Results tagged ‘ Cliff Wittig ’

Something Special seems to be Missing?



Mark O’Meara / AP

Even before the Tampa Bay Rays started their 2007 season I had a gut level reaction that we were within a few years of breaking the “losers” curse and begin a winning tradition. That season I left my job at Pepsi and was anxiously seeking a position somewhere in the Rays organization. Something within me had me thinking that this franchise was about to turn a corner, and I really wanted a front row seat to the show.
 

Maybe the final piece was put into place during Spring Training in 2008, when Rays starter Scott Kazmir spoke of a playoff dream for the Rays that season, and the media snickered to themselves. But what they might not have known was the level of ease and comfort this team had with each other coming into this final season of Spring Training at Rays Namoli complex in St. Petersburg. 

That this team liked spending time with each other both away and at the ballpark. That veterans in the Bullpen wanted to have dinners accompanied by the entire Bullpen, not just small groups filing in when they felt like it. Small groups of leader began to emerge in the clubhouse, each with their own special flair in support of the team. Carlos Pena was the fashion plate who dressed like a million dollars and had a boat load of confidence and inner strength. Cliff Floyd was the new guy who had been to multiple playoff runs and knew what it would take to funnel this team into winners.

And then you had the odd broad-shoulder pairing of Eric Hinske and Jonny Gomes who could reduce the clubhouse into tears of laughter and  showed extreme amount of emotion and passion for the game. Then  you had the Rays rotation, all under 26 years of age who acted 5 years older than their birth certificates listed on any given day. From top to bottom, this team enjoyed each other not only as teammates, but as a sense of brotherhood.  And that can be a powerful tool when you are molding yourself to do something you team has never done before………..Win, and win now!


Steve Nesius/ AP

And we all know how far that confidence and that slight air of arrogance got this team. How dare they trample to pecking order of the American League East and sit on top of the division for most of the season. How dare they take the mighty Red Sox Nation to 7 games, then disregard them like rag dolls on their way to the team’s first World Series appearance. And all throughout this adventure was door and door being broken down by this bunch of Rays. They had changed their logos and uniforms in November 2007, and with that stripped the losing mentality along with the loss of the forest green caps.

The 2008 Rays even on the plane ride home after World Series game 5.5 were not looking forward to leaving each other yet. the bond of this squad was tight, and the general feeling was that to separate would be the end of that karma train. So as the team packed up after the trip home and had their baseball belongings sent from sea-to-shining sea, they hoped that vibe would continue for a a second shot at the title. They wanted that feeling amongst each of them to hibernate and spring to life in late February 2009, but it was never the same.

People have been trying to find multiple reasons for the wild mood swings and the odd chemistry this team seems to have in 2009. Some might say it is a little bit of the leftover World Series experience mixed with a new found respect for how hard it is to repeat in this game. But the meshing of this team out of Spring Training in 2009 did not have the same feeling to it. You could see it on the field. The powerful defense became average for some reason. The power stroke of B J Upton seemed to be stalled by surgery and unforeseen situations.

The all-mighty pitching staff, the saviors in 2008 seemed to be subdued this season. Almost in a calm serenity than in a mix of attitude and daring antics. Gone was  the fire you could see in their eyes and feel in their voices. Not extinguished, but down to embers. The offense still churned to its own beat just like in 2008 finding new heroes every night or so to prop up as examples that 2009 is better than 2008. But other key components of the hitting seemed to be lagging behind and could not adjoin with the rest. This team did not have that fundamental same feeling to it. Something critical was missing.


www.FSNFlorida.com

And some would say it was a few of the fire-breathers that were no longer here like Jonny Gomes, Eric Hinske and Cliff Floyd who inspired by example, and shined through by pure energy and power. You knew that Floyd would take the “father” role and try and nurture some of the guys into becoming better more productive members of the team. Hinske you knew would be fired-up and ready for battle at any time, and he carried that same energy out on the field with him. And Gomes was the ultimate confidence guy.

If someone did something amazing, he was one of the first to see you as you came on the bench. Each of the three had a key role in the bench players, the same way Trever Miller and Dan Wheeler did with the Bullpen guys. They always discussed things, always compared notes, and dined together out on the road. You knew that even young ace Scott Kazmir and the other rotation members keyed off each other to try and post a quality start every time out. People on this team genuinely rooted for each other day in, and day out to succeed. 

 

And this season there has seemed to be something missing from the beginning. Even when I went down to Spring Training for the first time in Port Charlotte, you felt a different vibe. Not a negative energy, just something different. Gomes, Hinske, Miller and Floyd, all left for other teams, and the incoming guys did not replace that lost energy or that instant energy levels. There was leadership in this clubhouse, and there was a sign of wanting to again reach the top of the hill, but it did not have any urgency or finality to it.

For some reason this 2009 edition of the Rays had the talents, abilities and the heart to produce a winner, but some of the classic energy and chemistry seemed to be lacking at moments. And those gaps in the system showed up from time to time. Lackluster performances without someone coming over and encouraging you. A more quiet bench than in 2008 when you never knew what would be said or visualized f
rom a distance. Plenty of times in 2008 the bench seemed alive and the 26th player on the team.

But this season that player is missing in action. Maybe he was lost in the charts and the schemes and the general “cool” vibe of the clubhouse. There is still a huge amount of fire in this team, but they have to spread the embers out again and add wood to that fire. As the losses total up the members grow darker and darker this year, with pillows of hot spots peaking out, and the general feeling of extended dread hanging over the game. And the Rays coaches might have sensed this too.


www.FSNFlorida.com

With traveling parties all dressed in black, dressed in all white and also cowboy wear it is a basic team building exercise to promote from within a pride and a energy among the team. And it has worked at times and had extended into the road trip and on into the next home stand, but the energy seems to dip down again and another action/reaction has to be pulled out of this team. Props and events like this can mold a team, but only if all of them want to mesh as one.

Rays Manager Joe Maddon, knowing the recent stress and daily barrage of expectations went with a “Ring of Fire” Johnny Cash tribute road trip. With this road trip now history and the team heading back to Tampa Bay with a 4-3 record on this trip, was it a success? Or is it going to be an ongoing theme for the rest of the season. Last year the rally cry fell under the guise of a “Rayhawk” with several players even going above and beyond the usual mode of hair. 

But for some reason the black hair sported now by Maddon has been christened the 2009 version of the “Rayhawk”, and again there have been a great response to the visual bonding agent, but it doesn’t feel the same. This team is a little more laid-back than the 2008 version, both in personalities and in outward bursts of energy. Maybe it is time for each of these guys to dig deep and know that for the Rays to again taste that Mumm’s champagne, they all have to crank it up a few notches and leave it all on the field.

I know I do not have a solid answer for this decline in energy and outward excitement. I wish I had the perfect solution, because I would march into the Rays offices with the answer. I would proudly ask to speak with Maddon and present this gift with nothing in return. Some times it is the simple things that get us the most confused. Maybe all the expectations and promises have clouded the goal. Something missing this year has been a long winning streak, a true defining moment that separates this club from all the others in the MLB.


Steve Nesius / AP

We have all seem the signs at different times this season. Players have shown us that even the “Team Meetings” at home plate after Walk-off wins seem more subdued compared to 2008. I know it is not a case of “Been there, done that!”, but it could be a symptom of the problem.  Maybe something as simple as playing like you are 10-years old again and remembering the fun will shakes the cobwebs and give the Rays back their mojo.

Like I said, if I had the right answer, I would bottle it and sell it to everyone else, but the Rays could have it for FREE. For I want to again see the smiles nightly on their faces for no reasons. See the bubble gum bubbles on top of players caps. I want to see the sunflower seed competitions between the Bullpen guys again. Maybe it is just wishing for the past, maybe it is hoping for the future, maybe it is just about something as simple as having fun playing a kids game again.

Daughtry Short Photo Blog


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Okay, anyone who knows that I have a soft spot for rockers. It might be the lifestyle I drew up with, or it might be the lifestyle I always wanted in life, but a good hard rocking song can get me fired up everytime. So last night in the latest edition of the Rays Concert Series they invited former America Idol fan favorite Chris Daughtry and his band, Daughtry to the Trop. for  a FREE after the game concert.


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What was really exiciting is this was the first stop on their concert tour for 2009. They had been in Hamilton, Ontario only two days earlier still doing their final prep work before they got on a tour bus and headed to St. Petersburg, Florida for the beginning of their tour. This is the third time they have been on tour after their original tour made an appearance in the smaller venue of the State Theatre in St. Petersburg. During their second tour they were truly blessed to be the opening act for Bon Jovi.


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The band spent the first part of the Rays game against the Kansas City Royals up in a suite just above the Maddon’s Maniac logo just above Section 136 ion the right field section of the Trop. The band and Daughtry would occasionally come out to the rail and smile and wave to the fans below. A young Rays fan even threw up a blue cowbell for the band drummer Joey at one point in the game. They also took in some of the rituals of the Trop such as the blue cotton candy that Joey had purchased during the game.


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During last night’s the band did a mixture of their second album material and some of the great hits off their first album. The song “Crashed” had a different feel in last night performance, and wasa softer version of the previously recorded hit.  The band did end the night with the song that has come to identify the band in the last two years. “Home” also had a great feel to it and he did throw some extra octaves into it and it thrilled the crowd both on the stadium floor and in the stands.


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Some of the band did hang out after the concert and mingled with Rays fans before finally being whisked away to the Vinoy. The band will make their second appearance tonight at the House of Blues in Orlando. The only negative to the enitre night, but I can give him a flyer because the show was so good was the fact he reffered to the city as “Tampa” in his Twitter video last night. But that might also be connected to the fact he was on the tour bus heading to O-town and might have seen a “Tampa” sign along I-275 before he made the video. So let me end this short photo blog with the two Twitter videos sent out by the band before and after the concert last night.

http://www.twitvid.com/player/16FD1

http://www.twitvid.com/player/ABD70

Cursi gets ready for All Star game action

 

                   
                     RHaggerty@Flickr.com

Those people who know me in the Trop know I have a good baseball relationship with one of the members of the Rays staff. I would like to think I have a good rapport with several people, but you never really know what is said off the field. Anyways, I have had a post-game gesture with this person since 2001, and I have never tried to revert or change that routine for the fear of breaking a superstition. It is more me than him, but I truly look forward to it right after each third out in victory or in defeat. It is a simple gesture, but it is a bond I have with him  in my baseball world.

It is a simple hand salute off the baseball cap, but it has symbolism beyond just the motion to me. I met this guy back in 2001 when I was sitting the the Bullpen Cafe ( before Checkers bought the rights) and he used to always come over before the games to chat with myself and a good friend. I got to know this guy pretty well beyond the foul lines on the diamond, and also had on a few occasions had the chance to meet him over at Ferg’s with others for a post-game brew and some chatter. It was a special time for me because he was living the dream. He was on the field. It did not matter to me that ex-Ray Toby Hall or Greg Vaughn was standing right next to me up in the upstairs bar at Ferg’s run by former Rays Tony Saunders. Those were the simple times with Rays Bullpen catcher Scott Cursi  and they have been amazing.

I have gone on road trips following the teams in recent years and Cursi and Chico Fernandez, the Rays Video Coordinator have always welcomed me into their post-game events and we have spent some good times in other cities. Places like Cleveland where we went after a game into the Warehouse District and did the usual pub crawls checking out the nightlife and the local club scene. Or maybe it was a great atmosphere of Swannee’s in Seattle when I went a few years ago and he told me of prior years when Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff were in this same small bar drinking  a few beverages and there with the fans.  I just wanted to give you guys another side of the guy former Rays broadcaster Joe Magrane called “The Enforcer.”


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So when Cursi came over the other day before the game and we chatted for a bit I told him I was upset for finding out that he was getting married in December by seeing it in the Rays 2009 Media Guide. But what he told me next was exciting, even bigger to me than the fact he and Stephanie were going to tie the knot on the beach. Cursi sat there and told me he was going to get a chance to maybe catch during the 2009 State Farm Home Run Derby. I was not totally surprised since I knew he was going to be at the All-Star game in the Bullpen anyways as a member of Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s staff. But the added thrill of seeing Scott catch with the world watching him was simply amazing.

But in the last week there might be a small problem here with Cursi even catching in the Home Run Derby. You see, Evan Longoria can bring along his own pitcher for the event, and Cursi is one of the staff who almost daily throws Batting Practice to the Rays players. In such, you would think he would want a Rays staffer, since they are already there for the All Star game to throw to him. But there is a simple answer.

He could ask Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey to throw to him with Cursi catching and all will be great in Happy Valley. But I am not sure if Hickey will want to do that on such a large stage. Not that he doesn’t have the chops or the pitching ability ( he does), but the fact si he might be concentrating on the All Star pitching staff during that first day. But it would be a simple resolution to the problem, and would bring about a unique angle to the game.

But to even throw more cold water on either idea is the fact that Longoria, who was imformed by MLB he was the highest vote getter in the American League to participate in the State Farm Home Run Derby, might bow out of the competition to save his ailing hamstring. With the health concern, that is a good idea for Longo, but hopefully he is not pulling out after a poor showing
in the 2008 Home Run Derby. Maybe teammate Ben Zobrist could take his spot?  I wonder, have there ever been any switch-hitting home runs hit during the Home Run Derby? I will check on it and let you know the answer…..

It almost makes me want to find some way financially to make it to the game and see it in person. I do not want an outfield seat, but just something near the field so I could yell out to Cursi before he squatted behind the dish and watch dinger after dinger disappear into the St. Louis night. Think of how amazing that is going to be for the guy who has put in countless hours and time warming-up pitchers and coming in and catching pitching prospects and potential free agents over the years for the Rays. I thought 2008 might be the top of the  proverbial mountain for some people in the Rays organization, but the hits just keep on rolling here for Cursi.

I am truly so excited that my baseball buddy get to live the All-Star dream on the field this season and also get to attend some of those exclusive and sought after events during the All-Star experience. I can not think of anyone else in baseball that I think deserves that honor than Cursi. Seriously here, the guy has bled Rays green, blue and even yellow for this franchise and this is another great life experience for him in his position with the Rays. But I think I need to let you know a little bit about Scott Cursi before I go today. He is in his 11th season with the Rays organization, and his 13th in professional baseball.  He spent three seasons as the Bullpen Catcher for the Double-A Orlando Cubs and the Orlando Rays of the Southern League from 1996-1998. 

               
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And sometimes you will also see him late in the Rays Batting Practice throwing balls to the hitters on the mound.  Cursi played college baseball at Seminole Community College in Orlando and graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in Physical Education.  Before he made his trek to Florida, Cursi spent four seasons coaching for Bishop Waterson High School in Columbus, Ohio under Ohio baseball legend Scott Manahan. The guy knows baseball inside and out, and that has only endeared him more to the Rays. 

So Congrats Scott. You deserve a spot in the television of the world, and you can be sure all of Tampa Bay will be watching for you to put your mask on and squat behind the plate during the State Farm Home Run Derby. I know you will have some great memorable chats with some of the hitters that night, and I hope I can hear some of those stories some night after a game over some cool, refreshing beverages with great company. But until then I will just give to the hand salute to the cap back every night and wish you a safe road trip, and tons of great baseball memories.

Hodge Podge of Saturday Samplings

 


Steve Nesius / AP

Today I am thinking a million things and my mind is running a mile a minute. Every once in a while it seems like there is so much going on that I can not even think of getting even 50 percent of it out to people since my little Acer net book went down in a pile of flaming programming errors. That is right, my new little toy decided it did not want to be in the media world and committed cyber-suicide by shutting down the operating system and playing dead for me.

I was lucky enough to have this happen within the 90-day warranty time and they are in the waiting process of sending me a spanking new unit that they have check out prior to them sending it to me. Put that little adventure along with my room mate now getting into blog talk radio and I have limited time on my own home computer. Imagine that, I have to schedule time on my own computer now. Guess living in the laundry room no longer has its perks. lol

Seriously, I get most of the day and some night time hours that I squeeze in by force, not by kindness. But it could be worse, could still have that refrigerator box on the three skateboards moving the box to different locales every third night for ambiance. So let’s get to some Tampa Bay Rays news that the local media might not know, or want to tell you right now.


Fly Like an Eagle

I have to admit, the idea was amazing the pageantry of the event was spectacular and even the first glimpse of that majestic bird leaving the arm of the cute handler was a sight to be seen. It brought a great wave of positive emotions while I stood there during the National Anthem and watched that beautiful creature do several laps around the Rays outfield before finally deciding to rest.

The birds motions while flying around the outfield were so fluid and amazing to me. I have seen eagles fly in the wild while staying in Washington state with relative for the summers, but watching one in your favorite ballpark was truly a memory for the ages.

 

But the place this majestic bird decided to roost for about an inning was not the planned ending spot for the event. The bird, maybe by divine intervention, or maybe just for a bird’s eye view decided to finally come to rest on the letter “S” in Rays that is painted on the slanted roof of the Batter’s Eye Restaurant in Tropicana Field. We know it was not a planned event because of the sheer facial expression on the trainers face as she stood in the middle of the Rays outfield looking up that the bald eagle sitting boldly and triumphantly on the roof.

Of course they did finally get him to move towards the trainer up on the roof, but not after a good 10 minutes of him just sitting there checking out the crowd like the proud symbol he represents. It was only by accident that he picked that spot on the roof, but it made for a classic Rays moment, and hopefully an good luck omen for the team the rest of the season. I hope we can again see this awesome bird fly at Tropicana Field and you too can see the effortless flight and beauty up close of this great bird.


Mike Carlson / AP


C C Does it Again

The have been tons of amazing feats and plays by Carl Crawford in his Rays career. The guy has been a huge part of this franchise since he first came up from the minors in 2002. It is hard to imagine this Rays team without him on their roster. But among all the spectacular events and game play during Saturday nights game was lost some huge moments for Carl Crawford as a Rays player. 

Crawford on Saturday night played in his 1,000th Rays game, and according to the Elias Bureau, the Rays are the last of the 30 current MLB clubs to reach that 1,000 game plateau in their careers.  During that time, Crawford has amassed 87 triples and 341 stolen bases for the Rays.

What is more amazing is that he is the only player aside from Ty Cobb who has amassed as many triples and stolen bases through his first 1,000 games. Crawford is already the Rays All-Time leader in a multitude of categories like triples, stolen bases, hits, RBI, runs and at-bats. With his next double, he will also take over the current doubles title currently held by former Ray Aubrey Huff at 172 doubles.

Crawford is also one stolen base shy of his 6th season of 40+ steals in a year.  What is truly amazing is that his 39 current steals are the most by Crawford before the All-Star break. And right now he is ahead of his career high when he stole 59 bases in 2004.


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Home Sweet Home

Every team in the major league baseball knows of the traditions of the noise that can rock Tropicana Field during Rays home games. The traditions of the cowbells and that the Trop’s roof become a orange beacon that can be seen from the Howard Franklin bridge in the horizon as you come back into Pinellas county from Tampa on winning nights. But how many fans have noticed that the team since May 15th have gone 19-5 for a .792 winning percentage.
 

And we have only had two concert series where we are currently 11-0 when the crowd swells to over 30,000. So it was no surprise to most of the Rays faithful when we set down the Florida Marlins on Sat. night before the Lady of Rock and Roll, Pat Benatar took the stage to celebrate the win with us.


So here we are with a current 4-1 record during the home stand with one game to play against the Marlins in the Citrus Series. With the yearly bragging rights already secured by the Rays in the Citrus series, it is the Rays fifth Citrus series win in the last eight seasons, including back-to-back series triumphs since last season. 

Also included in all this great karma is the  fact the Rays have won seven out of the last nine at home against the Marlins.  They will look to Sunday’s game for a chance to take three of the last four series at home against the South Florida based Marlins. But what is even more amazing is the fact that during the 2009 InterLeague schedule, the Rays are currently 12-5 in mixed league play and will go for their 13th win tomorrow.

Their 12-5 record is currently tied for the third best record in the MLB this season.  The best InterLeague win total for the Rays was 15 victories set in 2004.  They are currently averaging 6.4 runs per game, and are hitting over .300 as a team, both marks are the best in the MLB this season. Also based on winning percentages, Rays Manager Joe Maddon has the third best winning percentage in InterLeague play right now with a 42-29 record for a .592 winning percentage.

 

Can Cheating be Acceptable?

 

        


When we were younger most of us knew kids who used to sneak a glance or look  directly at classmates tests for a quick word recognition for a test question. We did expose them as “cheating” but  we did remain silent and for some reason accepted their actions. It did not dawn on us the moral consequences of getting caught because in our minds we just thought it was a one time thing by them. But how can we not have the same mindset when it comes to cheating in baseball. Some people see it for what it really is, a well rehearsed and orchestrated event that goes on nightly in our ballparks, while other cry out at the first sign of an improper move.

I am not condoning cheating here, but it is a bit more widespread than we give it credit for most days. Some people believe in he old saying, “If you are not cheating, you are not trying.” But then again, it is not cheating unless you get caught.  So why is it that we show such huge amount of emotion and outcry when one of our athletes gets caught in a sport that wants you to steal, and sometimes you even get caught in the act. I know the general belief is that cheaters never prosper, but in reality they do get away with it more than you will ever imagine in baseball.

I mean is the sport of baseball actually harboring a belief that the act f cheating is somehow part of the under fiber of the game and is accepted as a mode of behavior by its players and teams. You only have to look at some of the rituals and action within the game itself to see that cheating, in some form is right in front of your eyes all the time.  I mean if a player does a slide outside the base path to break up a double play and either rolls into a infielder or brings his spikes up, is that an accepted form of cheating? Or maybe the simple act of leaving some saliva on your finger or even putting a small slip of sandpaper attached to the back of your belt giving you a huge advantage in the game.

Steroids have become a huge polarizing point in the sport in recent years, and while I do not condone them because of the lasting  side effects they will have on the human body, I can understand the need and want to be the best in the sport. And is that really some of the reason most people do get caught using an illegal substance. They are trying to find the top of the limit they can use something to give them an edge without it becoming an obvious part of their game. Trying to be the best at what they do can sometime make a aging veteran make a bad decision, or a rookie fighting for survival above the minor leagues.

People forget that even in the cool and groovy 1970′s teams used to have amphetamines as general drugs in the MLB clubhouses before they were finally outlawed by the league for their damaging effects on the body.  People have used everything in the pharmacy to find an edge or an advantage in this game, so why is today’s generation any different. Mostly they are different because they are getting caught and maybe going above and beyond the accepted levels and usage of any drugs or cheating device.

I would love to be able to have a packet of those red dots people use on files to walk through the Baseball Hall of Fame to just put on the plagues and the displays of people enshrined or even their gear in the walls and galleries of the famed building of people who have either cheated, or have a huge public perception of some kind of non-conducive act in the game. I think that most of the early day pitchers had their moments. We know of plenty who have been known to doctor the ball, or even outright do it in front of the crowds without their knowledge.

         

The biggest pitching name to admit to some sort of doctoring is Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry.  I mean a simple wipe of the brow of his cap, or even adjusting his pants by grabbing the belt could produce a small quantity of vasoline that could be used to send the ball in a different flight pattern to the plate.  We all know he has been suspended in his career for his antics on the mound, but one of his best might be the act of seeming to doctor the ball and it be as clean as a whistle. Then we have Phil Niekro, the knuckleballer who was caught once and suspended for 10 games for his acts of cheating.

Niekro’s weapon of choice was an emery board which could be used to put a indentation in the ball to get a better flight pattern for his butterfly ball. Considering he already threw a pitch that had its own mind, the added aerodynamic of the scuffed ball just gave him an additional edge in the game. Even greats like Whitey Ford and Don Sutton have come under the microscope, but still enjoy huge fan support. Most pitchers of that era had their own ways of adding some sort of substance to the ball to get some more action on it, but was it considered a part of the game, or was it a rationalization on cheating by saying “everybody does it”‘

The biggest form of cheating is the action done by Coaching staff and players in the dugout during games by watching the Third Base Coach and the opposing dugout especially during the games. Act of stealing signs is an accepted form of cheating in the rules of the game. It is hard to prove that another team is doing it, but it is also an accepted norm of the game at the same time. Former major leaguer Eduardo Perez was one of the best at doing recon work on stealing sign from the opposing team.

When he was with the Tampa Bay Rays he used to sit in the dugout and call out a play or pitch right before the play happened. Of course he might be wrong more time than right, the action of even trying to interpret the signals could be viewed as a form of cheating.  But what about if a team is doing it with audio signals to their bench in hopes to get an advantage to the game. This happened during the 1951 baseball season when the New York Giants were able to get some revenge against the Brooklyn Dodgers.


Wallyg@Flickr.com

Recent discoveries and accounts have linked the actions to be true, but Bobby Thompson, who hit the “Shot Heard Around the World” has never admitted he got a tip-off on the pitch he hit for immortality. It is said that
Giants coach Herman Franks would sit in the dugout, just out of view of the Polo Grounds in the centerfield clubhouse and relay the catcher’s signals and send via a bell/buzzer signal to the dugout, then the dugout would relay the signal to the hitter at the plate.

And baseball accepted this practice at the time because if one team went down for the action, all of them would have to cease their own forms of cheating to get pitching signs and signals from the base Coaches. But there is another form of this signal cheating that is more out in the open for everyone to see. It is when your teams has a man on second base. They are direct contact with the catcher’s signals to the pitcher and can relay the pitch with a body signal or gesture during the game. But a new form of cheating I am beginning to pick up on is the altering of the radar guns in the stadiums.

Do you really think some of these guys are throwing 98 mph, or maybe the slight alteration to the gun prior to a certain reliever coming into the game could change a hitter outlook on them after seeing multiple 90+ reading most of the year, then an 89 mph heater take them out for a critical out.  I could go on for days on the other types of accepted cheating and alterations and redefinition of the rules of the game. I have not even gotten into the groundskeepers role in all of this magic yet. We all know that the home field advantage is significant to the team getting some runs ans hits on their own turf during games.

I also stayed away from the topic of corked bats and illegal dimensions like shaved handles to add a slight hint of bat speed to the hitters.  But now we have a new foe hitting the cheating format of the game and it is a silent weapon until drug testing or even a eye contact with the product can make a player’s life miserable, and a team searching for answers. The new addition of the anabolic steroid to the annuals of cheating in baseball is accepted by some as the evolution of the game. But then others see it for what it really is, personal cheating done on an individual basis to get an edge in the game.

For some reason you want to admit you like that a player wants to be the best they can be in their sport, but you also find it disturbing they will put a chemical in their own bodies that might hurt themselves in the long run for short term gain.  I think that is one of the reason some guys do it, not for greed or for money, but for the adulation of the fans and to get that extra step up on the competition.  But for all the good it does to that player and his team, the long range effects on the young fans and the essence of the game take a huge hit on the purity and quality of some of the game’s best and greatest.

Everyday players find a new way to cheat the edges of the game with new found techniques and actions that stay within the rules of the game, but flirt with the gray areas of rules and regulations.  And most of these actions are accepted by fans and player alike as individual adjustments or improvements to their game. One issue I have skirted today is the action of using illegal substances in the body as a form of accepted cheating. You could do a 5-part series on the chemical uses and advantages of players actions both today and in the past and still not get down to the root of it all.

Cheating within the game is an accepted mode of playing it to the fullest. Finding advantages and sidesteps to the rules and bending them to the point of breaking them is an accepted action by every team.  Teams do seek out advantages against their opposition for every game. If we did not want to get the upper hand on our opponent there would not be a need for advanced scouting or even a scouting report on the opposing pitcher. Knowledge can be the best form of delving into the truth and falsehood of the game. But do we also reward the act of cheating in baseball?

Let’s say tomorrow we find out a MLB team has doctored their “mudd” application to game balls with a new dry chemical that when mixed with a special resin mixture used on the mound  would produce a slippery substance on the ball that will aid the pitching staff and will be entirely absorbed and all traces removed from the surface of the ball in its flight to the plate. Would we be amazed at the development, or ashamed that our team got the edge on the competition?

That is a personal decision for each of us to consider the next time a infraction to the code of the game is revealed. Is it a competitive edge or an act of cheating if a team gets the upperhand on another team? I guess that depends on who is winning the game at the time!

Who will get the Rays first Cycle?

 


David Zalubowski / AP

I remember back on March 31, 1998 a friend of mine and I were chatting up in the Beach area about our new Rays team and he asked me  who I thought would be the first Rays player to ever hit for a “cycle” for the team. I had to really think about that one for a few minutes since this first Rays squad had a few burners on the base paths and they could make the difference quickly in a game.

I thought for about three innings and came up with a list of three guys I truly thought had a chance to hit that magical segment of a single, double, triple and then a homer.  I came up with the trio of Dave Martinez (who got the Rays first hit ever), Quentin McCracken and Miguel Cairo.

But what is so amazing is that we have played 1,845 games as a franchise and we still have not had any player hit for that elusive prize. I mean we have had plenty come close, including 5 in 2008, but no one has gotten to that golden moment yet for the Rays. So it kind of caught me by surprise last night after the game checking out the box score and seeing that both Ben Zobrist and Gabe Kapler only missed the magical moment by not getting a double in last night’s 12-4 Rays victory.

What was truly amazing to me is that both guys had the worst part of the cycle out of the way by the start of the 7th inning with Kapler getting the early nod by getting both his triple and home run by the end of the third inning.  Another outstanding statistic is that Zobrist and Kapler each got hit in the same inning three times in that contest. 

They started their scoring in the top of the second inning when Zobrist got on with a infield single to third, then Kapler scored Zobrist on his triple to deep left-centerfield. The in the top of the third inning, Zobrist hit the first pitch he sees for a triple to deep centerfield to lead-off the inning. Kapler then comes up and homers to leftfield to again score Zobrist in the game. 

Then again in the seventh inning, Zobrist comes up with two outs and hits a 2-1 pitch out of the ballpark in leftfield. Kapler then comes up and get a single to rightfield.  Zobrist had another chance to get his cycle, but he hit a ball back to Rockies reliever Matt Daley that he easy converted for the third out of the inning. The night was a huge explosion for the entire Rays offense as they won their sixth game in a row and ended the Rockies own 11-game winning streak.

But was last night’s attempt by two Rays players a good indicator of the type of offense this team can post at anytime in 2009. Gabe Kapler is currently on a 4-game home run  and RBI streak, plus he has gone 7 for 11, with 10 RBI in his last four games. Could we finally be seeing the hitter the Rays envisioned when they signed Kapler on January 12, 2009. Then you have Zobrist, who has emerged as the Rays secret weapon after injuries have made the club utilize him everyday instead of as a platoon or late inning replacement/pinch-hitter. 


David Zalubowski / AP

Zobrist has also been on quite a tear recently going hitless in only two of his last ten games. He has gone 14 for 35 (.400) with 4 homers and 7 RBI, but it is his 14 runs scored that have been the biggest indicator of his surge for the Rays.  He has also walked 7 times in those 10 games and stolen 2 bases to become an all-around player for the team. And this is not the first time in 2009 that Zobrist has gotten near the cycle.

And to just show how explosive the entire team can be this year, including last night, the Rays have had 11 players just this season who have had chances to get the cycle for the Rays. Starting with Evan Longoria on April 9th needing just a triple to complete his during the Rays 4-3 win in Fenway Park. Longoria again almost got the cycle in another game against the Red Sox on April 30th at Tropicana Field during a 13-0 win over the Red Sox. He missed with only a triple again. But he was not the only Rays to have a shot at the cycle that day. Back-up catcher Miguel Hernandez had a career day going 4 for 5 and also missed the cycle with a triple that day. 

In a 7-3 loss to the Red Sox in their second trip to Fenway on May 8th, the usual suspect for the cycle, Carl Crawford only missed with a home run from getting the feat. He did have a ball bounce into the stands in deep centerfield that could have been a close inside-the-park home run if it had not gone into the stands.  Then on May 15th with the Cleveland Indians at home, B J Upton had a chance to put his mark on Rays history, but also missed out with a triple. Two days later Jason Bartlett got a chance at the mark, but he too came up short needing a home run to complete the feat.

Then someone you would not expect, Gabe Gross who has seen limited duty this year as a platoon member in rightfield got a chance to set the mark on May 22nd in the Rays 15-2 win over the Florida Marlins. Gross also missed the mark with only getting a single, double and a homer in the game.  And so far in June, the Rays have had four players now who have attempted to get a cycle for the squad. Before last night’s heroics, Matt Joyce, who was only up for a limited time also had a chance for a cycle on June 2nd in a 6-2 win over the Kansas City Royals. Joyce also came up a triple short of getting the first cycle in Rays history.


Jeff Zelevansky / AP


But the wildest part of it all is that Zobrist now has had two chances, just in June 2009 to get a cycle. Besides last night’s attempt, he had another on June 7th in Yankee Stadium against the New York Yankees, but he again fell just a double short of the cycle.  What is even more amazing is that he has now had three chances since September 27, 2008 to get the Rays cycle record. On the September 27th game against the Detroit Tigers in Comerica Park, Zobrist again came up short, but this time he could not get a triple to complete the cycle.

The Rays have had a chance 11 times in 2009. For the entire 2008 season they only had 5 players even get close to trying for  a shot at Rays history. It began with the Disney World series when the Rays took on the Toronto Blue Jays on April 22nd. Ex-Rays bat boy Jesse Litsch was on the mound and Eric Hinske hit three extra-base hits to fall only a single short of the cycle for the Rays. In that contest, in the only other at bat for Hinske in the game, he struck out swinging to end his quest in the eighth inning. One of the guys you might least expect to have a shot at a cycle actually got pretty close in 2008. Dioner Navarro was having a great first half to the season and picked a May 8th game against the Toronto Blue Jays to try and make a claim for the cycle record. 

In that game, Navarro hit a Grand Slam to win the game for the Rays in the 13th inning, but he missed the cycle by a triple that night. But the event was considered a turning point for the young Rays team, so missing the re
cord might not have been a bad thing that night. It was three months before anyone else had a shot at a cycle for the Rays when on August 2nd, Evan Longoria tried to make his mark, but he also came up a triple short in the Rays 9-3 win over the Tigers at Tropicana Field.

A wild statistic is that in the last three attempts by Rays players to hit for the cycle in 2008, they all came against the same team, the Detroit Tigers. First we had Longoria on August 2nd come up short. The next player to have a chance at Rays immortality was Upton on the same night( September 26, 2008) that the Rays clinched their first American League East title. Upton’s chance at the cycle was overshadowed by the big event as he only fell a triple short of the cycle after beating out a throw for an infield single to even have a shot at the historic mark. And of course, the next day, Zobrist had his chance to also add his name to Rays history. 

All in all since the beginning of the 2998 season, 16 Rays players have had a chance to finally put their name on the Rays history book as completing a cycle during a game. The Rays might have gone 0-16 in that time, but in 2008, they went 4-1 when a player was attempting to go for the record. And so far in 2009, the team has gone 8-1 when a Rays batter has been attempting to go for the cycle. And also of note, for the first time in two seasons, two player have been just short of cycles in two different games only 46 days apart.

With the Rays offense cranking on all 8 cylinders right now there will be more chances for the team to flex its muscle and give more guys chances to finally put their name into the Rays record books as the first player to hit a cycle for the Rays. I can not even guess who the first one will be anymore. Almost everyone in the lineup can have an outstanding game and transform a simple game into a historic event.

But I would not bet against Crawford and Zobrist right now, both players have the ability and the speed to finally give us an answer to that question asked back in 1998. Who do you think will get the first Rays cycle?

Fridays Fabulous Fragmented Thoughts

 



Steve Nesius / AP

No Re-joycing in Rightfield


With the activation of Tamp Bay Rays Designated Hitter Pat Burrell right after the game last night, the team made the corresponding roster move of sending young rightfielder Matt Joyce back down to the Triple-A Durham Bulls. The press release was still hot and wet when the Rays Radio Network broke the news right after the game in their post-game segment. At first this news hit me kind of like a ton of bricks because I truly thought the kid was going to make the transition up here the rest of the season.

Sure he started out like he was going to take names and change minds after hitting two quick hoe runs to make people, think it was “Re-Joyce Time” in rightfield. Even the fact he got two hits off a left-handed pitcher spoke volumes that he had done a bit of the work the Rays asked him to do when he went down first to Durham after spending the first five game up with the Rays while B J Upton was rehabbing after his off-season shoulder surgery. Upon the start of the Sunday game in Baltimore on April 12th he was on his way back to the Triple-A squad ready to work on things and make his way back to Tampa Bay in 2009.  Joyce was upset but understood the situation perfectly and vowed to again be patrolling the outfield in the Trop sometime in 2009.

So when the Rays went to Durham and again brought up Joyce on May 30th, it was a sign to the fans that maybe the team was finally considering giving the kid a fair shake in winning the rightfield job during the season. And he did come on like gangbusters hitting the ball his first few games before finally going through a 0 for 15 slide before he was sent out to the Bulls. He was upset about the news, but took it in stride as he told the St. Petersburg Times last night.””Any time you get sent down, it’s not a good feeling. So you just go back to the drawing board, go back down and scratch and claw your way back up.” Coming into the Angels series, Joyce was 0 for 20 lifetime against the team.

Joyce is heading back to the Durham squad with the intention of “tear it up again” in Durham, and “force them to bring you back up.”  And that is the kind of reaction you really want to hear from a young star who knows he will again shine bright among the lights of Tropicana field. This is not the last time we will see him in 2009, and you can bet the next time he is up here he will try and make it an extremely difficult decision to send him back down again.  Joyce was given some advice and things to work on by Rays Manager Joe Maddon before he left the Rays Clubhouse following their series win against the Los Angels Angels last night.

Joyce will go down to the minors and work a bit on his overall game, including his defense and hopes to again get a chance to make a huge impression this season.  During a few games in the Trop., he seemed to have a problem identifying the ball off the roof in the dome and that might have led to a few defensive problems during his time up here. He did not read the ball well off the bat a few times and the ball made it into the Right-Centerfield gap for extra bases.

That is a simple adjustment and recognition program that can be completed easily in the minors.  But Joyce has been totally supportive of the decision and is looking forward to more playing time and to prove he belongs here with the Rays. Before he was promoted at the end of May, he was hitting .315 with 5 HR and 27 RBI for the Bulls.  He had compiled a 1.000 OPS against right-handed pitching, and a .727 against left-handers. 


AP File Photo

Pedro  Martinez as a Ray?

Oh how Gerald Williams must be all tied up in knots knowing that the Rays might be watching former Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez throwing in the Dominican Republic yesterday. How it must be burning in his stomach that the guy who caused such a ruckus with the Rays back in 200 might even be considered for a pitching option. There are numerous reports that not only have the Rays checked out the aging pitcher, but some monetary figures have been exchanged between the two parties. 

According to Nick Carfardo of The Boston Globe, Martinez had both the Chicago Cubs and the Rays both exploring what it might take to sign the aging pitcher to their rosters. During his workout the former fireballer was throwing about 94 MPH, which is a nice increase in velocity compared to his pre-surgery speed.  Mark Lancaster of the Tampa Tribune said,”I’ve heard that one of the Rays’ officials in the Dominican who has known Pedro for a while just watched him work out, but it doesn’t sound like the team expects anything to come of it.” 

A local Tampa Bay television station even commented on their Twitter page that someone was checking out Martinez. And a pretty credible Rays blog, www.RaysIndex.com was reporting that the team did schedule a second workout for Martinez, which is usually a sign of interest.  When the World Baseball classic tenure of the Dominican Republic team was over during MLB’s Spring Training, it was reported that Martinez was basically seeking a single year deal in the $5 million range. With the MLB season  nearing the 62nd game, that request might have been cut in half to about the $ 2.5 million dollar figure. 

Some might say that the aging pitcher would be a great fit in the Rays Bullpen in some capacity. But considering he would supplant someone currently in that unit, it might be a difficult sell to Rays Manager Joe Maddon and Pitching Coach Jim Hickey right now. But even if the Rays have always kept things like this close to their vest pocket, the history with Martinez might not sit well with long standing Rays fans.  For the same reason most fans were skeptical of Curt Shilling basically saying he would play for the Rays years ago, Martinez might not be a great fit here. Martinez and Don Zimmer also have their own history, but Zim contends that it is ” by the wayside and ancient history.”

The guys still has the desire and the spunk to pitch in the majors, which is great for him. But the guy might not be a great fit into the Rays bullpen, and definitely can not be seen as a starter right now. Things could happen fast and he will be out of the Rays sights and this all will be dust in the wind. But the idea of adding him to our team kind of upsets my stomach. I admire the girt and the determination, but seeing him brawl on our home field, and throw Zim to the ground is enough for me to  print a “VOTE NO FOR PEDRO” t-shirt. Somethings even time can not heal.

             
              smh.com au

Boot Scootin’ Nelson

***  With the Rays getting ready soon to head on out for another road trip, Maddon has picked a “western theme” for the trip out to Colorado to begin their 6-game Inter-League road trip. I am not sure what most of the guys are going to be outfitted in before they board the plane, but hopefully they know that six shooters are not allowed on the plane.

Seriously though, I spoke with Rays reliever Joe Nelson yesterday on what style he was going to pull off for the western theme. He said he was going with the “Yul Brenner circa The Magnificent Seven look”.  Nelson already has the hairstyle, and I can see him in the black shirt and maybe even black leather pants, but I am really going to be surprised if he can find a great back cowboy hat to pull it all together. Maybe he can call Keith Millar, who is with the Toronto Blue Jays for a primer on how to “Cowboy Up” before the trip. I personally thought Nelson might go for the Yul Brenner look from Westworld where he played a gunslinging robot, but after the picture, I can see him in a black hat for some reason.

Season Ticket Gate Upgrade


The Rays instituted a new Season Ticket holder entrance near Gate 3 earlier this season. There is great news that an awning has been purchased that will expand out from the current gate to shelter fans waiting in that line for enter the stadium hopefully around the All-Star break. This new entrance brings you in right at the service desk at Gate 3 for easy access for signing up for the many contests, or getting with a Season Ticket Representative within a few feet of the doors. 

I have used the entrance a few times in the past few months and it is quicker and faster than the present system at Gate 1 where most of the current Season Ticket holders enter the Trop. This also might be a great alternative during the Boston or Yankee series later this year when the general standing area outside Gate 1 gets so crowded and heated at times. It is also a great alternative for the “giveaway” days as the lines will be smaller and less confusion.
 


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Familiar Faces in the Videos

If you are in Tropicana Field before the game and look up at the Jumbotron before the game and think you might have seen me on the big screen during the opening minute of the “Ground Rules”, you are correct. As a member of the “Maddon’s Maniacs”, I was invited for a taping before opening day this year to complete a fan version of the typical baseball rules explanation played 81 times a year in Tropicana Field. I got lucky enough to be in the first segments of the new video both in the first clip where you see me banging my over sized black cowbell ( which is now broken almost in half) and during the first two rules of the video.

I have to give props to the Rays vision crew who did most of the stand-in spots in the video and also had the changes and segmented video shoots done fast and professional at all times. Also have to give some acknowledgments to Eric Weisberg, Darcy Raymond and Sean Liston from the Rays Fan Experience department for their ideas to include the Maniacs in this years action. It was a great time, and I did get in a bit of a pickle about two pictures, but all is good in Rays-land. I hope you see a few of your friends in the video and be sure to stop us and say hello. We will be more than happy to chat with you about the “Maddon’s Maniacs” club or just about our hometown Rays.

Was Percival making a Curtain Call?

 
 


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I am beginning to really enjoy the local media members who are at the same odds as us bloggers right now as to the proper terminology or even the phrasing for what Troy Percival is doing right now. But we all should have been aware and ready for it since it is the same kind of song and dance we got right after he got injured near the end of 2008. We know the guy is hurt, we saw the way he was pitching right before he began to yell at his Manager Joe Maddon on the mound during his last performance.

But we have also been told recently that Andrew Friedman and Maddon would sit down soon and discuss the remedies and the consequences of the decisions that Percival needs to make in the coming weeks for the team to make any substantial decisions about his 40-man roster spot. You see, if he retires or leave the team voluntarily, the Rays can then have a solid decision and know what, and where they will need to make moves next. But the merry-go-round got more confusing during the beginning of Saturday nights contest against the Minnesota Twins. Because there was Percival, sauntering down to the Bullpen sitting right on the rail in front of Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi for about three innings.

It was almost like one of those “Where is Waldo” scenarios as I asked people if they saw him, but only a handful only remember seeing him nestled behind the bench, but on the rail before he then again vanished into the Rays dugout innings later. Was this a gratuitous Percival sighting to entice and confuse the Rays masses, or was it a nicely orchestrated move by both the team and Percival to put some water on the fires about his future with the team.


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As we later found out, he was in town to have a chat with Maddon about the process he is going to encounter using his own personal chiropractor in California who is doing some readjusting and adjusting of his back in the western state. My question is why is he not going to visit a local bone stretcher and then the Rays can have ample medical records and conversations with this doctor. Much less, is he a doctor that Percival has history with from his time with the Los Angeles Angels, or someone referred to by the Rays. So Percival basically came to town to tell the team and Maddon that is doesn’t feel he is finished as a player, but needs some body work done in the mean time.

I know there was a part of the home crowd last night that thought you might be in town to finally cut the strings and fly away into your retirement. That you might be coming back to the Trop. to say your fond farewells to friends and players, but again, we got the mixed signals from you. We are already going to be paying you for your 2009 season since that time has come ands gone to release you without obligations or monetary considerations. We also know that the Bullpen is again in a state of high alert where their individual roles are going to be mixed and jumbled again on a daily basis, and is some instances, batter-by-batter basis.

But is that fair to the guy out there you sat with at your Bullpen team dinners, chatted and joked with on the planes, and even enjoyed seeing them celebrate their first bid into the playoffs up front and in person, then vanished into the background come playoff time.

We get you want o have your treatments in Cali where you can be closer to friend and family. I mean really understand the want to be near your family while getting treatment. Hopefully you stay in close contact with Ron Porterfield and the rest of the medical staff so they can get good and accurate updates on your attempt to find that last bit of energy to hit the mound again this season. So you basically told the team you wanted to play  today and will be  seeking your medical treatment at home in California. Okay, that is kind of acceptable………..What?

You mean you are going to string along this team for another two or three weeks or maybe draw it out for another month or so before either you come back healthy or you finally throw in the towel. And in that meantime, the Rays have to keep your 40-man roster spot warm and cozy for your triumphant return. Troy, buddy, I commend you on what you have done for the team in 2008 to get us to the promised land by posting 28 saves before finally going down with your body in shambles, but this time we need some reassurances you are going to be tip top, or a member of the Rays walking wounded for awhile.

Is that asking too much of a 39-year old closer who is closer to the retirement door than the clubhouse door right now. I understand the will and the determination to want to go on until they carry you off the field wounded and battered for the last time. But you are beginning to have the image of someone who is trying to hold on too hard to something out of fear of losing it.  Calling it quits at any level or position is hard if you still think you can out-perform and out maneuver the young guys, but to endanger their chance at success and  maybe be a contributing aspect to their chance of repeating for another title based on you “maybe” coming back in great shape to pitch them towards the promised land again. Well, maybe it is good you are getting treatment in California. You might want to bring a Hollywood scriptwriter back with you………because that would be a made-for-TV movie at best.

 

So okay, I am going to giver you some time to change my views here. I am going to give the great Troy Percival, who is hankering to get to number 7 in the All-Time saves category for his career.  I am willing to give you some time since we saw you stroll from number 10 to number 8 in quick fashion. But you got to believe we will be watching for you Percy.  Some believe that Maddon has too much faith in you right now, and should cut the strings and run hard the other way before you fire another volley of profanity on him on the mound. We will keep that locker open for you. We will also not give away your parking space in the players’ lot, but hopefully the Rays will have a tighter rein on you during this rehab.

Tick…… Tock, Troy, Tick…Tock!

 
 
 

Jason Bartlett = All Star

 


Gail Burton / AP

People have always looked to New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter as the symbol of what it takes to be a American League All-Star selection at that position. I mean the guy has the looks, the slick glove and the bat that always seems to hum at or above the .300 clip every season. For what seems like his entire career Jeter has had his name stenciled on the All-Star ballot, and been selected for the team based mostly on “what he can do for you in a pinch.” 

And that is a great quality for your shortstop aka field general to have because  consistent clutch performances earn you the big bucks and the true fans notice  these moments. So can we honestly say that maybe the Yankees famed number 2 is going to have a bit of competition this season for that coveted  All-Star nod?  I think this year he might still make the All-Star roster, but I am hoping he is not the starting shortstop in the game. I have another name in mind, and I think the statistics not only back up my selection, but also convince you he is the man for the job this season, and maybe a few more in the near future.

When the Tampa Bay Rays traded for Jason Bartlett in late 2007 with the Minnesota Twins they knew what he could do on the field with a glove and a sharply hit missile to the hole. They coveted this player who could be the stop-gap in the middle of the left side of their defense. That he could be the energy cell needed to shore up a team that has never had such a highly skilled infielder in the 6-slot. So when he finally got on the field in Spring Training 2008, people were still a bit curious about this guy who made his Major League debut in 2004 and only hit .083 in eight games.

But soon they could see the slick skills and the fluid movement he had with the ball. He had a new second baseman, Akinora Iwamura, who was coming over from third base, and Bartlett made sure to make time every day to spend some quality time with Iwamura to get a better feeling for each other and get an internal bond and thought process going that would eventually click for the Rays.  That is the mark of a truly professional shortstop. He made sure he had the bond with the one guy who could make or break this Rays defense for the team.

The names Bartlett and Iwamura were heard and seen a lot in boxscores and by radio and television announcers while completing double plays for the Rays.
The guy has been poetry in motion to Rays fans. Sure we had gotten shortstops before, heck we even had one standing behind Bartlett in centerfield  in B J Upton, who was drafted out of High School as the Rays shortstop of the future. But the year progressed and Bartlett seemed to get stronger and stronger in the position.

His skill set has always been strong, but with a renewed confidence and a determination to help the Rays first hit the .500 mark, then get their first post season berth, Bartlett led the way by example. The fact that the Tampa Bay Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) gave Bartlett the 2008 Team MVP award shocked some people, but if you really look at the feats and accomplishments of this first year Ray, you would see the game flowed through the 6-hole.

After the Rays were defeated in the World series by the Philadelphia Phillies, Bartlett went back home and began to make a transformation in his life. He got married, was blessed with his first kid ( a girl) and he also went through his first arbitration with the Rays getting a significant raise in pay ( $ 1.9 million) for the first time in his career. It seemed through all of this he had become more relaxed and focused when you saw or even spoke to him at the Rays Fan Fest in February 2009.
 

And that bode well for the team. Coming into Spring Training he had more security with Iwamura, and felt that he belonged here in Tampa Bay. He used that positive vibe to hit at a .327 clip for the spring. Showing leadership and  more confidence he appeared in only 19 games, but left an impression upon fans of some upcoming power and offensive fireworks for 2009.


Steve Nesius / AP


He started the season pretty much under the radar  as Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena were leading the majors in their categories as he slowly slid higher and higher in the Batting Average ranks during April. He had kept his focus to be above the .300 mark most of the month and then had an explosive first part of may that skyrocketed him to his present .373 mark. That mark is currently leading the Major Leagues in hitting. Not bad for a guy who was a secondary piece of a trade.

But there is another part of his game that is starting to show significant improvement this season in Tampa Bay. Last season, Bartlett did not hit a home run until the last regular series of the year against his old team, the Minnesota Twins. In that series he only had one solo shot, but it did make an impression on Rays fans. Some of us wondered if he had the power we needed out of that spot, or if he was just hiding it right now. He hit another during the playoff run, but settled for only two moon shots during 2008.

 

But that was a curious stat to people who did check out his former statistics before the season started in 2008. Because in 2007, he had 5 homers and 43 RBI, both career highs at the time. We started to wonder if maybe he had peaked a year before he got here. But with the start of 2009, there was a feeling of renewed vigor in Bartlett. He quickly started his average skyward, and his home run power seemed to come out of no where. The guy currently has 7 home runs, most of them great shots and is on the way to having the best season of his career.

So why should Bartlett, who is showing offensive savvy get a All-Star nod? Well, offense has always been a key indicator for the voting people in who they might consider for the All-Star team. Hopefully Bartlett can move up from the fourth spot currently behind Toronto’s Marco Scutaro, who is having a banner year himself in 2009, and new comer Texas rookie Elvis Andrus. But Bartlett’s current vote tally of 233,482 is considerably behind the American League vote leader right now, Derek Jeter with 664,630.

So we know Bartlett has the offensive skills to merit the spot. Is his defense really that good for the Rays? Considering the team went from a middle of the pack defensive unit to one of the best in the game in 2oo8, what do you think?  He has appeared in 44 games this season for the Rays and has help convert 19 double plays. Bartlett has 180 times so far in 2009 and has made 4 errors.  His .978 Fielding Average is on par with his peers in the league right now.  In close comparison, Jeter has 179 total chances and 2 errors and 21 double plays for a .987 Fielding Average.


Reinhold Matay / AP

So is Bartlett now a guy to be considered in the top tier of shortstops in the American League?  I truly believe he is in the top 4 in the league. I also think he has not even begun to show his top potential yet in the field. Some of the plays he tries to make deep in the hole, or over near the second base bag are ones that most infielders watch go through to the outfield without an sign of remorse. Bartlett now seems to grimace each time a ball goes up the middle or is hit above him towards leftfield. He is shoeing that primary killer instinct right now that is key among the league’s best players.

The only killer to this right now is his injury he suffered last Sunday during the tenth inning against the Florida Marlins. In that inning Dan Ugglas was attempting to steal second base and Bartlett put his foot on the bag to make Uggla go towards the outside the bag, and Uggla came in and clipped him with his spikes on the ankle. After an MRI and the medical staff calling for him to sit a few days, Bartlett finally was open to sitting the letting it heal instead of trying to play on it and risk further damage.

But with him out of the lineup, you have seen a completely different feel to the Rays defense right now. It doesn’t seem to flow with grace and ease, but is rushed and seems a bit timid at times. It misses its field general, the guy to pump up the infielders and make the assignments for the infield. They miss that main cog in their machine. Bartlett recently told the St. Petersburg Times, “Part of me wants to be selfish and just get out there and keep playing,” Bartlett said. “But if I do that I could make it worse and be out two-to-three months as opposed to a week or so. “

But believe me, the effort and the want to play and help his team has not missed the eyesight of Rays Manager Joe Maddon. He knows that Bartlett wants to play and contribute to the team. His finishing out the game that Sunday was enough to attest to the toughness and spunk of his shortstop. But after a ankle sprain was diagnosed, the decision was easy for Maddon. Risk losing a key piece of your puzzle for a week or so, or maybe lose him along with Iwamura for the season. The decision was easy for Maddon.

“It’s really unfortunate because this young man is having an All-Star season right now,” Maddon told the St. Petersburg Times. “There’s no getting around that, and that’s not made up by his manager, that’s pretty much what’s going on. All facets of his game have been spectacular. And we need him back quickly. … He was voted our team MVP last season for a reason, and he’s playing even better this year than last year, on all fronts.”  So you have to wonder after all that, does Bartlett have a chance to impress upon the American League All-Star Manager that he has what it takes to make the squad in 2009?


Gail Burton /AP

I am hoping that the fans and the players see his involvement and his accomplishments both in the second half of 2008 and so far in 2009 and get him voted into the All-Star game. He has the ability to shine brightly for the Rays in that game, and he would represent the Rays with great flair and confidence. But if he is not in the upper tier of voting and is not selected by the fans votes, he still has a great shot of getting to his first All-Star game. I think the AL All-Star Manager will see that the game needs a guy like Bartlett in it.

That his selection would help put the best talent in the AL against the finest the NL has to offer in a great contest. For this year’s game in St. Louis, I am predicting a shot for Bartlett on the AL All-Star team. Based on the early results he will not be the only Rays rep on the field that day. Evan Longoria is getting the top votes for the third base spot, and also pushing Jeter right now for the top vote getter in the early returns.
 

But most of all, Bartlett will not have to go far to show his skills to be selected to the All-Star team. That is because this season’s AL skipper gets to watch him 162 games a year and has seen just how far this young player had come in a short time with the Rays. Oh, did you forget, Maddon is the AL skipper this season, but if he picks Bartlett it will be on merit, not on fondness or an impartial vote.

Indian Raindance Ramblings

 
UPDATE:
 
 
Rays Television Network guru Todd Kalas just had Indians Ballpark Operations head honcho Jerry Crabb on the air telling us there is a rain cell heading towards the stadium, then we have some smooth sailing for a period of time. they are hoping to get this game in today and not have to think about alternative dates. The Rays have Lance Cormier throwing in the Bullpen. He will replace Jeff Niemann when play resumes today. Let’s all think dry thoughts.  Johnny Peralta will be on first for the Indians when we resume the game.
 
 


Kensaviation@Flickr.com

 Why is it I hear the BB Thomas song “Raindrops Are Falling on my Head” right now in the background on the stadiums speakers. Can’t we find a better rain song than that for the 21st Century? I am without words right now during this rain delay today in the bottom of the fourth inning with the Cleveland Indians again in front of the Tampa Bay Rays by only a 1-0 score.

My loss of verbiage is not due to the fact we have not had a glorious win in this park since Seth “Big Red” McClung matched pitch-for-pitch with a younger Cliff Lee to take a 1-0 win from the Tribe for the Rays last victory in then Jacobs Field. In that September 28, 2005 contest. Carl Crawford is the only Rays player still on the active Rays roster to be in the lineup for that game. 

He went 0-0 on that day and played a limited left field. Even on that day in September it was 74 degrees and cloudy, but there was not rain in the forecast. There are other still with the Rays who were in the dugout on that day in Cleveland, like Third Base Coach Tom Foley, Pitcher Scott Kazmir, and Senior Advisor Don Zimmer. That day also gave Lou Pinella his last win as the Rays Manager. It was the last sense of normalcy for the Rays in this park. Who would have ever guessed that this streak of doom would stretch to its current 16-game spot. Heck, lifetime the Rays have only seemed to taste victory. Today is our 918th road game of our young history. During that time we have only won 333 times, but only

My first trip to Jacobs Field on May 14, 2004 (There is that date again) was the first time I stepped into your glorious stadium during its 10 year anniversary season. The Sat. game was a rain delayed game, my first time sitting in the rain enjoying the drops hitting my skin. Even during that three game series we left the city of Cleveland wanting more as the home team took all three games from the Rays, with only that Friday night contest being close at all with a 8-7 Rays loss in the bottom of the 10th inning. 


Skurdrafan1@Flickr.com

But there were some reasons for Rays joy before that 2005 game. I mean we did win 3-in-a-row from August 12-14, 2005. That is right, the Rays wept the Indians that weekday series. But we also did it again in 2005 when from September 27-29th, we took two out of three to sweep the away series for the year from the Indians.

It was at that time the curse began. For on that September 29th game, the Rays started their unfortunate streak with a 6-0 loss to the Indians who were lead by a large guy by the name of C.C. Sabathia that day. No one on the current Rays roster was in the lineup for that first pinnacle game to start this streak of disappointment for the Rays. But there were a few familiar faces in the Cleveland lineup. Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta, Victor Martinez and reliever Rafael Bentancourt were in the line score for the first Tribe victory in the long line of embarrassing losses. But even before the 2005 last win by the Rays, they had only won a total of 12 games before McClung’s last hurrah for the Rays in the Jake. Think about it here, the Rays had a slim winning margin 12-11 before this string of disappointing results by the Cuyahoga River.

So just how bad has the 2009 season been here for the Rays during this four game slide? Well, they are hitting a nice .252 for the season series here (not counting today’s contest), but only scoring only 18 runs on 3 home runs and 5 doubles. But why is it that this stadium has a mystical offensive reversal on the Rays hitters. Well, it might not be a total setting of lack of offense as they have scored 18 runs in 3 games this season.
 

But theRays defense and the pitching have just seemed to implode and erode faster than some of the old steel infrastructure on the mills down by the riverside here.  I mean Carlos Pena hit his American League leading 16th homer in the first game here on Monday. Evan Longoria has extended his RBI total to 51 during this series, and Carl Crawford has stolen his 30th base during the series.

Offense has been online here in Cleveland, but the Rays usual stingy defense has taken a  short vacation during the series this year.  Cleveland has 6 players hitting over .333 in this series, including the main pest this season Ben Francisco, who has gone  5 of 11, with 5 RBI this season at home. But the real menace has been Ryan Garko who is 6 for 12 with 3 homers and 7 RBI. Both of those guys have made a significant dent into the Rays pitching staff this season in this series.  They have scored 28 runs and walked 15 times in the three games. Will today be any different? Can we maybe get some relief and comfort in today’s game to take into 2010 to know we can win in this stadium.

First thing we need to do is maybe get Sports Psychologist Ken Ravizza to hypnotize the Rays starters into thinking this is Fenway Park in 2010. Maybe an additional session will be needed for Andy Sonnanstine to see Ben Francisco as Shin-Soo Choo who was 0-5 against Sonnanstine in 2009. The fact that two of their three biggest blown leads have come in the last three games of this series is not an indication of a solid pitching staff right now.  We all know about the Rays being up 10-0 on Monday, then finally falling 11-10 after suffering through their worst blown lead in team history. So today is the Rays 50th game of the season. the only better record at this juncture in the season was in 2008, when they had a 30-20 record and were fighting for their first AL East title nightly.


RRCollections

The Rays do not currently have the worst consecutive loss record against an opponent yet. That record is still entrenched in a 18-game losing steak by the Pittsburgh Pirates against the Milwaukee Brewers in Miller Park. But with a loss today, they are closing in on that feat by only needing a single loss in 2010 to tie the record. Let’s hope that after this rain delay we can finish this game with a “W” and throw all of this out the window and start a new streak in 2010.  I mean 3-times this season the Rays have scored seven runs on the Tribe and lost the game. They are a combined 15-0 against all other teams in the majors after scoring 7 plus runs.  They are a combined 12-37 lifetime (.245) in Progressive/Jacobs Field. This the Rays worst record against any of their opponents in their short history.

We always thought in the past that divisional foes Toronto or maybe Baltimore had our number during the year, but wi
th the limited amount of games against the Tribe every year, they have owned us the minute we landed at Cleveland Hopkins airport. The Tribe has also been the worst foe in the Rays history in their own house. The combined overall mark of 31-63 is also the Rays worst record against any AL opponent. The Rays might have taken 3 wins recently from the Indians at Tropicana Field, but from 2006-2008, they have only 5 wins against Cleveland at home.  To add insult to injury here, they have not won a seasonal series against the Indians since 2005, thanks to that 5-1 mark against them that season.

          
           Cynthia1091@Flickr.com

Well, it is getting near 2:45, and looking on the Weather Channel radar for the Cleveland area, there is a patch of clear sky coming up after 3:30 pm today.  There is another round of showers heading towards the stadium area set to hit about 4:45 pm, so hopefully we can get the allotted innings in today, or at least maybe get a lead and hold it before heading for the plane back to St. Petersburg/Clearwater airport and a snug, comfortable night at home. I am hoping for a Rays win today to keep the plane ride back from seeming like a funeral wake, but with the history of the Indians versus Rays series.

But if we do not get this game in today and the umpires make the decision to call it a day, it is still not an official game. Both of these teams will have to decide on an alternative date to make up this one game. Both the Indians and the Rays have an open date teams have a open date on June 22. But that would have the Rays coming straight from their Inter League series against the New York Mets to Cleveland, then fly home to open a 3-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Indians would be just completing their weekend series against the Chicago Cubs, and could make a one-night stay in Cleveland before they again have to be on the road to Pittsburgh for a three game series. Right now, that is looking like the most logical spot to get this seasonal series over with for both teams.


Mark Duncan / AP

Another alternative is to play on July 2nd, when the Rays would have an off day coming from a three game series against Toronto, and then fly onto Arlington, Texas to take on the Texas Rangers for three games.  And that date might actually favor the Cleveland team the most as they will be at home for a 9-game home stand. So adding another contest in their off day on July 2nd might fit into their planning perfectly. But we still have not heard an official word from the umpires or anyone in MLB, so the Rays might be there for quite a bit still until an official alternative can be agreed upon by both teams.

I am putting my money on the July 2nd date only because it would give an advantage to the Indians as they can add on another date in the middle of a home stand featuring the Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox, and the Oakland A’s, plus add one possible Rays game to that mix.

Never have the Rays had an opponent just reach down and take them by the throat than the Indians during this short history. Hopefully we can get this game completed and maybe take one and fly out quickly today knowing we can win in Progressive /Jacobs Field. But the skies have not lightened yet, and the rain is tapering off, but still puddles are forming on the tarp on the field.  And Drew Carey is somewhere doing a little didy dancing to some Tom Tom Club dance music just hoping for another Indian massacre.

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