Monday, June 30, 2008

A view of the Rays from the Boston press

The Rays ended the first half of the season Sunday with the best record in baseball, not to mention the best record in team history after 81 games. They have certainly gotten everyone’s attention, including the second place Boston Red Sox, who begin a three-game series tonight at Tropicana Field.

Here’s what they’re saying in the Boston papers

From Gordon Edes of the Boston Globe:

The assumption, from the time the MLB computers spat out the 2008 schedule last summer, was that the Red Sox would be playing a meaningful series this week.

But no one, outside of Joe Maddon's immediate family and closest friends, dreamed it would come at the Trop. That visit to the Bronx over the Fourth? Hey, the fireworks begin tonight in St. Pete, where the Sox try to wrest first place away from the Tampa Bay Rays, young, gifted, and still amped from the last time they played - and fought - the Sox.

With Boston falling, 3-2, to the Astros yesterday afternoon, a tie-breaking pinch single by former Sox second baseman Mark Loretta the latest blow to Hideki Okajima's increasingly fragile psyche, the Sox find themselves a half-game in arrears of the Rays, 4-3 winners in Pittsburgh.

The Rays, of course, never have been in first place this deep into any of their previous 10 seasons. No team in the American League East other than the Yankees or Red Sox have been in first as late as July since the 2000 season, when the Blue Jays still held the top spot on July 14 before fading to third.

Sox third baseman Mike Lowell, mindful that the Rays swept the Sox on their last visit to the Trop in April, professed not to be surprised that the Rays are where they are.

"They've played damn good baseball for three months," said Lowell, who came to the plate against Astros closer Jose Valverde with a chance to duplicate his ninth-inning home run from Saturday night, but instead tapped into a force play, Kevin Youkilis then lining out to leave the Sox with a total of 13 stranded runners yesterday. "I think that's a pretty good track record. This is a big series for us. We want to play well. But I don't think it's a be-all or end-all."

But will it be that for the Rays?

"It's a big series," Lowell reiterated. "The media are going to want to hype it up. It's a series that whoever wins will be in first place at the end of it, and that's important to us."

From Jeff Horrigan of the Boston Herald:

For most of their first 10 major league seasons, the Tampa Bay Rays basically played the role of the hapless Washington Generals to the Red Sox vastly-superior Harlem Globetrotters.

When they head to Tropicana Field tonight to open a three-game series, however, it will be the Sox looking up in the standings, attempting to avoid having a figurative bucket of confetti thrown in their face by the American League’s top team.

Hideki Okajima surrendered a run-scoring, pinch-hit single to Mark Loretta with two outs in the eighth inning yesterday at Minute Maid Park, resulting in a 3-2 loss to the Houston Astros. That knocked the Sox into second place in the AL East, a half-game behind Tampa Bay, which downed Pittsburgh, 4-3.

The sagging Sox, who dropped the last two games of the season’s final interleague series in the Astros’ final at-bat, fell out of first place for the first time since June 3, when they also trailed the Rays by a half-game.

“This series right now is the biggest series for that franchise,” Julio Lugo, a former Ray, said.

From Rob Bradford of the Boston Herald:

The fight of the Red Sox young 2008 lives begins today, and it has nothing to do about bench-clearing brawls, retaliation or fiery salvos thrown from one clubhouse to another.
As much as it might hurt, you might want to avert your attention from donnybrook-related matters for the moment.

The starting gun for the race for first place in the American League East is being fired at Tropicana Field tonight and, despite the perception of many New Englanders on their way to St. Petersburg, Fla., nobody will be living the life of the longshot this time around.

Flash-in-the-pan status has left the Rays’ anything-but-morbid building. Look at today’s standings for further proof.

“I think it will be about two teams that are in first place that are battling, and that’s what it needs to be about,” Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to play the game and move on. I think the media will take it as that, two teams that are battling for first-place once the games start going. . . . Whatever happens, happens. It will all play out.”

The final words of Papelbon’s analysis suggest he hasn’t totally let go of the tension between the Rays and the Sox that has continued to linger since June 5. But the owner of the most pointed comments of the past few weeks also has come to understand the task at hand.

“What I’ve said has been said, whoop-dee-do,” he said. “What I’ve said has been said. We’ve got to move on and play the games.” …

The Red Sox’ tact has been, and will continue to be, that of a team with permanent membership into the “been there, done that” club. When you live with at least 18 of these must-win scenarios built into the schedule thanks to the presence of those Yankees, pre-Fourth of July showdowns don’t elicit extra hours of advance scouting meetings.

“To be totally honest, and I know it sounds cliche, but it’s just another series,” Papelbon said. “Yeah, we have extracurricular stuff going on, but it is just another series.”

If the Red Sox approached it any other way, that would truly be news. (See Papelbon’s post-fight comments.)

Yet, while the Sox can afford to worry about themselves, their fans might want to pay close attention to the baseball players dressed in blue and white who aren’t punching, yelling or poking. It might just be the one pinstripe-free team worth following.

“It will definitely be strange for me to see it,” said Red Sox catcher Kevin Cash, a former Ray. “For the people there, it will be second to none. When I was there we had lost around 11 in a row at this time of year. It was a grind in June when it’s supposed to be a grind in August and September. I guess things have changed.”

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Do they still play the blues in Chicago?

Songwriter Steve Goodman died two weeks before the Cubs won the division title in 1984, denying him the chance to see his beloved team win a title and also preventing him from witnessing another of their legendary choke jobs.

Though he left this earth too soon, he was 36 when he died of leukemia, Goodman left us with the “City of New Orleans” and “Go, Cubs, Go.” He also wrote “A Dying Cub Fan’s last Request,” which is, for my money, the best song written about a major league baseball team.

With the Cubs at the Trop for three games with the Rays this week, I’ve found myself listening to Goodman’s ode to the long and suffering Cubs fans a few times this week on a CD I have of baseball songs.

Here’s a link to a YouTube video of Goodman playing the song with Wrigley Field as the backdrop. Here are also the lyrics.

“A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request”

By the shore's of old Lake Michigan
Where the "hawk wind" blows so cold
An old Cub fan lay dying
In his midnight hour that tolled
Round his bed, his friends had all gathered
They knew his time was short
And on his head they put this bright blue cap
From his all-time favorite sport

He told them, "Its late and its getting dark in here"
And I know its time to go
But before I leave the line-upBoys,
there's just one thing I'd like to know

Do they still play the blues in Chicago
When baseball season rolls around
When the snow melts away,
Do the Cubbies still play
In their ivy-covered burial ground
When I was a boy they were my pride and joy
But now they only bring fatigue
To the home of the brave
The land of the free
And the doormat of the National League

Told his friends "You know the law of averages says:
Anything will happen that can
"That's what it says"
But the last time the Cubs won a National League pennant
Was the year we dropped the bomb on Japan"

The Cubs made me a criminal
Sent me down a wayward path
They stole my youth from me(that's the truth)
I'd forsake my teachers
To go sit in the bleachers
In flagrant truancy
and then one thing led to another
and soon I'd discovered alcohol, gambling, dope
football, hockey, lacrosse, tennis
But what do you expect,
When you raise up a young boy's hopes
And then just crush 'em like so many paper beer cups.
Year after year after year
after year, after year, after year, after year, after year
'Til those hopes are just so much popcorn
for the pigeons beneath the 'L' tracks to eat

He said, "You know I'll never see Wrigley Field, anymore before my eternal rest
So if you have your pencils and your score cards ready,
and I'll read you my last request

He said, "Give me a double header funeral in Wrigley Field
On some sunny weekend day (no lights)
Have the organ play the "National Anthem"
and then a little 'na, na, na, na, hey hey, hey, Goodbye'

Make six bullpen pitchers, carry my coffin
and six ground keepers clear my path
Have the umpires bark me out at every baseI
n all their holy wrath

Its a beautiful day for a funeral,
Hey Ernie lets play two!
Somebody go get Jack Brickhouse to come back,
and conduct just one more interview

Have the Cubbies run right out into the middle of the field,
Have Keith Moreland drop a routine fly
Give everybody two bags of peanuts and a frosty malt
And I'll be ready to die

Build a big fire on home plate out of your Louisville Sluggers baseball bats,
And toss my coffin in
Let my ashes blow in a beautiful snow
From the prevailing 30 mile an hour southwest wind
When my last remains go flying over the left-field wall
Will bid the bleacher bums ad?eu
And I will come to my final resting place,
out on Waveland Avenue

The dying man's friends told him to cut it out
They said stop it that's an awful shame
He whispered, "Don't Cry, we'll meet by and by
near the Heavenly Hall of Fame

He said, "I've got season's tickets to watch the Angels now,
So its just what I'm going to do
He said, "but you the living, you're stuck here with the Cubs,
So its me that feels sorry for you!"

And he said, "Ahh Play, play that lonesome losers tune,
That's the one I like the best"
And he closed his eyes, and slipped away
What we got is the Dying Cub Fan's Last Request
And here it is

Do they still play the blues in Chicago
When baseball season rolls around
When the snow melts away,
Do the Cubbies still play
In their ivy-covered burial ground
When I was a boy they were my pride and joy
But now they only bring fatigue
To the home of the brave
The land of the free
And the doormat of the National League

Friday, June 13, 2008

They used to be giants

Frank Robinson was at Tropicana Field on Friday night.

The hall of famer popped into the Rays clubhouse before the game. His surprise appearance stopped a conversation by Carl Crawford and Cliff Floyd in the far corner.

It is good to see today’s players show signs of respect like that to the old-timers, especially when this old-timer is a two-time MVP and took his 586 home runs to Cooperstown.

But what struck me more was Robinson’s size, or lack of size.

He was listed as 6-foot-1, 195 pounds during his playing days. Somehow I expected him Robby to be bigger.

For some reason I usually do when I run across a player who was a star during my childhood.
It was the same with Reggie Jackson.

I remember sitting in the right field seats at Yankee Stadium during 1980 and watching a ball hit by Jackson sail over my head and into the upper deck. I couldn’t believe someone standing that far from me could hit a baseball that was still climbing as it soared by.

I was at Legends Field before a spring training game a few years ago when this man who looked like Reggie Jackson walked by. Couldn’t be Reggie, I thought. Too small.


Jackson was listed at 6-0, 200 during his playing days. That body generated 563 home runs?

Believe it.

I guess when you are a kid you think all the sluggers are 6-5, 250 pounds.

Some where but not all.

Still, they were giants in my eyes.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Pena to DL, OK. If it was CC? Yikes!

Seeing Carlos Pena headed to the disabled list with a broken index finger should not alarm Rays fan.

What should have scared them to death was the news Carl Crawford’s trip to Boston detoured through Alabama where he was examined by Dr. James Andrews.

The problem is a balky right knee and right hamstring that Crawford injured during Thursday's game with Chicago.

Having Pena out of the lineup for a couple of weeks won’t hurt the Rays too much. He’s not hitting, so it’s not like the offense will take much of a hit. They will miss his glove, though. I thought Pena was having a Gold Glove-caliber season. Eric Hinske is a capable replacement but not on par with Pena when it comes to defense.

Also, the rest might help Pena shake this slump that’s now entering its third month.

But Crawford?

His absence from the lineup for an extended time would really hurt.

While Crawford is not having his typical Carl Crawford season at the plate, he can still get on base and make things happen.

And his defense? Crawford is the best defensive left fielder in the American League. Take him away from the Rays lineup and that is one hole they can not plug.

Thankfully, Crawford’s MRI was negative.

Let’s hope it is not an injury that lingers through the summer, because the Rays need Carl Crawford to be Carl Crawford if they hope to continue playing like a playoff contender.