Results tagged ‘ Don Zimmer ’

My First Encounter With a Humble Legend

 

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Renegade Note: Everyone has their own Don Zimmer moments within or outside the game. The following is my first encounter with the beloved baseball soul who held the game close to his heart and embraced it until the end. We will miss you Zim.

It was late January of ’72 when I met Zimmer as he and his wife Soot for the first time as they were out and about the town from their then home situated on the finger-shaped islands of Treasure Island.

I didn’t know the first time he drove into the station he was even a ballplayer. People in that time either dressed up or wore cotton shirts and pants more than the T’s and jeans fashionable today. And M L B merchandised clothing seemed more reserved for the diamond than plastered across your body as every day clothes when you traveled.

I was around 11 years old when I first met Don Zimmer. I always idolized my Dad and worked a lot of after school times and weekends at our Union 76 gas station (Wittig’s Motor Pool) on a popular crossroads towards the beaches here in St. Petersburg, Fl.

Back then every 6 pump demanded Full Service attention. That meant as a young kid I would wash windshields, check air pressure in tires and put the regular or premium gasoline nozzle into that car’s tank. I loved doing my duties in a scaled down shirt emblazoned with AAA patches, the orange Union 76 globe patch and the name “Cliff” sewn in above my breast pocket.

As I was under the hood checking the brake fluid, wiping down the oil dipstick and checking for corrosion buildup on the battery cables. I noticed Zimmer’s eyes peering at me through the small space between the hood and the windshield section of the car.  He was laughing and seemed to get a kick out of this young kid going gangbusters servicing his beautiful automobile.

After I heard the click of the gas nozzle and finished filling the car’s gas tank. I then approached and told Zimmer the amount and awaited the payment for the gas.

He asked me if we, (the station) every got large used tire tubes he could use as an inexpensive but fun float for when his family headed out to the Gulf of Mexico. I assured him I could help him for honest price. I saw that most of them were not very large in size and remembered I had a huge truck tube outside by the alignment rack I used as a baseball aid.

Zimmer watched as I went through the moves of making sure the tube was filled, had no leaks then pronounced without hesitation, “I can sell this fine tube to you for .75 cents”. Now do not forget, a gallon of regular gas at that time cost between 39-45 cents by itself, so for the price of about 2 gallons of fine gas, he could have hours of enjoyment stretched out on that huge truck tube. 

I finished the exchange and Zimmer presented the money to my Dad for the gas and the tube and Zimmer asked why there were white lines on the inside circle of the tube. My Dad explained it was my “throwing tube” to practice my aim and accuracy as I played Third Base and sometimes Shortstop for my Little League team.

Zimmer just looked at me and asked if I was good. He looked at my Dad then me and I told him I wanted to be the next Brooks Robinson and Zimmer smiled telling me that “Brooks was a great ballplayer to watch and copy parts of his defensive style”.

As we opened the trunk to put in the tube I saw a few gloves, a stack of bats and a bag of worn and clay stained baseballs.  Zimmer quickly said he also loved the game of baseball and worked out with his young son when he had the time. At no time did he pump out his chest or proclaim he was an ex-MLB player.

At that moment he seemed to me to be just an average guy who also loved baseball and seemed to be passing on his love for the game to his own son. After Zimmer had left the station headed back west towards Treasure Island, my Dad told me who he was, and that he was a former M L B player who had played for teams like Brooklyn, Chicago, New York and the Senators.

I was upset I had wasted an opportunity to chat or get a few pointers from a big league infielder, but knew he was also a loyal customer and would be back.

He even came in for fuel before he headed off to San Diego that spring to begin his Managerial career with the San Diego Padres that spring.

I always felt at ease around Zimmer, never got the “better than me” vibe or saw any irritation from him when I asked questions or wanted advice. That is what initially got me to follow his career and take every moment possible to talk with him when I became the Rays Pepsi rep and had a little extra access around Tropicana Field or the Rays Spring complex.

Every time I have met Zimmer since that day in 1972 I start off with asking him if he wanted “Regular or Premium today”. It always takes a moment, but he always chuckles and asked how I was doing while extending his hand for a firm shake.

I will miss Zimmer as much for his humanity as his storytelling and bits of wisdom bestowed upon another generation.

There has never been anyone like him around the game of baseball before, and there truly will not be another beloved soul like Zim to ever grace the game again.

With the Loss of Zim, A True Cornerstone of the Game is Gone

 

 

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I always hoped that if someone could live forever, it would be baseball icon Don Zimmer.

zinmmmmmmmmmmmmmSo as I was advised that the Rays Senior Advisor had passed away in his sleep tonight at only 83, I feel a bit empty inside right now.  Baseball has lost a true legend tonight. I truly believe that if I pulled a dictionary off my shelf and looked up the word “Legend” What do you get the guy who has witnessed over 66 years of baseball in his 83 years upon this great planet?

I can truly say without hesitation that when I have in past talked or shaken hands with Zimmer I was in the company of  baseball royalty. And to think of how many thousands of fans, generations of ball players, celebrities and political dignitaries have also gotten that honor boggles the mind.

This past January 17th, Zim celebrated his 83rd birthday and even as that evil viper age had begun to take some of his physical tools, his mind was always an awaiting steel trap. I mean who else in M L B history has had a bear made of his likeness…and been a Rays cherished keepsake twice!

sdfghjkl,mWe all know Zimmer made the Pinellas county area his home for most of his baseball life and was a citizen of the beach community of Treasure Island as far back as when they had a drawbridge and toll booths,  back when the old Jolly Roger figurine stood mighty along the hotels/motels on Gulf Blvd., and the streetcars made their route reversals at Park Street and Central Avenue before cruising on back down Central towards the then Million Dollar Pier. 

Zimmer  in his lifetime got to see the color barrier not only broken, but smashed to bit and witnessed firsthand the rugged path of teammate Jackie Robinson. From that historic moment Zimmer also got an upfront seat to a players strike, seeing Hank Aaron pass another legend and see not one but many expansion club be awarded and begin play within the game.  

Zimmer was as much a Florida “native” and local institution to the Rays Republic as the Don Cesar Hotel, or even the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Of all the people who have been associated with this Rays franchise since its infancy, he reigns supreme with the highest obtainable levels of respect, dignity and honor from not only players, umpires and visiting teams, but the legions of baseball fans from sea to shining sea. 

'I’ve lite a candle tonight for Zim on a on-deck circle in front of my baseball collection to show my sincere want to honor a man who’s love of the game transcended uniforms, rivalries and whose lifetime love and devotion to this fine game shall never be forgotten.

If there truly is a “Field of Dreams” in heaven for I know Zim will be the first to take the field and start the chatter.  And I hope if such a place truly exists Zimmer gets a standing ovation by the players, fans and anyone within eyesight of the angelic field for if anyone ever deserved to play and witness the game for eternity, it is Popeye.

Personally, I want to thank you Zim. For the short moments, interesting chats and just being you…. a true gentleman of the clay and grass. 

 

Foley Displays the Ultimate Sign of Respect

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I have had a mountain of respect for Tampa Bay Rays Third Base Coach Tom Foley over the years. He is a funny guy who loves his craft, is eager to teach and mentor young players and swings a mean golf club.

Evan+Longoria+Boston+Red+Sox+v+Tampa+Bay+Rays+znZ91QS5QxXlBut when he recent came out to his usual spot manning an extra “6″ on his jersey ( Foley normally wear just a lone “6″ ) and emblazoned with the name “Zimmer” on his shoulders, that sealed him permanently among my all-time favorite list of M L B personalities.  

The moment I realized it was emotional for me with my memories of Zim, and amplified this team’s love, admiration and want for the Rays Senior Advisor to recouporate and return to his usual spot on the field during the Rays Batting Practice sessions before games .  

“I’m going to wear it until they (M L B ) tell me, ‘Don’t wear it,’ ” Foley said Saturday. “We are 1-0 9 (now 3-0, all Walk-off wins ) with it.”  Personally I’m hoping M L B let’s Foley wear it as long as Zimmer is recovering and away from the field.

With Foley being “Zimmer for a day”, the action personally pushed the level of admiration and respect I had for him to an astronomical level. It was the ultimate homage by one of the senior members of the Rays franchise displaying his own kinship and affection for the Rays iconic Senior Advisor.  The Zen that is Zim is such a vital piece of this team’s chemistry and spirit. 

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay RaysFoley’s want to pay homage in this way also provides an exclamation point to just how important he also is to the overall fabric of this Rays franchise.

He is the longest tenured Coach in Rays history. Foley first stepped into the Rays Third Base Coaching box back on October 25, 2001 and has survived the turmoil and change of 3 different Rays Managers from Hal McRae, Lou Pinella and Joe Maddon.

That a magical 13 years giving signals and signs to hundreds of Rays players who have passed him during that time. Only St Louis Cardinals Third Base Coach Jose Oquendo, who has manned the same spot for 14 years has patrolled the box longer.

dt.common.streams.StreamServerHow important is Foley to the Rays game plan?  Former Rays Coaches’ Greg Riddoch (1998-1999), Billy Hatcher (2000-2001) and current NY Mets Manager Terry Collins (2001). All have manned that same strategic spot for the Rays, but only Foley has stood there since.

Only 3 other members of the Rays organization’s uniformed corps have pulled on a Rays tunic longer. Field Coordinator and Durham Bulls iconic Manager Bill Evers, current Bulls Manager Charlie Montoyo and long-time Hitting Coordinator Steve Livesey.

Coming into the 2014 season Foley had done his patterned windmill signal and watched 76% of the Rays franchise’s runs cross Home Plate. I do not think there are many if any other Coaches’ in the entire history of M L B baseball besides possibly Oquendo who could boast such an achievement.

I was proud and exhilarated watching Foley’s game day homage to Zimmer. It is not often we see one Rays icon pay homage to another eternal Rays icon.  My one hope is that sometime in the future, whoever takes over that sacred Rays Third Base spot after Foley puts away his spikes will someday display the same honor and be “Foley for a day”..

Rays Should Elevate Zimmer to “Manager Emeritus”

I have a feeling there are going to be more than a handful of things I’m going to be writing about that the Tampa Bay Rays front office does between now and the time Pitchers and Catchers report to Port Charlotte, Florida in February 2013, but this one move to me signals their commitment to bring the top tier of talent to this squad.

 

It was not the affirmation of the team accepting the 2013 options for players like SP James Shields, C Jose Molina or even the brilliance that was RP Fernando Rodney’s 2012 campaign. No, the action that caught my eye and truly showed me this team is committed and expecting to “shoot for the Moon”, is the recent press release that Rays Senior Advisor Don Zimmer will partake in his 65th year in organized baseball, and his 10th with the Rays. This to me is the biggest, best and most logical move the team will make all Winter.

 

We all know that Zimmer is the Master Yoda for this young and energetic squad, having beat health situations in 2012 and is again eager, willing and excited about stepping foot on the field again this Spring. Sure Zim who has been immortalized in so many ways over his career and his 10 years with the Rays has his own “Bear” now, but I think the title of “Senior Advisor” needed to be ripped off the team website, and a new proclamation be made to show the respect and reverence to all things “Zim”.

 

Some will say being Senior Advisor is enough for Zimmer, but to me it can be elevated to a new level with the mere changing of his title. I’m sure Rays current Manager Joe Maddon will not take offense to this, or even take it as even a mild slap if the team were to elevate Zim to the position of esteemed and new fangled title of Rays Manager Emeritus. When former Rays owner Vince Namoli sold the team to the young and youthful Stuart Sternberg, he was given the designation “Chairman Emeritus” when you gaze at the Rays Ownership section of their website and Media Guide.


Emeritus” by definition in Webster’s Dictionary tends to lean more towards showing this title going to someone who has been “retired” as a post-positive adjective to show respect and dignity to someone who gave of themselves in all aspects for the betterment of their chosen field. Namoli possibly holds this distinction because of his tireless pursuit of the Rays franchise combined with his due diligence while commanding the top tier of the Rays hierarchy before passing the torch to Sternberg.

 

Zimmer is not retired as a Major League Baseball figurehead, but he is as an active “Manager”, and that is the aspect I feel his title being changed to “Manager Emeritus” has merit. Zim is a constant figure down on the turf during Rays Batting Practice and is as much a personality and part of this team as any of the players and Coaches who adorn the Rays colors. The Rays have not been shy in the past of being creative with titles, responsibilities or even assignment, but making Zimmer a permanent part of the Rays culture, game-day experience is the least we can do for a true MLB icon.

 

Heck, I still remember when Zimmer lived on Treasure Island, Florida with his awesome wife and used to come into my father’s gas station for fuel. I would talk baseball with him, even when he was the Red Sox Manger. I looked up to this man for not only living the dream, but always wanting to be within eyesight of the game and wanting to always have a finger on the pulse of this grand game.

 

Some might say my wanting of this title change is futile, a bit contrite and maybe a bit evasive on the legend that is Maddon right now in this region. I can see that point of view, but name me another figure besides Namoli who has done as much for this franchise both in front and behind the scenes as Zimmer. I know personally he loves to give knowledge, excite the younger generation of the baseball royalty and be the anointed “father figure” some of these guys need when the game slaps them around a bit. To me Zimmer is as much a part of the Rays game as Evan Longoria’s bat or even Rodney’s archery pose.

 

This action probably will not happen. Zim will remain the title of Senior Advisor until the time he walks away from this game for the final time. Maybe I’m just trying to be a bit insightful and want him to enjoy the respect, admiration fans like myself in the Rays Republic have held for Zimmer, even before he donned the “TB” cap for the first time. Zimmer is a Tampa Bay icon, a long time resident who has given us at least 2 generation of Zimmers’, and will always be cut into the fabric that is the Rays legacy. Maybe the word “Emeritus” is too small for the legend that is Zim, maybe “Emperor of the Rays Republic” fits more like a Rawlings glove.

 

 

Get Well Soon Zim, We Miss You

When I think of the Tampa Bay Rays, he always comes to my mind. From his customized golf cart at Spring Training camp, to his presence at Rays fund-raisers and any baseball function, his presence just makes you feel royalty has embraced the cause. He has never gone to the plate or hurled a pitch in a game for this franchise, but he has forever been engraved as a icon of this club. To me Rays Senior Advisor Don Zimmer might have forgotten more baseball than any of us will ever know, but the man is eternally the Grand Puba of baseball in my mind.

It still amazes me the years that have flown by for Zimmer since his first days as a Dodger via Brooklyn not Los Angeles. From taking his spot at shortstop to manning a spot on the bench or rail as a Manager or Coach, Zimmer has been inspirational to generations of ballplayers and fans alike. He truly has lived the perfect baseball life, and still is a vital cog in the Rays baseball machine. The man is a 2-time author, definitely an inspirational speaker and can tell you baseball tales and events that can make you bask at his words like a child no matter you age. He is the quintessential MLB storyteller. They definitely do not make them anymore like “the Zim”.

Sometimes I think of him more as an immortal baseball god than a human, and possibly that is why when I recently heard Zimmer had been absent from his customary seat in the Trop. since right after the first home series against the New York Yankees, I became nervous and anxious. I have come to find out Zimmer has been has been hospitalized in the last week with a kidney condition and will soon begin the dialysis process. I came to find out “The Zim” has been hospitalized 3 times in the last 5 weeks for diabetic related ailments, possibly Father Time finally found Zimmer and threw him a inside curve ball Zim could not make solid contact with.

So I am asking the Rays Republic to all not only say some blessing and good vibes towards Zimmer today, but to raise your Cowbells high and ring them like never before as the Rays take the field today. Stand, clap, ring the clapper until it ends up detached and 5 rows in front of you, move that turkey wing of your in such a manner you need Tommy John’s, remember the things we love about Zim, and why is so endeared and beloved by fans both in Tampa Bay and in other hamlets around the baseball World.

I have not brought out my big black Cowbell in 4 years, but today I will get a new drumstick, position myself accordingly and bash that thing until it bends again from the force and effort. That is how much this one iconic member of the Rays means to me. From the first time I met him when I put Premium Pure Oil gasoline in his car, to countless moments just saying hello in the stands and around the Rays complex, this man has become one of the most respected people I know, or ever want to know.

Zimmer’s son Tom offered a nugget of future hope today when talking about Zim again taking his rightful spot again in Tropicana Field. “Once his Father gets comfortable with the dialysis schedule and routine he should be back with the Rays”. I truly hope so, the man means more to this franchise and the guys in the clubhouse than most fans can imagine. I remember seeing him sit down and talk to former Rays P Scott Kazmir once during Batting Practice and Kaz was beaming from ear-to-ear listening intently to the knowledge and wisdom that came out of Zim’s mouth.

He might have never stepped on the field as a player, never struck the sweet spot or hurled a missile during infield practice, but name me one other Rays who commands instant respect, get noticed the moment he walks into a room and is embraced by the Rays and the rest of the baseball world. Can’t wait to see Zimmer back in his seat. That will be an emotional moment, I hope we all do not flood the Trop on that day.

Possible Rays Off-the-Turf New Years Resolutions

The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears and new eyes. Unless a particular man-made New Years resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective. Unless a man starts on a strange assumption that he has never existed before, it is quite certain that he will never exist afterwards.” – G K Chesterton

As we venture towards the approaching cusp of the New Year, I am reminded why teams like the Tampa Bay Rays do not make their New Year’s resolutions known. Maybe it is that realistic fact that the tricky part of it all is sticking to the resolution once the Sun takes it apex on January 1st. Maybe it is hard for some within the franchise to admit that this franchise is another year “older or wiser”,that they are blinded by the shining  clarity that the loftier the resolution, the tougher it is to hang onto as the year unfolds. It takes steely nerves to live by what you divulge and resolve past the first day.

The resolutions I am noting today are just observations, translations or possible seasonal revelations that the Rays organization could encompass in their bag of New Years resolutions. Each of these 3 resolves have a different demographic target that currently lies within the existing Rays Republic community. One resolve would pay a visual homage to our ever-expanding Rays past while another bring into the light a culinary segment that is exploding around Tampa Bay. The third is a possible revisiting of a past “perk” by the Rays Front Office that might seem minimal to some, but has left a small segment of the Rays Republic wondering what their overall value is to this franchise.

Let Them Eat:

The first resolve is for the possibility of the Rays and their concessionary vendor Centerplate  to unify and take a bold step in the concession stand black hole and make one of their Trop locations ( Centerfield Street) become a “pop-up” stand. Using the current fad of “pop-up” restaurants, the Rays and Centerplate could have a different local eating establishment come in and provide a different food concept or gastronomical experience. Think Monstah Lobster during a Red Sox visit. Short-term catering options that could trend with visiting team’s locales or even bring a certain culinary air of the unknown Tampa Bay regional cultural nuances.

I am one of those people who miss the American Sunday Plate concession stand where Chef Enzo and his wife on Rightfield Street. I miss their signature homemade peach/apple cobbler, meatloaf, mac and cheese and that special finger-licking bucket of ribs. Why not see if some of the local Tampa Bay fringe eateries might want to venture into the Trop for a 10-game home stand catering venture with 4 signature dishes, a few sides and possibly even a devilish dessert. Centerplate do not get me wrong, I enjoyed the Everglades BBQ experience in 2011, but maybe I just hunger for more. This franchise has been very upfront in the past promoting their sponsor restaurants with vigor, but has it generated the capital for the sponsor that was envisioned? A short-term “pop-up” even for 10 games could get fans to sample the goods of a local eatery like the Z-Grille, and bring in fans post-game to again dine on those fares featured in the Trop  (Dr. Pepper ribs).

This could open up  a new customer base for these small restaurants, and maybe  the Rays can incorporate another growing food fad into the mix. Maybe an olive branch could be extended to the budding food truck community ( Fire Monkeys)  who are gaining a sizeable foothold in the Tampa Bay region and the food could be another way for the team to get those fringe Rays prospective fans into the stadium and let the way this team plays entice them to come back again and again. To me it sounds like a gastronomical “win-win”, but the potential fo even a slight attendance boost is a tasty side dish for me.

Perks Worth Revisiting:

My second resolve is for the Rays to take a firm stand and combat the mounting Season Ticket Holder apathy aliment that is gaining legs. It was not so long ago this segment of the Rays Republic had some special perks besides their seat discounts and gifts that made it worth the 81-game investment. Now it seem the  trinket cupboard is bare and some long time Rays Republic Season Ticket members have decided to explore game packages and small allotments of tickets as opposed to footing a huge upfront financial investment into the team. The foundation is not crumbling, but it does have a few cracks.

I have heard from some Rays Fan Wall of Fame members who wish for the golden days (pre-Stu) when we got all of the promotional items so we did not have to fight the 5:10 masses to get our Rays trinkets. We even got the under-15 selections which went great for giving gifts to younger friend’s kids, planting a seed to them becoming future Rays fans. I used to get my promotional item when the gates opened, hold onto it and see if a young fan was sitting in my section who did not get an item and I would give it to them knowing I had one coming to me later in the season via the yearly Season Ticket perk. There is still one mid-season event I wish the team would bring back again. I loved the All-Star Celebration parties held on the turf with food, games and the All-Star game telecast on the big screen as we all lounged on the field either on blankets or chairs eating take-out food. bought beverages or provided eats and just having that special Rays All-Star united experience.

It was a great event held before the era of Stu back on July 12,2005 and July 11, 2006. This is one of the yearly Rays events I have missed the most, more for the chance to mingle with Rays fans than for the simple fact of sitting down in Centerfield and looking upwards to the Teflon roof of the Trop. I still have vivid images in my mind of the phrases on those Rays invites stating: “You are our Most Valuable Player” (2005) or “Season Ticket Holders will take over the Trop!” (2006) These events used to make me feel like a small important cog of the Rays machine. Now I feel more like replaceable oil that can be changed at a moment’s notice.

Shining  Examples of the “Rays Way”:

The third resolve could easily be done. It just takes a solid decision and possibly a can of paint and a brave maintenance man. I went to Dallas for the Super Bowl a few years ago and had my breath taken away when I witnessed the Cowboys Ring of Honor in person. Not only does it convey the importance of that player in the team history, but it symbolized a team and fan’s love and ultimate respect for their former heroes and role models from the gridiron. I think the Rays need just that same symbolic example of honoring their past now that we are entering our 15th season.

It could be included on the facade of the 200 or Club Level of seating starting outward on either side of the current Press Box locations. There is more than enough space for future additions as the list grows towards the corners, plus even if the Rays do finally commit to a new home, it can be incorporated into the plans and just be re-instituted in the new venue. Without a shadow of doubt the Rays “Yoda”, Don Zimmer has to be the first name etched in this collection of great Rays. Some might say it should be Wade Boggs or even Fred McGriff who grace the honorary ring first, but to me Zim has all the prototypical Rays qualities you want both from a on-the-field, and in-the-seats standpoint. Top to bottom he is a Tampa Bay resident, a role model and a wealth of baseball stories, knowledge and experience worth of such an honor.

Well, these are my 3 possible 2012 resolves for the Rays as the New Year beams brighter upon the horizon. Some will say I should have addressed the Rays impending on-the-field issues and left these sleeping dogs lie, but I take great pride in my past, present and future dealings with this great franchise and think that sometimes things need to be instituted, re-invented or brought back to life to make being a member of the Rays Republic special again. These 3 resolves can be achieved, they can be enacted and they can be turning point to regaining some of the lost beams of light that have escaped the brilliance of the Rays Republic.

In advance, I wish all my loyal readers and those who stumble upon my writs a grand celebration tonight on this New Year’s Eve. I also wish you safety and the courage of resolve in seeing your own personal resolutions blossom into beautiful bouquet of obtainable goals and life aspirations.

HAPPY NEW YEARS from Rays Renegade

Goodbye Sweet Lou

 
 
I like Lou Piniella, I truly do. I got to know the former Tampa Bay Rays Manager when he first came aboard with the Rays when I came into the Rays Spring Training Clubhouse at Progress Energy Park and could hear his laughter from two rooms away. He had all the gruff and lines of a Manager that you should fear with every inch of your being, but also had that calming effect you wish your friends possessed.

And he truly loved this game. And at times it seemed that he not only loved it like a secret mistress, but he relish the excitement, agony and also the drama that makes this game special in every moment of every game. I never got a chance to sit there and chew the fat with the Manager that some Rays players avoided at any cost, but I did share a joke or two with him on occasion when performing my old Pepsi duties for the Rays clubhouse Manager, Chris Westmoreland.

Lou wanted a nice cooler unit for my office, and I had come into the Rays clubhouse to show “Westy” some of the selections of coolers when Piniella came roaring around the corner with a new special idea he wanted to illustrate to his players as to commitment to the game. This was the moment Piniella had come up with the hair dye moment to commemorate a winning streak, and the glow in his eye showed the fire was still deep and glowing within him.

 

But most people remember the Manager who would rant and rave at his players, even from his perch in the dugout for a jaunt instead of a gallop towards a base. Giving his troops a rant after their telltale moment of a lapse of any baseball intelligence, or simply not giving the game the respect it deserves…always. For deep down below that angry guy persona was a former player turned Manager who’s respect and adulation for the game far outweighed his sense at times.


Piniella never seemed totally at ease being the skipper of the Rays warship. He always seemed to want one more power weapon, one more viable option, but the team was strapped to it’s fiscal responsibilities and could not always give Piniella the weapons he so deserved or demanded to fight within the American League East. But Piniella tried to be the model Manager and leader and absorb some of the punches from the mistakes and faltering pitching or offense that always seemed to doom his Rays teams.

But in the end, it was not Piniella being tired of teaching the young how to play the game right, or even the weigh of all the Rays losses that killed his passion, it seemed to be he did all he could with the Rays resources he was given and had finally seen that it was not going to change anytime soon. I did not see him the day he finally decided to put his Rays cap on the last time, but I know even with the end in sight, Piniella fought the game as if it was his first contest as a rookie in Kansas City.

Piniella was always a fighter, a scrapper and was ultimately the right man at that moment in this Rays development as a franchise. People always say that the winning attitude was defined with the beginning of the Joe Maddon Era. Well, the fires were lit, and the embers never dies under Piniella’s watch. And that passion sprung to life again after a short hiatus as a broadcaster and he took his last grasp at the job that has consumed and entertained him for much of his adult life.

 

Piniella might have finally take his last stroll onto the Wrigley Field turf today, and hopefully he took in the blue sky and the green grass and memories flooded his mind of being able to play coach and manage this great kid’s game for such a long time in his adult life. I always thought Piniella might become this generation’s Don Zimmer, the guy who will always have his fingers somewhere in the baseball cookie jar and take an occasional big bite until he takes his last breath.


But this is not a truly sad day because we all know that Piniella has lived, breathed and been so consumed within the fabric of this game for so long it will always be a part of him. And he will be somehow just beyond the shadows talking, instructing or possibly building a dream team of his own after he finishes wearing the Manager’s uniform. Tampa Bay has been blessed to have a Manager like Piniella when he was here to push the team and the franchise into another spot in it’s development.

I know family matters brought this action to fruition before the end of the Cub’s season, but I hope I have the same sentiments as the rest of the Rays Republic and hope that Piniella finds that next rhythm, that essence of solitude and finally a time for loving life after the diamond. Mostly I am glad he was a part of our Rays history and brought this franchise through its teenage years with patience, counseling and a bit of tough love to give it the firm foundation of respect for the game that the Rays possess today.

 

They say special people help make and shape our lives. Hopefully the integrity, virility and a passion formed by Piniella here in Tampa Bay always flows through this franchise. I know I will miss your gruff triads and comments, all boosted up by the love you have for this great game.

Rays 2010 Fan Fest Photo Blog 2 of 2

 

 


One of the biggest reasons so many fans came out to the Tampa Bay Rays 2010 Fan Fest on Saturday was a chance to chat and get autographs from their favorite Rays players in advance of the 2010 season. Also on hand were a few of the Rays minor league prospects invited to the Major League camp that started on Friday. The number of fans seen entering the building on Saturday definitely showed that the enthusiasm and the excitement is very much still alive within the Tampa Bay area for their team.

And there were a few big name players like Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist, new comer Sean Rodriguez sent to the Rays in the Scott Kazmir trade in 2009 and Rays 2009 scapegoat Designated Hitter Pat Burrell. The autograph day went pretty uneventful accept for some late arrivals from players, and some people grumbling about the absence of Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett and leftie Jake McGee. I still have not heard a word on Bartlett, but McGee missed the event due to his wife Morgan going to a local hospital, but she has since been released and McGee is back with the team at the Port Charlotte complex.

 

But there were more than whispers from a few of the Rays Season Ticket holder I spoke to on friends not renewing their seats or even people downgrading from multiple seats to singles for the 2010 season. But the reality is also there that a small bulk of that inflated number in 2009 was for people who wanted to secure 2008 Playoff tickets and bought seats in the inexpensive sections of Tropicana Field to get guaranteed seating for the Rays playoff run. But there is a anticipated hope of people getting into the flow after Fan Fest and purchasing one of the many ticket packages or options for the upcoming season.

And there were members of the Rays Sales Department all over Tropicana Field ready and willing to discuss or show seating options to people all during Fan Fest. There are options starting as low as $ 273 (Friday or Sunday plan) and rising depending on the seat location. And beginning this Friday, February 26,2010 at 9 am, individual game tickets will go on sale to the general public for the first time in 2010. Another popular option is the Saturday game package that will include every game for the Hess Express /Rays Concert Series that start at $ 331 for T.B.T. Party Deck or Upper Deck Reserved seating.

And again in 2010, the Home Plate Club prices seems to have gone down a tab, so if you should win the Florida Lotto in time for the Rays season, you could purchase a seat in the All-Inclusive area starting at $ 13,256. And even as the Rays season Ticket numbers have dropped, it had to be anticipated by the local economic struggles and also the 2009 Playoff package ticket holders not renewing their seats for 2010. You can be sure within now and the beginning of the season, the Rays will announce some additional ticket options and also attractive promotions and events to get the Tampa Bay residents to come out to the Trop. for more games in 2010.  

 


And as usual, the autograph lines seemed to begin to get congested almost immediately as people bought their silver wristbands then stood in line almost two hours before Evan Longoria first stepped onto the first table location just after 12 pm. By the time he had stepped into his seat, the line formed around the white plastic chain links and circled out into the Rightfield Street hallway down past the Dipping Dots booth and almost to the Rays Carnival Games for the kids.

And there were all sorts of interesting items brought up to the players to sign this year. One fan, Christin Manfredo actually had new Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach sign her 1,000th autographed baseball during Fan Fest, with Rays prospect catcher Nevin Ashley becoming the 1001st autographed baseball in Manfredo’s collection. And there was the usual oversize baseball bats and  small scale batting helmets for players to sign, but the one item that caught my eyes was the oversize World Series ticket that were given to several players during the day. 


 

 

Everyone always asks who is sitting right there with me in my section. Well, here we see Michael, who sits in Section 138, Row C Seat 1 giving Evan Longoria one of the State Farm Home Run Derby balls from 2008 to sign.  Longoria took some time looking at the ball and remarked that it looked like it was actually hit, possibly by him during the event. It is a great collectible ball for Michael’s collection. Another item that came up just after Michael to Longo was an actual gold-colored fielding glove that looked a lot like the Golden Glove model glove on the trophy that Longoria will be presented at a Rays game in 2010. One of the great things about this event is seeing some of the fantastic collectible items fans have obtained during the past season from auctions, sales and even events like Fan Fest for the guys to sign.
 


 

 

People were complaining all day long about players getting to the Trop. late for their signings and not staying past their times to appease fans. I know that certain players had transportation delays on their travels up from Port Charlotte, while others had logistical situation going on with their belongings and equipment getting to Port Charlotte ahead of them on Saturday. For some reason, B J Upton took a huge blunt of this backlash, but he was not the only player who was delayed and did not stay any additional time to sign for fans.

And some Rays fans were quick to notice he was texting between signatures and also checking his phone a bit not aware of his transportation logistic situation. But then again,
when you are sitting at a table above the general public, they can see you every move and action and can develop negative opinions and reaction quickly based on your overall mood and attitude to the fans. Upton is excited to begin a new chapter in 2010 and is healthy for the first time in a few years. He has reached out to new Hitting Coach Derek Shelton for advice and has seen the errors of his ways in the past with his nonchalant base running and quiet demeanor. I think he is going to have a breakout year in 2010.

 

 

Gabe Kapler to me has become one of the greatest ” at ease” fashion sense guys on this team. And I mean that as a compliment. Here we see him in a great black hat and a pair of Chuck Taylor sneakers that seems to show his laid-back attitude and approach to this team. But he is also one of the guys who get into a “zone” during game day and is a constant figure helping other players both on and off the field. Kapler is one of those guys on the edges of the Rays roster in 2010 who could be beneficial to the Rays return to the playoffs in 2010.

 

Most people know these two guys as one of the best First Basemen offensively and defensively in the Major Leagues, and the other is the Senior Director of Promotions for the Rays. But Carlos Pena and Brian Killingsworth also have another “Kevin Bacon 6 degrees of Separation” moment”. Both were also members of the Wartham Gatesman who won the 1997 Cape Cod Baseball League Championship.  Funny story, Killingsworth actually called me on my cellphone the day we got Pena and told me about the signing. I still marvel at that moment I knew the Rays were bound for the playoffs with a guy like Pena behind the scenes.
 

 

One of the great thing I love about Rays Fan Fest is the way Rays Radio Network guru Rich Herrera gets time with the players to talk about the upcoming season, or even put an exclamation point on some issue. It was great how he started chatting about the limited edition Carlos Pena T-shirt being sold by the American Red Cross and the Save The Children Foundation.

Herrera told the crowd how the back of the T-shirt lists all the accomplishments Pena has accumulated since his arrival here in 2007.  About Pena’s 2007 Comeback Player of the Year Award and Silver Slugger Award, his 2008 Gold Glove, and his 2009 selection to the All Star game. But Herrera was quick to mention the one award Pena is most proud of is his selection as the Tampa Bay recipient for the 2008 Roberto Clemente Award.

Most people know that this award is given annually to the player who combines outstanding skills on the baseball diamond with their devoted work within their team’s community. Pena was actually honored to be presented his nomination by Roberto Clemente Junior during a ceremony at Tropicana Field on September 3,2008. As part of the Roberto Clemente nomination, Major League Baseball made a donation in Pena’s name of $ 7,500 to Fundacion Lumen 2000, a Christian Foundation which provides foster care for children. Pena and his wife, Pamela, also donate school supplies, medicine and equipment to this foundation annually. 

I have notice a weird pattern lately in the family units of players within the Rays roster. It is fascinating to me the number of “twos” associated with Rays players and their children. There seems to be a wild Rays parallel, especially in the Rays Bullpen where 4 players have two children. Included in that list is Dan Wheeler (2 boys),Randy Choate (2 girls), Jeff Bennett (2 girls) and Dale Thayer (see above photo).

But the duo’s do not end there as First Baseman Carlos Pena (1 boy,1 girl), Outfielder Gabe Kapler (2 boys), Starting Pitcher Matt Garza (1 boy,1 girl) and Catcher Dioner Navarro( 2 boys) all celebrate the “2′s”. But it can go one step further as First Base Coach George Hendricks, Senior Advisor Don Zimmer and Vice President of Communications Rick Vaughn also have two children in their broods. 
 

 

 

There was also a another wild moment behind-the-scenes as several members of the Rays showed up wearing some unconventional head gear for the autograph signings. From Rays starter James Shields, who should get the nod for the 2010 Home Opener against the Baltimore Orioles rocking a white cap, to new closer Rafael Soriano coming down the aisle dressed in black and gold and listening intently to his I-pod on the way to the signing table. Some websites around the Internet did not see his ensemble in its entirety. So the above photo is what he wore into Tropicana Field before he took the stage wearing the Rays new “Sky Blue”-themed alternative jersey.

 

 

And most of the Rays were in a really giving mood during Fan Fest. At one point, before Grant Balfour went over to the Season Ticket holder Photo area, he came down from the table and signed for a few minutes with a few more fans before heading over by the Leftfield foul pole to participate in the photo op for the Season Ticket holders only. But even as they were coming and going, several Rays players,including Upton posed with fans for pictures as
they were ascending the aisle to go back into the Clubhouse area following their autograph signing times.

 

Fernando Perez even took a moment out to come by my seat and tell me he read a bit of my posts during the off season, which really caught me by surprise. I had forgotten I told him about my blog following his poetry article back in 2009, and he advised me he likes my “personalized” view of the game and the actions. Got to admit, when you have a graduate of Columbia University in Creative Writing tell you he likes your stuff… I was on cloud nine the rest of the day. Fernando, in advance, got to tell you, I am also a huge fan of your articles and I am still going to push you to join MLBlogs.com and submit some stuff….You can count on that!
 

 

 

But this was also a time for some “old Friends” to reunite as former Rangers teammates Jaoquin Benoit and Carlos Pena chatted for a bit before Benoit and Rays Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos made their way to the stage for their 4 pm autograph times. There were a lot of chuckles and writing down of information between the three of them before Ramos and Benoit descended for their time at the autograph tables. And as was custom for every Rays game since he got here, Ramos gave me a salute as he entered the blue-screened area for the signing. I am a lifetime fan of Ramos, and it is not just for the sideline Salsa displays either.
 

 


And the Rays organization has to be proud of its fan base that still had the roped off areas full and awaiting autographs at 4 pm. This is a great sign of the energy and the commitment this region has towards Major League Baseball. And it is also fitting that Maddon did not leave the signing table until everyone in the “Table 1″ line had their chance to come up and get their signatures. Even as the overhead lights began to dim within Tropicana Field, Maddon and his two Coaches stood their ground until the last fan got their items signed. Maddon did the same thing in 2009, and I suspect he will do it every season he is here with the Rays. And that is another reason to love him as this team’s manager.

  

 

 

 

As you can see by this last photo, the time is quickly upon us to begin our nightly patronage of all things Rays related. And those 45 days will seem to simply fly by as the Rays begin game within the next week or so. Once the team begins their Grapefruit schedule the days will pick up steam until that last Florida Home game at Tropicana Field against the New York Mets. And then with one more trip up to Durham, North Carolina to play the Triple-A Champion Durham Bulls, it will be only a matter of hours before we again assemble for another Major League Baseball campaign, and a drive towards playoff glory again.

Even with all of the outside distractions and riff-raff going on within this Tampa Bay area, the one constant is that the Rays play a brand of baseball other teams are now adapting for their own squads. They always say that imitation is the ultimate form of flattery. If that is true, then the “Rays Sky Blue” jerseys might be a great addition as expectations rise and the sky is the limit in 2010.

Rays Pitchers and Catchers Report…The Photo Blog

 



Today I want to conclude the photos that I took out at the Rays Spring Training complex on Friday morning. Hopefully each and every one of you will get a chance sometimes in your life to either get out to Arizona or Florida to see this yearly migration and training exercise featuring some of the most talented and fit athletes. No matter what team, or the location, these are our “Boys of Summer”,  and to catch them in this energetic elementary state away from the confines of the regular season.

 
 
This is the time of the season where the team begins to forge their team’s identity for the upcoming season, and prepare for their first battle in April 2010. Hope you all enjoy the rest of my photos of the Tampa Bay Rays as they “officially” began the quest to prepare for another enthusiastic and winning 2010 season.

One of the necessary “evils” of Spring Training is the television and media requests for interviews and short sound bytes about the upcoming season. Here we have former Rays Rookie of the Year candidate pitcher Jeff Niemann being interviewed by a local television crew about his expectation for the 2010 Rays season. You can not tell by the photo, but Niemann is growing a ” Abe Lincoln”-style beard that is just beginning to come into its own. He has not decided if he will keep it for the season, but combined with rookie pitcher Wade Davis, they could be the “bearded” back end of the Rays rotation this season. 


One of the great things about the way the Charlotte County Sports Park is setup is the short walk across the player’s parking lot before they hit the Rays clubhouse front door. It is an excellent spot to get autographs and also chat with your favorite players. Also, there are some players who are more pat to sign during Spring Training then they do during the regular season, and this is a great time to get those final pieces to your autograph collection. 

Welcome to Tampa Bay Kelly Shoppach. I think he felt like a hunted man as most of the Tampa Bay media was waiting for him and the other catchers’ to come in last during the days event and he was kind enough to give and every one of them a sound byte for their nightly telecast. 

Shoppach is pictured here in the middle of the media throng with local sportscasters popping microphones in front of his face as they ask about the upcoming competition to see who is going to be the Rays starting catcher for the season. Most people think the competition is going to be fierce between Shoppach and incumbent Dioner Navarro for the Rays starting catching job. I actually think it might come down to game situations as Shoppach is more apt at getting on base, while Navarro can provide some power at times in the lineup. Should be a fun time watching these two go through the Spring. 


I remember when I was playing sports, I used to hate hitting the “sharks” as I used to call them. The problem with some media members is they are always seeking the negative items and looking for an extreme angle on the team. People have asked me why I try and take a more positive approach to my blogs and my commentary, the proof is right above in this picture. With all the media onrush, I think a positive spin on even the worst situation can do wonders. But, I do have my own targets ( Hickey, Burrell).   

It was so great to see all of the guys out there tossing the ball around and laughing and commenting to each other throughout the workouts. Every pitcher performed drills today in anticipation of the Rays Fan fest on Saturday, in which most of the Rays pitchers’ will take that long trek up to Tropicana Field to participate in autograph signings and photo opportunities with Rays fans.  

 

I have always looked at Rays Senior Advisor Don Zimmer as our own personal “Yoda”. I remember someone saying one time that Zim has ” forgotten more baseball than any of us will ever research or see in our lifetimes”. And I have to agree with that quote 100 percent. He is always willing and eager to sign for fans, and is a true iconic figure that Rays fans are lucky to talk and learn from during times like Spring Training. It is funny, I used to pump his gas back in the 1970′s at my dad’s gas station, and no matter where you encounter Zimmer, he is always a great person to talk baseball with….always.

 

I was talking to Kevin Barr, who is the Rays Strength and Conditioning coach for a few minutes on Friday, and he is as excited as the guys to get back to work in 2010. One of the great aspects of Ray Manager Joe Maddon’s Coaching staff is their positive enthusiasm and their confident approach to situations with the Rays players. No matter if it on-the-field problems, or getting back into game shape after an injury, this staff is centered in positive energy and it feeds off them to the players.

I was excited to head on down to the far end of the complex after the pitchers’ came in for the day and see the Rays catchers in camp doing time in the hitting cages. One of the guy who caught my attention was Joe Dillon, who is trying to make this Rays roster as a multipurpose player. Last season he was Maddon’s choice as an emergency third catcher, but with a great Spring, he could make the roster as a bench and infield utility man. Plus he was tagging the ball down the third baseline today with some extreme power.

I am always surprised by the new exercises and physical fitness regiment that they Rays include in their daily workouts. No matter if it is the extra large rubber bands to strengthen their calves and legs, or the flex tubing to help stretch out their arms and shoulders, each Spring there is something new in the Rays exercise arsenal. 

 

And it was great to see the guys starting to hit drills during the first day with everyone participating but Rays new closer Rafael Soriano who has been battling some chest congestion due to a vicious cold. He might have only thrown a few long toss balls today, but he was there for Maddon’s meeting and looks imposing in his Rays uniform. 


 

But the “man of the hour” was Rays owner Stuart Sternberg who fielded a barrage of questions from the media on subjects ranging from the Hillsborough County stadium buzz to the Rays possible scenarios to keep Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena for 2011. Another issue that was on the media’s mind was the payroll concerns for 2011 and the rumors of Rays Season Tickets being down for this season.
 

One of the true sights of Spring. Most of the Rays players came out in their game spikes, but they also brought along their running shoes for their post long toss running exercises and workout on another field. With most of their cleats not broken in yet, using these running shoes might be one of the best options to keep blisters and foot situations under control so early in the Spring Training process. 

 

Rays reliever J P Howell and Rays starter Matt Garza are shown in these two photos ” airing it out” in their long toss portion of the Friday exercises. Howell was throwing with a group that contained fellow Bullpen mates Dan Wheeler and Lance Cormier before Cormier and Garza hooked up and put on a long-toss show with both pitchers throwing consistent balls in the air from the leftfield foul line to almost centerfield before they stopped and moved onto the pitching drills segment of the daily events. 

 

 

Maddon has a very experienced minor league Coaching Staff, who also were in attendance today to help in the drills and also be his eyes and ears at all five separate drill locations. With the Rays minor league system being considered one of the best in baseball, these Coaches are the backbone of that entire system.

 

 

Most of the morning exercises were devoted to stretching and limbering up for the daily grind of drills and activities to see what shape each of the Rays players might be in prior to the team turning up the dial and getting more intense in the next few days. And with every pitcher basically not doing intense workout on Saturday because of their travels to Fan Fest, it was a time to push the envelope a bit.  

 

Jaoquin Benoit, pictured above is one of the many non-roster Spring invitees to the Rays camp and could make the Rays decision a bit more difficult with a great Spring. Most consider him on the outside looking in, but he could secure a spot in the Rays bullpen with a few impressive outings this Spring. The Rays begin their Spring Training schedule in 10 days. 


It was a great turnout of fans both from Charlotte County, and some who came as far as Boston and Chicago for the Rays first “official” day of Spring Training camp. Just another sign that the Rays Republic is beginning to get fans from all over the country excited about Rays baseball.

One of the things I respect most about Maddon is that he leads by example.  He is one of the most positive people I have ever met, and he is always preaching and showing confidence and the essence of positive thinking to his players. But something else I have noticed the last few years, he is always the last person off the Spring Training field.

Not unlike Lt. Colonel Hal Moore in the Vietnam War epic “We Were Soldiers”, Maddon has lead by example and been a constant force of steady, confident leadership for his team. And just like Moore would not step off the ground and into a transport helicopter until every last solider was transported or removed from the battlefield in the Ia Drang Valley, Maddon also shows that unity daily in his activities with his team.

So this was my short and eventful day at the Rays complex as pitchers and catchers officially reported to the Rays to begin the 2010 campaign to get back to the playoffs. There will be another 10 days of extreme workouts and drills before game action begins, and less than 45 days until the Rays open their season at Tropicana field against the Baltimore Orioles. Hope you enjoyed the photos, because I enjoyed getting them for all of us to enjoy…

 

 

Rays Pitchers & Catchers Report…2010 Edition

 


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**** Within the next few days I will post a extended Photo blog of the pictures I took today after the Rays Fan fest tomorrow afternoon.


I could not sleep a wink last night and thank goodness AMC had a pretty good movie lineup until 6 am this morning. This felt like the first time I ever suited up for a baseball game. I had the butterflies early today and mixed with the anticipated assembly again with Tampa Bay Rays baseball players who I consider “baseball buddies”. And the long hours leading up to this special moment of the Rays pitchers and catchers reporting for 2010 more than lived up to all the previous night’s hype and anxiety.

Sure you would think the hour and a half drive down to Port Charlotte from the shadow of Tropicana Field would seem to take forever as the sun began to rise in the East, but the reality was it seemed to furiously fly by with only the time staring to ebb slower as I began to wait first in line this morning to get into the Charlotte County Sports Park and “officially” begin my 2010 Rays experience. And it was great to not have the over indulgence of the Mosaic Corporation’s name attached to signage surrounding the complex today. And as I was standing there as the Rays media members began to assemble, some just passed by, while others acknowledged me standing their in my Pepsi sweatshirt as I battled the 56 degree weather.

And while I was standing there, a wild figure in pink sweatpants, barefoot and a huge poof of hair began to walk up to the security checkpoint carrying his baseball gear in a Army green dufflebag. He had come to make the team, and Edgar Gonzalez was not going to take “no” for an answer. Sure he might not have had great baseball experience only playing Marine Corp baseball, but decked there in his USF baseball jersey ( but did not play at all for USF), he was energetic and wanting an audition today for a possible slot on the Rays.

 
 

And two assembled security guards were business like and totally professional as they tried to point him towards Tropicana Field and the Rays Front Office to arrange an “official arrival” or even a slot to participate when the minor league camp came in next week. But Gonzalez was persistent and totally seemed to have his wits about him, until he began to unravel his story into a million pieces by saying he was trying to hold correspondence with U.S. President Obama and the world leaders on the curing properties of baseball. So as Gonzalez began to fade to black in the minds of the security force, he was advised to “put shoes on, or vacate the property as a safety precaution”.

 
 
 

Just then, you could see the color drain from Gonzalez’s face and he knew instantly that he had blown his scheme to try and infiltrate the Rays first 2010 workout. But I do commend the security force for doing it with grace, class and not singling him out and making the situation difficult. So as he turned away he said he would rehash it out up in “Tampa” with the Rays officials and be back another day to formally take the field. Well, Edgar Gonzalez, I wish you luck, and I hope you do get that shot, but since you have, by your own admission, never faced a 90+ mph fastball or seen a slider in your life, the audition might last the $ 2 it costs to run the Batting Cage machine at the Mini Golf complex down the street.
 

 

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But as 10 pm came, I strutted in first in the line and was handed a Dioner Navarro and Matt Garza bobble heads and a great present of a Rays Spring roster cardboard placard that listed each invited Rays ” guest” to the 2010 Spring Training complete with the final statistics including every stop during 2009. I scanned up and down it a few time to see the names and former 2009 teams illustrated and saw a few extremely interesting names. Names like Mike Ekstrom who was claimed off waivers by the Rays this off season from the San Diego Padres , or former Ranger pitcher Joaquin Benoit, who might push some pressure on the Rays Bullpen spots, or Joe Dillionaire” Dillon who might push for a bench spot on the team and be an adequate third catching option on the Major League roster because of his versatility.
 

 
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As the guy all assembled around Rays Manager Joe Maddon for his first inspirational speech for 2010, and the brief speeches and chats by Jeff “Ziggy” Zigler, who is the Rays Traveling Secretary, the team got into stretching and began long toss to get their arms stretched out for the first time in 2010 in front of a live audience. Rays starter Matt Garza and Rays Bullpen reliever Lance Cormier put on the show of the day easily topping 200+ feet in their long toss segment before the squad split into three groups and began to start drills on retrieving the ball in front of the mound and doing basic drills like covering first base on a bunt or even shot towards the hole at first base.
 
 

And on another part of the field, the Rays field players were beginning their daily workouts in the batting cages under the watchful eyes of spectators and autograph hounds. Gabe Kapler, Jason Bartlett and a bulkier-looking Rays prospect shortstop Tim Beckham all took their swipes in the cage today before taking time out to sign for some of the fans and expressed excitement in returning to Tropicana Field tomorrow for the 2010 Rays Fan Fest. I took this time to chat a bit with Rays Communication Manager Carmen Molina and St Petersburg Times Rays writer Marc Topkin about the season and to see if I could get a few tidbits.

 

 
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But I was lucky enough to be within a good earshot of the conversation by Rays owner Stuart Sternberg to the assembled media when he began to discuss the Rays payroll, keeping Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, and the possible Rays stadium pot that is beginning to boil. He was his usual self showing total commitment to the St. Petersburg market place the team is currently in, but stressed the stadium will not be adequate up until the 2026 lease expiration date. Standing their in his own “Rays Sky Blue” sweatshirt he spoke for about 15 minutes answering volleys at him and providing in depth, complex answers that more than fulfilled the questions thrown at him on the fly. P. T. Barnum would have been proud.
 
 

And as the players began to split into their respective groups for their day ending run in the western-most field’s outfield, several players like J P Howell, Jeff Neiman and Rays prospect Jake McGee sprinted to the Rays clubhouse and shed their sweatshirts and came out again to do their running before taking time to chat and sign for fans before leaving for the day. I had a chance to talk to Howell, and his eyes lit up when I asked about his off season trip to Bora Bora for his honeymoon, or when I asked if we could do an interview sometimes during Spring Training about it.

 
 

And as I was asking that, Grant Balfour slapped me on the back asking if I was keeping my same seat. I quickly told him I was, and told him he better keep his same seat also ( on the Rays Bullpen bench) for 2010. He just smiled from ear-to-ear and told me he was going to do everything possible to stay put. Or when Randy Choate came up with his new facial chin hair and asked why I did not yell “Randy” when he saw me. And I began to tear up a bit. This is hard to explain, but over the past three years while I have been battling employment issues, these guys have been the solid foundation and the people I made sure to say something to before, or during every single Rays game.

 

 
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So today was special to me in a different way than most of the people assembled to welcome the Rays back from cold Winter snow-scapes, or even trips abroad with their new loved ones, this is my personal rite of Spring passage. Baseball is back, but better yet for me, Rays baseball is back. Even as I stood there talking with baseball buddy’s Rays Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos or Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi, I could feel that inner fire kicking up again and was eager for the upcoming season.
 
 

Maddon did not bring out any mathematical equations this season, but offered confidence and a yearning to remember those steps made in 2008 to again get back to that ” special place”. For the Rays to revisit their 2008 roots, it will take sweat, blood and commitment by each and ever member of their 2010 roster. In the next month and a half guys will come and go from the Rays clubhouse either to the minor league camps, or even towards other opportunities in baseball, but Maddon stressed that they had to regain that passion, had to redefine and re-energize to again do things “The Rays Way”, and make those steps to again claim a top spot not only in the American League, but in their ever present difficult Eastern division. But for today, it was just great to see my buddies again.

 
 

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