Results tagged ‘ Rick Vaughn ’

Miracle League, Mardi Gras Ball and King Rick!

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You have been hearing me mention the Miracle League for the past few days. Maybe on Day 6 of the charity week posts we should get to know this great organization. In 1997 in Conyers, Georgia, local baseball coach Eddie Bagwell invited the first child with a disability to play on his organized baseball squad. A young man named Michael, a 7-year old baseball enthusiast who practiced and attended every game in his wheelchair was the initial pioneer.

At first Michael was there to cheer on his little brother, but the following year, in 1998, the Rockdale Youth Baseball Association (RYBA) decided it was time for a chance. They instituted the first league designed especially for children with disabilities and invited other special needs kids in their region to join their budding league.

From the start, the leagues players had expressed a keen interest in taking the field in uniforms, make plays in the field and round the bases just like their peers on the other complex fields. The initial season began with 35 players split into 4 teams. And even if their rules bend the basic rules of organized baseball, the rules were constructed and initiated to give these players the entire baseball experience. Here is a list of some of the first league rules designed for this specialized league:

*** Every player bats once per inning.

*** All players are safe on base.

*** Every player scores a run before the inning is over (the last batter gets a Home Run).

*** Community kids and volunteers serve as “buddies” to help assist the players during the games.

*** Each player and each team wins every game.

Every Child Deserves A Chance to Play Baseball”

That has been the motto of the Miracle League ever since that first moment Bagwell invited young Michael to play with his team.

From the first moments of the leagues existence to today, the main element of this league was for the players to realize they are not limited by their wheelchairs or disabilities but only by their own minds. Presently there are over 240 Miracle League organizations around the country, including Puerto Rico. At this moment in time, over 200,000 children and young adults playing in Miracle League around the country.

Locally, the Kiwanis Club of the Gulf Beaches heeded the call to duty back in October 2004 after a speaker spoke and shoed the group a DVD about a new innovative youth sports program that had been showcased on the HBO Real Sports program. It was video about the Rockdale Youth Baseball Association and their journey to offering the first barrier free baseball field for kids with special needs.

 

41111680.jpgThe presentation tugged at the hearts strings of everyone in attendance, and after the speaker finished, every member stood up and cheered, all agreeing that the Tampa Bay region needed their own Miracle League ballpark. 14 months later, “Violet’s Field” which is situated between the existing baseball field at the Azalea Youth complex held it initial opening ceremonies.

Ongoing support is needed to keep up with the constant upkeep and maintenance of this complex, and the Kiwanis Club of the Gulf Beaches will conclude their third annual month of Mardi Gras celebration with a the organization’s second annual charity Mardi Gras Ball to be held at the historic Gulfport Casino on Monday, March 7, 2011 from 7-11 pm to benefit the Miracle League of the Gulf Beaches.

The event will be presided over by King Rick Vaughn , who is also the Tampa Bay Rays VP of Communications and a great supporter of the Miracle League program. He will be joined in this event by his lovely Queen Sue. There will be an additional silent auction of items from around the community, including a few autographed pieces of baseball memorabilia along with several interesting door prizes to be distributed to those in attendance.

The ballroom will be filled with the sounds of Cajun, Zydeco, Blues and Jazz music as guests bask in the quasi-New Orleans atmosphere complete with authentic Hurricane cocktails and authentic food provided by Bayou Catering. I actually was invited to the 2010 event by fellow Rays/Pepsi Fan Wall of Fame member George Stone, who is also the local Miracle League’s Director of Operations.

 

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Iwas promised a night of Cajun fun, food and excitement, and it delivered with gusto. I especially found the dance (Fais do-do) lessons extremely helpful since I am one of those people who love to learn something new every day. From the hour of group instruction to the amazing red beans and rice, Etouffee and decadent desserts, it was truly a great night to remember.

I hope more of the faces I see among the stands in Tropicana Field will be able to attend this 2011 great event that helps support the Miracle Leagues of the Gulf Beaches. The cost is $ 25.00 and can be purchased in advance by calling Sue Reynolds at (727) 398-1360 in advance of the event. It is not mandatory that you dress in the garb of the Fleur-de-lis, but masks and flamboyant Mardi Gras themed apparel does help to heighten the mood. Until then, “Laissez le Bon temp rouler” (Let the Good Times Roll).

 

Dynamic Duo Make Their Rays Debut

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Got to admit to all of the Rays Republic, in the beginning I had a few doubts and even reservations about a Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez duo signing. Maybe it was the aspect that they have been associated with the 2004 Red Sox “Cast of Idiots“, or maybe I was afraid they might not be able to “Cowboy Up!” one last time.

After witnessing the magic and pure adrenaline rush permeating through that Tampa Bay Rays Press Conference media room, my doubts and worry suddenly melted off like Ramirez’s pounds during his workouts in Arizona. From the moment their agent Scott Boras led them into the room until Rays Vice President of Communications Rick Vaughn yelled “Is that all?” This was a glorious ride to see in person.

I was not suppose to be in this room nestled near the darkness with my little camera, but the entire Rays office was poised at noon today to see the next chapter unfold and I tagged along for the ride. From the media buzz to the clicking of camera’s and live video feed both locally and from MLB, this quickly became a love fest, not just for Tampa Bay, but for the two men seated in the middle of the large table.

Instantly you knew both guys were on the same page, had the same intentions and wanted to the guys to help usher in a repeat American League East title. Like Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein so eloquently said recently, “The demise of the Rays is greatly exaggerated.” I am not climbing the flagpole just yet, or marching fully to that beat of triumph again, but this duo instantly make me hunger for that chance.

Both said the right things too. Ramirez flexed his right arm to show his muscle when asked if he was “fit” ,and Damon said insistently this was not the “last chapter” of his baseball career. Instantly the void that grew immense when former clubhouse guru Carlos Pena vacated for Chi-town became smaller. Suddenly I could see the Rays clubhouse leader ship not come from one speaker, but act in stereo with their actions and observations going to make this team competitive every game.

Suddenly I remembered why I hated these two so much. Their competitive nature just seems to ooze from their confidence levels, and that used to scare the death out of me. But there were comments from both that instantly brought me back to why they were signed, Damon called the Rays his “Dream Team” or Ramirez saying while putting on his number 24 Rays jersey that he ” looks good in white“.

Integrity, confidence and ability all joined hands in that room today. Manny was his usual joking self, but did not shy away from questions on if “Manny might be Manny” in Tampa Bay, but a guy who has hit almost .300 lifetime in this dome knows what is expected of him. Possibly Manny even threw out a nugget for the Rays to consider in 2011 that he thinks he can play “five more years”. Not making any predictions, but if Manny is right he has already made his money….maybe a Tampa Bay discount knowing this team can compete might be in the future.

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 The love fest we saw between these two today was incredible. You can tell they are more than happy to be playing with each other again, and the respect level is very high between them. Several times during the Press Conference I expected both to rise and do an Ari Gold (Entourage) “hug out“. Not since Baseball Hall of Fame member Wade Boggs and HOF hopeful Fred McGriff put on a Rays uniform have I been excited about such a veteran duo. Some in the assembled crowd made predictions of a possible 70 Home Runs between the pair while other were optimistic of a great meshing of the duo with the young Rays corps.I left that room running for my laptop in the car wanting to write this. Eager to let this feeling flow from me today of this incredible moment. Some say defining moments in a franchise’s history never reveal themselves until later, but today the moment just felt perfectly right for a half hour. So the signings are official, the jerseys have pressed their backs for the first time and the media got to shake their verbal hands with Damon and Ramirez. For some reason the comment from Ramirez to Damon of “You play 100 games, I’ll play 62” (referring to LF) is still ringing in my ears…in a good way. 

I snuck in to see this magical moment mush like a kid who sneaks under the canvas at the circus. I expected to see a sideshow event. Once that propped both of them up in a definite light. What I got was two men who had extreme confidence and respect for each other pass compliment after compliment not just to themselves, but to the young team they will embrace in 2011.

I really do hope that Evan Longoria and Matt Joyce and the rest of the Rays budding hitter pick the brains of these two baseball icons. I hope the competitive nature and confidence level showed by Damon and Ramirez today fills that Rays Spring Training clubhouse. But most of all I am just glad I got to see the magic happen….firsthand.

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.

 

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.

Team Unity goes Western

 


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(Sorry my camera is having major focus issues right now)

The Tampa Bay Rays have been described as a huge brotherhood for their closeness and their ability to stand up for each other in the bad times. I went to a Rays speaking engagement earlier this year where Rick Vaughn,the Rays PR guru told the group about a story following the conclusion of the World Series Game 5 plane trip back to the Tampa Bay area. Vaughn and his wife were seated in the same aisle as Rays reliever J P Howell and his girlfriend and Vaughn  was awestruck by the fact that everyone on the plane made sure to come by and comfort Howell about taking the loss for that final game in 2008.  

And the mood on that late night plane ride was sad and muted, but it also had the unique feeling that everyone was also upset that they would not be hanging out with each other  every day after that loss. That is the  wild and special bond and closeness of this ball club that other teams would envy. If you ever really watch them during Batting Practice and even before a game, you see the connection factor that this team has with everyone on the roster. So it is only fitting that they would also plan events and road trips with themes and costumes or wardrobes to fit the occasion.

And that also has a great effect on this club. For to come out for a farewell to family and friends before a road trip dressed to the theme of the trip shows a great bond of unity and togetherness on this team. The team has conducted their own version of “American Idol” during Spring Training inviting anyone within the Rays organization to step up to the mic and sing. They have held BBQ’s and impromptu events throughout the year that is attended by almost everyone on the roster.

And the team also showed up in force for Carlos Pena’s 30th birthday celebration out on Madeira Beach earlier this season. But that is the magical bond that this team forged in 2008 and is still growing more and more this year. Rays Manager  Joe Maddon has even instilled a theme to every road trip this year, with the last one to start off in South Florida to have an all-white theme. The players all showed up in their best dressed whites, which included some very stylish head gear by Gabe Kapler, Carlos Pena and Joe Nelson.


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So it is only fitting that during their road trip starting today to the Western town of Denver Colorado they promote a “Western” look. I am not privy to the fact if anyone is going to dress up like a gunslinger, but hopefully if the do, airport security will also have a bit of a sense of humor when they go through the security check near the plane on the tarmac of St. Petersburg/Clearwater airport.  I can only imagine what some of these guys are going to pull out for such an event. With a few true Texans on the team like Jeff Neimann (Houston), Carl Crawford (Houston) and Randy Choate (San Antonio).

With a majority of this team actually coming out of the western state of California, it might be a wild sight of all these guys decked out in their country western best  for the trip to Denver. Now I have done a blog recently where I mentioned that Rays reliever Joe Nelson is going to do a personal rendition of the Yul Brenner character from “The Magnificent Seven” with a complete head-to-toe black on black ensemble.

I really wish I could be there to even get a glimpse even without a camera of this outlandish event. But hopefully some one within the Rays organization (Skip Milos) will be on hand to record the event for prosperity. I did however get a few other members of the Rays to tell me how they were going to promote the event. Both are members of the Rays Bullpen and have been great enough to furnish me with their renditions of their scheduled outfits for the flight.

Scott Cursi (Bullpen Catcher) is a very businessman like guy. He is very upfront and doesn’t partake in the designer label game that some of the fashion plates on the Rays team might use for this trip. He is going to wear a black shirt with jeans and a pair of black Ostrich boots he picked up on a past road trip. He is also going to go with a mesh straw-like cowboy hat because of the heat in the Denver area. Very practical, realistic, totally Scott Cursi is going as the every day man.

Bobby Ramos is one of the best people you could ever meet and chat with about anything, even baseball. He is also one of the teams hidden fashion plates evidenced by his outfit he gave me for the trip out to Colorado. Most people might know about Ramos love for Salsa dancing and music, but the guy is also a man who enjoys the finer things in clothes. From head-to-toe Ramos might just be the best dressed Rays Coach on this plane trip. He is going to top his head with a Jack Daniels black cowboy hat.

He plans on showing off his Ely white shirt with the black piping. He is planning on wearing black Levis jeans to celebrate the western look, and will be wearing a cowboy “bling bling” buckle around his midsection. He did not tell me if it was one of those bronco-busting Texas sized buckles, but you can only imagine. He will put his feet in a fine set of black Justin boots with silver toe caps for that special “Uptown Cowboy” look.


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Doing things like this themed road trip traveling party can help bring together everyone on the team. Players like Pat Burrell and Gabe Kapler did not get to mesh with these guys in 2008, but they have also come together with the Rays players to form a close knit bond on this team. The one guy who might feel a bit left out on this trip might be Winston Abreu, who comes from the island of the Dominican Republic and might not have gotten a heads up on the festivities today for the plane (Hopefully they will drink Coors Light).

But you can bet maybe Willy Aybar or Carlos Pena will get the recent addition to the Rays roster ready and in style by the time they head to the Trop tonight.  Team bonding is a special time for these guys, and events like this can show outwardly their own commitments to the “Rays Way.”

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