Results tagged ‘ Don Zimmer ’

Long Live the Zim!

pageitrfitr

What do you get the guy who has witnessed over 66 years of baseball in his 83 years upon this great planet? Does he still have an unfulfilled bucket list?  This bit of baseball royalty has shaken hands with more than a few generations of ball players, celebrities and political dignitaries. A special baseball icon whose life we all should celebrate every year when January 17th, hits the calendar.

zinmmmmmmmmmmmmmOf course I’m speaking of the great Tampa Bay Rays Senior Advisor Don Zimmer who this past Friday celebrated his 83rd birthday and even as age takes some of his physical tools, his mind is still a steel trap and he seems to remember more than most of us forget about this grand game. I mean who else in MLB history has had a bear made of his likeness…and been a giveaway twice in a season!

We all know Zimmer has 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 toll booth, when the old Jolly Roger figurine stood mighty 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.

I bet Zimmer remembers the old Renaissance Vinoy Hotel in the 70’s when it was an abandoned building rotting away with time, and then got to witness the spectacular rebirth of the hotel into a premier 5-star resort nestled on the St. Petersburg, Florida waterfront and is every MLB team’s visiting oasis when they venture into the hamlet to play the Rays during the MLB season. 
 
Zimmer first fell in love with the Pinellas county region back when he was a player with the New York Mets. He is as much a “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.

For that reason, I feel the only gift I can truly give to Zimmer at this moment doesn’t involve anything monetary or even crafted. It is something I feel strongly about and something. I’m going to write tribute to my personal favorite hometown guy and a man generations have affectionately known as “Popeye”.

I’m going to start off with something you might not know about Zimmer, he first began dating his lovely wife Soot (Jean) in 10th grade, and eventually married her upon a baseball diamond in Elmira, New York during a game. 

dfgtreZimmer is as famous as a ball player as he was as a Manager during his years in baseball. Most people remember him as the feisty and skilled shortstop of the Brooklyn Dodgers when Zim broke into the majors back in 1954. For the next 12 seasons he played in the majors, and found his first taste of success in 1955 when the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series.

Some people might not know that Zimmer also dealt with adversity while playing shortstop for the New York Mets in 1962 when the team lost 120 games.  And a lot of younger baseball fans might be shocked to learn his time in organized baseball was almost cut short in 1953 while Zimmer with the St Paul minor league squad.

During a game while with St Paul, Zimmer was struck in the temple and did not regain consciousness for 13 days.  With pressure building on his brain, Zim had holes drilled into his skull to relieve the building pressure and subsequently suffered from blurred vision and went from 170 to 124 pound while trying to regain his motors skills to walk and talk. He was only 22 years old at the time of the incident and was told by his doctors his baseball career might be over. 

But Zimmer rose above the complications to regain his motor skills and again play the game he loved. Zimmer again was hit by a Cincinnati fastball in the cheek in 1956, which broke his cheekbone. Again Zim rose from the ashes and after a steel plate was inserted into his head, trained tirelessly so he could begin playing baseball once again. If nothing else, Zimmer is the true example of the art of positive thinking and determination. Most people would have called it quits possibly after the second incident, and went onto a life after baseball. But Zimmer loved the game, and the people on and off the diamond encompassing it.

dtfyguhijo;l.,kIn 1958, Zimmer moved westward with the Dodgers in 1958 as the team relocated to their new vista in Los Angeles, California. Zimmer then moved from the Chicago Cubs to the New York Mets and then to the Cincinnati Reds in 1962. He then returned to the Dodgers in 1963 before finally moving onto the Washington Senators where he played his last game on the field on October 2, 1965.

In his 12 years in the majors leagues, Zimmer appeared in 1,095 games, compiled over 773 hits,79 homers, with 352 RBI’s and a lifetime .235 batting average. During his playing career he got to go to the Fall Classic with the Dodgers in 1955 and 1959.  Although hitting was not his forte, his fielding was never called into question over his career. Zim was a versatile player who could line up at third, second base, shortstop, and he even caught 33 games in 1965, his final MLB season in Washington. Zimmer pulled on a uniform one last time in 1966 playing for the Toei Flyers in Japan.

But it was in the dugout where the feisty ex-player gained even more respect around the baseball world. Zimmer started out alike most young aspiring Coaches do, in the minor leagues, and he finally got to step upon a MLB field again as the Third Base Coach for the Montreal Expos in 1971.  He again got to patrol the chalk lines in 1972 with the San Diego Padres, but 11 games into the season, Zim was called upon to replace Preston Gomez as the Padres Manager.  Zimmer remained with the Padres until the close of the 1973 season when he was fired and he moved onto the Boston Red Sox for the next 2 1/2 seasons.

tyrjhegaszxZimmer was a key figure for the Red Sox in the 1975 World Series when in Game 6 a ball was hit into shallow left field and Zimmer coaching at third base yelled to Denny Doyle to not run on the play, but Doyle misunderstood Zimmer’s barking and tried to score and was thrown out at the plate. The result of that Home Plate play helped to set up one of the most memorable moments in Red Sox history as Carlton Fisk hit his iconic game winning Home Run later in the contest.

In 1976, the Red Sox did not come out confident or playing up to par, so current Manager Johnson was fired and Zimmer was given the reigns of the young Boston team.  From 1977-79, the Red Sox won at least 90 games for Zimmer. His 1978 squad won 99 game, at the time the 4th best record by a Red Sox team in their hallowed history. But that same season, Zim was remembered more for the collapse of the Red Sox after the squad lead the A L East by as many as 14 games.

 Zimmer was the skipper at the helm of the Boston ship when the New York Yankees finally caught the Red Sox in a series dubbed, “The Boston Massacre.” That year the team went back and forth with the Yankees before Bucky Dent sent a stake through the Red Sox Nation’s heart during a one-game playoff on October 2, 1978.

re6t70pf8tyolDuring that period Zimmer made a few questionable moves that were played out in the newspapers and in the stands. Some also speculate Zimmer might have overused Carlton Fisk during that season starting him in 154 of 162 games. Fisk would begin to have sore knee problems and missed a bunch of time in 1979 due to arm problems. 

Zim also did not get along with popular Red Sox pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee and further infuriated their feud when he gave the start during the last contest of the “Boston Massacre” to a Triple-A pitcher named Bobby Sprowl instead of Lee.

Zimmer also kept Butch Hobson at third base even as elbow problems began to surface, especially with ineffective throws to first base. Zimmer held firm to the belief Hobson could play until after a series of bad errors when Zim was forced to call up Jack Brohamer to replace Hobson.

sdfffffvbnThe Boston debacle was not the last stage for Zimmer as he moved on to manage the Texas Rangers in 1981, then moved onto three stints with the Yankees and also the San Francisco Giants between 1982 until 1989 when he took over the Chicago Cubs. In that season, Zimmer won a divisional title for the Cubs, and was named the Manager of the Year by Major League Baseball. 

Zimmer returned to Boston in 1992 to help one of his former players, Butch Hodson with the Red Sox.  Zimmer was then on the 1993 expansion staff of the Colorado Rockies, and in 1996 began a tenure as the Bench Coach of the New York Yankees. He was on the bench for 4 of the Yankees World Championships.

Zimmer also took over the Yankees Manager’s position when Joe Torre was recuperating from prostate cancer in 1999. Zimmer went 21-15 in Torre’s absence, then returned to his usual spot in the dugout again.  Those game were never officially credited to Zimmer, who won over 906 games as a Manager. 

xfhhjhThe event that further pushed Zimmer into another level of legend status was the 2003 ALCS game between the Boston Red Sox and his New York Yankees. When an on-field brawl began, Zimmer went out onto the Fenway grass and found himself face-to-face with Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez who then tossed the nimble Zimmer to the turf. The scene made Martinez an instant enemy to Yankee fans and empathically endeared Zimmer to baseball fans who did not wear pinstripes.

In another contest, Zimmer was sitting on the bench when the Yankees Chuck Knoblach hit a screaming foul ball into the dugout and got Zimmer flush on the head. Zimmer used the event to use some tongue-in-cheek Zim-style humor as he came out the next day wearing an army helmet with “ZIM” written on it in white. 

thSince his time with the Yankees, Zimmer has been the Tampa Bay Rays Senior Advisor helping the squad with expertise during Spring Training and he can often be seen down on the field during the Rays regular season home contests in his Rays white or blue Rays jacket uniform during Batting Practice chatting with both team’s Coaches’ and players. 

Every season, Zimmer moves up his uniform number one more. In 2014, Zimmer will be issued the number “66″ jersey. Zimmer is the last member of the long gone Brooklyn Dodgers organization still serving in some capacity in baseball. 

Zim is a proud author of 2 books, “The Zen of Zim” and” Zim: A Baseball Life.” 

If you have ever had the pleasure to speak with Zimmer about baseball, you will instantly see the twinkle in his eye as he remembers some of the greatest moments in the game.

sdfghjkl,mWith less than 4 weeks until the Rays head to Port Charlotte, Florida, Zimmer should be again manning his customized golf cart greeting fans and players alike and spinning great tales of the game.  Thank you Zim for everything you have done for my hometown team and for this great game. Looking forward to see you at the Spring Training complex and I hope this post is a fitting birthday gift to a icon I feel blessed to see still giving of himself for the sake of the game.

Long live the Zim!

 

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

 


RRCollections

**** 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.
 

 

RRCollections


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.
 

 
RRCollections


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.

 

 
RRCollections


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.

 

 
RRCollections


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.

 
 

Zobrist is the Rays MVZ (Most Valuable Zorilla)

 


Chris O’Meara /AP

Before the 2008 season, Benjamin Thomas Zobrist was considered a possible “Super Utility” player for the Tampa Bay Rays future. He was one of the players the team acquired back in July 2006 when the Rays sent disgruntled rightfielder Aubrey Huff to the Houston Astros near the MLB Trade Deadline. When the Rays made that deal, Zobrist was being sought after as a back-up and not a starter, even though he had the talent to start in the Major Leagues.

And even if the Rays did throw that “utility” moniker on Zobrist  when he arrived, at that point the Rays had not given him a fair amount of time to shine at the Major League level until  the end of 2008. But then again, Zobrist has always seemed to be in that different group of player who’s game beats to a different drummer, but is in unison with the team’s goals and aspirations.

But Zobrist has always been strong silent type who used his glove and bat to do his talking. And even then he still got pigeon-holed into a small finite group in the MLB. Zobrist is only the ninth player in MLB history to ever appear in the regular game at the shortstop position, joining Rays Senior Advisor Don Zimmer in that exclusive club.

Zobrist is only the second Rays player to have a “Z” at the beginning of his name, joining Victor Zambrano in that club. And only Tiger’s pitcher Joel Zumaya is lower in the alphabetical listing in the MLB entire active roster than Zobrist. So as you can see, Zobrist has always seemed to be at the back of the class by alphabet, but on the field, well that is a different story.

But how valuable is a guy who in 2008 played 6 different positions for your squad? During the Rays 2008 season he jumped back and forth from the minors to the major leagues four times before finally sticking with the Rays on August 5,2008 and played every field position but pitcher, catcher and first base during the season. And this season, he added first base to his playing resume’ when he started playing the position after a late season injury to All-Star first baseman Carlos Pena.
 

And who knows, after  the Rays let go of Joe Dillon, maybe Zobrist was the Rays designated “third catcher” option  in case of a unfortunate injury to Dioner Navarro and Gregg Zaun during a contest. But that is the reason Rays Manager Joe Maddon think so highly of his fielding handyman who brings four different types of fielding gloves into the dugout during Rays games. I can still remember a game during the 2009 season where he started the game in rightfield, moved to second base in the middle innings of the contest, then finished out the game at third base subbing for Evan Longoria.

I know there are only a handful of players on any roster in the Major Leagues who can hop, skip and jump from position to position like Zobrist. And that is one of the reasons I keep looking at players like Mark DeRosa and new White Sox journeyman Mark Teahen and can ultimately see Zobrist developing into that same mold of player who will do whatever the team needs to win every game.

So am I upset that Zobrist did not end up in the top 5 in the MVP voting? I am a little surprised, but I also know that it sometimes take more than a splash on the scene to convince the tunnel visioned BBWAA guys in the press box who never played the game that you are a special breed. And that is  honest truth to why I feel he did not post any higher vote totals in the American League MVP race because the BBWAA voters are more geared towards their own teams player selections and other regional and divisional guys they see all the time.

But I can understand some of the BBWAA voters for not getting so excited about Zobrist this season. But if he still puts up the same numbers in 2010, and even posts higher numbers, will they still see him as a reliable utility player or as a full-time field player?  

And the fact the Zobrist began this statistic campaign actually during the last 4 games of the 2008 season when he hit four home runs and won co-AL Player of the Week honors after the Rays season ending series in Detroit. Sure in 2008 he might have only appeared in 62 games ( 49 starts), but people forget Zobrist might have actually made the Rays 2008 Opening Day roster if he had not gone down with a left thumb break. So you have to wonder, if Zobrist had gotten more playing time in 2008, would this season’s MVP total have been different.


Steve Nesisus / AP

And of course, this has to be speculation, but sure, his number would have been dramatically different, and considering he lead all Major League middle infielders with a 16.5 At Bat per Home Run ratio finishing ahead of players like Marlin Dan Uggla (16.6), Hanley Ramirez (17.9) and Phillie infielder Chase Utley (18.4). Considering each of these players is an All Star caliber player, doesn’t that make you think the potential might have always been bubbling under the surface in Zobrist.

And also in 2008, he hit is second Gram Slam of his career during a September 13th game against the New York Yankees and was the last visiting player to hit a Grand Slam in the old Yankee Stadium off starter Sidney Ponson in the nightcap of a doubleheader.  So as you can see, his 2008 numbers gave Rays fans something to look forward to in 2009.

And if you have even looked towards the outfield grass beyond first base before a Rays game, Zobrist is always out there stretching with the starters even if he is not in the lineup. That is part of his game day prep, and one of the reason I truly feel he is a player to watch over the next few seasons.


Steve Nesius / AP

And considering he is not even arbitration eligible yet, Zobrist becomes a huge double-edged value to the Rays both in payroll and in his playing ability. Zobrist’s projected 2010 salary might only be around $450,000 before he hits arbitration for the first time after the 2010 season. And how valuable is that right now with the Rays looking to stabilize their payroll and find needed money for possible Bullpen help. Zobrist is not only helping the Rays on the field already, he is heaping them in their fiscal bottom line too.

So even if Zobrist did not get an additional votes in the MVP race to post his name up there with the American League heavyweights, his day might still come in the future. People always love to root for the underdog, and you know Zobrist definitely fits the bill for that title, even in 2010. And you can be sure that in 2010 there will be more than a few Fantasy Baseball team owners who will take Zobrist onto their rosters. I have to admit, I took him in the 10th round last year because I have seen his potential over the last two years and have always liked what he brings to the game both on and off the field.

So Benjamin  Zobrist, we are proud of what you have done in 2009. And we salute you and hope and pray that the off season keeps you safe and ready for Spring Training in 2010
. Starting this spring, when your name appears in the lineup people will begin to check your stats and watch your development to see if you are a flash-in-the-pan or the real deal. We already know the answer here in Tampa Bay. We already know you are our MVP.


Chris O’Meara / AP

So what if the American League’s other BBWAA voters do not give you the respect yet, or even the courtesy of a 10th place vote on every ballot. You can be our little secret for another year. You can be the guy that opposing fans look at each other and wonder who you are after you launch one into the stands. Sure we might hide you around the outfield and infield again, but getting you on the field is the main thing, because a lineup with Zobrist in it is a ticking time bomb ready to launch an offensive explosion.

So as we begin to go towards the bulk of the off season, it is okay if the rest of the countries media want to forget about Zobrist. It is fine if they do not want to honor a year to remember from a guy who stepped up and accepted the challenge and propelled his team. We know your value and we know your potential. Tick,tock…..tick, tock. Spend the off season resting, relaxing and playing with your son Zion. For in the Spring of 2010, you can again get your determination and intensity scale set to “10″, because some people forgot who you were. They forgot you were “Zorilla”, but that is fine. Even Godzilla had more than one film, and he did pretty well for himself.   

Inside Joe Maddon

 

Prelude:


This is actually a blog I wrote when I was considering taking a position with a sports-based web site as a Rays correspondent. Because of some situation off the Internet, I concluded that the time was not right to thrust myself into publishing at least two different blogs a day for both MLBlogs.com and this rival site. This site is still under construction, but will someday be a nice light in the darkness surrounding the game of baseball with some awesome writers, but I will not be in that fold. So I decided to write a nice piece on Rays Manager Joe Maddon to just let others get to know him a bit from what I see as a fan and as a writer. 

 

Since even before the Tampa Bay Rays began their improbable trip towards a high flying destiny in 2008, most of the old school baseball world outside of Tampa Bay, or even within the Anaheim,California community, some people have never really gotten to know Rays Manager Joe Maddon from stem to stern. Most Rays fans in Tampa Bay know of Maddon’s long time devotion to road cycling treks that he does both along the scenic corridors of Bayshore Blvd in Tampa, or even when the Rays take their show on the road.

Maddon also takes along his personal bike to Rays away games to explore some of the historic and scenic venues in those cities. Just imagine taking a trek around the Inner Harbor area in Baltimore, or even traversing the trail that Paul Revere took so long ago when in Boston to play the Red Sox. But it is also a relaxation technique used by the manager when decision have to be made, and problems solved for his team. And it is a unique and spectacular thing to exercise the body and the mind at the same time, while problem-solving. Guess you can call it a multi-tasking event with a healthy outcome. 

And within it all, Maddon has been able to become his own type of manager. He was the guy who started to read and print out match-ups and odd Sabermetric numbers way before it became fashionable by other managers. And even if some of his game day wisdom are questioned by some,Maddon truly has his own logical sense and game situation realities that translate well with his job as a major league manager.
 

He even has a “fine” bowl in his office where Rays players, who are found guilty by the either Maddon and his Coaching staff or the team Kangaroo Court have to purchase a bottle of wine for the skipper with each slip of paper divulging their fine amount. He is one of the only managers in the major leagues that I know of who has his own wine rack and subsequent wine cooler in his office for post game tastings and special occasions. And you know that cooler got plenty of good use with champagne and fine spirits during the 2008 Postseason celebrations.

Some of Maddon’s  out-of-season activities might surprise some baseball fans outside of Tampa Bay. But outside of the bay area, most fans do not get to know Maddon, the Tampa Bay area humanitarian. Maddon is entering his 35th season in professional baseball, and 16 of those years has been at the major league level. But few people know of the  unpublicized community efforts and the  great compassion Maddon has for his new adopted community.

One of the most visual and celebrated efforts of his generosity for giving back to Tampa Bay is his annual “Thanks-mas” celebration he has held the last three seasons while he has been with the Rays. Always held between the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas, Maddon along with his Rays Coaches and front office staff have personally shopped, cooked and even served special dinners of spaghetti, sausage, pierogies, pasta and salad for over 1,000 people in the Salvation Army shelters in Bradenton, St. Petersburg, Tampa and Port Charlotte areas.

One of the biggest food hits in this event is the special meatballs Maddon was taught how to make by his mother Beanie back in his home town of Hazelton, Pennsylvania. But it is the smiles on the people that this event serves that is the most special part of this event for Maddon. And the the entire Rays family from field staff to front office folks also coming out and contributing in the event, it has become a highly anticipated event for both the community and the entire Rays staff from top to bottom. 

Another humanitarian/charitable effort held close to Maddon’s heart is the John Challis Courage for Life Foundation. Maddon could even be seen wearing a special bracelet during the 2008 postseason commemorating this Callis’s courage while battling cancer. If anyone has ever taken a step into Maddon’s office, they will see a jersey case with one of the jerseys signed by Challis before he passed away at the age of 18 last August. Challis, a native of Beaver County in Pennsylvania met Maddon during the 2008 InterLeague series when the team went to Pittsburgh to play the Pirates.

The two immediately fostered a great friendship that emerged during between Maddon and Challis. Maddon has since been actively involved in fund raising for the foundation and in November 2008 when he was named winner of the Chuck Tanner Award as Major League Manager of the Year, it was John’s father Scott, who was present to accept the award for him in Pittsburgh.

Another element of Maddon that most people in Tampa Bay do not even want to think about is the fact that he was up for the job in Boston at the same time as Terry Francona, and if things had gone differently, the Rays never would have gained his services, but would have had to plot against the magic that is Maddon, instead of with him. When Maddon won the 2008 BBWAA American League Manager of the Year award, he was only one second place vote shy of becoming only the first AL or NL manager to ever get a unanimous selection for the award.

He get to share that honor with four other managers’ who have come one vote shy of perfection. He even gets to share the honor with a personal member of his staff, Rays Senior Advisor Don Zimmer, who in 1989 while managing the Chicago Cubs came up short while winning the award. But more than ever now people around the country are beginning to remember the charismatic manager for other things besides his vocabulary and situational quotes.

On August 17, 2008, while playing the Texas Rangers in Arlington, he became the first AL manager in 107 years to order an intentional walk with the bases loaded. Maddon had reliever Grant Balfour walk former Rays prospect Josh Hamilton with 2-outs in the bottom of the ninth inning with the Rays winning 7-3 at the time. After that walk, Maddon replaced Balfour with reliever Dan Wheeler who got the last out to preserve the win for the Rays.

The only other time it has happened in baseball history was on May 23, 1901 when Clark Griffin, then a player/manager for the Chicago White Sox intentionally walked future Hall of Fame member Nap Lajoie with no outs in the ninth inning with a 11-7 lead. But that just goes to show you how he values the past of baseball and brings it alive today in 2009.

Some of Maddons current outside-the-box methods come from a meshing of old baseball thought and current cerebral instincts to bring new ideas and rehash old lost tactics for the Rays. And because some of his ideas go against baseball logic, they are original in their intent and is one of the things that makes Maddon refreshing to some people in baseball. His fond admiration for past things that have worked, like the shift for left-handed batters, or the five-player infield have made some other people within baseball begin to question some of his actions.
 

Some people forget Maddon is only starting his fourth season with the club in 2009, and already has the more victories than any other manager in Rays history. He passed Rays Inaugural manager Larry Rothchild on August 23,2008 with his 206th win in a game against the Chicago White Sox.

And some people forget he has had a “taste” of being a Major League manager before he got his first full-time stint in the dugout in Tampa Bay. He got his first taste of the job in 1998, when Los Angeles Angels Manager Terry Collins got an 8-game suspension following a bench clearing brawl  during an away series in Kansas City. Maddon got an additional turn at the skipper post when Collins resigned on September 3, 1999 and he led the Angels the rest of the season to a 19-10 record.

But the most unique moment might have been when Maddon was called upon to replace John McNamara in 1996, who was replacing Rene Lachmann who resigned that August as skipper. McNamara had developed a deep vein thrombosis (blood clot) in his right calf. Maddon took the helm for 22 games, finishing with a 8-14 record. Maddon did get another set of circumstances during his tenure as a Angels Bench Coach when current Angels Manager Mike Scioscia had to leave the team for a short period of time. Maddon lead the Angels to a 33-26 record during his stint with the squad.

But on the personal side of the Rays skipper, Maddon has many fantastic hobbies and interests that generally fall outside the realm of most of his fellow managers. He has been a guest at a White House dinner in January 2009 held by former President George W. Bush. And following his marriage after the 2008 season, Maddon took a small adventure throughout Europe with his new bride and at one point during the honeymoon he even found a Rays fan in a train station Italy.


Mike Carlson /AP

As for his biking hobby, he is a very dedicated biker who puts in 60-100 miles every week. An unknown fact about Maddon in his youth is that he was recruited as a shortstop and pitcher for Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. He switched positions voluntarily to catcher midway through his freshman year. At Lafayette, he majored in economics and he will also receive an honorary degree this summer from his old Alma Mater.

But one of the biggest thrills of his life might  have been becoming the  winning American League Manager in the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis ,Missouri. As the American League skipper in the World Series, he got to take the helm in this years All-Star game coaching the current superstars of the American League. Maddon was only the second Rays coaching staff member to ever appear in an All-Star game with Rothchild being the first when he was selected in 2002 by Joe Torre. It was Maddon’s second All-Star game. He previously got to attend when Sciocsia was the 2003 AL Manager.

Maddon has only been in Tampa Bay for a short time, but his Rays teams and the Rays fans have united around him to show support for his new ways of thinking about the sport of baseball. Along with the fan base uniting to support the manager with the formulation of the “Maddon’s Maniacs” group three seasons ago. From speaking engagements with the group,to small snippets of chats with fans and media members, the Tampa Bay community has gotten to know Maddon deeper and closer than he ever imagined.


RRCollections
 

With the  Rays 2008 success and the recent Rays club fall from grace during an 11-game losing streak Maddon is again trying to formulate the right combination to again get his Rays back into the winner’s circle and try and preserve the team’s second best record ever for the franchise. With the team currently sporting a 72-71 record in 2009, the task is daunting, and the rest of the season might hang in the balance in the next few series. But knowing Maddon and his quick mind and analytical thought process, he will again get the Rays on the right path and finish out the year in style.

Recently, for the first time in his tenure with the Rays Maddon has been questioned and second guessed in the media and by blogs throughout the country. But his general sense of this team is that this is the cog in the pipes they were fearing the entire season, and it is coming at the most critical part of the year. But with his positive re-enforcement and faith in his roster, the future looks bright for the Rays skipper.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 272 other followers