Results tagged ‘ Randy Choate ’

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 & 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.

 
 

Looking Back on my 2009 Rays Resolutions

 


FSNFlorida.com

Sorry I have been able to post anything since New Year’s Eve, but things have been a little upside down in my little slice of the world. Not going to get into it, but if you know me, you know the restricted economical parameters of my lone wolf existence.

I was thinking last night about turning the pages back to my post back on January 1,2009 where I listed my  2009 New Year’s Rays Resolutions blog and see if my quarter-tossing guesses and totally dillusional dreams for the Tampa Bay Rays had either mysteriously evaporated or suddenly materialized for the team.

We all know just how difficult it is sometimes to partition our post-baseball lives  to readjust back into our normal lifestyles with the absence of games nightly. And with my 2009 resolutions coming just a few months off the heels of the Rays first playoff push in team history, I am more than a bit curious to see if now those resolutions might have been a bit over zealous, or might have struck true center and be totally in line with the team’s seasonal performance.

But even if I did get a bit over excited and tranform my hopes and dreams into slight misguided illusions, isn’t that within the vein of the competitive spirit of the fan, who always  wants to see the birght side of life in regards to their team?  We all want to trust and believe that bigger and better things are always on the horizon for our squads, even as the skies turn suddenly dark and the wind begins to howl.  You want to believe in solidarity of the true existence of the team dream. 

You have to actively possess that unrelentless faith that the “much needed” team weapons will somehow materialize like that weird frost upon your car windshield in the morning, or that the Bullpen will again be a brickwall to your team’s lofty and ever-rising ride of success. So lets take a short jaunt back about 365 days and formally check out my bubble-headed prognostications to see if any of my 2009 resolutions for the Rays might have actually had some merit to them, or the whole thing was just dust in the wind.


Mike Carlson / AP 

2009 Resolution 1:

Find a right-handed bat that can help the offense take it to the next level.

Wow! This resolution could go a few different directions at the same time. But the true fact is that it might all actually depend on if you want to throw Pat Burrell’s 2009 fiasco into the pot here. I have thrown Burrell under the bus enough times during 2009 for this resolution to actually take on water and headed for the briny deep waters near Egmont Key.

But lost in the shuffle was  the fact to totally look at the last two prior Rays season performances at the Designated Hitter spot and seeing that Burrell’s stats were really about average for the Rays. But that pure instance doesn’t get him out of Elvis’s locker room doghouse because Burrell was brought onto this squad to boost a sagging offense and  was paid hansomely for his efforts.

I am willing to give him a slight partial pass here due to his neck situation that might have thrown a confidence and concentration monkey wrench into his “game shape” for 2009. Burrell did show some offensive firepower, but we are starving to see it on a more consistent basis, and it will be demanded of him in 2010.  Not lost in all of this negativity is the fact he did produce 14 homers in the season, but they were all hit against right-handers, so Burrell definitely needs to readjust and refocus this off season to come in and conquer in 2010, or he will be considered a huge bust maybe in the company of Vinny Castilla.

Resolution 2:

Find a southpaw reliever to compliment the Bullpen.

This simple resolution might have actually been achieved by the Rays stockpiling a few left-handed  experienced relievers at the Triple-A level prior to the team’s 2009 Opening Day. We did have southpaw lefty-specialist Brian Shouse primarily on the 25-man roster as a leftie specialist, but like Burrell, Shouse had his own series of ups and down via the injury bug in 2009  amd might not be considered a totally successful signing by the team.

And because the Rays hide a few options in their minor league system, when Shouse was put on the diasabled list on May 25th with a left elbow strain, it opened the door for a former Yankee reliever to come up and dramatically change the late inning game from the left-side of the mound. Randy Choate seemed at times to be a man on a mission and gained more and more confidence as the Rays 2009 season progressed. You can not discount his  stellar .141 batting average against left-handers, or even his 5-for-5 perfect mark in save possibilities for the Rays this past season. 

Just when the Rays  were craving a clutch performer after a few unforeseen blown save situations, and a quickly downward spiraling in relief performances, Choate came up to appear in 61 of the Rays final 114 games. To throw a huge exclamation point on Choate’s 2009 performances, before  his call-up by the team in 2009, Choate had appeared in 196 games and had never produced a save. Choate definitely did not choke for the Rays in 2009.


Mike Carlson/ AP

Resolution 3:


Get 1 of the 2 best young players on your team a contract extension.

This was one of the 2009 resolutions that I thought would  definitely get some extreme attention by the Rays front office at some moment in the 2009 season. With the team stressing they are “borrowing on tomorrow” right now with their increasing payroll demands, you thought Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman might chart a clear map on this one as a top priority to supplant a possible unforeseen huge arbitration dollar figure, or a series of multiple arbitration seasons by a number of players to substancially see a rise of ever increasing salary demands without a solid prediction for the Rays future payrolls.

I thought for sure the Rays first comfirmed target here would be to entice Rays starting pitcher Matt Garza  to a contract extension for “services rendered”, and to reward him now for the huge upside he could provide the Rays in the next three years. Sure everyone wants to bring up moments with his emotional and temper situations as fodder to not extend him, but lost in that mumbo jumbo shuffle might be the pure fact he has the ability to be the first pitcher to post a no-hitter for the Rays.

As of today, there is no sign of this evolving into a multi-year scenario before he goes for his 2010 arbitration hearing. Garza’s abilities on the mound in 2009 could easily boost his salary from his $ 433,300. in 2009, to an estimation of $ 3.5 million through arbitration. And you would have thought it prudent and responsible of a money conscious Rays to maybe nip this escalation in the bud and give him a deal comparible to the contract James Shields signed in 2008, but there are no clear signs of that happening any time soon for Garza. And Garza is only the first in a ever increasing line that includes centerfielder B J Upton and reliever J P Howell to secure some financial stability over the next three seasons for the team.

Resolution 4:

Sign Jason Giambi already.

I actually thought Giambi might have been a great addition to the Rays, and we know this whole scenario never materialized, so this might be a short resolution explanation. Even though Giambi did go on to play over 102 games in Oakland before heading onto the Rockies post season roster, the “Giambino” had a subpar season and actually did not even hit the low average plateau achieved  by Burrell with the Rays in 2009.

It is actually funny to think Giambi hit worse than Pat “The Bat” Burrell, but then again, both did do a few mis-timed stints on the disabled list this season and neither seemed to get into a solid flow at the plate. In hindsight, 2009 might actually turn out to be Giambi’s last chance to play full-time with a potential off-the-bench position staring him in the face for 2010 and beyond.



RRCollections

Resolution 5: 


Keep the team chemistry up high and the success will come again.

Here is another resolution that might totally be up to your own personal interpretation on the Rays 2009 season. We all know the stories of Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s great inspirational speeches and motivational quotes that are meant to boost and inflate confidence like a balloon, but this Rays team did seem to miss a huge chunk of clubhouse chemistry in 2009.

Some say it was the departure of type-A personalities like Eric Hinske, Cliff Floyd and Johnny Gomes took a huge presence and electric feel out of the clubhouse. But even with the two bigger than life cartoon characters of Gomes and Hinske gone, there still was the increasing confidence and emotional moment stature of “El Presidente” Carlos Pena. And  you have to admire the guy for trying to step it up a few notches trying to fill those big shoes left by the trio, but Pena was only one guy, and could only beat the drum so loud in 2009.

Most of Pena’s teammates seemed to be relying on themselves and their close knit groups formed within the team to boost their confidence and act as support systems throughout the season. The Bullpen definitely had their own “vibe” in the clubhouse, and the Rays starters seemed to have their own “inside jokes” throughout the season. Dioner Navarro took the role of the “shaving cream pie” bandit in 2009, and even got Madddon during one post-game interview on television.

And the Rays did try and promote their road trips like a Carnival cruise night with events like the “White Party” and “Cowboy Up” during roadtrips.  Some had great success, and a few might have been better left in the closet. One idea did seem to backfire a bit on the Rays. Maddon, being a huge Johnny Cash fan, had the inspirational idea of the “Ring of Fire” all-black traveling party during the Rays push towards the playoff in 2009. But from the first moment Maddon came out of his Manager’s office in the Rays clubhouse sporting that jet black hair, the idea seemed headed quickly like lemmings to the cliff.

Not sure why the idea ended up backfiring to produce a loss spiral that quickly deflated the Rays playoff hopes like a lead balloon. The Rays ended up losing 11 out of their first 13 games in September. Adding insult to injury was the disasterious timing of imploding against their American League East foes for the rest of the season. From the first dark-haired moment on August 19th by Maddon,the Rays posted only 3 wins against Boston and New York in their 13 games during September/October.
 

I actually think I went 1-4 in my quest to throw some early logical explanation into 2009 prior to the season. Sure we all want to think that  as fans, we truly have such an underlying persona that we can make people hit the ball or even throw a bit harder, but in reality, we can only encourage and become louder in the stands hoping that more positive results take root on the field.


Chris O’Meara / AP

Even if my 2009 resolutions did fall on hard times, the Rays season was filled with great unexpected moments and showed  more than a few times those glimpses of unforeseen promise that makes you proud to follow the team. Even the best at “predicting” seem to get it wrong most of the time, so my first dive into the resolution pool did not produce a total failure, but did produce a few questions. For we got to see baseball played again in the Tampa Bay area during 2009. We got to again gather as an extended family to root, boo and even console each other after some great games in 2009. 

I have always been one of those firm believers in that you “win some, and you lose some” mentality both inside and outside of the sporting world. I mean if I really believed everything that has been written about teams just in our own division, then I would pack it up after April 1st and throw out that immortal Chicago Cubs line, “We will get ‘em next year!” But I go into day like this first one in 2010 thinking we have as good a chance as the other 30 Major League Baseball teams to hoist that golden trophy to the heavens this October. And who knows……….

 

 

3 Options Decisions loom for the Rays

 


Bill Koustroun / AP

Within the next few days the Tampa Bay Rays will have to make some critical decisions on three members of the team.  They will have to either consider accepting or declining club options on three members of the 2009 roster. Carl Crawford ($ 10 million), Gregg Zaun ($ 2 million) and Brian Shouse ($ 1.9 million +incentives) all are currently being looked at forward and back, and inside-out for pluses and minuses by the Rays. And more than likely, only Crawford could end up the only club option is picked up by the Rays.

Crawford’s $ 10 million option is pretty comparable on the open market with outfielder who are within their prime and he is considered a value at that price right now. And the announcement during the last few weeks of the season that Crawford would be willing to talk about even lowering that price tag and extending his contract again must have had the team giddy with glee.
 

But it is the other two club options that might be more of a time consuming decision by the team. Because if the Rays accept either option, it might send into effect a landslide of changes for the Rays roster even before Spring Training.

And of the two club options, it seems to me that Zaun has done a great job with the Rays starting rotation and  getting acclimated to the Rays system in his short time with the squad. I consider him an upgrade in the catching department both behind the plate and in the batters box for the Rays. And if the team does pick up his option,  it will possibly be a signal to current starter Dioner Navarro that he might have a rough road going through arbitration this year and might even be considered a possible Rays non tendered candidate?

Zaun’s .259  batting average is 40 points higher than Navarro’s season ending .218. But an interesting point might be that Navarro had his highest batting average( .231) on April 13th, while Zaun has hit .289 since joining the Rays and .308 against right hander since the trade. And if you look at their defense, Zaun wins that battle hands down. Zaun is a jack-in-the-box behind the plate attacking every ball in the dirt and trying to smother or keep them in front of him. He might have only thrown out 11 of 51 base runners this season (21.6 %), but it is only slightly below Navarro’s (23.8 %) mark for the season.


Chris O’Meara / AP

So this decision might be more if the Rays want to have an aging catcher (38 years old) behind the plate and might make a decision on the Navarro era with the Rays.  And considering Navarro is up again for arbitration this season, could his  salary which has been estimated at around $ 2.5 million be an upgrade over Zaun’s abilities. And considering that Navarro’s agent made it a habit to pester the Rays front office with phone calls and emails showing his clients stats, maybe the Rays will turn their back on Navarro and look elsewhere for catching help.

I see the Rays picking up Zaun’s $2 million option because it might be time to make a change for the Rays. Catching was not a huge disadvantage for the team in 2009, but a upgrade and a change in personnel might be needed right now. And Zaun is a veteran presence the Rays need to support and work with this young pitching staff and fine tune them a bit more in 2010.  

And the other option  to be considered by the Rays might have actually been decided before the season was even concluded by the way Brian Shouse portrayed it me when I gave him congrats for reaching his incentive numbers. Shouse gave me the off-the-cuff indication that he felt he might not be with the team, but held out enthusiasm and hope for a different scenario.

Considering the team lost Bullpen members Chad Bradford, Troy Percival and Russ Springer who close to go to the free agent market, the Rays Bullpen will again be a work in progress going into Spring Training. And considering that Shouse did prove to be an effective left-handed specialist for the Rays, this decision might come down to  his option amount and if the team think that leftie reliever Randy Choate can perform in this role in 2010.

Choate is arbitration eligible, and might command only about $ 1.2 million in arbitration. And if the Rays do indeed decide to keep Shouse, Choate might be considered trade bait or even non-tendered. And here lies the difficult decision for the Rays. Shouse will be 42 near the end (Sept 27) of the 2010 season, and is already the oldest pitcher to grace a Rays roster. Does giving him a possible $1.9 million plus his incentive be considered a sound investment for the Rays?


Steve Nesius / AP

Combine that with Shouse holding lefties to a .224 average and  holding his opponents scoreless in 21 of his last 24 appearances, Shouse still has the ability to do the job. But the emergence of Choate late in the season while Shouse was on the disabled list with a left elbow strain, it might  bring the decision simply down to who the Rays think can do the job in 2010. I have feeling the Rays might dwell a bit on the fact he will be 42 before the end of 2010, and will decline the club option for Shouse.

And the buy-out options for both players is not a huge amount, and might also play into the Rays decisions. They currently have until November 11th to make public their decision on Shouse. And if he is not retained by the Rays, he will be given a $ 200,000 buyout. But the decision on Zaun needs to be made on Monday, November 9th, which is 5 days after the end of the World Series. If the Rays do not intend to keep Zaun on their roster, it will cost them $ 500,00 or 25 percent of the salary he would have commanded in 2010.  

And you have to take the delay on the announcement of the club option on Carl Crawford as a positive sign that things are being discussed behind-the-scenes, and that a decision will be announced soon on the Rays plans for Crawford in 2010.  The decisions made over the next few days by the Rays will not totally sculpt their roster for 2010, but it could indicate the direction and the possible intentions of the team in the free agent and trade markets over the Winter months.

You would love for the team to take all three players back into the fold and retain the chemistry that existed at the end of 2009. But the financial realities of the Rays payroll make this kind of a fairy tale and not a reality. Hopefully the Rays front office is working long and hard on their decisions concerning all three players, and that whatever looms in the future for any of them, that the decision will be for the good of the team and be received with the zeal that the team is again striving to be a player in not only the American League East, but in the chase to the 2010 World Series.

Rays Players Off Season Plans

 

Last Sunday was the final Tampa Bay Rays game of the 2009 season. It is funny, but for some reason this years just seemed to fly by, and was over way to soon for some of us sitting in the stands. Not sure why it felt that way unless the extra time last season marching onto the World Series just made 2008 seem almost three months longer. But unfortunately, we are at that time where bags are packed and boxes are sent to other locations so members of the team can get some needed R&R before starting it all over again in 2010.

And because of that extra time playing the game they love, some of the Rays had an abbreviated off season in 2009 because of other activities, such as participation in the World Baseball Classic, or several Rays players went to Winter Ball in 2008 and had only about 3 1/2 months to themselves and to individually train before they had to reporting to Port Charlotte, Florida for their first Spring Training away from St. Petersburg.

So on that last day of the season, I decided to ask a few of the Rays if they had any special plans or goals for this off season. And I have to admit, that one of the “vacation” suggestions makes me hunger to maybe hide somewhere in their luggage, just pop a few air holes in the bag for me please! But there also seemed to be another angle coming up in a lot of their conversations. The talk of just total rest and relaxation without the stress or pressure of the white round ball.

It seemed that so many of them just wanted to just “chill and relax” after the rush and the extent of the 2008 playoff season. And still others have a few life changing moments coming fast on the horizon and needed to make some last minute adjustments before getting on with their lives. Then there was a small group who might be facing that decision about their careers, and if they still want to don a uniform in 2010 for any team.

A total of three members of the Rays Bullpen will be getting married this off season, two players and Scott Cursi, the Rays Bullpen catcher who will finally marry his sweetheart of five years in November 2009.  It is funny, it is just like yesterday that I met Cursi and his bride-to-be, who used to work for the Rays and is now working in partnership with Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s wife, Jaye in a concierge service for people on the go, like the Rays players and their families.

I pulled it out of Cursi that they are going to  have their romantic and exotic honeymoon on St Lucie’s Island at the all inclusive Sandals resort, and both should come back with a beautiful Fall tan. But then we  also have a former members of the Rays Bullpen crew going down the aisle soon in ex-Ray Jason Hammel, who will be getting married this off season in St. Petersburg, Florida in the striking Renaissance Vinoy resort right on the waters of Tampa Bay. 

Rays reliever Grant Balfour will be the first to be strolling down the aisle this off season, and the Aussie is not planning any additional triathlete competitions this off season, but is just going to enjoy the time off this year. Rays closer Du Jour J P Howell will also be closing the deal with his bride-to-be also this Fall, and then plans to just be “The Dude” until it is time again to report to Spring Training camp. Congratulations to both guys and their brides, and I wish all of you all the luck in the world and a total boat of happiness as you begin your lives together.

Neither of them would tell me where they plan to honeymoon, but that is okay, because one veteran member of the Rays Bullpen might have them beat totally  just on the romance factor anyways. Rays reliever Dan Wheeler and his wife will be taking a beautiful  European adventure to Italy, with stops in Rome, Florence and Venice on the agenda. Hopefully while he is on his Italian adventure, Wheeler might see the lone Rays cap that Rays Manager Joe Maddon saw in 2008 in an Italian train station.

I have to say, this might be the one I want to see pictures of when he gets home (I wish!).  Just the idea of getting out of the country like Cursi and Wheeler sounds like the perfect way to get some isolation and some peace to again get ready for another 6 months plus grind in 2010. And that is one of the great advantages of having a job that is not 9-5, for 12 months out of the year. Plans can be made, and special events planned without a hitch. Wish some days we could all live like that.

But several members of the Rays roster will not have that luxury of world travel and no commitments. Some  of the Rays are committed to going to play Winter ball in exotic locales. This additional work should show the Rays brass that they are vital pieces needed by the team, and also get some great prep and conditioning work before they report to Spring Training in February. Justin Ruggiano, who was at Durham Bulls for all of the 2009 season will be heading to Venezuela, while Shawn Riggans will be heading to Puerto Rico for Winter ball.

Also scheduled to go to Winter ball, but he doesn’t know his location yet is outfielder Fernando Perez, who was out most of the season with a bum wrist.  This actually might be a great thing for Perez to not only get some work in at the plate, but to get some flexibility in his wrist so he is not a question mark in the Spring. This upcoming season might be his time to shine, or he might find himself somewhere else soon manning the outfield for another team. There might be others from the Rays roster also going to Winter ball, but that list has not be released to the public yet. 

But then there are guys like reliever Randy Choate who participated in Winter ball last season and will just  wants to sit back and relax this season. Jeff Bennett, who came to the Rays late in the season, is planning to remain in the Tampa Bay area for a while this off season to work on his conditioning before going back to Tennessee and working out and gaining more strength and endurance after his injury in 2009 while he was with the Atlanta Braves.. 

While Bennett might be sweating and working out, two members of the Rays might be hanging up their cleats for good this off season. Veteran Russ Springer has been playing baseball for a long time, and made his Major League debut back in 1992. Springer has been considering retiring this off season to spend more time with his family and to pursue some of his other interests in life. 

Springer is also looking forward with more time playing and enjoying his young son, who has autism and just be there  to spend quality time with him. But you can bet that there will be more than one opportunity for him to put his coondog in the truck and maybe meet up with fellow Rays teammate Chad Bradford and go  duck or deer hunting this off season. Both men value their country roots, and they both developed a great kinship this season around outdoor sports.

You could see that this bond should hold firm as both men live in the off season back in the Alabama-Louisiana area. But Bradford, who is also considering retiring to spend more time with his newborn, and the rest of his family, might have a Hollywood role in his future. And his addition to the silver screen might be delayed right now due to some script re-writes, but because of his time with the Oakland Athletic earlier in his career, the role would be a new adventure for Bradford.

There were rumors earlier in 2008 that when the movie “Moneyball” finally goes into full scale production, Bradford might be able to play himself in the movie. At that time it was not known if he would have the time  during the season for such an adventure. It would be a great opportunity for Bradford, who reminds me of actor John Ashton, who played Sergeant Taggert in the “Beverly Hills Cop” trio to get some quality time on the silver screen.  

But Bullpen guys like Brain Shouse and Lance Cormier are just going to take it day-by-day and just enjoy the time to relax, spend time with family and to heal up before reporting again in February. But there is one member of the Rays family group who might be going a  hundred miles-an-hour during this off-season. Todd Kalas, who does the Rays television broadcast in various positions, will be working hard this off season involving himself with University of South Florida basketball and helping to host some of the Tampa Bay Lightning pre and post game shows.

Also heavy on Kalas agenda will be working with FSN Florida to do the Sunbelt Conference “Games of the Week” during the football and basketball seasons. So as you can see, there will be plenty of great stories and awesome pictures to be passed around when the Rays report after the second Saturday in February 2010.

But this year there will be no precursors of World Baseball Classic or even the usual smatterings of International games for players to have to report early this season to their teams. It might be one of the first years in the last several seasons that everyone on the Rays roster will come into the season with a vigor and vitality to again make some noise in the American League East. And maybe this off season is the time for the team to regroup and intensify their energies to again challenge for the top spot in the American League.

And  a few of you asked what I might be doing this off-season at the last game. Well, hopefully I will be going out to Seattle, Washington and completing the inside of my old retirement abode out on Whitbney Island near the city of Coupville that I originally started work on in 2007. Then after it is completed, let my cousins live in it until I am ready to “Go West old man” maybe in about 5 seasons.

So hopefully you also have something exciting planned this off-season. Maybe a snow skiing trip, a quest to go back to school, or maybe even a jaunt down into the Carribean to watch baseball this Winter. Whatever it is, stay safe and remember, if you have a great adventure, this is the place to tell all of us about it……….I know I would love to read about it!

 

Maddons Maddening Bullpen Mania

 


Brian Blanco / AP

I know a lot of Tampa Bay Rays fans have been a bit anxious and upset at the recent development over the last part of this 2009 season where it seems that Rays Manager Joe Maddon is wearing out the turf from the mound to the dugout sometimes changing a pitcher three times in an inning. For all the clammering and yelling towards the dugout to stop the madness, there is actually a good reason for his “match-up” formula, and the more you really look at the number, the more it seems to make sense in the long run.

Maddon would love to have that classic Bullpen set-up where you have that designated 7th, 8th and closer to round out the game. But with the injury to Troy Percival, and his shutting down his candidate-of-the-day J P Howell, he is apt to continue this wild stroll to the mound over the next 4 games. If you have noticed over the last three games, Grant Balfour right now is the closer-du Jour, and he has come away with three solid saves in the last three games.

Now this doesn’t mean he is going to get any notion of becoming the Rays closer, but the true fact that Maddon does look over the opposing line-up before the game with an eye towards the later innings. And in that time he does do a bit of matching-up on the back of his scorecard based on lifetime averages against some of his guys, and their ability to get outs from left or right-handed batters. And so far in this wild experiment, the prognosis has not been bad.

So let me take the 8th and 9th innings of the game last night and break them down a bit more and see if I can make it a little more easy for all of us to understand when he begins his Bullpen Blitz again tonight during the Baltimore Orioles game. But first off, let me remind you that the pattern does change for every game, and for every batter.

This same pattern might not show up the next four games, or it could even resurface tonight based on the pitching match-ups and the hitters. And Maddon does even look towards the guys that will be on the bench and matches them up as a precaution to them entering the game. So let’s get this guess work started right now:


Paul J Berewill / AP

Starting with the 8th inning, the Rays send out Russ Springer to start the inning to go up against Ty Wiggington. Now tonight is the first time either of them have faced each other in their long careers. This match-up really seems to be based more on  a feel by Maddon than an actual scientific fact since Springer is allowing lefties to hit .342 against him this season, and righties hitting .268. But he gets Wiggington to line out to centerfield for the first out.

Russ Springer relieved by Lance Cormier.

Cormier comes into the game with a sub .250 average aginst both left and right-handed hitters this season. He is one of about three Rays relievers that Maddon might have total confidence in him battling against guys from either side of the plate.  Cormier’s actual stats are that he is allowing lefties ti hit .243 against him, and right-handers have hit .255 against him this season, and both side have 3 home runs this year. First up is Nick Markakis, who was 0-2 against Cormier this season before taking the fourth pitch and getting an infield single off a hard shot to Reid Brignac at shortstop.

Up next is Luke Scott, who has faced Cormier two time prior to tonight and has only gained a walk from Cormier. Scott ends up hitting a fly ball out to leftfield to get the second out of the inning.  Next up for the Orioles is young catcher Matt Wieters.  In 2009, Cormier has faced Wieters only one time, and that was here in Tropicana Field when Cormier struck him out. In tonight’s contest Wieters takes 3 pitches before he grounds out to Ben Zobristat second base to strand Markakis on base and end the scoring opportunity for the Orioles.

Dan Wheeler relieves Cormier

Maddon sends his veteran reliever Dan Wheeler to the hill to begin the 9th inning. The first man to face him tonight will be Melvin Mora. The reason that Wheeler is on the mound is because right-hander, like Mora are hitting only  .154 against him in 2009, and against the first batter in his appearances, Wheeler is allowing them only a .161 average. But a side note to worry about in this at bat is the fact that Mora is hitting .500 off wheeler this season. But Maddon is rolling the dice on that .161 average allowed to the first batter Wheeler faces tonight.  On the second pitch, Mora singles to leftfield.


Steve Nesius / AP

Randy Choate relieves Dan Wheeler

Maddon then quickly gets Wheeler off the mound since the next batter is leftie Michael Aubrey. The reasoning here is that wheeler is allowing lefites to hit at a .310 clip against him in 2009. So on comes Randy Choate to face the young leftie. Choate actually is the perfect guy to face Aubrey as he is allowing lefties to hit only .151 against him this year, with only 1 home run. Choate gets Aubrey to strike out swinging in their only meeting this season.

Orioles Manager Dave Trembley then pinch Hits Lou Montanez for Jeff Fiorentino. And the mind games get to be played all over again by both managers. Montanez has not faced Choate in 2009, but the fact he is a right-hander, and righties are hitting .306 with 3 home runs against Choate gets him an early night for the Rays.

Grant Balfour relieves Randy Choate

Maddon again makes his way to the mound and take out Choate so that Grant Balfour can face the right-hander.
For the season, both right-hander and lefties are hitting sub .250 against Balfour too. He is another one of the three possible guys that Maddon trusts pitching against lefties and righties in an extended outing in a ballgame. And with Montanez, a rightie due up, it is only natural that the Aussie, who is surrendering only a .236 average to righties gets the call. Balfour gets the job dome as Montanez goes down after 5 pitches after missing on a swing for th
e strikeout. For the season, Montanez is 0-2 now against Balfour.

Since Balfour is consistent between hitters from both sides of the plate, Maddon will leave him in the rest of the inning. Next he will face shortstop Cesar Izturis. Balfour has the upper hand on Izturis as he is 0-2 against him so far in 2009. But it is Iztruis, who swings at the first pitch and sends a fly ball to centerfield that B J Upton gloves to end the game. Balfour also recieves his hris save in three games for the Rays and might be the 9th inning guy for the Rays in their final 4 games.

The system emplyed by Maddon makes more sense when you look at the fact he also shut down one of his other great pitchers at getting guys from hitting from both sides of the plate. When he set down J P Howell for the rest of the season, he lost his current closer option, and also lost a pitcher who has allowed righties to hit only .180 against him this season.

Other guys on the bench for the Rays are more situated for spot work the rest of the season. Take for example Jeff Bennett. Right-handers are hitting .333 (7-21) against him this season, and lefties are killing him at a .500 clip (14-28). So his use will be dictated by individual match-ups the rest of the season. Bennett was actually brought onto the squad as a insurance policy for long relief, but he was one of the main pitcher in that blowout last week in Texas.

Dale Thayer was not brought up for his facial hair, but was also considered a insurance policy for any possible problem that might happen with any of the Rays relievers. And it is a good thing they did bring him up, because Chad Bradford is experiencing elbow pains again and is done for the season. But Thayer is also learning the ropes at the Major League level, and has been hit by righties to a tune of a .345 average this season. He does have some good stuff to punch lefties back to a .250 average against him in 2009.

But Bradford has been used only 10 1/3 innings this season as he has been battling injuries. But also the fact he has given up some really gaudy numbers to both sides of the plate this year is another eason he has seen spot appearances this season. Against righties, they are hitting .391 (18-46) against him, and lefties just begin to salivate when he takes the mound as they are hitting a robust .800 (4-5) against him in 2009.

So the match-up scenario used by Maddon right now is the best possible option to try and post a victory every time out for the Rays. It might not make much sense when you are sitting in the stands or watching on the TV that he uses  5 different relievers for a total of two innings. But the end result in the last three games have been victories. This is not to mean that this is going to be a indicator of a system that will be empolyed in 2010.


Ted S Warren / AP

This match-up system is only being used now out of necessity because we do not have a proven late inning trio to take the Rays from the 7th to the 9th inning every night.  The Rays do not have a Mariano Rivera or a Jonathan Papelbon in their minor league system at the time, and might have go outside the organization for one in 2010.  And isn’t it ironic that the two best closer in the league tend to be in our division.

Maddon is adapting to the cards he has been dealt, and even if it is frustrating to the guy sitting in the stands, it does have some logic to it all. I also found it frustrating until I began to look at the numbers associated with each reliever and their breakdown against both sides of the plate. Sure it might be all science and a hitter can get a lucky break of a hanging curveball. But the relaity is that the system is working for Maddon right now, and it is producing wins for the team. It is not a cure-all situation, but is a nice substitute measure that he can emply for now until we can again try and shore up the Bullpen for 2010.

They Got the Music in Them!

Lately I have been focusing a huge amount of my attention on the aspect of getting the Tampa Bay area convinced and enticed by the possibilities of this Rays team thrusting onward and upwards towards a possible American League Playoff spot. As the noose gets a bit tighter, and the ice begins to melt faster beneath all of our feet, I think it is time to back it down a notch and maybe have some fun today. Yeah, it is definitely a time to take a step back and chill for a moment and just have fun with today’s blog.

Heck, I even began toying a bit with what if I had some sort of theme music, or a walk-up introduction music that would play if I walked into the stadium. And my personal choice of music would be Bon Jovi’s hit “Have A Nice Day”. I mean we all have thought about it for a few minutes, and we all have a few songs rolling around in our minds that might play out our hidden personalities and our music styles. Wouldn’t it be too cool to have that music playing even if it is on our own personal Ipods every time we stepped down into the bowl of the stadium.  

We all know that a player’s walk-up music is a signature of their inner personalities that we might not see outside of the lines of the baseball field, and some them have some unusual and odd choice for their music. Some base it on childhood memories or a friendly reminding beat that gives them a sense of calm and clear mind just before they step into the batter box, or on the pitching rubber. But one of the wildest music I have heard is the music that accompanies J P Howell as he comes to the mound.

I have never asked Howell why he picks a song by Huey “Piano” Smith who was an important part of the great New Orleans piano tradition, following in the footsteps of Professor Longhair and Fats Domino to take his place among the Crescent City’s R&B elite. He was also one of R&B’s great comedians, his best singles matching the Coasters for genial, good-time humor, although his taste often ran more towards nonsense lyrics.  So why would a guy who was born in Modesto, California in 1983 come in contact with a song written and recorded in the late 1950’s? That has got to be one of the great stories that underline some of the Rays players song selections.


But then you have a guy like Rays starter James Shields who uses a well known song from a German band Rammstein that came into all of our subconscious when the band performed it live during a scene in the movie “XXX” with Vin Diesel. “Du Hast”( Do Have)  is a great techno song that does get your mind and physical being up and ready. The pumping of the bass and the hard guitar licks do get you wanting to start a mosh pit right in the Rays Bullpen area each time you hear it. It was actually a undercover favorite of mine and I can truly see how it could be a favorite of Shields. Seriously I want to bang my head and pump my fist every time it plays in the stadium.

You might be wondering why I am focusing so much on the Rays pitcher’s music instead of the Rays hitters? Well, really the answer is quite simple, the batters get their music heard sometimes 4 times a night, while the starters and the reliever might not get their music heard but once a series.  So I decided to focus more on the pitching staffs music then the hitters right now. But that could be a possible future blog entry.

One of the newest members of the Tampa Bay Rays relieving corp is veteran Russ Springer. And in his mound music he reflects on his home town roots and his affection for the music that had influenced him for so long. Being a native of Pollack, Louisiana he is truly what you would expect of a country boy. The guy is low key, but passionate about the sport and remarked in a recent article in the St Petersburg Times that in his hometown, people ask “How your coondog is doing?” as mush as they ask about you.

But Springer has been able to keep that low key personality under the MLB radar until 2006 when in May of that year his name was spread out all over the media when he was a member of the Houston Astros and threw at San Francisco Giant several times in a series, finally plucking him once. He ended up with a 5-game suspension and a reputation that you do not mess with him.

Another guy who can changed and tossed his music around a lot during his Rays career has been Rays reliever Grant Balfour. He has gone as far as using fellow Aussies’ Midnight Oil and their hit “King of the Mountain” to the wild and mysterious pick of Men at Work and their classic “Land Down Under.” I have to tell you, the Men at Work song tends to freak me out a bit. I really hate to admit I liked that song so long ago when it first came out.

But seriously here, he has done a bit of mixing those two up with a few wild off the cuff picks like The Doors in the recent Red Sox/Rays series. I could not place the song title, but  know it was not “Back Door Man”, or even “The End”, which could be a interesting twist to his use as a 7th, 8th inning set-up man for the team. Got to admit, the Midnight Oil song is an old classic I had not even thought about for years, but is a nice classic tune for a mound mood.

But then you have the left-side of the brain music of two of the Rays southpaws that really sets the tone  for a reliever coming into the game late in a contest and gets the bass and the hard back beats going in your mind and body. It is the band AC/DC and their hard core rock and roll themes like “Thunderstruck” and ” You Shook Me All Night Long”, and “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap)”  as their mound music.

I know that Brian Shouse and Randy Choate did not intentionally pick those tunes just for their times here with the Rays, but it is actually really funny, that they pick that music since resident Brian Johnson, who did the lead vocals for the group actually lives in the Sarasota area and attends some Rays games during the season.  Hopefully the lead singer can get to a game before the end of the season and get a chance to chat with the guys who enjoy his band’s music so much. Heck, I think he would be a fantastic National Anthem singer if the former Aussie would not mind belting out the tune.

As you can see some of the Rays pitching staff has a wide variety of musical tastes that can range from the wild and unusual to the down at home music from their regions. But most of all, it can be a audio cure to them personally to get into that mode of operation that will result in total concentration and effort on their parts. The job of a Major League pitcher is difficult enough knowing that the guy at the plate is trying to knock every pitch out of the ballpark, and it is your job to keep that from happening.

Music, song lyrics and also beat can get them into a frame of mind to mask that objective by the batter and get their job done so they can all go home with a win. Some days it works, some days it fails, but it is their own personal stamp on the game and it is their badge of recognition for the fans. Music can be the great inspirational point in a game. That is why we have certain songs that play during the game to key emotions and get not just the players, but us the crowd into the heat of the battle.

Gameworks Shindig was a Total Blast!


RRCollections

What better way to celebrate a series ending victory than take a group of 10,000+ of the Rays biggest supporters to a place in Ybor City that celebrates the kid in all of us. And boy, did we all have a great time and also get a few great moments playing game with and against some of those same guys who took the field that very same afternoon. It is an event I have been looking forward to every since the invitation hit my mailbox, and the Rays Email system must have gone nuts with how fast I responded to the RSVP.

Yesterday was the Second Annual ( hopefully more) Season Ticketholder event at Gameworks in Ybor City. Now if you have never been in a Gameworks, think Dave and Busters on PED’s with a gleaming polished metallic finish that would send anyone into “Kid Mode”. Now I have been to both of these events, and let me tell you this season’s events kicked some royal booty. Missing were some of the Rays stars, but the entire rotation of James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, David Price and Jeff Niemann hit the event to show their support to the fans.

But they were not the only ones to come on out and see the masses in this crowded but truly spectacular event put on by the Group Sales Department of the Tampa Bay Rays. The Bullpen was also very heavily represented with Randy Choate, Lance Cormier, Grant Balfour, Brian Shouse and J P Howell holding court near the racing games and near the “Dance, Dance Revolution” platform. But not to be forgotten was some of the guys who also play out in the field for the Rays who made the journey over to Ybor City. Ben Zobrist and Dioner Navarro came on out to represent the guys who play in the infield, and Gabe Gross and Gabe Kapler also made the event along with B J Upton last night to show the love from the Rays outfield. 


RRCollections

But even with people clammering (myself included) to get personal pictures and autographs from the fans, I could see that the guys truly enjoyed their time out with the fans last night. Shouse and Choate were even able to blend in and play a few games before some people noticed they were there last night. But some of the true hits of the night were delivered by the Group Sales Department as they again put on a first class event. From the photo opportunity area where you could be put into a Rays photo, to the awesome stuff given away as door prizes, the event sparkled from the first fan entering the building. And it was great seeing these guys out and about not in uniform and enjoying themselves.

And some lucky fans even got to race or play against some of the players during the night festivities. I remember seeing Kazmir in the back of the Game Room playing an NBA game against a fan and it was a highly contested game with a lot of great plays by both until someone had to lose. But the true hit of the night for me was the fact that 6 foot 9 inch Jeff Neimann got up on the “Dance, Dance Revolution” stage and strutted his stuff. I was in such awe of the event I forgot to pop my camera into video mode and film the entire wild and crazy event. But I have to tell you, once he got the hang of it all, the guy held his own on the dance floor, or platform.

I did not see Rays Manager Joe Maddon, but Rusty, the Rays game day host was remarking (joking) that he was holding a wine tasting seminar in the corner of the bar area. From seeing people like Matt Silverman, the numero uno of the Rays, to Andrew Friedman, the Vice President of Baseball Operations out in the crowd was fantastic. Oh, and Andrew, I truly loved the photo of the top of your head in my picture with Ben Zobrist, but I laughed out loud when I saw it. Some days I have wanted to pick your brain about the team, but never thought I would get a photo of the “brains” of the Baseball Operations group.


RRCollections

But what makes this such a great events is the milling of the Front Office guys and the players and the fans themselves just discussing everything from baseball to the chocolate fountain that is always the highlight of the event. I got lucky enough to be photographed last season at the fountain, but this year I kept an eye out for the camera. Just to see that light blue, dark blue and yellow chocolate flowing out of the top of the fountains crowned with a triangle of baseballs was tremendous.

And again, the food was one of the true stars of the evening. From the beautiful ladies handing me pot stickers or small wrapped tasty morsels, to the cute and personable bartenders, this was a night to celebrate everything Rays. From the hot stations in the front area of the party, to the temporary apps station piled upon the ticket counters, it was a feast made for a king. And if you did not try the roast beef, you missed out on some fantastic meat with a juicy and succulent au jus.

But the evening had to end sometime, and even as it neared 10:30 pm Garza was still laughing and holding court near the back game room. Gabe Kapler had left by then with his two boys, but he was the perfect doting Dad last night. By the time I left, or my card read only 100 minutes left on it, there was a light rain falling outside, but it felt great on the skin after all the sweating I did beating some unnamed pitcher on “Dance, Dance Revolution” score 1 for the old jock. I know I had a tremendous time, and the Group Sales guys and gals have to feel great about this event.


RRCollections

The sheer fact that so many people fit into that small place and left with smiles should be a great indicator of the event. And my ticket rep, Craig Champagne was there from start to finish. I have to tell you a wild story about that night concerning Craig. My game card did not work and I asked him if anyone else had that problem. Well, instead of making me plow my way back to the front, he took the card and return within minutes with a
new one for me to use.

A small minor flaw that night was quickly fixed and repaired like new by one of the Group Sales best guys. Seriously, me not playing shooting and alien-killing games might have put a damper on my night. Then I would have had to sample a few more intoxicating beverages, and enjoy the view. But in the end, I was physically exhausted and sore, was full of great food and spirits and did not want to leave. But as I walked to my car parked in the Centro Ybor Parking Garage I was already flipping through the memories and the sights of the night in my mind.


RRCollections

This season there have been some changes in the Season Ticket realms. Some things have been scaled back,some things have changed,but all in all,this event is still a benchmark of the dedication and the commitment of the Rays to the fans who attend so many baseball games. It was a great environment to see so many people you knew, and would get to know have a great time by themselves and with their kids. I know I am already with a red marker ready to circle the 2010 date to do it all again.

It’s a Numbers Game


MLB.com / file photo

With the Tampa Bay Rays adding two new players to their roster in the last 24 hours, there has been a hustle and bustle of conversation and negotiations behind the scenes in and around the clubhouse for those two guys to secure their “favorite” numbers that have graced their uniforms throughout their careers.  Newbie to the team, catcher Gregg Zaun has always worn the number “9” his entire career and sees it as the ultimate good luck charm to him. The only problem is that the Rays uniform number “9” was previously assigned to back-up catcher Shawn Riggans, who is on the DL down in Durham right now.

New Rays reliever Russ Springer also had the same situation when he arrived in Seattle last night for his first game in a Rays uniform. For the night he would be wearing number “37” until the Rays Clubhouse Manager Chris Westmoreland could do a fast sewing and manipulation of the “36” jersey in time for the Sunday finale at Safeco Field. In that contest, Springer would be sporting the comfortable “36” he has worn for many years. But that number had been picked out by fellow Bullpen member Randy Choate and he did offer to surrender the number to Springer in time for the last game of the series.

Athletes do feel a  wild kinship to their numbers. I know I always worn a form of the two numerals “1” or “3” throughout my playing days. I even got lucky enough in High School and College to wear “13” and “31” so I had a double whammy of good luck. And to say athletes are not superstitious is  like saying Paula Deen loves margarine on her food. Seriously, I felt a power mentally within me when I had my number on my back. It was an inner strength I could not describe, it was my version of the Superman cape.


Nick Wass / AP

The number’s on a players uniform are as much a part to a players psyche and identity as their names to the fans. The numbers on their back mean so much to some players that they do not seem to play like themselves without their special numbers. So was it any wonder that newly minted Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson once paid $ 25,000 to get his beloved “24” on his back during one of his many team changes in his career.

And changing your number can also change the way the fans see a player. When pitcher Roger Clemens came back, didn’t it seem a bit odd to see him in a “21” jersey instead of the traditionaL “22” that he wore during his glory days. And when Michael Jordan put on that “45” jersey during his return to the courts, did he not look anything like the “23” we grew to love for all those years in Chi-town.

Numbers can universally imprint a player into our minds and memories. I look at Carl Crawford’s early years with the Rays wearing the number “8” years,before he switched to “13”. It was like a night and day comparision as he began to sprint out from under a shadow the minutehe put number “13” on his back. Now you know him by his number from a distance and do not have to look at the name blazoned across his shoulders.

I remember an article by ESPN columnist Jim Caple back a few years ago where he remembers a “Seinfeld” episode that showed how a players number can transform into our daily lives and about how synonymous a player and their numbers can become to us ?

Consider the Seinfeld episode when George Costanza revealed to his fiancé Susan that he planned to name their first child Seven. Seven Costanza?” Susan replied, “Are you serious?”

 
“Yeah. It’s a beautiful name for a boy or a girl. Especially for a girl. … Or a boy.”

 
“I don’t think so.”

 
“What, you don’t like the name?”

 
“It’s not a name, it’s a number.”

I know. It’s Mickey Mantle’s number. So not only is it an all-around beautiful name, it is also a living tribute.”


Mickeymantle.com

We all know the poor George did not stand a chance in that arument and went down on flames. But those numbers do something within us. Those simple cloth numbers. I know as a player I did not want the secondary numbers like “18” or “11”, I wanted that number where I felt safety within, and secure going to battle wearing on my back.That’s right, to me either number “13” or “31” held the powers of the universe plain and simple.

We know that a majority of the baseball world is content with number under 70, but Rays Manager Joe Maddon has worn the number “70” for years and  we can not visual;ize him wearing anything else on his back. But the numbers game goes beyond just numbers at times. Most good pitchers would not even consider wearing a single digit number on their backs. But it can go further than that in the realms of good and bad. A number can end up defining a player just by sight.

So as the Rays take the field today at 4 pm in Seattle, think about it for a minute. Could you imagine Evan Longoria not wearing his customary “3”, or even Rays starter Scott Kazmir not wearing number “19” If those number symbolize who they are to you, then  you get the idea of this blog. Mention to a Yankee fan the number “4” and you get Lou Gehrig. Mention “24” to a San Francisco Giants fan and you get Willy Mays.


Mlb.com

The number becomes just as important as what they do on the field or mound. For that number will always symbolize who they are as a player, and what they did while wearing that number. So, you got to wonder, what did Choate and Riggans get for exchanging their jersey numbers with the Rays two veterans. Well, neither are saying right now, but what they did is give their new teammates a sense of comfort and security on their first day on the job.

 

 

 

 

Lefties are Right for the Rays

 


Ed Zurga / AP

After tonight’s game Dewayne Staats of the Rays Television Network informed us that Rays leftie J P Howell tied a Tampa Bay Rays record by saving all three games in the three game series against the Kansas City Royals.  Add onto this the fact he tied that record with the Rays ex-closer Troy Percival and you see just how unusual and special this was for both Howell and the Rays. Add another layer of awesomeness to the record is the fact it is the first time a Rays Bullpen member had ever done it in the Major League park.

Not the Rays past relievers like Roberto Hernandez, Danys Baez, Seth McClung or even Esteban Yan had the chance to take three from an opponent in a major league park. Percival made his mark back in 200 in a series against the Toronto Blue Jays at the Disney complex, not an approved MLB park. Sure the series was moved there for a three game series to promote the Rays culture into the center of the state, but how many people remember before we took our balls and bats and went to Montgomery, Orlando was our Double-A home.

But here I go rambling off the page. What I want to stress here is that before Howell and Randy Choate made their marks saving  14 total games so far in 2009, the Rays Bullpen has not has such a distinctive “leftie” feel to it. That is not to mean that in 2010 the Rays will feature a “rightie” specialist instead of the usual leftie guy. Heck, I think 2009 is thew first time in team history that we have some legitimate left-handers not named Miller who can toss the ball effectively for the Rays.

To illustrate this, right before the All Star break Howell surrendered his first earned run since April 23, 2009.  And even during that slight moment of vulnerability, the Rays lefties both had a bit of trouble for the first time this season.  Overall, the entire Rays bullpen has thrown to 2.34 ERA since their implosion for 9 runs during that must forget game in Cleveland on May 25th. Even with their moments of normalcy this season, the Rays relievers are currently tied  for the best Bullpen ERA with the Boston Red Sox Bullpen with a 3.35 ERA in the American League.  And not too shabby is the fact that places them within the top 3 Bullpen ERA in baseball right now.

But this blog is about the guy who seem to not get the right levels of respect for what they do. I understand this totally being a leftie in everything but throwing myself. Society tries to change you the minute you pick up a pencil or ball and throw with the southpaw grip. But within time, if the teachers and coaches nurture the leftie, he can become a wanted man at the higher levels of baseball. And right now the Rays have two of the better examples of the leftie revolution in Howell and Choate. Both of them have been magical this season, and Choate has done it at the time the Rays needed a viable option when Brian Shouse got injured.

But at the forefront of all of this is Howell, who could have given up after having a disastrous career as a starter and gone onto other things in his life. But he took a chance and became one of those valued leftie relievers as has grown into one of the most confident and effective of that often ridiculed bunch. Coming into todays game, Howell holds onto a 2.01 ERA and has now converted his last 7 save opportunities.  Before he took the mound again today against his former team, he had only surrendered one earned run to them in his last 16.2 innings.



Chris O’Meara / AP

Except for an unusual Howell outing on July 8th against the Oakland A’s where he let 3 earned runs score against him, before that contest he had a 17 appearance scoreless streak from May 31st until July 8, 2009.  But the real key to all of this is that it came right before the All Star break in which on July 12th against those same A’s Howell gave up only his second home run of the season to Mark Ellis late in the game. That could have played hard on most relievers going into a 4 day lay-off for the All Star game, but Howell used it as fuel to the fire and came out ready to go in Kansas City. Howell had been a pleasant surprise in 2008 elevating his game and his usefulness to the Rays.

So when Troy Percival went down with another injury and Rays Manager Joe Maddon decided to go to a closer-by-committee approach you hoped he would give the California leftie a shot. That came early in the season, but Howell had not adjusted his game yet to get those last 3 outs. He talked with teammates Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour about the pressures of the job and their pluses and minuses before it finally clicked for him. Now he might be the most feared leftie closer not named Fuentes in the AL. His slow curving breaking ball and the movement on his upper 80’s fastball teases hitters until he gets them with his change-up that dips severely before it hits the heart of the plate.

And he is the former leftie specialist for the team when Trever Miller decided to take an offer from the St. Louis Cardinals this winter. He did not look comfortable in the role, but the Rays did bring in another leftie for the first time to help Howell out. Brian Shouse was initially brought in to be the total leftie specialist, but got rocked a bit early in the year, He adjusted and then began to dominate on the mound before he went down with a left elbow following a stint on the mound on May 24th where he gave up the game winning hit to Ross Gload in the Marlins 11th inning victory over the Rays.

Before that injury, Shouse had held left-handed hitters to a .235 average against him.  This was a little elevated from the usual .210 mark he had maintained during his career against left-handers. But before his injury 15 out of his 19 appearances had been scoreless, and he had become the oldest Rays to win a game when he threw 2/3rds of a scoreless inning against the New York Yankees. Shouse (40) also one of only three Rays players to ever take the field for the team over the age of 40. The other two were Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff.

But even if this is his 19th year of professional baseball, Shouse will again get a chance when he returns off his rehab assignment. The Rays want to see him again take the mound on consecutive days before they make a solid decision on the leftie. But currently he is just down the road a spell in Port Charlotte playing for the Class-A Charlotte Stone Crabs. He is scheduled to make his second rehab appearance tonight when the Stone Crabs  visit the Lakeland Flying Tigers. Maddon had said before today’s game in Kansas City they might be making a decision on Shouse by the next home stand.


Steve Nesius / AP


That would make the team look long, hard and deep into the prospects of either trading current leftie number 2, Randy Choate or hoping he gets through waivers.  I truly can not see the leftie getting through waivers and get sent back to the Durham Bulls. So the logical scenario is a trade to a team seeking some leftie action for possible prospects. And Choate has made a great case for staying with the Rays too, but the Bullpen is a bit overcrowded right now. For the Rays to even entertain the option of three lefties, someone would have to go on the Rays bench.

And Choate has put up some great numbers since being called up on May 25th. During that time he has appeared in 28 of the Rays last 46 games. He is also tied for first in appearances in the AL since his call-up.  Like Howell, up until the last series against the A’s at home he had not surrendered many runs. In the July 11th contest he gave up a 2-run homer to ex-Rays Adam Kennedy. It was only the third homer ever by a leftie against him in 328 chances and only the seventh total homer given up in his career.

And to add more value to his possible trade market scenarios, he is a non-roster invitee who would not cost and arm and a leg to financially support for any team that might fancy another good left-handed option. Plus he has gone 4for 4 in save opportunities this season, the first time in his career he has ended into the ninth inning to save a game.  Choate has done everything asked of him by the Rays and has been effective from word one for the team.  It would be a total luxury for the team to find a spot for him to stay on the roster, but because of the success he has had while here with the Rays, he would be going to a great opportunity to get more time on the mound in the major leagues.

So within a weeks time the Rays will have to make some decisions on two of their three leftie Bullpen members. Howell is safe and secure and will not be going anywhere, anytime soon. But either Shouse or Choate will have a new uniform on their back maybe by August 1st.  Gut reactions have Shouse staying with the team and Choate getting an opportunity maybe in the National League for a team trying to steady their Bullpen. Maybe even another trip out to the Diamondbacks to reunite with his former teammates.  But no matter what happens, the Rays will have a safe and secure left -handed  presence in their Bullpen.

Right now in the AL, the names of the solid left-handed closers start and finish with the names of George Sherill of Baltimore, Fuentes, and Howell. With the rising stock of Howell, the Rays found an internal option that has been effective to their closer problems. With the combined efforts of Shouse and Choate this season it made it easier for some fans to let go of Miller as he went on with the Cardinals. With this not being a perfect world, the Rays will have to let one of their southpaws fly away to another team. 

The only question now facing the Rays is just how much can each of these guys take this season on the mound. Both Howell and Shouse are headed again for career marks in appearances and innings pitched this season.
Will the young Howell stand in front and lead by example for this team, or will the 40-year old Shouse rise above himself one last time. Either option or a combination of both of them sound great to me.

            
             Brianshousefanclub.com

Also check out this Brian Shouse fan website made up while he was with the Milwaukee Brewers last season. http://www.brianshousefanclub.com.   I am not sure, but I kind of like the Terminator photo over the Santa one. You be the judge…….

 

   

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 279 other followers