Friday, February 29, 2008

Memories of the 'Ed'

Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota is, how do I put this? Not my favorite stadium in the Grapefruit League circuit.

It’s too blah.

No real atmosphere.

But I do have some fond memories from the stadium, which is the spring home of the Cincinnati Reds.

It was tough to top one of my first visits. While working for the Sun Herald in Port Charlotte in 1994, I found myself inside the place – with about 500 other reporters and photographers – to watch Michael Jordan take batting practice.

He had just signed with the Chicago White Sox, capping his first retirement from basketball.

I stood by the batting cage and watched him hit weak line drives and ground balls.

Kids skipped school that day and watched from behind the outfield fence, crawling in the dirt to peak from the one portion of the fence not covered by ads.

One of those ads is still there today. Unique Air Services. Every photographer worked like a dog to get a picture of His Airness catching a fly ball in front of the ad for Unique Air.

A few weeks later, a friend sent me a photo that appeared in the New York Times of Jordan taking batting practice that afternoon. You could see me in the background.

Nearly the same photo appeared in Sports Illustrated. Jordan swinging and me squinting.

Neither one of us looked good.

I also ran one of my fastest 5Ks during a race held before a Florida State League game more than a few years ago.

I watched Tony Saunders make his second-to-last rehab start as the former Tampa Bay Devil Ray (and they were Devil Rays back then) tried to return from a broken arm suffered while pitching against Juan Gonzalez at Tropicana Field the year before.

Saunders insistent he would return from the horrific injury of a bone snapping while he was throwing a baseball.

The same bone would snap again during his next start, which was at Al Lang Field.

Not much charm to this park, but some nice memories.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Now it's the "old" complex

I walked out of the Raymond A Naimoli Complex for the last time, and I must admit, it was a little sad.

I spend 14 days there every February, less if I take off a Sunday or two, covering the first workouts of the year for the Tampa Bay Rays. First it is the pitchers and catchers, then the full squad workouts.

While we are at the complex just a short time, it seems like we are always there, tucked along a wall of the media workroom, which is the room just inside the main entrance, so everyone who enters the complex has to pass through us, leaving us reporters to answer such questions as:

“Where do I pick up a credential?”

“I’m here to see … (and they ask for the public relations department or Ziggy, the Rays traveling secretary, or Westy, the Rays equipment manager).”

Or, and this one is asked a dozen times every day, “Where’s the bathroom?”

The workroom is just a pair of brown doors from the clubhouse, which at this time of the year, is one of the cheerier rooms you’ll find anywhere.

The players are glad to start another season. Optimism rules the day.

We get there around 8 a.m. every morning and spend about an hour in the clubhouse talking to players before they head out to the fields. Sometimes I watch the workout. Sometimes I work on a story, listening for the tell-tale sign the players have returned to the clubhouse – the sound of the water running in the shower, which is next to our room.

Over the past 11 years, I’ve talked to dozens of players, from the expansion Rays of John Flaherty and Roberto Hernandez and Wilson Alvarez to the current cast of Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Scott Kazmir, Carlos Pena and James Shields.

This bunch is by far the best to work with.

The first three managers, Larry Rothschild, Hal McRae and Lou Piniella, liked to meet the writers outside as they came off the field, which means your tape recorder picked up more of the wind than the witty things they each had to say.

Current Rays manager Joe Maddon held his daily press conference in a little patio outside his office. We sat around a table and talked about the players. Some days we could hear the music playing on his stereo. The other day it was Credence Clearwater Revival.

Maddon used to bring out a bucket of beer, but that tradition didn’t last long.

I spent some long days at the complex. Sometimes as long as 10 hours.

And it was a blast.

The place had its own smells: deodorant in the clubhouse and freshly mowed grass and suntan lotion out on the ball fields.

You could hear dogs barking from the dog park next door, and on the weekends, the sounds of the youth soccer fields located on the other side of the complex would drift over.

Birds sang from the trees that lined the outside of the complex and squirrels had the run of the grounds.

It is over now.

The Rays practiced there Thursday for the last time.

Next year they will start training in Port Charlotte, where the old Texas Rangers complex is being rebuilt for the Rays.

I used to work in Port Charlotte, and that place couldn’t compare to the Naimoli complex. It didn’t have the history or the charm even though the Rangers had better teams.

I’m told it’s going to be beautiful, though, and I expect it will be. The Rays want their new digs to be the envy of all.

But I’m a softie for history and baseball tradition.

So I said my good-byes to the complex, now the Rays old complex.

I’m sure I’ll like their new home, but I will miss their old home.

Even if I no longer have to direct someone toward the bathroom.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Bonds a Ray? Why?

It could be nothing, just some talk between front-office types about available free agents that was leaked. Mike Piazza and Kenny Lofton are still unsigned, but no one is in a frenzy over them.

But Barry Bonds?

And the Tampa Bay Rays?


OK, forget all his baggage. Bonds is the game’s all-time home run hitter and just 65 hits shy of 3,000 for his career. You could see where a team desperate to make a bump at the gate and get votes for a new stadium would want to add an attraction like that to its roster, not to mention Barry’s bat to the middle of the lineup.

Think Carlos Pena would see better pitches with Bonds standing on deck?

But with Bonds, you can’t forget the baggage. You can’t ignore the steroids and HGH and grand jury testimonies and perjury charges and that big recliner that takes up a corner of the clubhouse and tends to rub his teammates the wrong way.

The Rays have worked hard at turning their clubhouse into the Disney version of a major league locker room. Everybody is happy, and the place is spotless, too. You should see it.

The big question is why Bonds would be interested in Tampa Bay, which has basically been the witness protection program for ballplayers.

You want to fly under the radar, grab a Rays jersey and blend in with the empty blue seats. But Bonds kind of likes the spotlight, despite its glare.

There is the money, too. Bonds has more home runs than anyone in the history of the game and will expect to be paid like someone with more home runs than anyone in the history of the game.

The Rays just don’t have that kind of money, unless they offer Bonds a contract heavy on incentives, which the 43-year-old may not be willing to accept given his advancing age. One injury, and he’s buying off the dollar menu.

This would be a bad fit.

The Rays are on the way up and don’t need an angry, tainted slugger who is looking for a locker so he can end his career on his terms and chase his 3,000 hits. They’ve had that in Greg Vaughn and Wade Boggs, though neither was tainted or angry, just here for the money and the at-bats.

The Rays have a team long on young, talented players. The front office added some veteran pieces in the offseason to fill a few needs and lend a veteran presence. They’ve worked hard to create a family atmosphere both in the stands and in the clubhouse.

No doubt a healthy Bonds would help the Rays, but his is a piece so big it could undermine the organization’s image and crush the dreams of a team ready to make that leap toward respectability.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

No joke, Rays lead AL East

In its Feb. 25 edition, The Sporting News ranked the teams in the American League East, and the Rays are first.

Rays? First?

Don’t get too excited, but don’t laugh, either.

The rankings reflected the offseason moves made by each team, and signing closer Troy Percival and outfielder/DH Cliff Floyd and trading for starting pitcher Matt Garza, shortstop Jason Bartlett and utility infielder Willy Aybar trumped any moves made by their division rivals.

Toronto picked up shortstop David Eckstein and third baseman Scott Rolen from the Cardinals, which may or may not help the Blue Jays.

Boston and New York didn’t do much, except re-sign their free agents.

Baltimore? Well, the Orioles continue to be the Orioles and helped their division rivals by trading their best pitcher, Erik Bedard, to Seattle and shortstop Miguel Tejada to Houston, thus wrapping up last place before the first pitcher and catcher even reported.

The Red Sox and Yankees didn’t have to do much, because both are loaded, and Toronto should improve just by staying healthy.

Barring a spring training injury or two, the Rays are putting together the best Opening Day lineup in their short history. While that’s not saying much, the team should improve over last year’s 96-loss, last-place finish.

How all of this plays out during the regular season remains to be seen.

But this is certain: The Rays did win the battle of the offseason.

Hey, it is good to be No. 1 at something.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I see you talk, but can you hit?

The music returns to spring training Wednesday when the position players report to the Tampa Bay Rays and the Pittsburgh Pirates camps.

To me, this is the true start of the spring training.

Pitchers and catchers are nice, but I can only take seeing guys throw in the bullpen and pitchers practicing fielding bunts and covering first base for so long. Usually 30 minutes.

On Tuesday, I watched Rays minor league pitching coordinator Dick Bosman conduct pickoff drills when someone asked me, “Didn’t they go over this last year?”

Yes, but what is baseball if not repetition.

Anyway …

The real work begins when the position players take their cuts and the sound of a wood bat on a baseball sings throughout the land.

If the hitters are in town, the exhibition games can’t be too far away, and if it is almost exhibition season, well, can the regular season be far behind?

My favorite full-squad workout moment occurred in 2000 when Jose Canseco finally arrived at Rays camp. Devil Rays camp back then.

He reported late, of course. He always did.

Greg Vaughn was the big addition that spring, the key piece of the soon-to-be failed “Hit Show.”

Canseco arrived with all the bells and whistles that accompanied his arrival. He joked about the glove in his locker.

“What’s this?” he asked, holding up the straight-from-the-factory glove wrapped in plastic as if it were a foreign object, which to Canseco, it was.

Then he made his way to a practice field and sat in a dugout with Vaughn, and they talked.

And talked.

And talked.

For like a half hour.

And fans stood and watched, and photographers captured the scene, and reporters scribbled in their notebooks.

For 30 minutes nothing happened, and it was the story of the day.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Hey, watch the carpet!

No spikes on the clubhouse carpet. You know what that means? Lots of work for the guys who work the clubhouse for the Tampa Bay Rays.

The players come off the field and sit on a bench outside the clubhouse door.

They pull off their spikes, caked with clay if they are pitchers and catchers and infielders who toil on the surface during workouts.

The players then place their spikes neatly on a table and head inside the clubhouse.

The pitchers return a few minutes later sporting running shoes for their daily routine with the training staff and some medicine balls.

Also, sprints across the outfield or a long run around the complex are required, depending on the day’s schedule.

Meanwhile, the clubbies are busy ridding the spikes of all dirt with wire brushes. After that, it’s a coat of shoe polish. It’s quite a show.

Within minutes, the spikes are back in the proper locker, ready for another day of spring training.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Tangled up in blue

It’s not easy being blue?

No. It’s not easy being green, according to Kermit The Frog.

Not sure of his take on the Tampa Bay Rays new uniforms, but it’s taking me a little time to get used to all the blue.

Sure, you see the T-shirts and hats in the stores around town, but walk into the Rays clubhouse, like I did Thursday, and see all the blue hanging from hooks that used to hold green and, Wow!

Then came Friday’s first workout of the spring and it is blue caps and blue jerseys and I felt like I was at the wrong complex.

Saturday was a little better.

The blue is growing on me, though I never saw anything wrong with the green.

They looked sharp, especially the sleeveless white jerseys with the green undershirts. But, no one consulted me before the change.

I suspect by the end of spring training the Rays will be identified by their blue and it will be like the time my neighbor painted her house yellow – a rather loud shade of yellow – and within a week I couldn’t remember what the color of the house used to be.

It wasn’t green. I know that much.

Friday, February 15, 2008

From Pee Wee to Zim to B.J.

You had everything you needed Friday at the Tampa Bay Rays complex in St. Petersburg for a perfect day to begin spring training.

There was sun and a cloudless sky and, perhaps most importantly, no wind.

There was Scott Kazmir, the reigning American League strikeout champ, throwing off the bullpen mound in the same group as newly acquired closer Troy Percival, the man expected to lead this young pitching staff, and lefty David Price, the first overall pick of last June’s draft, who is expected to be a stud in the Rays' rotation in the near future.

The young and the old and the All-Star.

And you also had Zim – Rays senior baseball adviser Don Zimmer.

The 77-year-old Zimmer is beginning his 60th year in baseball, which is why you might have noticed his new number – 60.

Zim has been celebrating his years in baseball this way for sometime.
He has spent the past 50 years at the major league level, including the past 37 as a manager, coach or adviser.

Seeing him leaning against the batting cage on a practice field while bench coach Dave Martinez hit ground balls to the pitchers during fielding practice is a sight as old as spring training itself.

He is one of those aging ex-ballplayers who stick around year after year after year to teach the kids how to play the game the right way.

Zim learned from Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson and passes his knowledge on to B.J. Upton and Carlos Pena.

He is as much a part of the game as the sacrifice fly and the hit-and-run.

Watch him lean against the batting cage advising young players on how to play long enough to be considered aging vets like Rays outfielder Cliff Floyd and Percival, and it is hard not to get excited about the upcoming season, no matter which uniform Zim is wearing.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A day 11 years in the making

The doors swung open 11 years ago, and out walked the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, led by manager Larry Rothschild, who shimmied out of the clubhouse like Ray Lewis taking the field before a football game.

OK, that didn’t happen.

But Rothschild did lead the first group of players into the first spring training workout in team history Feb. 15, 1998 – a cold, blustery day.

There was hope and optimism around that team, but largely because Tampa Bay finally had major league baseball.

A wiseguy might argue Tampa Bay is still waiting for major league baseball, and he (or she) might be right.

The Rays will walk through that same door Friday – on the 10th anniversary of that first workout – and no one can argue the current group isn't better than the first edition of Rays baseball.

Yes, major league baseball has finally arrived around here.

Rays manager Joe Maddon said Thursday each of the 25 players who make the Opening Day roster will be legitimate major league players. That wasn’t always the case during the first decade of Rays baseball.

It took some time — actually it took a new owner, a new front office and a fourth manager — but the team has finally turned the corner.

Yes, the proof will be in the win-loss record.

But the excuses have been pealed away. They are no longer the lowest paid and youngest team in the majors.

Winning is now expected.

Losing will be seen as underachieving.

For the first time in franchise history, people actually expect something from this team.

And all it took was 11 years.