Results tagged ‘ Rays Spring Training ’

If Pena or Aybar Struggle, Could Blalock Come to the Rays Rescue?

 

 
Bill Koustroun/AP

Coming into the 2010 Spring Training season, the Tampa Bay Rays were optimistic that First Baseman Carlos Pena was going to come into camp perfectly healthy and ready to lead by example for this young Rays team. And all eyes have been on Pena ever since he first told the Tampa Bay media members even before this 2010 Spring Training camp began that he feels healthy and that his two fingers broken when he was plucked by a C C Sabathia fastball in late 2009 were completely healed and the entire situation is totally forgotten.

 

Then early on in this 2010 Spring camp, the Rays announced that First Baseman/Utility guru Willy Aybar sustained a wrist problem during this while playing in the Dominican Winter League, and lingering injury has put Aybar a bit behind the rest of the Rays squad this Spring. To some around the Rays Republic, this immediately sent up a few red flags concerned about Aybar’s ability to be an effective back-up to Pena and Third Baseman Evan Longoria if his wrist injury turned out to be more a nightmare than a simple sprain.
 

And when the Rays made an surprising move and signed Free Agent Hank Blalock, who played a majority of his time at First Base for the Texas Rangers in 2009 to a pretty complex and “convoluted” ( per Andrew Friedman) contract that now smells more and more like a “sure-thing” insurance policy heading into the middle of the Rays Spring schedule. But while the Rays were enjoying winning 9-straight games, it seemed like the Rays front office and Coaching staff was not in the least bit worried about Aybar not getting his first swings in a game until this week, or concerned with Pena’s early Spring struggles as he has now gone 0-18 with only one run scored to begin the 2010 Grapefruit season.
 

And then last week the Rays signed former Cuban National Team member Leslie Anderson who can play all three outfield positions and also First Base to a 4-year contract and the team has been adamant that they want to get him in a uniform as soon as possible. Some might say the Blalock signing is a coincidence, but the signing also a Anderson might signal something might be wrong and the silent treatment is being employed throughout the Rays clubhouse. I guess only time will tell what is really going on with Pena and Aybar this Spring.
 

And with Blalock just seeing his first Spring 2010 action this past Saturday against the Florida Marlins and going 0-2 with a walk and a strikeout, it appear on the surface that Pena and Blalock both have that mysterious .000 average going for them right now, but the reality is that Pena is swinging hard in the batting cages before the games. And maybe he is concentrating too much on his swing and it is transformed into Pena shooting blanks right now in Rays game situations. And with Aybar and Blalock just beginning to get their hacks at the plate, and the next week might speak volumes as to who starts ,or gets the most at bats this Spring.
 

 
Steve Nesius/AP

And with two of the three Rays usual First Base candidates nursing off season trials and tribulations, it is only a matter of time before we find out if there is additional problems at bay, or if Blalock was actually brought here to maybe supplant Aybar as the Rays uber-utility guy since Blalock can effectively play both corner positions. And Blalock might not have put up some impressive offensive numbers ( .234, 25 HR 66 RBI) the last season with the Rangers, but his overall MLB pedigree ( 2 All Star nods) reads like a great sleeper addition to the ball club….on paper.

 

Since Blalock has a unique Rays contract that basically give him the final decision/option to decide if staying here with the Rays is a good thing, or bad, that might also speak volumes as to the Rays cautious level of uncertainty concerning both the health of Pena and Aybar heading into the last week of the Grapefruit season. The Blalock move puzzled me at first, but more and more I am seeing it is a great insurance policy with power by getting a guy who could start, or be an effective back-up DH if either Pena or Aybar go down with additional time on the disable list in 2010, or a viable option if Burrell sinks deeper in the quicksand with a slow start to the regular season.
 

And sure, Ben Zobrist can also play First and Third Base, but Zobrist has been used sparingly at First Base, even during Pen’a injury time in 2009, and might be a significant drop in the defense right now at First Base compared to Blalock who only had 6 errors in over 567 chances in 2009. And you can expect the question marks to get even bigger hanging over First Base with every game that Pena puts up a goose egg, or doesn’t hit the ball solidly at the plate. Sometimes the physical injuries can be healed, but the mental impression of the injury takes some additional plate appearances, or hitting attempts before the mind also thinks you are ready to hit again effectively.
 

And Pena is a total team player. If for some reason, Pena sees something harmful in his swing or plate demeanor towards the last week of Spring Training, you can bet Pena will be open and honest to anything the Rays might want to do to get him back on track again. And sometimes slumps happen to every team’s All Stars and Silver Slugger winners. All you have to do is look back at the horrific beginning to 2009 that happened to Boston DH David Ortiz following his wrist ailments to know that sometimes the body is willing, but the balls doesn’t seem to be going anywhere effective.
 

 
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And hopefully that is what is going on right now in the Pena’s situation. Maybe his timing is not where he wants it to be and his eye-hand coordination is off a tick or two. That can produce some major contact problems, but Pena also is not striking out in bunches this Spring, so it might just be simple adjustments and Pena maybe watching video of his swing mechanics the next couple of game before he comes back with a bang for the Rays.

 

But it is great that the Rays have made some consolation arrangements just in case something else might be derailing either Aybar or Pena for any amount of time this season. But the Spring clock is ticking louder on Blalock and with him having the final decision on his name being maybe placed upon the Rays roster, it might be time for both Aybar and Pena to show solid contact at the plate and relieve some of the Rays front office and staff from holding their breath this Spring and becoming Rays blue in the face.
 

I seriously would not like to see the Rays take the field in their 2010 Opening Game against division foe Baltimore without Pena on the field. But the reality of the situation might be that the Rays just have to collectively take a step back with both players, and maybe give Blalock a few more at bats while Aybar and Pena work in the cages with Rays Hitting Coach Derek Shelton and get some more confidence in themselves.
 

Pena is entering his last contract year with the Rays, and unlike the mysterious Crawford situation, I can see the Rays working with Pena to try and keep a guy who is a cornerstone of this franchise with his great power and his leadership on this Rays roster for a few more years. But right now there are big question marks rising every day over near that first base bag, and the Rays need to squash those questions and doubts in the bud as soon as possible.
 

If there is something wrong with either Aybar or Pena, even a small problem, then the Rays need to take a step backwards and work towards taking two steps forward later this Spring. With three guys with Major League Baseball experience at first base right now straddling the line and bag for the Rays something has to give. If Pena and Aybar are healthy and mentally clicking to begin the season, the parting of Blalock might not be a huge thing.

But if there is the hint of the lingering situation, Blalock might be the ultimate sleeper signing for the Rays this season. Clock is ticking, and soon Pena and Aybar must get on their horse and ride, or the former Ranger Blalock might be the guy wearing the big white hat for the Rays.

Could MLB Follow the NFL’s Lead and Form a “NASCAR” Division?

 

There has been a bit of a discussion lately about maybe taking the Boston and New York factor in the American League East and splitting them up into another division, maybe something as simple as swapping a team from the American League East and National League East to offset the goliath’s of that one division, which give no one else a chance to rise to the top.

But I have another idea. I have an idea that has worked for another professional sport in the United States to “level the playing field” a little more, and has produced a League Champion out of it.

 
 

People were a bit confused when the National Football League decided to invent another division situated almost exclusively within the Southeastern region of the country. The moment this region was even considered for a divisional alignment, or structuring of such an adventure, people began to call it the “NASCAR Division“.
 

And I really do not have a problem with that at all. Because even though that statement was effectively the rest of the country stereotyping this region, NASCAR is a symbol of this region….So it was a backhanded compliment to Southerner’s like me. And, yes, I have been known to attend the Daytona NASCAR races, and I do glance at the television on Sunday to see how the races are going throughout the day, but I am a outside NASCAR fan.

 

But the formation of this Southeastern division actually helped the entire NFL membership get closer to a level of league parity, which baseball might need to approach in the near future if it expects all 30 Major League Baseball teams to flourish and grow fiscally as well as physically. And this might be the right course of action if the MLB brass doesn’t want to see a revolving door of at least a couple of the top money payroll teams sprinting towards the Playoffs finish line every October.

 

Except for the odd twist of fate in the last few years that Colorado and Tampa Bay got their first shots to show their stuff in the World Series, the pattern of eventual winners shows that money buys Championships, not heart, home grown talent and determination. And maybe a fourth division in the American or National League would seem to throw the whole globe off its axis and we go wobbling through our orbits tumbling like a deflated ball among the Milk Way.

 

But I think we have already started that dizzying journey and have not recognized it yet. One team has been in the World Series the last three years, and granted, they have a great wealth of talent, but they also spent a boatload of cash each year to ensure they have that level of talent. That is why it is great to see teams like the Rockies and Rays make a stab at the big prize. And even when they do falter, it is not for lack of pride, courage or the will to win, but missing that million dollar piece that the top 5 payroll teams have secured with a contract with 8 numbers behind it.

 

So what did I have in mind to maybe change this? Well, first off, I would like to introduce the idea of taking one team from every division both in the AL and NL, but the AL West, which already is lopsided with only 4 teams. I actually think that division will be a shootout in 2010 and expect that division’s champion to be as tough as anyone in the 2010 Playoffs. And you might ask why I want to dissect a team from each division? To be completely honest, it would then make most of the other divisions a four-team division, with the NL Central lowered to five teams.

 

So you already know that I want the Tampa Bay Rays to be included in this new division, and with them in the AL, we can still hold onto the Designated Hitter rule. And I think this actually would produce a few more jobs for some of the guys currently on the bench of the three squads plucked off the NL divisions, thus making it more attractive for some of their guys to get more exposure. The Rays are prefect for this new division because of the new division will be rooted in the SE, and only one other city more Southern than St. Petersburg, Florida.

And because the Rays are considered a small market team, it gives them a bit of payroll flexibility knowing that they will not have to adjust and implode their own cash box every year to keep up with the Epstein’s and Steinbrenner’s of the AL East any longer.

 

The second team I would select would establish a great Southern rivalry like annual Florida-Georgia College Football game and could also be billed as the “Battle for I-75 Supremacy”. I am talking about seeing the famous Tomahawk Chop going on right next to the deafening sound of the multitudes of Cowbells. This expected rivalry could easily replace the lost revenues of either Boston or New York based just on the previous sell out crowds at Tropicana Field the last time these two teams faced off here.

 

 

The Atlanta Braves would be the perfect new nemesis of the Rays. And pop on top of this the addition of

17-18 games between the two teams, this would easily explode this rivalry towards the top spots within 5 years.

And you might question why I did not take the Florida (Miami) Marlins and want to place them in this division. Well, they are an instant Inter-League foe of the Rays, and I did not want to ruin that great relationship and also split up a AL and NL presence in the state of Florida. I think this state is better for the duo league presence, and I want to preserve that relationship just as it is right now.

 

Third squad to be added to this division would come out of the AL Central. Now I did not have to take any long period of time to think about this one because it came to me the moment I looked at the division. The Kansas City Royals would be my choice immediately based on the simple fact they are also a small market squad and would benefit extremely by being in the same division as the Rays.
 

And the relationship between these two AL teams is already formed, but it is also close enough within the geographical region of the Southern part of the country to make same day flights and televised games a viable options for both teams.

 

Fourth team to be added would come out of the NL Central division and take their division down to four teams for the first time in a long while. And I thought long and hard as to if I wanted to realign the entire MLB a bit, or just select this one team and end the debate fast and furious on which of the Texas teams would get an invite to the NASCAR division. I thought the team that would get the most out of the move would be the Houston Astros. Not only would they be able to convert to the D H system easily, they have the talent in-house already to pop a great DH in the line-up as early as 2011.

 

And I also think that the teams on this divisional “wish list” also have great stadiums with a awesome home team presence, and would be totally conducive to building new rivalries and expanding their team concepts without minimal changes. But I also toyed with the idea of adding a fifth team to this division. I really thought long and hard about it, and even thought about all the positives and negatives. I am still up in the air about it, but I will discuss it here just to see if anyone else in on board with this idea.

 

If I did even attempt to take a team out of the NL West would I take our Expansion mate, the Arizona Diamondbacks , or would I venture up towards Denver and maybe try and entice the Colorado Rockies to come play in Florida 8+ times a year? This one was a hard decision, because each of these teams has the talent and the abilities to go for the top spots every year.

But I know that taking a team out of that NL West will give the teams currently developing great talent like the San Francisco Giants or San Diego Padres a chance to breathe a bit and strive to know they have a chance every year at the Playoff race. But I am torn to include either of them as a fifth team and make a new division lopsided like the NL Central. But this is just a blueprint in pencil on a bar napkin compared to anything that might be currently being discussed at the Major League level.

 

And maybe the dynamic duo of New York and Boston do not have to be split up, for competition’s sake. Maybe they can co-exist in their current high profile, high dollars payroll games and provide nice revenue sharing cushions for most of the team in this new division. Breaking up those two would be like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie taking the kids and moving to the far ends of the earth from each other.

 

Splitting those two teams apart would destroy 100 years of tradition and insults, plots and inside jokes that have been passed down for generations, and make them worthless but for a small handful of games a season. Some would say it would intensify the rivalry, but this is one that doesn’t need fuel to the fire, it is already white hot.

But it would also ruin a natural geographic alignment that the AL East would take on spreading from Toronto, Canada to Baltimore, Maryland and keep those divisional foes tight and more bonded towards defeating the other.

 

I like this division. It will have speed, defense and a ton of raw young talent. Most of the teams that would comprise this division have been great hotbeds of farm talent, and that talent would get a chance to rise to the top instead of each teaming trying to raise the bar and one-up each other to the umpteen time.

It would be a hotbed of base stealers, plus a great maturation oven for young pitchers just on the cusp of greatness. It is a division I not only would pay money to see at Tropicana Field, but also one I would definitely travel to other cities to see play our Rays. And that in turn, would help these small market teams keep their coffers filled to pay their young players to stay with their teams past their arbitration years….It is a “win-win” proposition.

 

Rays Covert (Signing) Ops Team nets them Leslie Anderson

Trying to follow the Tampa Bay Rays Front Office is becoming more difficult as their “silence is golden” trade chatter blackout grip has become even more tight-lipped and further tweaked beyond any type of white noise in the last few seasons. Now that the Rays can effectively have out-of-sight, out-of-mind multiple Rays staffers and attorneys cloaked in darkness back in the Rays offices in St. Petersburg do a lot of the legwork out of the vision of any eagle eyed journalists or bloggers, getting any morsel or tasty tidbit is getting particularly difficult for us to supply to the Rays baseball hungry fans. 

And today’s announcement of the Rays signing the former Cuban National Team multi-positional player Leslie Anderson to a $ 3.75million /4 year contract, the signing had most of us online, and sniffing around the team’s Spring Training complex caught completely off guard by this Rays move. Most of the Rays Republic knew that the Rays had set their sights by offering a possible contract to fellow Cuban refugee Jose Julio Ruiz in February. And some people actually thought the Rays might have had an upper hand in possibly signing Ruiz seeing that Tampa Bay had the second highest Hispanic population in the Southeastern segment of the United States.

The Rays presented Ruiz’s agent with a $ 2 million offer back in February, but with the recent hurricane brewing within Ruiz’s camp with his firing of his agent, and the ensuing turmoil, maybe the Rays quickly switched their previous focal point on Ruiz, and took another route without being noticed, and ultimately signed the versatile 27-year old Anderson.

And the wild part is that Anderson, who is also a left-handed hitter like Ruiz, might end up being the most versatile of the two players having played both First Base and the Centerfield for Camaguey in the Cuban Baseball League before leaving Cuba in September and becoming available to all 30 Major League Baseball clubs this January.

This signing might just be a great future insurance policy for the Rays since Anderson has been projected to be able to play multiple positions. And with the possibilities of Anderson also playing any of the three outfield positions, it increased the Rays appetite to include Anderson to their system. Most fans might remember Anderson has played Rightfield for the Cuban National Team during the last two World Baseball Classics. 

Before Anderson was moved to First Base while with Camaguey in 2009, he was the team’s starting Centerfielder and considered a great gap hitter with the potential for at least 15-20 Home Runs at the Major League level. And with Anderson’s potential to play all three outfield positions, plus First Base, Anderson brings to the plate another interesting set of future scenarios if the Rays can not entertain Carl Crawford or Carlos Pena to stay with the team when their contracts expire following the 2010 season.

Anderson might actually be a more advanced in his plate discipline than Ruiz, and boasts some really impressive numbers while with Camaguey, where he finished fifth in the Cuban Baseball League with a .381 Batting Average. But more impressive still might be his almost identical numbers against left-handers (.379) and right-handers (.383) to show that Anderson might just be the great addition to the Rays future roster by showing superior numbers from both sides of the plate and might end the Rays platooning outfield spots in the near future. 

And you got to give Rays Director of Scouting R J Harrison and Rays Director of International Relations, Carlos Alfonso a huge double high-five on their department’s Black Ops work to go totally on the deep down low and stay completely off the baseball radar with possible baseball workouts with Anderson without causing any sort of attention being focused towards the Rays or Anderson taking place this Spring.

 

 

And you know it was not a small group of Rays staffers’ involved in trying to keep this quiet, but it still amazes me time after time how the Rays have been so silent until they finally announce their signings without a lot of rumor chatter. The usual rumors that have been played have come from the other player’s reps or agents and not from within the Rays office. That in itself is amazing to me.

 

But this is the path that baseball is beginning to take with instant communications by a bevy of options available at our fingertips. With the addition of instant video conferencing even by cellphone now, baseball workouts can be broadcast back to team officials on a constant stream of video while the players participate in hitting, or even fielding in an arranged simulated game. And maybe the Rays might be viewed as ruining the trade system by staying tightlipped before getting a player’s John Hancock on the dotted line, but in essence, if that is what it takes to get the job done, then I am all for this new Rays personnel mentality. 

Anderson’s signing was not expected by most of us following the Rays this Spring. Most of us within the Rays Republic thought the team was slowly reeling in Ruiz towards finally signing with the Rays instead of hauling in another big fish like Anderson. Reality is that the Rays could still maybe also sign Ruiz in the near future as another future fixture to combat high payroll concerns. And both players effectively co-existing on the same Rays roster should bring a level of excitement to Rays fans. And maybe that is another unsung victory for the Rays scouting department and office staff in not only getting Anderson signed, sealed and delivered, but covering it all in a cloak of mystery, which is really impressive.

Who knows to what extent Anderson will benefit the Rays in 2010, but you know he will have a definite imprint on future Rays squads, and maybe a possible new competition battle in the Spring of 2011 as he makes his mark within the Rays farm system. Looking at both the positives and negatives of both players, the Rays might have picked the one total package multi-dimensional player who will not bring both a sense of drama and uncertainty instantly towards the Rays franchise’s system. 

It is still too early to project any possible scenarios for Anderson, but I could see him being assigned to either Double-A Montgomery and worked out at first base, and then begin his rise through the Rays system with a possible MLB debut date in Tropicana Field maybe in September 2010. And if he does get to the Major League level in 2010, could Anderson be one of those late season additions that propels the Rays again towards the Playoffs. This might not happen, but I like to be optimistic when I talk about these 2010 Rays. Because I really feel another “Magical”-type season brewing under the surface and this Anderson signing could be a great ingredient to the total mixture.

 

Rays Players Very “Open” to Fans

 
 
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I arrived up at BrightHouse Field about 11-ish on Sunday to check out the Tampa Bay Rays first venture back North and into their familiar Pinellas County stomping grounds in 2010. Got to tell you, the second I got into the pristine ballpark, one thing was perfectly clear to me. Not only was this a beautiful sunny day, which somehow got cooler by the inning, but I was instantly smiling as I glanced towards the Rays bench and instantly saw a few of the Rays players signing for fans along the rail.

 

And if there is one thing I am extremely proud of concerning our Rays players, it is their constant attention and respect they show people in the stands every day. I have to admit, if the Rays players did not feel a bit of kinship to stop and talk or even be social with their brethrens in the stands, this MLBlogs.com blog might a be a lot more boring and statistic-related, and I would not have most of those great stories to tell all of you.
 

And this is something I am extremely proud of our players to have been consistently providing themselves for the fans for the last 13 seasons. And with this season marking the 15th anniversary of Major League Baseball awarding us our franchise, it is amazing we also were rewarded with such generous and low ego players in our short history.
 

We have a baseball team here in Tampa Bay that has religiously signed for their fans, and even spent more than a few moments making some kid’s day by giving them a ball, or even a wide smile when they ask for an autograph or picture with them. And sure there are people around Tampa Bay who sometimes abuse the system, but we are lucky the guys sign for us. As I sat by the Rays dugout tunnel and talked to a few people, the players came and went, but always had a moment for the fans.
 

Sure some of the Rays biggest stars might not have made the trip north this time, but you can be assured they will be in that same dugout when the teams meet again in Clearwater on Tuesday, March 23 at 1:05 pm. And there are a few of the Rays players that might not seem to heed your call for their autographs or photo opportunities at times, but this Rays team by far signs more balls, bats and collectibles for their fans than most of their counterparts in the Major Leagues.
 

 
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As I stood there taking random photos most of the time during Batting Practice in Clearwater, I kept an eagle eye towards the opposing team’s leftfield tunnel entrance that leads to the Philadelphia Phillies clubhouse. What I was trying to gauges if the Phillies players were following the Rays player’s lead and signing for the fans before this Spring Training game.

 
 
What I noticed was that most of the Phillies who seem to be fighting for positions, or from within the ranks of the Phillies farm system, definitely seemed more apt to stop and take a moment to sign, or to just chat with the fans down the line. But this is also only one games observation. But for the most part, its seemed to me that the Phillies front line guys did not hesitate to sign or even take photos with fans that day.
 
 
There were a few Phillies player’s who did seem to maybe recognizing a fan they know from Philadelphia, or a family member, but most just jogged their way back into the clubhouse or the dugout to get without turning towards the stands. This is not intended to throw any Phillies players under the bus, because I do not know their pre-set team policies, or the individuals guidelines on fan autographs, but it is a shame when you see a young kid in the red Phillies cap with outstretched arms trying for some sign of acknowledgment with a pen in one hand, and a baseball in the other.
 
 
But I also know that sometimes a player can work themselves into a “zone” state even before a game and do not even see that same kid, or he would might have signed with no question. Someone finally did come over for him and signed the ball. I think it was tall, lanky Phillies prospect Dominic Brown, and he made sure to flash a kid a huge smile before disappearing towards the clubhouse tunnel.
 
 

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And the pure fact that the Rays are so open to signing (most of the time) seems to amaze some visiting fans from Boston,New York and Philadelphia. For their team’s do sign for their fans, but some players take only special moments, or maybe even a “once a homestand” mentality to signing autographs, and that tends to frustrate some within their fan base, and then unfair labels come flying out and are placed on those players. I remember last season, Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett told me he had to head into the Rays clubhouse, but asked me to look for him tomorrow about getting his autograph on a ball. I actually went home and forgot all about it.
 
 
I came back out to the top of the Rays dugout the next game as usual during B P, and Bartlett called up to me right before he was going into the Rays dugout to see if I still wanted a signature. It shocked me because I was not used to someone remembering me, much less remembering a request for his signature. I immediately grabbed a ball and sharpie out of my computer bag and threw them down to him. Bartlett signed the ball and looked up and said to me, “You thought I forgot didn’t you”. Got to admit it, I did think he would forget, but it was even a greater thing that he remembered it.
 

And if you go down to the rails before Rays games there are always scores of Rays fans with the same types of stories. Telling you of Rays players showing a unusual sense of kindness or requests for multiple photo with friends and family never uttering a negative comment, but treating their fans to a special moment with a huge smile.

 
 
What we have here in Tampa Bay is not the usual around the Major Leagues, and sometimes I think we forget how good we have it here. The level of esteem Rays players acknowledge the fans flows down right from the top of the Rays organization. Rays Manager Joe Maddon always praises the members of the Rays Republic for their undying support, and their noise levels at games.
 

Maddon has on more than one occasion reminded his Rays players that the Rays true fan base is a great constant source of energy and motivation for this club daily, and that they should remember when a fan requests a moment with them during the baseball season.

 

And it is great to see a young Rays fan leaning over and asking for an autograph, and that Rays player comes over signs and maybe even chats for a moment with the kid and the crowd. Not only does it make his day, but sometimes it makes the player’s day too. It is so special to have a team like our Rays that is open to giving back to the Rays fans. And sometimes we might forget just how lucky we truly are as Rays fans to have baseball players willing to take some time out to do this for us before Rays games.

 

Most visiting teams fans are jealous of that close bond between fan and player, and wish that their guys would do the same for them. This firmly illustrates another great reason to be a Rays fan. But also there is the danger of getting too used to it and maybe asking too much, or pushing the envelope and alienating a player with the fans.
 

As with most teams, there are autograph hounds/collectors within the Rays Republic who tend to throw a dark shadow on the true fans by selling their autographed rewards and jeopardize a real fan just wanting a sincere autograph. It is this level of fan that has been the benchmark for the Rays imposing their Sunday autograph days to be limited to kids under 14.
 

These measures have pushed the autograph hounds to getting their signatures outside the stadium player’s entrance gates, or charity events, where it is the player’s option if they will reward the collectors.

 
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Rays fans need to keep nurturing this special player-fan relationship, and try and keep it from drying up, or let anything negative influence the Rays players from wanting to sign or spend time with the fans.

 

I sometimes have found it necessary to impose my opinion on some young autograph seekers to teach them a better way to get their autographs without upsetting, or maybe ruining the great open ended relationship between the team and its fans. You know the kids I am talking about, who yell “Hey You” or do not even get to know the Rays roster and do not call them by name, but by the number on their jersey.
 

The Rays players being so open to the fans is a great reason to be a Rays fan. And even if there are a few negative influences surrounding the fan’s nucleus with the players, the relationship is not one-sided. If the fans remain respectful and treat the Rays players with genuine concern and interest, this great bond between the two should flourish for a long, long time.
 

I do consider us blessed with great players who show more attention to our fans than most within the MLB ranks. But then again, that might just be another great advantage to doing things “The Rays Way”.

 

A Beautiful Day for Spring Baseball

 
 
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Got to admit it here, I love it when the Tampa Bay Rays come north and play the Philadelphia Phillies during Spring Training. It is basically a Rays “homecoming” to their fans who do not have the time or resources to travel the 80 miles down to Port Charlotte, Florida for their Grapefruit League schedule. And making it a double pleasure is that the game is played at BrightHouse Field, which has to be one of the most beautiful baseball stadiums in Pinellas County.

So here we go as I pop on a few photos today on my journey northbound to the chilly tundra that is Clearwater, Florida. Seriously, when the game started on Sunday at 1 pm, it was 65 degrees, by the time the game was wrapped up with the Rays shutting down the Phillies 5-3 for their third victory of the Spring, it was down to 61 degrees. Not complaining, just found it kind of weird during such a sunny day with limited wind hitting you in the stands. But then again as I always say….If you do not like the weather in Florida, wait 15 minutes, it will change.

 
 
 
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Always wanted to be a fly-on-the-wall during a Rays Press Conference with Rays Manager Joe Maddon. Here we see the local media gurus along with Rays Vice President of Communications Rick Vaughn doing their daily pre-game meet and greet to discuss some of the days events, and even maybe get news on the expected signing of Free Agent Hank Blalock to join the Rays on a minor league contract. I want to just love to hear some of the news firsthand without the dissection of the Rays quotes and news for once. You know I could find a tidbit or two in just a 30 second voice blurp.
 
 
Also would love to hear what Maddon thinks about the possibility of Joe Dillon making this season’s 25-man roster. I find it kind of refreshing that Dillon has made it clear to the Rays and anyone that will listen that he plans to do whatever is necessary to show he has the abilities and the versatility to play almost anywhere for the team in 2010. Most people do not know this, but Dillon was actually Maddon choice as an emergency catcher if something would have happened in a game with his two normal catchers.
 
 
 
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That might be another reason Dillon has been catching more this season to make his stock rise above just being a utility player mostly playing in the infield. And during Batting Practice today, I saw him moving all around the infield from taking balls at third base, to manning the first base bag for a bit. Dillon did get in the game yesterday coming in for Elliot Johnson and playing third base, but went 0-2 in the game. Got to tell you, I always get a bit jealous of those corporate slugs across from me sitting in the Hooters VIP Diamond Dugout section. Not only do they get waitresses in skimpy Hooter attire, but they have almost instant access to the bench along with some great chicken wings and blue cheese.


 
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Got to befriend someone some day and see if I should be so jealous of this section….I think I would be no matter what. But I also find it kind of wild that in Bright House Field, the Phillies have two Hooters ball girls down the foul lines who sit in these nice canvas chairs with gloves in hand flirting with the fans and just looking pretty. Sure I have seen them get out of their chairs a few times, but I forget they are not there for their baseball skills but to look cute and smile for the fans. Always wondered why the Phillies did not bring down two of their regular season Philly Ballgirls who actually play softball for local leagues or college in the Philly area.

 

 
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Always love how the Rays players treat their younger fans. You do not get the total jest of it in this photo, but Elliot Johnson was actually throwing the ball with the young baseball player in red for about three minutes before the kid had to go back into the infield and stand for the National Anthem. You know it is moments like these that makes a child a baseball fan for life. And what a story he will have when he goes back to school on Monday telling all of his friends he threw a baseball with a Major League Baseball player… on the field before a game….priceless moment.

  
 
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Always love it when the United States Army’s Golden Knights parachute team does a pre-game event like this in BrightHouse Field. I have now seen it a few times and it is always a great spectacle and an extremely emotional sight seeing the billowing red smoke and the final recognition of our flag attached to his parachute. I find it really interesting to see this Sunday prior to the Oscars last night that saw the simply amazing film “The Hurt Locker” take the Best Film honors. I have to say I have seen the film and loved it for its realism and attention to military detail.

 
 
 
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What was amazing in this game on Sunday is we saw everyone of the Rays players fighting for a roster spot play in front of some of their hometown fans who came out and helped set a attendance record for a Spring Training game held at Bright House Field. 10,474 fans filled every nook and cranny of the stadium on Sunday. It was definitely standing room only out in the grassy berm areas, and the concession stands did look like the usual rush during a Rays/Yankees or Rays/Red Sox series. Even saw one of the Trop’s beer guys Mark working in the stands yesterday and it made the game feel more like a home game.

 
 
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Had a funny thing happen to me yesterday while I was sitting in the 7th row down in Section 104. Had an older gentleman tell us to either give him play-by-play of the game or shut up. My new found friends from Philly were a bit perplexed, but I reminded them that we do live in a retirement region here in Florida, and some people like to concentrate on the baseball game. I did not want to upstage the guy and tell him I would be more than willing to do audio for him of the game. The few fans around us were a bit upset, but for me, it was just business as usual in Florida. But I do understand the guy’s request.

We were talking about Philly places I knew and the Winter they just went through up there, and maybe this guy was not into our discussions. One of the Philly guys actually remarked that if we were in a movie theatre, it was not a problem to stop talking, but we were at a baseball game. I just laughed it all off and said it was fine, I could get some more photos and maybe get some much needed sun on my farmer-tanned bones. Funny it really got a few people around me upset, but I made sure they knew if it was Tropicana Field I might have kept talking, but since I was in someone else’s stadium, I respected the guy wearing his green Phillies cap.

 
 
 
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One thing I did notice was that Rays First Base Coach George Hendricks seemed a bit unprepared for this game today. I tried to ask someone in the Rays clubhouse if George’s usual number 25 jersey might not have made the trip north, but they were really closed-lipped about it. It was kind of funny to see him wearing that “95” jersey, which usually a sure sign of a Rays minor leaguer getting a chance with the big club. Notice Hendrick’s batting helmet shows his “usual” jersey number 25 on it 

 
I tried to get George’s attention a few times during the middle of the innings to see if maybe the 25 jersey was still hanging up in the Coach’s area at the Rays Spring complex, but never got an answer back from him. Another wild moment was when Heath Phillips started the eighth inning and was relieved by Heath Rollins. I made a few people around me chuckle a bit when the first Rays pitcher who was about 250 pounds left the mound and I called the new pitcher “Heath” too. It was a unique situation and one you might not see during the regular season, but might be more commonplace during Spring Training.
 
 
 
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I also asked a few of the photographers about these wild looking silver camera I saw in at least three different spots around BrightHouse Field on Sunday. I was advised that they were permanent Major League Baseball Network cameras that got primary shots from the First Base, Third Base and Centerfield angles during Spring Training games. I had not even noticed them before and found it quite interesting they did not employ three different cameramen for these regions during telecasts earlier in the Spring.

 
Guess you learn something new every day at the ballpark during the Spring. I am going to be sure to also try and check out the Home and Visitor’s dugout at Tropicana Field to see if these might also be put into a permanent position around our home ballpark for game situations during the regular season. I know from walking around Charlotte Sports Park that the Rays do not have this capability yet, but who knows what might happen in the future.

 
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But it was a great simply beautiful day out in the sun in Florida on Sunday.  And the day was even made more special after Rays Radio man Rich Herrera yelled out “Renegade” from his silver car as he sped away from  a side street onto Old Coachman Road on his way home from the ballgame. Plenty of excited Rays fans and Phillies fans enjoying one of the best weather days this Spring. Congrats to the Phillies again for setting a new single game attendance record, and hopefully we can make another run at that record on Tuesday, March 23rd when the Rays come back to this amazing ballpark and I will sit instead out in the berm region to give a different prospective to this great ballpark.

 

Sean John or maybe S-Rod…Decisions, Decisions

 


YahooSports.com

You automatically got to like this kid. Really you have to, it is a moral imperative within the Tampa Bay Rays culture that when you give up a great left-hander like Scott Kazmir, you got to get to know his replacement, and at least give him a few games to settle into his new spotlight before you condemn or pledge your loyalty to them. Well, ladies and gentlemen, if the last couple of Rays Spring games is any indication, Sean John Rodriguez is already cool as a cucumber and slick as a fox, and an instant fan favorite.

And believe me the cliché’s are going to coming fast and furious if he does find a way to steal this last coveted roster spot away from the Johnson & Johnson brothers , or his close competitor, Reid Brignac.

 
 

But if you base his total roster chances on just Rays games over the last few days, it might actually be more like, when he steals that roster spot away. And it is not like he has not been in this kind of pressure situation before while fighting for a Major League spot. Rodriguez has spent a bit of time in the Big Show before when he was with the Los Angeles Angels, so this is not his first rodeo.

And that might be a side of Rodriguez we truly had no idea about before this 2010 Rays Spring Training season began. Most of us Rays fans might not have noticed the young guy manning the second base bag during the Angels first visit to Tropicana Field from May 9-11,2008 was the same Sean Rodriguez.

 
 

And we definitely did not notice Rodriguez sitting in the Third Base Visitor’s Dugout at Tropicana Field after being called back up from the Salt Lake City Bee’s when the Angels went through a rough patch with multiple infielders going down with injuries in early 2008. And there is an eerie set of similarities to his Spring start here in 2010, that might bode well for him making this team’s roster, if you really look at the numbers.

Back in Spring Training 2008 with the Angels, Rodriguez hit only one single in his 11 Spring Training games while hitting a double, a triple and solo Home Run with 3 RBIs. It is just a bit of an odd coincidence that he currently sports no singles while pushing a double, triple and 3 Home Runs across the board this Spring in three games for the Rays. Maybe it is a baseball omen to us to watch this guy over the next few weeks.

 
 

But this impressive start at the plate has also given him a bit of a quick jump on Brignac, who also is trying to keep up with the white hot Rodriguez, and it is going to be a complete thrill to see which of these hitters blinks first and let’s the other get a bit of an advantage in their race for the last utility spot on the Rays 25-man roster.


YahooSports.com

And Rodriguez knows a lot about these Rays from his 5 game played against them in 2008. He was the field for all three games during that early May series when the Rays swept the Angels here, and was witness to seeing the Rays eventually winning 6 out of their 9 games against Angels that season.

 
 
But even more telling that Rodriguez might be developing the emerging cult following, not unlike fellow Rays infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist with the instant accumulation of inspired nicknames that are beginning to be heard in the stands at Rays Spring games. Already we have heard at least two nicknames rushing to the forefront, with one really taking a quick liking to him.

There has been the “S-Rod” moniker which might have evolved more for his recent rush of power and uncanny ability to brush off the media attention, or maybe the one I heard at George M. Steinbrenner Field yesterday when someone asked “Sean John” for his autograph.

 

The last one actually had me chuckling a bit because I was looking over my shoulder for one of those goon interns of Sean “P. Diddy /Puff-Daddy” Combs instantly coming out of the woodwork trying to smash the “alleged” trademarked name infringement “Sean John” down into the clay of the infield and quickly silence that moniker from the lips of autograph seekers on the rails that game.

 
 

But there was no lightning quick response to the name, and I actually think Combs would be proud to share that patented name with a young baseball guy who just might have the style and panache to pull off a theft of this second base job and roster spot without much of a hitch. Heck, maybe if Rodriguez keeps this up he will have a Fed Ex package waiting for him with some signature Sean John wear inside them…You never know.

But seriously, this second base gig is going to be one of those spots in this 2010 Rays squad that you either own or rent in 2010. If Rodriguez makes it difficult for Rays Manager Joe Maddon to not pop his name on the lineup card in marker, he might just be an inter-changeable piece along with Zobrists and his traveling glove collection in 2010.

 
 

But some people worry that Rodriguez has only played third base and second most of his professional career, and has not concentrated his efforts toward maybe relieving Rays starter Jason Bartlett at some point in 2010. Again, this might be one of those finer points that Brignac has shown he can be effective at that position that makes this competition go long into Spring Training.

And even if most people have not seen Rodriguez play the outfield, he did play leftfield against the Yankees on Friday and looked pretty comfortable out there. But then again, he did play a lot of outfield in his All American High School career.

 
 

This entire competition between Rays Spring Training invited players to hold a competition for that coveted last spot in the Rays roster for a infield slot is quickly becoming a two-man affair. Elliot Johnson is doing everything he can to get his name included, but Brignac and Rodriguez are putting on a show at the plate and in the field that is dwarfing everyone else right now.

And if either of these two can force Maddon’s hand in the next week or two, this competition might even be over before the Rays take on their Triple-A affiliate, the Durham Bulls in a friendly match up in Durham, North Carolina on April 3,2010.

 
 

SarasotaHerald-Tribune


Some have questioned Rodriguez’s lack of full season experience to only a total of 71 career Major League Baseball games and a regular season average of only .203 with 8 doubles, a triple, 5 Home Runs and 14 RBIs. That could be a instant pause for Maddon and the Rays to consider, but Brignac also has only appeared in 35 Rays game and has only produced a .250 batting average with 8 doubles, 2 triples, a solo Home Run and 6RBIs.

This race is far from over, and it might come down to the Rays deciding if they want power or consistency in their hitting out of this spot in 2010. If they take the power angle, Rodriguez would get the early nod, and even based on experience, right now might be the guy who has the most to lose with a few bad outings. Sean Rodriguez is a great budding star that could play a significant role for the Rays if he develops the way they want him to over the next few weeks.

If he does, then he will definitely be in that Rays Opening Day lineup, and hopefully we can get him an appropriate nickname that might not upset a fashion icon, or even a certain player also in this division sporting the A-Rod moniker. But if Rodriguez keeps playing and producing at this level this Spring, then maybe they would not mind sharing some homage time with a guy who could help lead the Rays on the field.

I Don’t Know Joe…..

 


YahooSports.com

What the heck Joe! Now  you know I respect you a helluva lot, but I am probably not the only one within the Rays Republic today scratching my forehead wondering why you made the move you did yesterday against the New York Yankees in a Spring Training game it seems your team was dominating in at the time. Why would you even think of pulling Sean Rodriguez who was about to put up a possible career achievement like hitting for the cycle and pinch-hit him for Fernando Perez?

 
I am wondering why you did not let Rodriguez at least get a fighting chance at completing his drive for the cycle and pop Perez into the outfield in the bottom of the inning. I mean the guy was about to do something as complex as hitting for the cycle in reverse. In reverse Joe! You watched him in his third game this Spring during his first at bat hit another ball deep enough to go out of the ball park (with some help from the outfield padding) against the Yankees to give your team an early lead.
 

I would be excited just by that feat in itself, but the kid out did even my expectations by then hitting a triple, then getting another RBI double to post 5 RBI on the day, which was the more than enough to help you team post a 11-7 win in Tampa against your AL East nemesis. But still this is gnawing at my frontal lobe Joe, why you did not let the kid try for it. I know the Rays new mantra of W.I.N. or “What’s Important Now”, but to me yesterday, it was letting the kid have a chance to put a firm stamp on his competition this Spring by going above and beyond even your wildest expectations and securing a rare feat, even in the Spring, of a cycle.

 
 

I am just perplexed here Mr. Maddon. I really do not know what to say mostly because I know the Spring Training season is the time to try new and unique situations or plays, but this one really has me so befuddled I almost couldn’t write this today. Here is a player basically about to come out of his cocoon stage and become a regular season butterfly for the Rays, and he gets sat down for a pitch-hitter right when he is about to secure what is considered an almost impossible feat.
 

And I know I am not the only one to consider this situation, and I might read a bit more from local news accounts within the next day or two, but personally, I am a bit bewildered beyond belief. I guess my realization that it is the Spring has to be my mind’s justification for this happening because I know you were not snoozing during the game and knew the scenario that was playing out on the field.

But hidden underneath all of this was the spike of emotion that somehow suddenly seemed to be lacking in your team until they finally rebounded in the top of the eight inning to secure this second win of the Spring for the Rays. I guess there is a lot more to managing that I can see from my seat here within the stands today. But I also see Rodriguez’s missed opportunity yesterday to have a “career” moment as a small blip on the oversight meter that you might have dropped the ball on this one.

 


YahooSports.com


I am more upset with the idea that it could furnish a seed of doubt within a young player’s mind who is tearing this competition between himself and Reid Brignac to shreds, and maybe that is something the Rays brass do not want to see settled so early in this Spring battle. But then again, I am only a fan and not a member of your dugout crew and do not know if there was a secondary reason for this based on match-ups or even the slightest hint of a situational movement by you to pop Perez up there at that moment.

 

So now that I have written my rave and gotten it out of my system, I hope if the same situation happens again in 2010 that we let the guy hit for the chance. Missing the opportunity might be just as bad as striking out in that pressure situation yesterday. Both can pop seeds of doubt or inconsistent decisions deep into their mindset that can blossom and turn this battle into a one-sided affair. But now in my moment of getting it all out, I am again resigned to believing you know what you are doing at all times in the dugout.

For I have a lot of respect and admiration for what you have done since you took the reins in 2007 to change to psyche and the foundation of Rays baseball through your theories, actions and game day quotes that have inspired, motivated and amused us while you have been at the helm. No Captain Joe, I am not calling for mutiny or even a vote of the crew as to that course of action with regards to Rodriguez and his shot at the cycle.

There has to be a gem of wisdom in there somewhere, and even if I do not agree with your action, I will come to accept the move in time. Still, I wanted to see what Rodriguez would have done against the Yankee reliever. Who knows, maybe Rays Manager Joe Maddon made the right decision……maybe.

Ladies and Gentleman…..Elliot Johnson

I remember back in 2008 seeing him standing right next to Akinora Iwamura during the Rays Team Photo. Standing there was this Rays player who is now fighting for his professional life, not even an arm’s length to the right of me, but I really did not know the first thing about Elliot Tyler Johnson at that moment. Johnson was one of those Rays players who had begun the 2008 season teetering on the edge of the Rays 25-man roster and was within an injury or a recovery away from again falling into the Rays farm system…again.
  

You have already known that Johnson has spent only a total of 28 days with the Rays after making the 2008 Opening Day roster following a blistering Spring Training, combined with Rays utility man Ben Zobrist’s 15-day Disabled List visit with a fractured thumb, Johnson firmly earned his first shot up with the big club. But his time in the Majors was short lived as Johnson appeared in 7 Rays games before disappearing again back to Triple-A Durham, where he spent the rest of the 2008 season. 

I had forgotten how not even a month earlier, Johnson had made his Major League debut in the holy confines of Yankee Stadium on April5,2008 in only the Rays fifth game of the season when Johnson got his first chance to show what he could do for this Rays squad. Johnson was that night’s Designated Hitter, and was popped into the ninth slot in the lineup. And I somehow had forgotten that Johnson did get his first Major League hit off Andy Pettitte in Johnson’s second at bat, but maybe I brushed the moment away because Johnson then got picked-off first base by the crafty left-hander. Not the first guy to have that happen to him, but not also a great moment to show weakness in your talents. 

And before these same Rays teammates assembled on those risers back in 2008 for the official team photo, I could have talked with Johnson beforehand, but I missed a great opportunity to chat with a Rays player who is quickly seeing his time with these Rays ticking away with his every step into the batter’s box, or play amongst the dust of the Rays infield. That second hand on the Johnson’s Spring Training clock is beginning to run out on Johnson, as the team is currently focused on other players fighting out their battles this Spring. For when Johnson was sent down on April 27,2008 when the

Rays decided to bring up another infielder Andy Cannizaro, Johnson had only appeared in 5 Rays games and batted only .158 ( 3-19) , but in an instant, Johnson was gone again.
 

And it is a bit of a crime that I have not taken the time to learn more about this guy who won the 2008 Al Lopez Award as the top Rays rookie during Spring Training, or who scored 17 runs and led the Rays 2008 Spring Training team with a .417 batting average and got 23 hits while logging an astounding 117 Spring Training innings. And how most of us within the Rays Republic knew his name only after maintaining the 2008 Rays team mantra of always hustling, even during the Spring Training games, when Johnson came in hard on Yankees rookie catcher Francisco Cervelli on a play at Home Plate during the 9th inning of a Spring Training game against the Yankees at George Steinbrenner Field, and ended up fracturing Cervelli’s right wrist. He instantly became a villain to Yankee fans, and a reincarnation of Pete Rose to the Rays Republic. 

Instantly he became the Rays Spring Training poster child for taking advantage of his game opportunities, but Johnson also became an instant scapegoat from other teams’ who condemned his Spring Training hustle because it was only Spring, and it cost another team one of their bright stars so early into the season. Instantly people forgot the great feat Johnson performed on May 28,2004 when he blasted homers in his first three at bats while playing for the Charleston RiverDogs in their first three innings of play that night. Johnson had started his minor league career with only three total home runs before that night’s breakout performance against the Greensboro squad. As a side note, Johnson had homered in his last at bat the night before in Greenboro, effectively hitting homers in his last four at bats for the RiverDogs. 

And before B J Upton hit his cycle with the Rays in October 2009, Johnson was the last Rays organizational player to hit for the cycle when Johnson hit his cycle on September 15,2006 while he was playing with the Montgomery Biscuits. Johnson was one of those guys who has more than paid his dues within the Rays farm system, but we as fans, discarded him for some reason without a second thought. And during this 2010 Spring Training season when the Rays are seeking a versatile utility guy who can play multiple positions, Johnson might be finally entering into his final sunset with the Rays.


Johnson no longer has any minor league options left in 2010, and Johnson could effectively be gone either by the Rays placing him on waivers, or Johnson could be dealt in a late Spring trade ,and gone from the Rays for good. And even with only two games down in the 2010 Rays Spring Training schedule, Johnson went 1 for 2 today with a triple and scored on a single by outfielder Matt Joyce in the bottom of the ninth inning to defeat the Baltimore Orioles 6-5 today in Port Charlotte, Florida. Johnson is still trying to get his name into the Rays organization’s minds this Spring, and hopefully get another chance to show he belongs at the Major League level.

I do not think I am alone here within the Rays Republic in not taking the time, or the energy to chat it up with Johnson along the Rays sidelines this Spring. And I am totally guilty of not taking advantage of this opportunity in the past, almost forgetting at times that Johnson was even here for Spring Training. Johnson is like so many guys among every Major League Baseball Spring roster who is not invisible, or even unapproachable, but might be caught in that middle ground of players that we always think will be a part of our teams. He always seems to do enough to stay on long into the Spring Training schedule, and we feel they might make that leap again, and you don’t give it a second thought that players like Johnson can be gone in an instant.

And you maybe would not even have recognized Johnson out and about within the Port Charlotte community, or even up in Durham, North Carolina where he still makes his home during the off season. Or that Johnson has conducted local baseball camps for the last three off seasons for the kids and teens of the Durham community, where Johnson also instructs students in one-on-one baseball lessons. Or that Johnson comes from the community of Thatcher, Arizona, which was the backdrop of the Albert Brook’s movie “Lost in America”. Johnson is simply one of those guys who has fallen through our mind’s cracks and might be getting his last chance in 2010, to make this Rays team soon.


For some reason, baseball fans sometimes seem to get a bit of tunnel vision during Spring Training where we funnel our attentions towards our team’s stars and the aspiring prospects, and we instantly forget the players like Johnson, who have been there for so long trying to grab a hold of a chance to get back to the Major League level. And Johnson has been with the Rays since the team signed him as a non-drafted free agent back in 2002. So it is not like he just rode into this Spring into his first run with the Rays franchise this Spring.
 

Johnson has been here so long that some of us, myself included, have made him a bit invisible to ourselves over the last few seasons. And that is a crying shame because this is the type of guy we should be cheering for ,and wanting to see make this 2010 Rays club. And Johnson is not alone on this squad in that manner. People forgot a bit about another long-time Rays farm hand Justin Ruggiano. But you can bet that on Sunday, when I hit BrightHouse Field for the Rays versus Phillies game in Clearwater, I am going to try and call over Johnson and wish him the best this Spring.

Finally, I am going to try and get a chance as a Rays fan to get to know Johnson before he might be gone. And maybe, just maybe, I could then call him over again on April 6th ,before the Rays take on these same Orioles in the Rays Home Opener, and Johnson would be smiling ear-to-ear while still sporting that # 47 jersey…. just like today.

 

Reminiscing Before the Rays Spring Opener


Chris Litherland/Sarasota Herald-Tribune

It is about two hours before we again get to hear that first “official” thump into the catcher’s mitt to signal the official beginning of another fantastic Major League Baseball season for the Tampa Bay Rays. And it is great that Mother Nature decided to participate today with a nibbling cold breeze circling through the stadium, and the warming heat from that big orange ball in the sky are both making this first day of real baseball tingle, just like an early childhood Christmas morning.

 
 

Hate to admit it to the baseball world, but I am a sentimental old fool when it comes to the game of baseball. Some say I am too emotionally and mentally attached to the game and that has produced some interesting flashbacks over the last few days. To me, it is just a reminder or a mental revisiting of some past Rays Spring Training Grapefruit moments that stand out in my mind. And there has been a bit of a revolving continual flashback video within my mind’s eye recently that hopefully will diminish with Guthrie’s first pitch. But they are great moments to me, and ones that always bring a smile to my face.

 
 
More than a few times the moments of 2003 involving Rocco Baldelli kept flashing in my mind. How during that season he set the bar high for Rays rookies to follow him and started that path by winning the 2003 Al Lopez Award given to the top Rays rookie during Spring Training. We saw his brilliance on the field that March and began our love affair with him and Carl Crawford to be a formidable force to be reckoned with for many years to come. Seeing Rocco yesterday at the Rays complex dressed again in a Rays overcoat brought back those emotions.
 
 

But even with a head nod from Rays reliever Dan Wheeler yesterday in the rain-reduced workouts at the Rays complex, another vision came of the young Wheeler being one of the only members of that first Rays Draft class to make it all the way to the top beginning with his fantastic Spring Training back in 2000 when he also won the Al Lopez award for the then D-Rays. It brought back times of seeing someone like Travis Phelps who was drafted so late in the 1998 MLB Draft you would think he would be a scout or in another line of work instead of coming into Rays games as a reliever and reminding people around Tampa Bay that confidence and talent can get you what you desire in life if you mix in a healthy dose of determination into the equation.

 

 
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And not everything rushing through my mind has been a good time. There was a moment on March 19,2005 right after seeing possible future Baseball Hall of Fame member Roberto Alomar trotting off the Progress Energy Park infield for the last time with his head down that it donned on me he might have just made his last Major League Baseball play, and then within a few hours notice, Alomar announced to the baseball world he was retiring from the game due to vision and back problems. And the duo night’s announcements of both Alomar and outfielder Danny Batista leaving the game on the same date left some of us gasping and wondering if the team might be cursed.

 

 
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But then memories like 2008, which was the Rays last season training in St. Petersburg, Florida come to my mind. Visions of Rays pitcher Scott Kazmir predicting while he was rehabbing an elbow injury that the playoff was the goal of the 2008 team. And maybe set into motion during that Spring Training quote nugget during a Spring Training interview out at Rays Namoli complex, this team formulated their foundation and cemented their confidence for the entire season. Instantly this team began to win those 1-run games that Spring.

 

And combined with emotional games against the Yankees in which Yankee farmhand Shelley Duncan was dishing out some baseball justice, this team came together on the clay and dirt of Progress Energy Park. And that cosmos of emotions built up right up until the March 23,2008 game against the Cincinnati Reds when the team played their last Spring Training game ever in the stadium where they had held every Spring Training game since 1998. For they were going to relocate 80 miles Southward the next Spring in the seaside hamlet of Port Charlotte, Florida taking over a refurbished former Spring home of the Texas Rangers. And that last sell-out game held a bevy of emotions that overflowed into the grandstands and grassy berms.

 


Even if the Spring Training game have been transported to our South, the Rays team taking the field today know what is ahead of them. With Rays Manager Joe Maddon discarding the mathematics and bringing on the abbreviated, we are entering a new Rays era. “What’s Important Now” is the new mantra. Maddon chatted a lot with Ken Ravizza, the Rays performance consultant and sport psychologist who actually came up with the Rays new possible T-shirt phrase, breaking the Rays Manager’s string of number-induced team slogans. Staying in the “present moment” is going to be key in the way the Rays play this Grapefruit season.

 


 
SPTimes.com

Breaking from the untold failures of the Rays past has been accomplished. This new Spring edition of the Rays will again try and control the controllable from today’s game throughout 2010, with an earmark to correcting past inferiors and mental stop signs. The team seems to be focused towards the immediate future, and what each and every one of them can bring to the table. I commend them for the early acknowledgment of what has to be trimmed and better defined for this team to again taste champagne in October.

 

But I am also a student of the past, and I personally know that sometimes you have to go back to review the past before you confidently step forward. So today as Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett steps into the batter box against Guthrie there is a heightened sense of renewal in the air here in Sarasota, Florida.

There is new orange paint surrounding Ed Smith Stadium, but there is also a crispness that only a great Spring Training baseball game can deliver, and a refreshing rebirth in “The Rays Way” this Spring that should lead to lofty heights and great results. And with that, it is time to watch some last minute preps toward seeing baseball for the first time in 2010. I am excited, reminiscent of the past, and also eager to see the future…Play Ball!

 
 
 
 

Great to See Rocco Back in Rays Blue Again

 

            
             SPTimes.com

It was so great to see former Rays outfielder and all-around good guy Rocco Baldelli standing outside the Rays clubhouse this morning underneath the overhang at the Rays Spring Training complex in Port Charlotte, Florida. It has just been over a year and a half since Baldelli last donned the same type Rays blue outerwear during the 2008 World Series games in Philadelphia, and the Rays colors still fits him like a glove.

But it did also had a bit of an eerie feel to the moment as it seems like such a long period since we saw Baldelli roaming the outfields at Tropicana Field. But there he stood this morning just smiling away with great opportunities in front of him and a chance to get healthy and help his former team’s next generation..

 
 

But even with a..that smile on his face, and his constantly shaking hands with Rays players who also gathered under that awning to see him and wait out this rain shower, Baldelli seemed to have that energized look on his face where he is totally excited to again be with this franchise, and around the game of baseball this season. I shouted over to Baldelli and he waved and then I asked him what number he planned to wear during Spring Training?
 
 

Baldelli just smiled and nodded his head and told me “we will all see soon enough”. A bit bummed, but then again, he has only been here a few hours and maybe Rays Equipment Manager Chris Westmoreland did not have his jersey done yet. I am guessing Baldelli will sport number 55 this Spring, since no one else in Rays Major League camp has that number, and it is twice as lucky as his old number 5 currently sitting on Rays DH Pat Burrell’s back.
 
 

But Baldelli was not just standing there waiting for the rain to stop so he could compete again for an outfield slot with the team, or even a part-time Designated Hitter spot, Baldelli accepted a chance today to come back onto the Rays staff as a Special Assistant with the team, and will be assigned to the Rays minor league camp and serve as an instructor during the rest of this year’s Spring Training. He will concentrate his efforts as a roving instructor focusing on base running and outfield play with budding minor league players like Desmond Jennings and 2009 Draftee Todd Glaesmann.


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Having someone of Baldelli’s caliber and skills in this year’s minor league camp will be great for a top tier prospect like Jennings so that he has a sounding board with a former top tier prospect who made that quick transition to the Major League level. And the Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman jumped at this great opportunity of having an MLB-caliber player like Baldelli to come into the start of the Rays minor league camp to advise and help mentor the next generation of Rays major league ready players. Plus the ” instructor” situation also helps Baldelli by supplying professional level baseball facilities and medical attention as he rehabs from a unspecified shoulder injury Baldelli endured during his 2009 season when he played sparingly with American League East rival, Boston.

And there were a few Rays fans out in the rain with me today wondering why the Rays were civil and open to bringing Baldelli back into the Rays fold after he played for our “arch enemy” last season. And the answer is really quite simple. This situation helps both parties involved, plus it gives Baldelli a chance to realistically see if he might also be open to taking the same Coaching path of former Rays slugger Jared Sandberg and move into the coaching profession after his playing career.

 
 

It also is a perfect “win-win” situation for Baldelli as able to provide certain nuances of the game to the Rays developing players, plus he will be able to rehabilitate his shoulder injury with a Rays medical staff that already knows his past injuries and medical history, and could be beneficial in providing top notch rehabilitation care and treatments while Baldelli also works with the Rays minor leaguers and eventually works out on his own to see if playing again is in his future. But this is also a way for Baldelli to keep his head in the game of baseball and stay mentally ready to play too.

 
 

Think about it for a second here, you are a Major League baseball player and you suffered through months of pain and anguish to find yourself unwanted by your 2009 team and a free agent seeking a shot to compete somewhere, but people know of your shoulder woes, and pass you by, or tell you to get healthy and then give them a call. Baldelli is in that middle “no-man’s land” zone right now between playing, or maybe having to make a difficult career choice in the near future to pursue coaching full-time and mentoring future ballplayers, or getting the chance to regain yourself and your baseball career. How could you not see this opportunity as a positive step to see what you could or maybe pursue after your playing days are over, but also still have your options open to continue with the game.

 

 
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And the Rays have always been open to inviting former Rays players to work with their teams a ample chance to come back into the Rays organization and be a authority figure, or sports mentor to work with other Rays prospects to hone their craft and make them the best they can be in their baseball maturation process. Baldelli is not the first former Rays player to come back to his former club and provide instruction and mentor players. Ex-Ray and current Baseball Hall of Famer Wade Boggs came back to the Rays in 2001 and served one season as their Hitting Coach before leaving the team.

Dave Martinez, who got the first hit in Rays history came back several years ago as an outfield instructor and is now sitting every game besides Rays Manager Joe Maddon as his Rays Bench Coach. And who can forget that 2009 Baseball Hall of Fame nominee Fred McGriff has spent several Rays Spring Trainings working as a Special Advisor to the Rays. Add on that scenario of the consistent growth within the Rays Coaching ranks of Sandberg through the Rays system from his first stint with short-season Princeton to his current post as Manager of the Hudson Valley Renegades for the2010 season.

And Sandberg might just be another budding former Rays player turned manager to some day patrol the benches at the Major League level within a few years. This Rays Front Office has always been open to hiring former players who understand the Rays system, and also adhere to their team’s mantra. And bringing back Baldelli right now just seems perfectly right to me.

 
 

Having Baldelli working out with the next generation of Upton’s, Crawford’s and maybe even another Baldelli just shows his passion and his drive for the little things about playing this game at it’s top level. And it is important to note here that Baldelli is not “retired”, but basically weighing his options and between jobs. Baldelli might have to take a step back like ex-Rays catcher Toby Hall did in 2009 when Hall was rehabbing a shoulder injury and get healthy before finally making some difficult decisions on his baseball future. But I personally would not bet against Baldelli not being wearing some team’s uniform at some point this season.
 
 

There is presently no talk of Baldelli wearing a Rays jersey besides his current Rays gear on his back while he does his job as a roving instructor. But the Rays and Baldelli both have left that door wide open for a future discussion about his plans. And that in itself is almost a mirror-image to the 2009 Spring Training situation where the Rays brought in rehabbing reliever Jason Isringhausen after his 2008 injuries into Spring Training with an eye to get him healthy, then make some personnel decisions.

Isringhausen eventually got healthy and appeared in a Rays uniform in 2009, but Isringhausen went down with a torn elbow ligament and had to undergo Tommy John’s surgery . Could Baldelli be this season’s “Izzy” and be able to again get back to the Major League level?

 
 

Would Baldelli even be open to taking another limited role situation with the Rays similar to his 2008 status with the team, or could there be an eye towards him being a possible in-house alternative/replacement if Rays Designated Hitter Pat Burrell gets injured or off to a weak start in 2009?. All these questions are streaming through my mind, and I know some of you also have those thoughts coursing through your cerebral cortex. But for now, Baldelli is here to heal and help guide and be a source of inspiration and motivation for the next generation of Rays. But that also doesn’t rule out the possibilities of Baldelli not being able to don a MLB jersey at some point in 2010.
 

 
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And there is no guarantee it would even be the Rays classic blue and white, or even a Rays Blue jersey. B ut having Baldelli here is motivation enough for me to feel better about the future of this team. Some web sites have called him the “Prodigal Son”. To some of us, Baldelli never went away, he just was on “vacation” away from the Rays. But in the end, is this the kind of guy you want on your team? Is this the type of former player you want teaching your young players “The Rays Way”?

And can the Rays prospects learn and mature hearing of Baldelli’s past and develop their own pattern to enrich their game before hitting the Major League level? To all three of these questions, I sound a loud and resounding “Yes”. Hopefully in the near future, Rays fans will see Baldelli standing on the side of the field again both his glove and a black bat in each hand, or maybe it will be Baldelli’s arms swaying and pointing a shift to one of the Rays minor leaguers to put him into a better fielding position based on the hitter tendencies, either way, it is great to see Baldelli again in a Rays uniform. Blue just seems to be his color!

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