around a soft surfaced baseball diamond with the ease and grace of deer or birds. I tugs deep inside you to see the joy, adulation and huge amounts of spirit on display not only by the cheering parents and friends, but by other kids awaiting their own turn at the plate.
The Miracle League was the first charity ex-Tampa Bay Rays catcher Toby Hall took under his wing when he began his foundation. As the league as grown, so has Hall’s involvement with another great institution, Buddy Baseball who now joins side-by-side with The Miracle League as Hall’s main baseball charitable interests. Both of these leagues embrace the positive things about the game of baseball as well as promote equality as players no matter your limitations and bring about a honest and positive experience for all involved.
And this is something Hall has not only embraced during his playing days, but also kept the spirit alive and thriving since his retirement from baseball last season. His foundation and his annual Toby Hall Spring Training Celebrity Golf Tournament have grown just as much as his charities, and the involvement of present and past athletes from the Tampa Bay are and beyond have stepped to the plate and knocked balls clear past the fences with their charitable donations and efforts.
From his golf day events and raffles, to that evening much anticipated silent auction, I have been glad to watch as this event has grown into an event that people mark on their calendars as far back as October to be a part of this event.
This season I got a grand honor of being the celebrity greeter at the event and got to meet plenty of people I have never met personally as well as greet old baseball friends and past participants who remember my face. And this event is not only for baseball players. The assorted collection of athletes and celebrities from this region that show support for this event runs a gambit from artists like TW Curtis, Hooters/ Sports radio icon Lynne Austin, Rays “strapping young Rays lad Todd Kalas, and even Fisher from 97X radio grace the celebrity pairings as well as guys who made their name on the fields, ice and gridirons.
From the frozen ice we saw former Tampa Bay Lightning goalie, Pat Jablonski putting a few dimpled balls into the cup. Boxing champion Winky Wright took a few doglegs left and right this year as well as Montgomery Biscuits Coach Ozzie Timmons and his memorable pants. Even LPGA golfer Brittany Lincicome and Lantana Stone made celebrity appearances this year. Buried in the list of celebrities was also a race car driver, Martin Plowman. In all, athletes from ex-Bucs great Mike Alstott to Wright made their yearly pilgrimage to Hall’s event, and as always, fun was in the air and the kid’s were on our minds.
The day was prefect for golf. Not to hot, not to cold (until the later hours) and just enough wind to drive the golfers crazy with slices and hooks, but also keep the sweat off your neck and arms to prevent a little too much Sun. Even special treats like amazing Bloody Marys via an icy adventure, to succulent and tangy shrimp cakes with an amazing sauce kept spirits high and fun at an explosive level. It was great seeing old Rays baseball friends like Dan Wheeler, Trever Miller, Andy Sonnanstine, Jason Romano, Randy Winn and the “Crime Dog” Fred McGriff take time out of their schedules for such a great cause.
Other current MLB players like Adam Lind, Jesse Litsch and AJ Pierzenski (who brought his own foursome) along with the Rays rotation duo of Alex Cobb and Matt Moore showed their support for Hall’s charities as well as play a pretty competitive and good spirited round of golf. And the Tampa Bay Bucs were not absent from the festivities as former players like Alstott, Dave Moore, Anthony Becht and Reidel Anthony played along side current Bucs WR Vincent Jackson during the scramble tournament.
As always, the day began with everyone relaxing, eating some lunch and getting themselves ready for a great day for golf and supporting Hall’s many charitable organizations. From mulligans purchases to the final bids of the evening at the banquet with our new comedic friend “hook ‘em horns” guy, the event came to a final end with some of the kids and parents of both charities in attendance at the nightly banquet/silent auction.
I even got into the spirit this season bidding on a great autographed item and being able to take it home and proudly put it on my wall as a reminder of this great event and the guy who brings joy to so many kids within The Miracle League and Buddy Baseball.
So, I need the date for next year because I definitely want to highlight it and save it because who would not want to be a part of this foundation’s great events and shake hands with the humble host who always seems to get that clutch donation. I have always had mad respect for Hall, but this season I think I can ratchet it up a few more hundred notches.
Always a pleasure helping Toby out with this event, and I’m not only looking forward to the 2014 Toby Hall Spring Training Celebrity Golf Tournament, but 3-4 years into the future as it is so much fun to volunteer and be a part of such a great event hosted by such a humble and great supporter of the game of baseball. Call me anytime Toby, I’ll help in anyway possible.
Here is a Flickr link to all 81 photos taken during the 2013 Toby Hall Spring Training Celebrity Golf Tournament.
Sometimes things happen in the off-season that just boggles your mind. Players are picked up for their subtle and special nuances that can be used by a statistical savant like Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon to intricately change the delicate nature of a game in progress, possibly for his advantage based on match-up potential situations or maybe even a simple hunch.
I know there is a logical explanation and suitable conclusion to why the Rays are currently carrying 7 out of a possible 9 infield players on their 40-man roster, 1 signed player but not added to the 40-man roster yet, plus 2 additional players who are non-roster invites who can man the middle infield. Considering the Rays traded for their potential starting shortstop in Yunel Escobar, you have to logically conclude that 8 of the other 9 might have to fight tooth and nail to get selected for that revolving door slot known as Second Base.
I think with the large amount of veteran bodies vying for a job at 2B, you can easily see the current Triple-A duo of Tim Beckham and Hak-Ju Lee getting their fair share of starts and possibilities this Spring, but the reality is they are the Rays future for right now and with minor league control on both players, their rise to the MLB level might not come until possibly September barring an unforeseen Rays injury situation.
So that immediately shuffled the field down by a third and with the Rays facing 3 different player signing going “official” this week, maybe a few old Rays household names will be bidding the team farewell even before the positional players make their way to Port Charlotte, Florida. 3 other Rays middle infielders who might be on the invisible bubble might be the enigmas known as Elliot Johnson, Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac could all get an unexpected call or pulled in from the Rays Spring Clubhouse soon possibly severing their Rays tenure.
All 3 did not have the kind of 2012 campaigns the Rays envisioned when they popped their name on the 25-man roster last Spring, and any or all of the 3 could be subject to waivers or possibly traded before the Rays officially add DH Luke Scott, 2B Kelly Johnson or RP Kyle Farnsworth to the Rays 40-man roster. You would think Johnson and Rodriguez might have the leg up on Brignac because of their utility play everywhere around the Rays infield, but even then, their lackluster numbers from last year could get them penciled in as potential casualties when the Rays add their 3 signed, sealed but not roster delivered players.
There are mumblings in the Rays Republic that “Briggy Baseball” might be the most expendable of the this enigmatic duo, possibly the first name to be announced and waived this week by the Rays. Brignac has had multiple chances to secure and hold onto his shortstop slot, but for some reason his bat did not follow him into either of the past 2 Rays seasons with any regularity. Johnson might get an initial pass because he is a switch-hitter just like tag-team 2B Ben Zobrist who will get to camp late this Spring as he is playing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.
Even with a slight edge over S-Rod, Johnson could find himself again straddling the bubble if he gets off to a weak Spring or doesn’t get into the game flow with consistency. You have to like Rodriguez’s chance since Spring seems to be the time he rises to the occasion and shines bright, but he could also see his star darkened if he gets off to a bad slump or has some defensive irregularities early on in camp. Another small sliver of hope for Rodriguez is the fact he still has 1 minor league option while Brignac and Johnson have exhausted their minor league options.
That takes care of 6 of the 7 players that currently are designated as “infielders” for the Rays. Zobrist is categorized as an “outfielder” on the Rays 40-man roster, but should see substantial playing time at Second Base along with the only other player listed, Ryan Roberts. “Tat Man” should have an advantage heading into Spring Training to secure a utility and tag-team situation with Zorilla at Second Base. Roberts did not have a huge year at the plate in 2012 either in Arizona or St. Petersburg, but should come into the Spring as a penciled in player in the mix for that part-time 2B gig. But there are other who might also have a say in it all before the roster is set into stone when the calendar changes to April.
Spring Training non-roster invites to the Major League camp have also been extended to MLB veteran Mike Fontenot and former Rays invitee Shawn O’Malley. Even with these 2 additional names to be put into the middle infield pot, Fontenot might have to stage a spectacular Spring to unseat any of the potential Rays utility players, but I also think O’Malley who made a great impression last Spring with the Rays might have a more viable chance to hang on late into the Spring Training schedule with Zobrist out and possibly be offered a Triple-A slot.
The Wild Card in this suspected scenario might just be newly signed, but not added to the roster Kelly Johnson who can basically play any of the fielding positions, including possibly being the guy who could give James Loney a rest. In Johnson’s favor to possibly get a long look and possible spot on the Rays 25-man roster is his ability to hit right-handed which could make him a valuable asset at First. And with KJ’s birthday coming in late February (22nd), he could possibly have an inside chance of securing a spot even before the Rays play the Red Sox in their first Grapefruit Series game.
2B or not 2B…….That is surely the question here as the Rays have a huge pool of player talent and potential to pick from the get their final selection before their first seasonal contest on April 2,2013 in Tropicana Field. This might be the strongest the middle infield as been in quite a few years in Tampa Bay, and with some of the names and potential, the players inked on the Rays final 25-man roster could provide that spark of offense the team needs along with some stellar defensive work.
This is not the way I ever envisioned it. I thought it would never end even into my old and lean years. Had visions of setting up a yearly trust to keep my seats in Tropicana Field or another vista secured and emblazoned with my moniker way past my final breath, but things changed in the flash of a few words and I am one of those who found his Tampa Bay Rays dream interrupted over the past few seasons by our local economic downward spiral.
Compound that with the true fact I siphoned every dollar I had in my old 401-K, any cent I had for incidentals at games until after the final post-season contest in 2010 I knew the end of my consecutive Rays venture was rounding its final bend and I ended up falling off my own fiscal cliff. From our inaugural minor league game way back at high non on June 19,1996 as the GCL Devil Rays took on the GCL Yankees at Al Lang Stadium I was committed to hitting games at any cost, any time and with vigor.
I was also one of those sleepy but excited Rays fans who walked into the Rotunda of the Trop even before the Sun rose into the Florida sky to watch our team play in Japan against the same Yankee squad and it was as much about support for my hometown team as it was my show of civic pride. I never expected my financial reservoir t run dry, even after my 2 ½ years of unemployment when I sat in my old seat for 161 of the possible 162 contests from 2009-2010.
Tampa Bay Times Rays beat writer Marc Topkins recently divulged information in his Heater blog that the citizens of St. Petersburg, Florida only number just above 300 Rays Season Ticket holders. That number represents only about a third of the Rays secured Season Ticket fan base in their home camp and this somehow translates to Major League Baseball that this region can not support a team. St. Pete is just a small finger on the hand of Tampa Bay but right now MLB is making me want to use a certain finger with vigor. Lost somehow in the MLB disapproval for the Rays fan base that this Tampa Bay hamlet as the rest of the region suffered greatly in the recession of funds with some once proud and supportive fans having no extra funds or like myself exhausting my resources to the penny until I had to walk away from my Seasonal bliss with the team not by choice, but because 1 and 1 did not make 2 anymore.
I know of more than 60 former Rays Season ticket holders who have either moved to less expensive seats or taken to their television sets or small Seasonal packages to suffice over the last few years. This was not done to punish the Rays because believe me, it is us, the fans who had to eliminate this luxury from our grasps who take full responsibility for this action. Some left after the Rays lifted their Season tickets to heights they could not swing a full season package without taking from their essential funds to live their lives away from Tropicana Field. And some walked away from their vested seats in tears knowing that once they made this move, they might never again get their seats back even after the economy rebounded and they had money in hand to again regain their past blue seat.
So MLB is upset the St. Petersburg fan base has evaporated into a thin rail of its former glory, but it did not happen overnight, and was not done in malice or for the wrong reasons. Even now as the economic picture is being painted brighter this season I know I might not be able to purchase or sit again in my old seat I treasured along the Bullpen Cafe back wall just a out-stretched hand away from touching players and old friends who ventured past my seat as I open and closed the iron gate. The wall damage inflicted by a Ben Zobrist crash so many years ago is still evident along with the signature I got affixed to the spot.
So many positive memories with caught baseball during games, chats with players both on the Rays and other teams during Batting Practice along with a nightly “hello” to the strapping young lad, Todd Kalas. Giving up that treasured seat was not centered on the yearly number during the 2011 season of $ 2,000 for those 81 contests, but the pure fact I was still not working and funds were on empty and I was forced to make my treks to the Trop in sporadic splashes instead of my daily or nightly stroll down the stairs of Section 138.
I have noticed over my last 2 absent seasons my old seat at the bottom of that section is not filled as much with a warm fan. It is a pity since I consider it one of the best values in the Trop and has a interesting sight-lines that gives you a unique angle down into the strike zone and perfect view to pitchers warming up so you can watch their mechanics and break to see if they are “ on their game” that game. Believe me, when I come to the Trop I still try and sit in my old location as much as possible and the two screw holes that once held my nameplate that I now have in my house saddens me when I sit there, but I also know hopefully one day I might again call it my second home.
I hit the Rays website today to see how high the asking price is now for my old seat that has been over the last few seasons reclassified from an Outfield seat to a Baseline Box seat has risen way past the 2011 cost of $2,000 for my blue seat to a wild $3,527.00 price listed. In 2 years my one seat has risen over $1,500. and people wonder why some have relinquished their once highly guarded secret seats. So it hit me today that I may have sat my last Rays game from my old cherished perch because the current amount is over my luxury spending limit.
I wish I could of kept that seat with its unpublished and unknown extras, but even as I’m now working I can not afford a hit like that without losing a necessity or two. And it saddens me that my old spot is out of my reach now. And I know mine is only one example of why a former Rays Season Ticket holder with a St. Petersburg address is now a yearly nomad coming to handfuls of games instead of venturing through the Rays rotunda with regularity.
It is nothing personal to the Rays or MLB, but sometimes you have to make the hard choice and when that happens, sometimes a thing you love takes the hit. So I will find Topkin this Spring and tell him “I’m guilty as charged.”
I am proud of my town, my team and will support it through another series of half season packages that do not seem to include my old seat as the Rays have deemed it either a Season Ticket or Game Day selection with no chance of ever regaining it even unless I hit those 6 lovely Lotto numbers. And it is a pity because I want to be number 301 or more I be a positive force and figure to the Rays and MLB that this town loves this game and wants to support it in any way imaginable just now from another seat somewhere under the tilted cap of the Trop. And without a 81 game commitment.
I am one of those people who just sit there and shakes my head when Major League Baseball or one of the Tampa Bay Rays front office head honchos talk about the fan base within 30 miles of their current home in the downtown section of St. Petersburg, Florida. I understand the logic that Rays Senior Vice President of Development and Business Affairs was trying to convey that only “600,000 people live within a 30-minute drive of the Trop”. But you have to remember the founding Fathers of Rays baseball knew the Trop would be surrounded by water on 3-sides and still they built it because they believed “If you build it, they (baseball) would come”.
It is quite understandable that the consolidated population number quoted by Kalt would be low considering to the West of St. Petersburg there is about 7-8 miles of fans before you hit the Gulf of Mexico. To the South of the Trop’s current location there are some 7 miles of fans then you splash into the estuary that is Tampa Bay or travel over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to a small segment of people in the Palmetto and Ellenton. If Rays SP David Price threw a stone due East he would hit about 2 miles of potential or actual fans, then his rock would hit only water until you venture over to the other side of Tampa Bay towards Apollo Beach and possibly a few dozen faithful Rays manatees by the TECO power plant.
If you journeyed North from Tropicana Field you would get the second biggest segment of the fan base within that 30-minute trek as Pinellas County forms a bit of a lower case “b” from the St. Petersburg area and narrows considerably until you get up in the Palm Harbor and Oldsmar areas which then you can travel eastbound on solid soil. If you travels Northeast over either the Gandy or Howard Franklin Bridges you get a minority of the fan base population not situated in the heart of St. Petersburg with the 30-minute window and on a good driving day might find that 30-minute stopping point about halfway through Tampa possibly basically near 50th Street just a short tad short of historic Ybor City.
Kalt is right that St. Petersburg and the lower half of Pinellas County are cut off a bit from the population core that has sprung up over the last 10 years venturing North, East and South of the metro Tampa area. With water on our 3-sides it makes sense we might not have the fan base of some Triple-A teams. I would love to have the luck of landlocked cities like Atlanta and Cincinnati who have their Triple-A squads within a car ride away from the MLB Clubhouse, plus do not have a water trap like we do here in St. Petersburg to act as a deterrent to some fans beyond the 30-minute drive window.
I understand totally the logic and slanted numbers here that show that the current Trop location doesn’t have the ample 30-minute availability of some more centrally located areas in the Tampa Bay region. But I wonder if anyone has done any research to see if the numbers show a more positive swing if the stadium was situated in the Carillion Park region of Pinellas, or if the numbers are staggering to show a Tampa slant, possibly more in the Dale Mabry/Raymond James Stadium region than in the Tampa Channelside or downtown region. Of course the farther you go East, the higher the population base would be as you are going farther away from the St. Petersburg situation of water on 3-side and venture into other cities like Brandon, Seffner, Plant City and maybe a sliver of Lakeland, Florida.
Bashing the Trop’s current location is the modus operandi of Major League Baseball and the Rays right now because it shows a negative population impact compared to some other areas within the land-based regions of Tampa. It bothers me when numbers that are slanted and made to swerve left and right into the plans of the Rays and other factions. St. Petersburg and its citizens do not deserve the negativity. I understand the numbers, concur with the Rays logic, but if the stadium had been placed in mid-Pinellas where a majority of us Rays Republic fans had hoped back in the 1980′s, this mumbo-jumbo of stats would not be thrown into the ring at all.
Some times people forget this region was so baseball hungry back in the 80′s, way before the Rays expansion team was awarded we built a stadium hoping baseball would come. Tried to buy,relocate and even got stonewalled by MLB before we got our team via expansion. Sure the old St. Pete Gas Plant location might not have been the most feasible location even back in the 1980′s, but the site was decided by some people who felt it was a centrally located area at that time. It is a foregone conclusion baseball has a limited shelf life in the confines of Tropicana Field, but to downgrade a region that can not expand horizontally because of H2O to me is just wrong. The reality of it all is the initial site that became the Trop was the wrong spot and that was decided way before the building was rigged for baseball and was home to large concerts, huge Home Shows and even a high-caliber of NHL Hockey and Arena Football.
Sure Kalt is right about his numbers, but why should we give more ammo to the already negative outside National media to our stadium’s present location and attendance when even in its current Rays mindset of being an illogical location, it still has some of the best sight lines in baseball and is home to a high-octane MLB team.
The proposed new Rays home will logically be some distance from the Trop’s current location, but why throw so much negativity about the current stadium location when we all know deep down and in our hearts will be plucked from the St. Petersburg region. The first 15 years of this franchise has seen huge changes across the board, 2 championships, a Wild Card berth and 21,059,547 proud Rays fans have ventured through the rotunda at Tropicana Field the last 15 seasons most not afraid of a 30 minute drive to watch quality MLB baseball.
I think it is time. We have hit that moment where either we have to throw the Carolina blue curtain back and expose that some within the castle of Major League Baseball have given their ceremonial “thumbs down” on this once vacation and getaway vista for any viable baseball long-term existence. And within their recent comments to that effect, MLB and their top honcho Bud Selig have fired yet another cannon blast over the Tampa Bay communities bow and if we again stick our heads in the sand and hope the situation will evolve without comment, we could see this team take their balls and bats and move away leaving a huge void again in our sports lives.
There are groups within this community outside the Rays own fortress walls who have whispered and made subordinate plans and survival methods for this franchise to stay rooted in the Tampa Bay area, but there is also someone within the political arena who needs to take off his Bermuda shorts and pull on his “big boy” pants before this team packs their bags and beats a hasty retreat to a community that awaits them with open arms and checkbooks. If Tampa Bay had their own “Doomsday clock” we would have heard a distinct loud click of the minute hand as it moved one more moment towards our impending reality that too many moments have been wasted and only a clear and concise plan will move the hand further away from that final movement towards the end.
And it is not all St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster’s arms crossed and bullying action that have eroded MLB’s mindset to baseball surviving their low attendance numbers and minimal show of season long support by the fans or the local Tampa Bay community. Sure Foster and his threat of spanking anyone and everyone with lawsuits and punitive punishments has put any plans of a Rays stadium outside the kingdom of Foster’s own chalk drawn lines a political and financial nightmare, but maybe it is time to remind Foster of the fact most St. Petersburg voters have him firmly in their crosshairs as the main reason for the blockage of any real talks going on within the sunshine instead of behind the cloaked curtain with our brethren beyond the Howard Franklin.
Reality is there are plans out their for the revival of baseball on either side of that big divide we call the estuary Tampa Bay, but Foster’s firm stand and opposing legal thumb has kept any vocal talk of any progresses or recesses to the press releases or behind doors to keep the bay of lawyers barking within the city limits of St. Petersburg as Tampa and Hillsborough county make their own revival plans.
Maybe it is time Foster give a 2 or 3-week reprisal to let the Rays talk to whoever wants to listen or work with them in a stadium development and realistic plan to keep baseball in this cluster of cities that eagerly want an end to this drama and again rejoice in the sound of bat upon ball in that small cluster of 180 days that is the MLB season. St. Petersburg has already lost their Spring Training iconic focus with no team training here for some time, and no team looking to this community since the Mayor seems to be pushing the wrong buttons within the MLB hierarchy and no reprisal on the horizon.
Foster has to know there is a plan being whispered on the other side of the waters of Tampa Bay in the city that has the expansive land masses that can afford a stadium revival as his city lays surrounded by water on 3 sides and has limited space and populous to grow a sound foundation. This is hard for me to write because I am a proud St. Petersburg native who was birthed just a super human throw from Tropicana Field and have a firm and honest love for this community, but the reality is afoot that maybe the true answer to keeping the Rays and MLB in this region might be located across to our city rival, Tampa. Sure I wanted the stadium on the waterfront when it was announced in 2008, but a small segment of this city’s population put the same fear in the Rays as Foster is now employing and the Rays have remained silent until recently.
Sure the Rays are now talking with both the Pinellas and Hillsborough County Commissions on their wants and needs, but is it too late and this is the beginning of the end because of Foster still keeping his thumb firmly on the Rays coattails to keep them on his city and not exploring any other vista for fear of them liking another vista instead of his fine hamlet. I know it is not lost on Foster that even if a Tampa plan unfolded, his city would get a nice chunk of change possibly helping his own city budget concerns and then leaving him with the demolition of the old tilted cap that is Tropicana Field, but also with a huge bit of acreage for further development and taxable income to the city.
It is time for Foster to pull his hands back and let the Rays talk among the community, explore beyond the confirms of the St. Petersburg city limits and at least see what offers and plans have been circumvented in blacked rooms and boardrooms possibly to find a plan that would not only keep baseball in this community for a long, long time, but also reap financial rewards and increased fan base that would make MLB eyes look further West to the Oakland A’s and San Jose debacle and leave the Tampa Bay area knowing progress is only a sunrise away.
The Rays talking with the two county commissions is firm starting point to an open discussion and possible back-and-forth motion of ideas and proposals that could escalate into a real and concise future home for the Rays that would make them economically sound as well as increase their fan base foothold within this community. Foster’s actions to me remind me of the old political “Good old boys” firm hand and an iron fist mentality that reined in this region in the 50′s and 60′s.
New ideas, plans and excitement will keep the Rays in this community and Foster holding the team tightly to his ideals and wants only makes them want to escape that grasp and explore even more. Foster has a right to want to protect his town’s revenues and most visible tenant, but his strong hand notions have not worked in recent years and maybe it is time to take another path, let the Rays venture eastbound and look at their options and explore the horizons that have been blanketed from them for so long. Foster knows if he wants a second term in office the Rays could be his linchpin to defeat or victory.
Maybe the best thing Foster can do for St. Petersburg right now is release his grip a but and let the Rays do their due diligence. Who knows, maybe the team will see the Pinellas county ideas are not unfounded and possibly stay within the city limits. But the other reality is that Foster’s firm grip on the team’s stadium discussion could become even more constrictive in the near future and in effect choke the life out of the Rays stadium situation. Yep, it is time for the “big boy” pants to come out and we give viable options to the Rays before they decide that distant pastures have more appeal….outside of Tampa Bay.