Results tagged ‘ Jonny Gomes ’

Riding the Rays Rollercoast with no Seat Belts

 
 
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Man, we are only two whole games into the 2010 Tampa Bay Rays 13th Major League Baseball season and I am already extremely tired from the massive rollercoaster journey we have taken just in the last two days. And believe me, I do not mind the twists, drops and even the unsuspecting high steeping emotional climbs, but I am still a bit wary of that stomach shifting towards the Adam’s Apple intense drop that takes not only your breathe away, but does something to your overall mode of team confidence and inner soul that can not be repaired by just a few spotty wins.

 
And already there are those dark D-Rays souls who have warned the “pumped-up” people like me about the possible side effects of believing in the hype before there is a foundation to support it. And believe me here, there is no “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey in my I-Pod music mix. But then again I am reminded in the back of my mind that these same dark dwelling remnants of D-Rays people have not attended a single Rays Spring Training game since the Rays left St. Petersburg for Port Charlotte, Florida in March 2008, and they are still stuck in the muck and mire of their season-ending Rays emotions pertaining to the 2009 season.
 

Maybe I am getting myself in a serious state of heart break and toeing the edge of the jagged path on the high cliff to a possible let down of massive enthusiasm proportions, but then again, maybe I am going to do what I feel is the right thing for myself and this team and throw my caution to the wind and hope the monkey on the loose doesn’t throw a steaming pile of poo at me from the Rightfield foul pole during the game.
 

But if you have been amongst the tidal waves of emotions surrounding Tropicana Field the last two night and really felt that pulse of energy cascading throughout the stadium with even the 15,000+ on Wednesday night, then you know that something special is happening in front of us again. And maybe since St. Petersburg is the “Lightning Capital of the World”, it is about to strike hard for a second time in 2010. And maybe Rays fans like me are all riding that huge wave of off season pent-up emotions right now, but that is what fans do, they act and react and counter move to the ebb and flow of the rhythm of the game hoping that the last big wave of the night will produce that moment you remember for a long, long time and provide you with that rush of adrenaline we all seek as we drive home with smiles from ear-to-ear .
 

And that is what is happening right now. From Tuesday nights bottom of the ninth inning extravaganza when the longest tenured Ray, Carl Crawford provided the 90th Walk-off moment in Rays history, to the thunderous crack from the bat of Rays legend-in-the-making Evan Longoria, the last two nights have been sprinkled with classic Rays moments where a huge cloud of magical pixie dust has fallen from the rafters of Tropicana Field and coated all of us with amazement and wonder.
 

 
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If you would have told me the Rays would win a game in Walk-off fashion in either of these nights, I could have believed you. But if you would have told me Longoria would make his first two blasts of the year pale in epic proportions by going into the TBT Deck/Beach/ way-the-heck-up-there, I might have taken that bet and thought it was a sucker bet by you. But more amazing was the shot last night into Section 149, which had a plastic poster hanging at the top of that same section of Tropicana field asking Longoria to hit it here with a massive Bulls-Eye of red and white.

 

Two games into the 2010 season and we already have a few moments that will be talked about even after the All-Star break, and maybe in the 2010 off season. Seriously here, I could imagine Carl Crawford lacing a ball for a 2-run double to produce a Walk-off win way before a blast 473 feet that just missing the Second slot on the Rays All-Time Home Run Distance list by a tiny foot compared to the Centerfield blast of Jonny Gomes that bounced like a golf ball on the roof of the Batter’s Eye Restaurant. But the amazing fact might still be that Longoria has 4 RBI on his only 3 hits this season, and all three of them have been for extra bases.
 
 
But what might be more amazing about the last few nights is the show of support this crowd has shown this Rays team especially after a bad invisible swinging strike call by Home Plate Umpire Kerwin Danley, who never even asked Third Base Umpire Dana DeMuth for a ruling on the invisible phantom swing by Crawford that brought out the Trop. boo-bird for the rest of the game. I have always thought that when the true meaning of baseball and the intelligence level of our area fans ever matured, this Rays “Pit” environment would be a huge vocal point towards pushing the momentum into the Rays favor in extreme moments.
 

 
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I was extremely proud of the 15,000+ who were screaming and yelling for an appeal to the Third Base Umpire, and their fats reaction to booing and questioning the call immediately instead of looking around for an exclamation from someone wearing headphone listening to the game on the Rays Radio network in the stands. I actually had a nice photo of Crawford at that moment and he was hunched down in his stance and could not have even thrown out a half-hazard swing to fend off the ball if it was a true strike. But the pure fact this crowd has matured as a whole and gathered the mustard to question and show immediate recourse towards Danley reminds me a lot of the baseball savvy crowds you see in other MLB stadiums that have been around for over 100 years.

 

But I am also aware and poised to remember that these same Orioles have beaten us into the ground before when our guard has been down a bit, or the confidence level made a few Rays fan’s heads rise an inch or two and not remember that a streaky Baltimore Second Baseman Brian Roberts can change the entire game all by himself with his legs and bat. But maybe his bad start to the season is our reward right now. To be 2-0, and maybe blossom to 3-0 before the Evil Empire valet parks their Deathstar at the Vinoy for the upcoming weekend series, it might be a nice emotional and confident momentary foundation before we partake in the renewed rivalry for the first time in 2010.
 

And some people have already brought out that attendance trump card after just two Rays games, but they also forget that these mid-week games have always been the Achilles’ Heel of this Rays clubs attendance marks as far back as 1998. They are a work-in-progress, and with 15,000+ in the stands last night, that is a nice bump up from the last time the Orioles were in the Trop from September 29-October 1,2009 when an average of just over 10,492 fans packed the Trop for the season ending series of these same two teams.
 

 
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5,000 extra bodies in the seats might not seem like much to those viewing the empty blue seats in other locales. But those same 5,000+ extra Rays bodies have also been sporting more of the home team’s Columbia Blue or Rays Blue this season and that in its own small way might show the Tampa Bay community trickling in little by little to see if the Rays can renew that spirit and drive that possessed this region in 2008. And I guess I can revel in the fact that the “greatest game played on dirt” is living up to that moniker in the first two fun-filled energy-draining contests of 2010.

But you ain’t seen nothing yet as the New York Yankees will be unpacking their equipment in the Rays Visitor’s Clubhouse soon enough, then the first true test of 2010 is full on………Game on people….Game On!

 

 

Remembering the Rays and Gameworks Events

 
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Over the past couple of Tampa Bay Rays seasons that Rays Season Ticket holders have seen some of their past ” advantages” going by the wayside. We used to get one of every promotional item, plus had an end-of-the-season Team Photo Day with the Rays players to get memorable photos to put on our face book pages or computer screensavers. We were a bit spoiled at times and got used to getting the “star” treatment from the Season Ticket Sales Department at every turn.

 
But in the last several years the goodies have gotten pushed into bag “A” or Bag “B”, with limited promotional items, plus the omission of most of the kid’s items tend to make a few of my nephews and distant cousins sad that they could not get special Rays toys for their Christmas stockings. But with the recent closure of a Centro Ybor institution, another Rays budding tradition is left by the wayside…never to happen again.

 
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When the Gameworks family-friendly arcade closed their doors after spending 10 years upon the landscape of the small cultural center of Ybor City. So I want to take today’s blog posting to remember some of the events and times I remember at the Centro Ybor landmark that I will miss more for the faint echoes of young Rays fans and their familes taking a night out with Rays teammates and celebrating as a true Rays Republic.

I can still remember attending a long ago Rays Christmas party for local youth from the Boys and Girls Club at Gameworks where ex-Rays Toby Hall and Seth McClung spent most of the afternoon playing carnival type games and race simulation events with the kids laughing, smiling and giggling at the big players trying to keep up with them both on the screen and running around the arcade area. With presents and food and games galore, I do not think anyone, including the Rays players went home without an ear-to-ear smile on their faces.
 
The Gameworks arcade became a Rays Season Ticket holder staple during the Rays “magical” 2008 season when the Rays Sales department tried out the distant East Tampa arcade as a way to have both fans and players celebrate the Rays season by attending an invitation-only party. I still remember during the August 2008 get-together when Rays outfielder Justin Ruggiano came out to the special event even though an hour earlier he was informed by Rays Manager Joe Maddon that he was being shipped out to Triple-A Durham in the next morning. But Ruggiano and Rays pitcher Edwin Jackson both played pool with me in the back pool room and fan and players both meshed together for one night through fun, laughter and a little bit of slick pool stick work
 

 
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But the scene that still stays deep within my mind is not the photo of me helping myself to the yellow chocolate sauce fountain, but of Rays outfielder Jonny Gomes holding court at the end of the bar just to the left as you entered the arcade. Gomes was in hid element that night, shaking hands and hugging friends, plus raising a toast or two to the Rays success. And hidden just a few feet behind Gomes was Maddon who was sitting there with several fans discussing all kinds of things besides baseball and seeming to really enjoy himself. But the best part was seeing Rays players like Scott Kazmir playing an NBA video game with a younger Rays fans and getting his booty kicked, but loving every minute of it.

 

And the 2009 event was a standing room only affair with almost double the crowd, and double the fun as most of the Rays players from that day came out including every member of the Rays rotation. From Matt Garza trying to be slick and getting beaten time after time on the Dance, Dance Revolution machine, to Grant Balfour’s fiancee’ kicking all comers’ brains-in on the Dance, Dance Revolution machine, including reliever Randy Choate. It was a great time where fans and players got to mingle and bring some of that special chemistry that Rays have with their fans.
 

And maybe it is true that all good things come to an end sometimes, and that you got to truly treasure your moments within the game of baseball for the future telling of great tales and adventures. And you can bet Gomes, Kazmir and Jackson have taken these memories of Gameworks with them as they left for other Major League Baseball venues, and hoped that their new teams would also embark on these same types of great inter-mingling player/fan activities.

 
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It is a time I that is near and dear to my heart, because as an ex-football player, I always cherished these special times with the team’s fans to not only take photos and talk about other things outside of baseball, but to show the “human” side of ourselves to those same fans.

Sometimes the lines get muddled between the green outer wall of the Trop and fans and player develop misconceptions on themselves and their interaction with the fans.

But this Rays team is certainly one of the most open and fan-friendly teams I have ever seen around baseball. They respect the way the fans support and try and use noise either by cowbells or their voices to show audible support for the team. And the many home-made or professionally-made signs by Rays fans show they have their players back.

 
Some say that the Gameworks staff could not update and bring new technologies and gaming machines into the establishment fast enough with the recent gaming explosion brought on my X-Box, PS-3 and Wii systems. That the gaming community could play just as sophisticated games at home and did not need to venture out into the video arcades anymore for their gaming fix. But with the locked doors at the Gameworks location came the end of another Rays era.
 

Who can forget the Rays mascot Raymond sitting in a race car simulator racing against younger fans, or seeing Rays outfielder Gabe Kapler with his two boys enjoying the multiple games and interacting with young Rays fans . Something you wish could stay the same forever. Something you just do not want to see change, but that is life. And you can bet the Rays Sales staff is eagerly trying to piece together another great event in the not-to-distant future where the Rays and their fans can also cheer, laugh and enjoy each other away from the field of play.
 
 
 
BTW, This is my 750th MLBlogs.com posting. Can you tell I really do love writing (lol).

 
 
 

2010 Toby Hall & Friends Golf Classic

 

                                      
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Have to say I had a more than a fantastic time yesterday during the 2010 Toby Hall Golf Classic. Saw a lot of old baseball friends, and met a few new ones during the event and the social times later at the awards presntation and silent auction at the Courtside Grille. It is funny how I was just standing there helping both the participants and the celebrities get their correct size Addias shoes for the event, and so many people just seemed so glad to see me at the event. And that what makes that day an instant classic memory.
People were fast to extend their hand for a handshake or do a little chatting with me about a multitude of subjects before heading out for a round of golf. I felt like I belonged yesterday in that environment, and I thank everyone for that. But then again, I never been known to be a isolated hermit and I do tend to be a bit too outgoing at times.

But there were also some people missing that I had hoped to check up on and see how things were going with them, but they had to take a “rain check” on the event because of some great news and unexpected events. Within the first few minutes I learned that ex-Rays slugger Jonny Gomes was going to miss the classic because he had just joined the exclusive “Dad’s Club” after having a baby girl. And that former Ray Rocco Baldelli was going to to miss the event after some travel fatigue following his recent trip to Europe.

And  that Rays centerfielder B J Upton, who also has his own golf event this week was actually  currently up in New York filming a segment on the MLB Network that is  making the video rounds on the Internet today. But also former WWE wrestler and Rays fanatic Brian Knobs was also AWOL for the event because of scheduling conflicts. But the classic also had some very familiar faces to local Tampa Bay fans such as World Champion boxer Winky Wright and former players of the Tampa Bay Bucs like Mike Alstott, Anthony Becht,Matt Bryant, and Matt O’Dwyer. 

           
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Current Bucs players Clinton Smith, Kevin Carter and Sheldon Quarles also came out to support the classic which was working closely with the Miracle League of Florida to raise $ 250,000 to help construct a state of the art facility in Hillsborough County(Tampa area) for physically challenged kids to get the opportunity to enjoy the game of baseball. But mostly it was the Major League Baseball contingency, that included a lot of local home grown MLB talent coming out to support the cause and to have a great round of golf with their fellow MLB players. 

And the Rays had several players come out and show support like Dan Wheeler,Andy Sonnanstine(who was late, but got into speed mode and completed the course),and James Shields. The Rays Coaching staff also had golfing fanatic (Third Base Coach) Tom Foley out representing the Rays staff. Former Rays players showed up and support their former Rays catcher in his foundation’s drive to help the Miracle League of Florida reach their goal.

Former Rays players like Trever Miller (Cards),Miguel Cairo, Jorge Cantu (Marlins) Chuck Hernandez (Coach), and retired Rays players like Doug Creek, Roberto Henandez and Jason Romano were all on hand to play in the Scramble format classic. Local baseball talents like pitcher Jesse Litsche (Toronto),Casey Kotchman (Seattle),Boof Bonser ( Boston), Gavin Floyd (Chicago White Sox), Denard Span (Minnesota). Also in attendance was a excited and totally gung ho Yankee prospect pitcher Christian Garcia that was loving the day on the Bayou Club Golf Course even with it wild conditions. 

       
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The media was also not forgotten as local radio host Fisher and the Rays own Todd Kalas were on-hand to show that the Rays voices in the poressbox and on the air waves were also represented in the classic. Former MLB players Darnell Coles and Casey Cox  were also playing for the great cause. And during the event I found out that Romano had actually retired and was now working closely with Speed Gel, which is a cream that can help reduce inflamation, help heal injuries and relieve  common musle pain.

But Span, who doesn’t play golf, actually stayed in the clubhouse and we spoke on a always expanding round of subjects, some not baseball related. Span actually chuckled when I mentioned where I sat and remembered me and how persistent I was to get his autograph. Always a compliment if a fan can leave an impression on a player. Well, I think so. 

I asked Span about the new Twins digs set to open up this Spring, and we both were in agreement that the turf might be rough until May before it has some give and take while playing on it. He also acknowledged that the Twins might lose some homefield advantage for a few homestands until they also got to know all the nooks and crannies of playing this new stadium. But I also found out he also played football as a wide reciever before he was drafted into the MLB. Span actually laughed when I told him I took the football route and should have picked baseball.  

And it was a great day on the links and in the clubhouse getting to know Span and other golfers’ in between holes chatting about the game and  things outside the game. And even if the day did stay a bit blustery with huge wind gusts, it was  a great event I will never forget. From the  game of cart tag near the end of the event, to the congestion of golf carts at the check-in point where everyone seemed more than happy to stay around  and talk or make post-classic plans at Courtside Grille, the day just seems to fly by in no time and the classic was over
on the links for 2010.

And I have to say I have not volunteered for  a golfing event since I used to help out with the Emerald Coast Golf Classic (Senior PGA) up in Milton, Florida. But I would be more than willing to give time and my energies to events like this anytime and anywhere. Sure I might have started out just being the guy who help get everyone in their Addias golf shoes, but by the end of the day, I was part of the great day and wild times that will live on inpictures and conversations. 

                  
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And that is what these events are really all about. Letting go and just enjoying the day and the wide variety of athletes chasing a small white ball and bringing a possible life changing moment to children of the Miracle Leagues of Florida to experience teamwork and being teammates while enjoying playing baseball themselves.

Several times that day Hall made sure to come by and thank me for my time, but in reality I did not need thanks, I was more than happy to give what I could to this former Rays that I  will always consider a “baseball buddy”. Hall is the type of player I would give up almost anything to help him achieve his goal, or get that dollar amount for his cause.

 
So hopefully in 2011, I can again get a call or email from his foundation, and I will be more than eager to help out a “buddy” reach the ultimate goal for his foundation. Oh, and Toby, I am the one who needs to thank you for such a great off the field memory that I will cherish forever.

Something Special seems to be Missing?



Mark O’Meara / AP

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Steve Nesius / AP

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

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

What We are Fighting For…Remembering Sept. 20,2008

 

 

Introduction:

 

Because the Rays have seemed to lose a bit of the fight in them the last few days, I decided to revisit my favorite moment from 2008 and try and get some of the “Playoff Fever” rhythm back again in the Rays House. I do not have all the answers, believe me, I want to have the answers to get this team back into that fighting and hungry mode again. There is a different vibe on this team this year, and it doesn’t have the same feel to it. So I am revisiting this moment that is etched deep within me in hope that the team, the fans, and the community can again remember what 2008 really meant to all of us.

 

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Everyone remembers the magic of your first time. The first time you had a bubbly ice cold soda, or your first adult beverage. Or maybe it was the first time you finally go the courage and finally decided to try that scary ride at the fair that has terrified you to death your entire life. The fascination and excitement of trying something, or achieving something for the first time can be a rush that can not be beat. There is a burst of  energy that you can never have again. And last, but not least, a sense of accomplishment for finally hitting the finish line with gusto and pride. You always remember your ” first” anything, but this one will stay with me until the day I meet St. Peter at the pearly gates and he asks what I am most proud of in my life. My answer will be pretty simple, my answer will be unexpected to most people. My honest answer is my All-Time favorite” first” was when my home town team finally got to go to “the Show.”

 

 

 

It is for that reason that I feel I have to revisit my “Top Moment for 2008″ one more time.  As I said before, we always remember our first time entering the ballpark, checking out the sounds, smells and the atmosphere of this game that excites us from the television screen or in-person . You still think about the first Batting  Practice or your first foul ball catch. And how special was getting your first autograph, and didn’t that player become a favorite of yours instantly. And who could ever forget the taste of that first stadium hot dog. I know all of these are still fresh in my mind, and it has been over 40 years since my first game at Al Lang Field watching the St. Petersburg Cardinals. And the bag of peanuts in front of me still taste better at the ballpark.

 

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So it is with great pleasure that I re-introduce to the MLB community my number one memory of 2008. The realization of the 2008 playoff finally came to light on September 20, 2008 with 36,048 other  “9 = 8″ believers in the stands who had spent most of the game jumping up and down like maniacs. It was a time for celebration and rejoicing. It was a time to  remember all the things we loved about the 2008 Rays. Not only did the team play a hard fought 7-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins, but the team secured its first EVER playoff berth. And that moment seems have been buried lately because this group of players want to make their own memories, which is fine, but sometimes you have to embrace the past to secure your future.

 

 

 

Considering the 2008 Rays squad pushed the envelope from the first Spring Training game and fought long and hard to finally get this team over that “wins hump” that has kept prior teams from achieving this goal. This was a team before 2008 who had NEVER won more than 71 games a year, and for  the first time in this franchises history, they fought and sweated daily to keep themselves in the top spot in the American League East. September 20,2008 was a blessed moment of celebration for the fans both inside Tropicana Field or at home, plus it was a perfect moment for the players to salute a great season, and a unique event for both sides to celebrate together. This moment was so personal to me. I got to celebrate with a few baseball buddies both with hugs and fist bumps to swigs of champagne and cheers of excitement as the entire team wandered and cheered around the stadium.

 

 

I made sure to remind a select few of them that the journey has just began and they made sure I knew that it was us, the fans that drove this bus to the playoffs as much as the players. And I got to drink from the champagne bottles and taste that sweet nectar that went down like cool rainwater and tasted like spun honey. It was one of the biggest moments for me as a fan of the Tampa Bay Rays…………….and hopefully you got to enjoy it too that day…………….

 

 

 

 


It might have looked like a mob scene out of your favorite sports movie, but believe me, the energy in that place on that September afternoon was so severe that it sometimes seemed to choke you from the intensity in the air. From the energy and the explosion of emotion in the stadium atmosphere, this game seemed to have been in the cards even before the Rays stepped  on the turf. There was a wild feeling in the air that day. Most of that might have been nervous energy knowing they were within a whisker of franchise first and an event that would explode throughout the Tampa Bay community. 

 


Seriously folks, after that celebration in the stands and on the field, I felt so drained emotionally and mentally just a wreck. I was literally crawling out on my hands and knees, but I had a huge Cheshire Cat grin when I finally exited the Trop around 9 P.M. after celebrating in the stands, near the clubhouse with a few friends, and in the Budweiser Brew house having a few brews with the old crew from the last 11 years. This was a night where everyone in Tampa Bay would have a peaceful nights sleep more induced by exhaustion than by excitement. But that was fine, because that night we all dreamed the moment again and again and finally awoke knowing OUR team finally had a date to play in the postseason.

 

 RRCollections


This was an entire weekend that will sit up there with the best memories I have involving sports in my life. I have been to a few wild celebrations, like the Baltimore Ravens victory party in Ybor City after they won the Super Bowl in Tampa, or even a late night cocktail party at Reign after the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup with a few ex-Rays players.  I was so spent that next morning from sheer excitement and celebration that I did not even feel I was walking on the turf when I arrived at the Trop for the annual  Season Ticket holder Picture Day with the players. Well, the ones who are awake at 10 am. and did not have that emotional and physical body and mind hangover from all the celebrations.

 

www.tbo.com 


TWO more times these guys  got to pay as much attention to their team partying as they do out with us, the fans.  From interview to interview that night, the Rays players to a “T”, talked about the Tampa Bay Rays fans. And to show their respect to those fans, they included all of us in their celebrations. There were wild scenes of players like Akinora Iwamura and Carl Crawford getting up on the dugout and spraying the masses with champagne and beer. Throwing 9=8 playoff hats and T-shirts to outstretched hands, and basking in a moment that will live in this franchises history books  and our collective memories forever.

 

 

 www.tbo.com


The picture above means so much more to me now that all three have moved onto other opportunities away from this Rays team. All three of them had a unique personality that helped this squad in different ways to achieve this goal in 2008. It was also was the first time all three of these old teammates got to celebrate something like this in a Rays uniform. You know they will always remember their first time. You remember where you were, Who you were standing with, and what you were doing at that exact moment. When the guys came running down towards the Bull Pen Cafe area , I was standing on the railing waiting for them. I can not remember how many of those guys came by there and how many times I slapped their hands and gave them a fist bump.

 

 

 

But the memories that are really were the energy that produced Hugs from J P Howell, Jonny Gomes, Chad Orvella and Scott Kazmir.  I have chatted almost daily with  a lot of these guys on their way to the Bullpen, or back in the right field area, and they are some of the best guys you will ever want to meet. But that night on and off the field I got to know and see other sides to these guys that only their teammates get to see daily. And that is a moment that was not lost in my mind.  Even today as I remember that September afternoon, the images are still crystal clear and the emotions still swirl within me. It was a time I again want to feel in 2009. It will be another awesome moment for this second generation of Rays. This years squad do not have the “jokers” and some of the big personalities that the 2008 squad had, but they are still the reigning AL Champs.



 ww.tbo.com


Some of these guys have been transformed by the moment. And success can do that to a player. It gives them a vital self realization that they are winners. Take J P Howell for instance. He used to be one of the quiet guys on this team. When he was a starter, he was a bit moody and never seemed to want to talk with anyone near the field level.  But now  he has been transformed since he has found his calling in the bullpen He now one of the friendliest people I have ever encountered on the Rays. Dan Wheeler is not known to smile a lot, but he does when we chat back and forth during the games. There is a unique bond there between the Bullpen and the fans here that I have never seen before in my life. But then again, they are living the dream in 2008.

 

 

 

From the first champagne bottle out of the clubhouse that day, to the two champagne bottles Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos had ordered for himself and the close fans down there near the Bullpen, it was a magical night. The parade around the Trop outer perimeter was a show of the love and respect these guys have for the fan base. I have been lucky enough to know a few of these guys off the turf in private. And I have to tell you this in total confidence, not one time this year did any of these guys take this responsibility to the fans or to the community as a  job or work.


 

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On that September afternoon these guys actually enjoyed interacting with the fans. From the time they walked out at the Spring Training complex in mid-Feb. to now has been a long and rewarding journey. There have been injuries to key members of this pitching staff early in the year, but the team bent like a rubber band and did not break. This season players have come and gone from the roster, but the core of this team has been strong, mentally tough and been an inspiration to the fans. Not many groups have a tie to the fans that these guys have. The Rays community can honestly say the have the team’s back at any moment.

 

 

The funny thing about that celebration is that about 50 percent of it was outside the locker room on the same field where these guys have toiled and struggled and left themselves bleeding and wounded some nights. To say this battle towards a playoff spot did not end with a fairy tale ending is totally inaccurate. I really need to hit the sack for a few hours before I fall down, but the adrenaline is still pumping hard in me right now and I have tossed and turned for about 5 hours since I got home.

 

 

 

 I am a emotional wreck right now, but I would do it again in a New York moment. If you have never been to one of these defining moments, you know how the Rays Republic is now feeling. If you have not, I truly wish it upon yourself and your team sometime in the future. It is a roller coaster ride fitted with some great ups and downs that is not even over yet.

 

                                

 

 

I just want to repurchase my “E” ticket so I can climb aboard the coaster again and roll through another three of these celebrations with the Rays and this truly spectacular group of guys.  I actually now know what other team’s fans have talked about when the y remark about the feelings and the intensity of the moment. I can see why New York Yankee and Boston Red Sox fans yearn and seek thin moment in their lives yearly. But I have to almost admit, I do not want to share it with them anytime soon.

 

 

So As I finally slink out of the stadium, and check out that bright orange roof, I am reminded of all the glory and the sweat and tears that have blanketed this great dome in the past 10 years. But tonight they all seem like a distant memory as we have a new found tradition of winning and are celebrating the success of our boys’ tonight. I can’t wait to get back into my seat tomorrow and see how much of the energy is still trapped in this building…………….9 am is coming fast to me tonight.




 

WWYD = What Would You Do?


Steve Nesius / AP

For some reason I kept waking up last night because of a weird and unsual dream. I was standing in rightfield yesterday during the beginning of the eighth inning and I heard the smack of Royals catcher John Buck’s dying quail hit to right. I sat there a second and then went in full speed to scoop the ball backhanded and give the Royals their first out of the inning.

The play was met with a huge round of applause and I could see  B J Upton out of the corner of my eye coming over to cover behind me in case the ball dipped past me towards the wall. How do I know this was a dream? Because on that play in real life that afternoon, Upton was still situated in centerfield watching it unfold instead of moving towards Gabe Gross to back him up.

Which made me wonder WWJD or What Would Jonny (Gomes) Do? You know with the no-hitter on the line a player like Gomes, or Gabe Kapler or even Jose Guillen would have done whatever they could to try and keep history going for James Shields on Sunday. But would it have been the right move? Would it have been baseball savvy to put it all on the line just then without regard to the conscequences, or wold that have been baseball foolish?

You know a majority of the Tampa Bay area is thinking just this same scenario right now. Do you make the big play and maybe surrender a run if you miss the ball, or do you play it safe and secure at least a chance to get out of the inning with no runs. There are several schools of thought here, and there might be a few more expressed by the end of today on this blog.

But the first point of this all has to be if your centerefielder was coming over to protect you if the ball did squirt out and away from you. In that case, the answer is simple. Upton basically was a bystander on the play and did not even make a motion towards rightfield before, during or after the play. The second point might be if Gross could have effectively gotten to the ball in stride before it hit the turf.


Jim Prisching / AP

On this point I am  sure he could have gotten to the ball, but it is more comfortable for a player to go back on a ball instead of come towards the infield. Just because the ball is in front of you doesn’t mean it will an easier catch for you to make. Some guys play with reckless abandon in the outfield, just like that group mentioned above. Gomes, Kapler and even Bubba Trammel would have tried to secure the brief bit of history for Shields.

Which brings me to my second point.  Did Gross just do the fundemental defensive moves and not cause more damage in the inning? First off, let’s remember that Gross is one of the better rightfielder in the American League. His arm is on par with some of the best, and his accuracy can not be taken for granted. With that in mind, the aspect of throwing action to the wind is not in his DNA.

As an ex-quarterback you know he has be drilled with the fact of ball control since a young age. Even in the game of baseball ball control, or making the right play can be viewed in many different ways. But the reality is that he did what might be considered “vanilla” or boring by some people, but it kept the runner off of second base. For that it was the right play at the right moment.

The debate will rage for a few days, or the next Rays win until it will finally begin to disappear from the Rays fan’s minds.  In my dreams last night I did not miss the ball, but if I did, would it have caused more damage than good?  Or would it have been the same result. We do not know what would have happened now, but the fact remains that with either action, the result might have just delayed the result a bit.

Everyone has been taught differently in Little League as to what to do in that situation. I was lucky enough to have good fundemental coaches’ who would of had me do the same hing as Gross did yesterday. But then I did have a Pony League coach who loved the dramatic and would have yelled because I did not leave my feet on the play.


Gail Burton / AP

Both sides will be aired on blogs and in articles in the next few days. But what you have to ask yourself is if the play was done right, or if it was a calculated move to assure the end result. So WWYD, or What Would You Do?

Bryce Harper might be the next “Natural.”

 


Here is a great Trivia question for the Day:

 Question: Who currently owns the record for the longest Home Run in Tropicana Field?

In January 2009 I attended the Power Showcase International High School Home Run Derby exhibition in Tropicana Field where the top 70 players came from 10 countries to participate in the event. You could tell how many professional baseball scouts were there by the laptops and the portable Juggs guns looking for that next star to step out of the High School ranks and make their mark. But under their breath several were there to check out the phenom some people have called “Baseball’s LeBron.”

Bryce Harper has been getting notice for about a year now for his tremendous hitting (2008 Nevada Batting Champion) and skills behind the plate (All-State catching selection for Nevada), but here he was up against some of the best of the High School players in the world. Oh, did I fail to mention the guy is only 16-years old and only a Sophomore in High School playing amongst the big boys here. I included the video above to illustrate that this kid might have outgrow his present level of competition.

During this free event in Tropicana Field I saw the 16-year old hit some balls that would have made both Jonny Gomes and Carlos Pena stand up on the top steps of the dugout and clap for the kid. During the event there were several players who hit monster shots to rightfield and centerfield, Harper even hit one ball right above the Tropicana Field big screen for a 461 foot shot early in his first round. But the kid also did something no other hitter did in this tourney when he hit an opposite field HR in the event. 

And that was only the beginning as he also hit a 477 foot and 485 foot rocket to the left of the Bright House sign in rightfield. And he was just getting started in the event. But this kid is no stranger to playing against better competition and making himself better. He was in the 2008 Area Code Games in California usually reserved for High School juniors and seniors and while hitting with a wooden bat, he still outpaced and outhit players two years his senior in the event.

Some people are calling him a hitter for the next generation already because of his tremendous bat speed, which is already quicker than slugger Mark McGwire in his prime, plus his speed and agility on the field. But the real problem here is not that the kid can play, or that maybe the next level is the right move for him, but his current age of 16 might make him a desired prospect in Latin America or other ports in the World, but in the United States, it keeps you from even being considered for the MLB First Year Player draft.

So what do you do if you have the talent and the ability to light up a scoreboard and get the crowd on your feet, do you wait your two years knowing you will go in the First Round, or do you look for other options. Well, Harper and his parents are looking at option “B” right now.

For the young star to even be considered even for the 2010 draft he would have to complete his GED studies and then be admitted into a Junior College this fall. Another option could have been to move outside the boundaries of the United States to some Carribean hot spot like the Dominican Republic and then be considered without question for the 2010 draft.

I personally view that as a quick fix by him to get his eligibility for the draft and a better level of competition to further showcase or improve his skill levels. Sure by bypassing his last two years of High School he will get a shot at playing at another level and seeing if he is really ready to take that huge step up into considering the major leagues in 2010.

The JUCO ranks have many fantastic institutions that have very esteemed baseball programs. Who knows, maybe even the Howard College Hawks ,the2009 JUCO World Series Champion might have a spot on their roster for the young phenom.

But something seems to be missing here. Something that I know most of us cherish and treasured out of our last two years in High School. They are fundamental things that those two years will take from his life and personal development. I mean, I know that multi-millions could be on his doorstep in June 2010, but you just can’t replace some things in your life with money or a professional contract.

I am not saying that missing a Senior Prom or a Homecoming dance will tarnish him, but they are major social steps in a young person’s life. Those last two years in that environment does set you up better for some of life’s pratfalls.

I had talent in school both at the college and High School level, but I would never have thought of such a thing because of my family commitment to a college education. That made even the fantasy thought of an action like Harper’s not just suicidal because my Father would have buried me in the clay infield, but socially it would have been a culture shock of mammoth proportions for me to go from a rowdy Marine Biology class to a minor league locker room in less than one year.

I know his parents have vowed to be there every step of the way to keep him out of trouble and even steer him towards the right direction if needed. But I remember another young player who’s parents were so into his baseball life and one tragic event in his career almost ruined him for life.

People in and around baseball thought the same thing about Josh Hamilton before a simple truck accident coming back from a Spring Training game derailed his career via drugs, seedy friends and a travel down one of the darkest roads of his life.


Boston.com


I am not predetermining the same or any variation of it for Harper, but the reality is there for all to see. Hamilton finally got his path righted and began to transform himself back into a model MLB player. But he lost valuable playing time and career numbers battling something most people did not see in the light of day by him.

You can also point towards Robin Yount, Ken Griffey Junior as examples of the opposite, but they finished their High School careers even if the prize was out there for them to pick off the tree at 16-years of age.

One mistake can ruin your high flying goals and aspirations. I am not here to question his parents motives or even the influence they might have on Bryce, but Hamilton used to rely heavily on his parent’s influence and advice, and when it was not there, he started towards the darkness. 

16-years of age is a wild time in a young man’s life. Not only does your body get to go through more changes, you get to piece yourself together to become the kind of person you want to be in your life. I know if you asked Harper right now his answer would be a professional baseball player.

But do the thrills and rewards outweigh the development of this guy into even a more prolific hitting machine, or will he be the next Paul Wilder, who was a 1998 First Round pick of the Rays and never rose above the Class-A level of baseball. It is going to be a slippery next 12 months for the young phenom with pitfa
lls and college courses maybe derailing some of his plans.

But in the end, I still see him maybe getting a shot to being only the second person since 1967 to hit a home run before his 19th birthday. The other phenom who got that homer was Yount, who hits his shot in 1974 with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Harper has all the tools and the ability to strive and prosper in the game of baseball. But as I mentioned before, the core support system for him is his family and his religion, which he might be calling on both a lot in the next 12 months to get him through the rough spots. He might just be on the board when the teams pick again in 2010, and he just might be the first guy to step to the podium with MLB Commissioner Bud Selig.

The event at Tropicana Field in 2008 had several great names in High School baseball including a former MLB player son, Dante Bichette Jr. from the Orlando area. But most of all, I am going to remember the phrase he told to Babe Ruth’s granddaughter  the first night of the tourney at a banquet at the Hilton in St. Petersburg, Florida.  “I am going to win that bat” Harper told her before the event. He went on to hit 6 consecutive homers in  section of the event that averaged over 469 feet.

The Answer to the  Trivia Question is: Bryce Harper, who hit a 502 foot shot to rightfield that hit above the big screen metal facing just below the Tropicana roof.  It is currently the longest hit ball by any hitter in Tropicana Field history. It got him that  special bat, the Inaugural Babe Ruth Award for the longest home run in the event. The future is bright for this 16-year old phenom to make his mark in 2009.
 

All I want to do is watch him hit another round of B P  one day in the Trop. Hopefully on that day he will be donning a uniform in the MLB and putting on a show like Mike Piazza did for the home crowd back in 2001 when the New York Mets came here and he put two straight up into the “beach” area of Tropicana Field.

Matt Joyce is joining a Special Rays Group

 


Steve Nesius / AP

After last night’s game, during the Florida Sports Network post-game interview newly anointed right fielder Matt Joyce acknowledged the fan base in rightfield that was so supportive of him after he hit his second homer in two games. The young right fielder has only been back in the Rays fold since coming back up to start in centerfield for B J Upton during the Sunday afternoon game. He is beginning to get the feeling that the rightfield crowd can make or break a player in Tampa Bay. During the interview he was quick to voice his appreciation for the show of support and loud applause for him so early in his Tampa Bay career.

Joyce is a local guy who dreamed back when he was in Tampa’s Armwood High School of someday patrolling the outfields at Tropicana Field. It is quickly becoming one of those great hometown stories that national and local papers like to use to show the local fan base is alive and well in Tampa Bay. And little by little he will get to know that sometimes this same fan base that is happily clapping cowbells louder and louder for him can be a fickle bunch at times.

From the first game ever for the Rays on March 31, 1998, when current Bench Coach Dave Martinez was the first guy to man the “9″ spot for the Rays, the love-hate relationship with our rightfielders have been a very open subject. In that first contest, Martinez got the first hit by a Rays player in history and the crowd in right field was there to show their support for him loud and clear that night. From the days of Martinez to the fan adulation of another right fielder, Bubba Trammel, the position has had its share of positive and negative men man the spot under the Jumbotron. Martinez has since gone on to become another special piece of the Rays puzzle as he is the second eyes and ears of Rays Manager Joe Maddon, but you know he still has a special place in his heart for that rightfield corner.

Martinez played with Tampa Bay until they traded him to the Chicago Cubs in 2000 for pitcher Mark Guthrie.  Most of all, Martinez had played in over 1,799 games as a player and did not get to the post season one time. During his first stint as a coach for the Rays, he got his dream and more in 2008.  But it might have been the tough guy Bubba Trammell that so far has been the most revered of Tampa Bays rightfielders.

He was the chosen object of affection of the old 142 Crew, which sat out in Section 142 of the Trop and cheered for him nightly. And he was the kind of guy you wanted to see achieve great things. He was a hustler and a gambler on the field, and carried a big bat into the box with him nightly. Originator of the 142 Crew,Ted Fleming, who now is a member of the local media for The Examiner.com covering the Rays and hosts his own sports radio show on WSRQ-1220 AM in Sarasota, Florida was one of the first to loudly and proudly cheer for Trammell. 

His 142 Crew used to be so vocal during Trammell’s at bats that the Rays stopped the music early so that the “Bubba” chant could be heard throughout the stadium. 
Trammel was one of those guys you wanted to see do good and excel in the game.  After his short time in Rays-land, current Kansas City Royal Jose Guillen enjoyed moments among the Rays rightfield crazies. But who knows, maybe the 142 Crew can reunite and find a second life now in Section 142 again with the likes of Matt Joyce patrolling the outfield fences.

But there have been a host of great outfielder to gain fans vocal support in the past in right field. Current Royals rightfielder Jose Guillen spent a few seasons listening to the cheers and jeers in the Trop. Guillen was known mostly for his rifle arm that just seemed to be able to pinpoint and throw out anyone on the base paths.  The you had the always smiling Damian Rolls, who was more of a Ben Zobrist clone in the early 2000-2002 seasons.

He used to play wherever and when ever the Rays needed him, but he liked playing rightfield for the fans yelling where the base runner was right before he turned around to throw. Jonny Gomes, another fan favorite for his playing style that seemed more “Pete Rose”-style than anyone else to ever put on a Rays jersey used to love jogging out to right field because of the cheers he got every night from the fans. He also made sure to reward them with balls ever so often to show his appreciation for the fans support.

Jose Cruz Jr. also made a stop with the Rays after playing for the rival Toronto Blue Jays and saw a quick difference in the jeers to cheers he got for finally playing for the Rays. Cruz used to batter Rays pitching in Tropicana Field, and he continued to hit well in the Trop while he was with the Rays. Even when Gabe Gross first took his right field spot in 2008 after being traded to the Rays, the crowd made sure to welcome him on his first night with a thunderous applause.

But not everyone who played rightfield was met with cheers every night. Some players who played out there actually dreaded some of the nights they had to go out and play in right field. To say the rightfield crews were not well versed in baseball would be a crime. But some of the guys who have also manned the spot forgot how to play the game sometimes. Ben Grieve came to the Rays after a great beginning to his career in Oakland.

He never seemed to be at home here and quickly he seemed to garner the vocal backlash from the fans. His playing style was not accepted by the Rays faithful because he seemed to be so lackadaisical about the simple things of the sports. Add that to some hitting woes and it was a recipe for insults and catcalls for the young player.

But the fans seemed to be just getting started because after Grieve left the Rays, another player came out to play in rightfield who always seemed to get a mixed bag of reactions from the fans. Aubrey Huff did not come out and vocally state he did not like playing in right field, but sometimes it did give that impression to the fans out there.

Even though he was still a monster at the plate, his defense in right was questioned a few times during his brief time out there. Huff played his last baseball in Tampa Bay in rightfield, and even to that last day the fans always held him in a love-hate relationship.

But the guy who seemed to be the most hated rightfielder was not a member of the New York Yankees, or even the Boston Red Sox. He was a guy who was quiet on the field and might have even been hated or despised even before his first game in a Rays uniform. Delmon Young never seemed to have gotten a fair break from the rightfield fans, but then again, he never reached out to them either.

The young star held an air of entitlement and fut
ure glory from the moment he first stepped towards the slanted rightfield corner. Most of that was played out in comments and actions by him while he was coming up through the Rays minor league system.

But his lack of general respect for the game was not lost on the rightfield faithful, and they rained down on him whenever he made a goof or a mistake, even a unintentional blunders on the base paths. I can not say he never got a fair shot, but he also never seemed to care, so the rightfield fans fed on that and rain down catcalls more than cheers for him while he was here. 

So the Rays fans have embraced the young Joyce and have seen greatness in him. The best part is that he has been here before in his career. Unfortunately he was in leftfield, but he has heard the roars from the right field stands before and might have been more aware of the fans because of his 2008 time with the Detroit Tigers.

Most might remember that he went  2-8 during the Tigers only visit to Tropicana Field from August 1-3, 2008. In that game he played two contests in leftfield, but made impressions for his hustle and defensive skills. He also played in all four of the Tigers home game against the Rays from September 25-28, 2008, but only managed to secure one hit in that series. He is off to a great start in his career with the Rays.

He has made a great impression in the spring when he came back from his ankle and calf situations to pound the ball late in Spring Training.  So far with the Rays he is 6 for 17 for a nice .363 average to start the fans in his favor. His 6 RBI, with 4 just last night will also go a long way in securing the fan’s early support for the young star.


Mike Carlson / AP

Rightfield in Tropicana Field has seen its good and bad times. But the players who have manned that position have made not only a impression into Rays history, but some of them still are considered a part of the Rays family. Joyce is just the latest in the line of great players to man the “9″ spot, but with his future bright and the crowd behind him.

He could easily move into cult status like Jonny Gomes or Bubba Trammell with a great season for the Rays.  And wouldn’t it be great to see more signs like the one last night that said, “The Right Choice…. Matt Joyce” ever night in rightfield.

Mercy, Mercy, Percy!

 
 


RRCollections


If you have been watching Tampa Bay Rays baseball for any length of time, you will know that we have always had one big hole in our roster, and we have tried valiantly to find the right pieces to fit that puzzle. But it is not like we have not seen some success in the closer role, but the majority of the time we have been sunk by lofty or inadequate expectations of players either too young and inexperienced, or guys on their way out the door. We have had successful closers in our young history,like Roberto Hernandez, Danys Baez and Lance Carter. It is considered the hardest situational pitching position in baseball to master and keep under control. You either have the muscle and mind to handle the stress and pressures, or you fold quickly when pitching flaws come to the surface.

So with the announcement today that the Rays and Troy Percival are going to take a “vacation” from each other for awhile, you could hear the air sigh inside Tropicana Field. For the mighty Percy has finally struck out in his chances with the Rays. I mean I was not totally on board with the  ex-Angels connection signing in the first place, but I was willing to give the guy a chance based on his past accolades, and what he could bring to this team in the way of leadership and teaching to the up and coming ballplayers. But, you have to admit that he has been here on borrowed time for some time, and if not for the genuine respect both Rays Manager Joe Maddon had for him, and Percival’s “never say die” attitude, it did make for a volatile  and some time effective relationship while it lasted.

Troy Percival has been a giant in the closer’s role for so long in the MLB, that maybe a bit of it moved past him and he did not adapt. But you have to give the guy some credit for the past. He is eighth in All-Times saves with 358. That is only 9 away from the next guy, Jeff Reardon. He was the fourth highest closer actively throwing in the MLB, but I truly think his days are over.  Even though he was 6 for 6 in save this season for the Rays, a few past decisions are going to haunt him for a long time.  He has shown signs of being a great closer still, like before his May 13th appearance, he had not allowed a run in 10 straight appearances dating back to April 17th.

In 2008-2009, the Rays were 40-1 when he entered the game for a save opportunity ( He was 34-38 in those save opportunities).  Percy has held opposing batters to a .188 batting average against him, which is the lowest average of any MLB pitcher with over 400 appearances. Oh, and before he started to show a slow decline in 2008, he had 28 saves for the Rays, his highest total since he left the Angels in 2004. But his decline started to take place before he got here, but the Rays also saw him take to the DL three times in 2008 and miss a total of 42 games. But you have to admire his the fight within him before you can condemn him here. He was truly one of the most  fiery guys to ever grace our roster. But that also might have led to his disfavor with fans. But in the end the mighty Percy struck out.


RRCollections

You might ask how he struck out with the fans and maybe even his own team. I know of a few guys in the Bullpen who used to cringe when he warmed up, but kept up the team unity face for morale. Rich Herrera, who does post game and pre game for the Rays Radio Network once said, ” You can’t applaud the guy one day, then boo him the next day. Either you like what he is doing, or you don’t . Take a side.” Okay Rich, I will here. I think that he struck out with the fans based on three incidents, but there were more that could have merited the same outlook. 

First off, his injury near the end of 2008 was for back stiffness and a possible knee injury. That being said, he was a ghost around the clubhouse at the time the team needed him most. I know it might be personally painful for you to sit there on a bench and watch the game like a fan instead of play, but to show support for your team mates at that playoff juncture of the year was a huge flaw in his character to me. Jonny Gomes and Chad Orvella were not on the team’s rosters for the playoffs, but they were there for them with emotional and vocal signals that “they had the team’s back”. Percy was not on the bench, and not even in the clubhouse for the first game of the 2008 World Series.  To me, that was STRIKE ONE. 

A couple of weeks ago there was an incident in a Sunday afternoon game where Evan Longoria went for a ball in the third base stands in section 121. This section pokes out a bit beyond the Visitor’s Dugout and always sees it fair share of foul balls and hard hit smashes during games. The ball is hit high into the air and the ball is heading for that section of the stadium, we all know that the fan did not see or hear Longoria coming until the last moment, or he might have given way for the fleet footed third baseman. Instead he misplays the ball and both he and Longoria miss the ball. Longo throws some choice words for the guy and also so steely glances the rest of the game.

Well, Percy comes in for the save in that contest and immediately after the third out begin to throw a few comments of his own towards the guy. This was about 15 minutes after the incident, but Percy was jawing the wagging a finger towards the guy. The language was not acceptable for a “Family Day” at the ballpark first off, but the badgering of the fan was not only insulting, but should have warranted a suspension or a public apology from Percival to the guy. It was another out-of-control moment probably brought on by emotion, but to me, It was purely STRIKE TWO.

Then we have a nice tight game going on in May in Oriole Park in Camden Yards against the Baltimore Orioles on May 13th. Percival came in with the score in favor of the Rays 8-2 and proceeded to do something I found so insulting to the baseball gods I wanted to just jack him up and beat him down for it in a blog, but felt it was better to leave him alone at the time. He was going to bite the hand that fed him soon enough in the contest. In 1/3rd of an inning, Percival had given up 4-runs on 4-hits, including two home run pitches that looked more like some one throwing Batting Practice. The first thought in my mind was that he wanted to get the score close so it was going to be a save opportunity for him. Giving another team an opportunity to come back for your own personal gain is against the grain of the unwritten rules Percy. The score was 8-6 when in the bottom of that ninth inning  Rays Manager Joe Maddon came out to chat with Percy.

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We all know that Maddon had already made his decision to take Percy out, maybe for disrespecting the game, but more for his awful pitching performance. This was the last game of the most recent road trip, and the Rays wanted this game badly. But what we ended up with was Percy behaving badly. He began to vocally challenge and argue with the skipper to the point you could see spittle trailing from his mouth. He fought long and hard to stay in the game, but some of the words lipped from his mouth were not entirely in the rules of respect for your Manager. I admire the fire and spunk, but I also detest the disrespect and his blatant disregard for the team Manager.  For me, this was STRIKE THREE.

So when the Rays came home, I was clam and cool in the stands, but I did not address Troy anymore as he walked past me to the bathrooms and Bullpen lounge area. I would not even look at the man. I was pissed and I did not want to see an ounce of this guy on the mound for the team again unless he showed a bit more respect for his longest supporters, Joe Maddon.  He did enter the game on May 15th in the 7th inning, one of his earliest appearances of his Rays career. As he slunk off the Bullpen Mound and the stadium Jumbotron announced his music I turned my back to the field. That was my show of not honoring the fact this guy was still out there on the mound. I was firmly going to show my distaste for his treatment of this team, and his Manager.

Percival did not have the opportunity in these next two night to get either the win or the save as Dan Wheeler and Joe Nelson took the mounds in the ninth inning for the Rays. That Sunday, Percival did hit the mound in the ninth and got two strikeouts en route to his sixth save of the year ( At the time, that placed him 9th in the AL in saves).  The performance was one of his best in the season, but I again stood towards the back wall as he entered the ballgame. Then the last straw might have been during a save opportunity that almost got away, but this time Maddon was not going to let the closer take this one away from his young team.

Percival entered the game in the top of the ninth, and while I was looking at the back wall I was admiring the new huge sign by the Florida Sports Network and Sunsports that looked like a game day roster. I had looked back there dozens of times this season and did not really see how great it was before today. Well, Percival lived up to his usual expectations and gave up two quick hits and runs before Maddon made a move to bring in Nelson again for the the game. At that time, the score was tied, and Percival this time did not totally try and even voice any fight or vinegar at Maddon, but strolled off the mound to the dugout.


Chris O’Meara / AP

That was the last time we saw him. Strolling off the mound after giving up two runs to tie a contest the Rays would eventually win. You want to say something poetic here, that will be admired for years as sage advice or even a recollection, but I was glad it was his last outing for the team. I truly do not care if he ever comes back. He has options available to him. He can either rehab as long as the team deems he should and not fight it, or he can walk away from the game for the last time.  My feelings are he still has some fire in his beer belly for the game, but it might not fit well here anymore. If he does ever some back into a Rays uniform, he will probably have to take a reduced role with the team. More of a set-up role than a closer.

It is actually kind of odd, but curiously wild that Percival was all rah-rah about Jason Isringhausen signing with the team this spring, and he might be the guy who gets eventually slotted into the closer role. I wish Percy the best as he takes his time and contemplates and make decisions about his future on the mound. Maybe he is again ready for that role of managing like he did in 2007 in the Angels minor league system. Time will tell. But I think the time of the scruffy, pear-shaped closer going to the mound for the Rays is over.

He fought the sands of time as long as he could, but maybe he is finally starting to realize the door is shutting behind him. I have glad for what he has done for this club in the last two seasons, but I will not miss him. And Rays, do not forget to lock the door, or he will find a way back into this clubhouse. But for me personally, he has not only struck a chord in me with his actions, he might have finally struck out with other fans too.

Rays Steal Series from Red Sox

 

              Rays 5,     Red Sox 3


Mike Carlson / AP

The C.C. Show

How else could you describe the event more than just stating it was the Carl Crawford Show. For the Rays two-time All-Star did everything but sell peanuts and Cracker Jacks in the stands before the game. If you are a Tampa Bay Rays fan, you know the speed and the ability of this great athlete. And you have to remember, he is an athlete as well as a pretty good baseball player. But the simple fact that Crawford picked baseball over all the other sports that he loved as a kid is a telling tale all its own.

Here is a guy who could have gone into two other sports, and might have even reached the professional level in them too, but he stuck with the sport that he had the greenest talent in……….baseball. And the end result is that he is starting to get that National recognition for the things we have seen him do consistently since 2002. But does it really seem like 7 years ago that this skinny speedster came on board with the Rays? It seriously feels like he has always been here, because he is the face of this franchise in so many ways.

He has been here during the lean years when wins were as consistent as gas prices, and fans were still here cheering for the Rays, but the blue seats outnumbered the moving parts in the stadium. But now that the team is beginning to defend their first winning season, and their 2008 American League Pennant, Crawford is beginning to get his own personal engine revving up. The season did not start out particularly well for the team, and Crawford also had a few bumps in the road, like his team, but he stayed motivated and fought through the small slump.

He had gone a combined 2 for 10 in the last series before coming home against the Twins, and had to be at his best for this Boston series for the Rays to again establish dominance at home. During this series, he went  8 for 16 for a .500 average to boost his batting average to above .300 for only the second time since April 12th. In the early stages of this season his base stealing expertise was absent as he was held at bay by the opposing pitchers most game, only stealing a total of 9 bases in April. But in the last three games against Boston, he has emerged again as the front runner to again take the stolen base crown in the American League.


Mike Carlson / AP

He stole a total of 8 bases, only one of his previous months total in this one series. But he saved his best for last on the series finale on Sunday. Coming into the bottom of the eighth inning against the Red Sox, he had victimized Jason Varitek all day by stealing 5 bases before he again got on base with an infield single to shortstop. With Evan Longoria at the plate, Crawford again stole his sixth base of the day, and he did not look like he was finished there.

I know I was one of the people in the crowd wondering if he might attempt to also take third base in this at bat, but Longoria quickly struck out to make the chance moot and end the inning for the Rays.  You wanted him to go on the first pitch to Longoria after he had stolen second, but it was not meant to be today. Every pitch from that moment on hung in the air for awhile as you waited for Crawford to lunge off second and sprint towards that third base bag. But it was not meant to be today.

What Crawford did was amazing in its own right. He personally demoralized the Red Sox that day by being the man. Sorry, but it is true, he stole not only 6 bases, but the show that day. Oh, did I fail to mention he also went 4 for 4 with 2 runs scored and an RBI ? The feat had only been attempted by 4 men since 1900. One player, Eddie Collins also did it twice. Could that be the next goal for Crawford, match Collins. Also getting 6 stolen bases in a modern day baseball game were former Colorado Rockie and ESPN host Eric Young and former Brave Otis Nixon.
 

The pure fact that Crawford is in the company of these great base thieves is an honor all its own. So now Crawford is hitting for an .583 average so far in May, and the Rays are winning, you might have to keep your eye on Crawford because I can see a AL Player of the Week honor coming his way for his efforts. His base burglary has also now put him 4 stolen bases in front of early front runner Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox. These guys will battle for the crown the entire season, but you can bet the guy who gets the most steals in this Boston/Tampa Bay series this year will walk away with the title in October.


Mike Carlson / AP


Rays Take Series

What is amazing to me is the fact that the only two series the Rays have won up to this point in the season is against their biggest rival in the AL East. They took 2 out of 3 in Boston to start the year, then went through 7 series without a win before coming home and taking 3 of 4 from Boston in Tropicana Field.  That is a total of 5 of 7 games in the series in 2009.  Considering these team have played each other more in the past 12 months than anyone else, there has to be a huge volume scouting report on both these teams that must weigh at least 200 pounds. But the win this season have been gutsy come-from-behind wins in most of the wins.

None of the games except for Boston’s victory on  Opening Day have had significant runs scored in the eighth inning or beyond this year. Most of the Rays and Red Sox’s win have been predetermined before the dramatic ending innings. But that doesn’t mean that this will hold true in the future contests. As these teams both heat up a bit at the plate, the dramatic endings and the luck of the past will again flow freely and we might see some of those classic Rays vs. Red Sox games real soon. Maybe even next weekend when the Rays come to Fenway Park again for three games.


Chris O’Meara / AP

Defense Wins Ballgames

You have to admit that this series did not always look like a defensive struggle for either team. Considering in this four-game series, both teams committed 4 errors in the series. The Red Sox did not commit their first error in the series until Nick Green’s errant throw to first in Sat night contest.  But the Rays did have a couple of errors in the second inning of the game by  Akinora Iwamura and Gabe Kapler. Iwamura was the first to commit an error on  a hard hit ball by Ellsbury to him and he bumbled the ball and Ellsbury made it to first in time. Kapler made his error a few plays later on a throw trying to nab Ellsbury at the plate. The ball was up the line and bit and went by Dioner Navarro.  

In Sundays game, the only error was made in the early stages on the game on a toss by Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, who was trying to catch Crawford stealing his first base of the day.  The ball ended up going into centerfield and Crawford moved to third on the errant throw.  But the series did have their exciting moments when Ellsbury was caught stealing by Navarro on Sunday, and the comical stolen base attempt by Green on Sat. night. Kottaras also got into the act by catching both B J Upton and Gabe Gross on Sat. night. Upton was trying to make his second steal of the inning and was nabbed at third base by a great throw, and Gross got caught stealing late in the game by going straight towards the bag at second.

But the big defensive moments were the 5 double plays made by the Rays in this series. Not to down play any of the great defensive plays by the outfield or infield, but the double plays helped prevent scoring opportunities and get short innings out of the Red Sox. By keeping the Red Sox bats on the bench, the Rays made their best defensive plays of the game. But not to down play the awesome play by both teams defensively this series, but the Rays seemed to have more of them go their ways. Diving catches by Upton saved runs and  Jason Bartlett made play after play to save runs and prevent more scoring opportunities by the Red Sox.


Mike Carlson / AP

Mondays Moments

**** Jason Bartlett has continued his hot bat into May as he again went 3 for 4 in the game to raise his average to .368 for the season. That currently puts him with the fifth in the American League.  Ever since the 2008 end of the regular season, Bartlett has been on a tear at the plate. Considering he ended the month of April with a .358 average, which is now the third best April start for a Rays hitter.  But this season, he has kept his best games for the Boston Red Sox. In the Opening Series in Fenway, he went a combined 4 for 10, with 2 runs scored to lead the Rays, and in this last four-game series he went 4 for 11, with an identical 2 runs scored in the just completed series.

****  The Rays have only had 11 home games so far in 2009, but they have seated 317,533 fans, which comes out to a 28,866 average so far this season. The figure puts them currently fourth in the American league. Those figures might go considerably smaller in the next two games as the Rays take on the Baltimore Orioles in a two-game series, with the last game an afternoon contest on Tuesday at 4:08 pm. Historically, the Orioles series is not a great seller for the team.

**** Dioner Navarro will appear at Coachman Fundemental  Middle School in Clearwater, Florida from 11:45 to 12:45 as a part of the Rays and Raytheon’s “Math Moves U” program.  The event will be a one-hour pep rally and instructional speech about the exciting possibilities of math.  

**** Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena are the fourth set of teammates since 1954 to record at least 27 RBI through the first 25 games of the season. They currently lead all major league teammates in HR and RBI. Pena is also the Rays second quickest player to notch 11 homers in 25 games. Pena missed the Rays record currently held by Jonny Gomes, who hit 11 homers in 24 games in 2006.

**** Longoria currently leads the majors with 30 RBI, 19 extra-base hits. He shares the top spot with Alberto Callaspro of the Kansas City Royals in double with 12, plus is  currently second in total base hits in the majors with 67 this season.   

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