Today, I went to one of my favorite places in the entire universe, Durham Bulls Athletic Park, for the first time in 2009. The Bulls were supposed to play the Norfolk Tides, but unfortunately the game was rained out. But I’m not upset about the rain out, mostly because of an unexpected surprise. It turned out that the William Harridge Trophy that was awarded to the Rays for their 2008 American League Championship was present at the ballpark! Of course I posed with it, and here I am with the official symbol of the Rays championship:
Seeing the trophy in person was definitely one of the happiest moments of my life, and this immediately becomes one of my favorite photos. It was awesome for the Rays to share the trophy with their growing legion of fans in North Carolina. William Harridge, by the way, was the president of the American League from 1931 to 1958.
Due to the rain out, I’ll be attending tomorrow night’s game between the Bulls and the Tides. David Price, who was supposed to pitch tonight, will be pitching in that game. It’s the second time that I’ll get to see Price pitch in person this year. I also saw him pitch in the spring training game that I attended in Port Charlotte. And yes, the post about my spring training experience is coming very soon. Anyway, the Tides are the Triple-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, so I’ll also get to see Matt Wieters in action. It’s tough to beat seeing the top two prospects in baseball playing in the same game. And as an added bonus, I’ll get to meet another card blogger in person. Pete from Dropped Third Strike will also be at the game, along with his girlfriend Kim.
Since their amazing run to the 2008 World Series, the Tampa Bay Rays have parted ways with Cliff Floyd, Eric Hinske, Rocco Baldelli, Jonny Gomes, Edwin Jackson, and Trever Miller. Today, they said goodbye to another member of the 2008 team, Jason Hammel, who was traded to the Colorado Rockies for a promising 21-year old minor league pitcher, Aneury Rodriguez. Hammel lost the battle for the 5th spot in the starting rotation to Jeff Niemann, who does have a much higher upside. Niemann was the #4 overall pick in the 2004 draft, he’s finally healthy after overcoming several injuries, and he’s proven all that he can in the minor leagues. However, he’s just keeping the #5 starter role warm for David Price.
Anyway, it’s sad to see Jason Hammel go. He’s responsible for one of my best all-time baseball memories. First, here’s some background. Hammel was the Rays’ 10th round pick in the 2002 draft, and he quickly emerged as one of their top pitching prospects. By 2005, he was dominating in Double-A for the Montgomery Biscuits, and other than the injury-plagued Niemann, he was the Rays’ top pitching prospect. He completely overshadowed James Shields in the Montgomery rotation that year. He was promoted to Triple-A Durham at the end of 2005, and I remember excitedly making a trip to Durham Bulls Athletic Park to watch him pitch for the first time.
However, it was during the 2006 season that Hammel created the memory that will stay with me for many, many years. It was July 16, 2006, exactly two weeks after my wedding. My wife and I had recently gotten back from our honeymoon in St. Lucia, and we were busy sending out thank-you notes for wedding gifts and trying to return to normalcy after our whirlwind wedding and honeymoon experiences. I suggested that we go to the Bulls game that day, and we invited two friends of ours to come with us. The Bulls were playing the Columbus Clippers, who at the time were the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate. I remember that it was a beautiful day for a baseball game. It was about 85 degrees with the sun shining, and we had great seats on the first base side. And Jason Hammel was on the mound.
Hammel was pitching brilliantly, and the Bulls took a 4-0 lead over the Clippers. Around the 4th inning, I commented that he hadn’t given up any hits yet, and I explained what a no-hitter was to my wife. I told her how rare it was and that I’d never seen one in person. The innings continued to go by, and Hammel continued to not allow any hits. I was beginning to think that this could be a truly special day. By the 8th inning, Hammel’s pitch count was getting high, and I could tell that he was laboring a bit more, but he continued to not give up any hits. After getting one out in the 9th, Bulls manager John Tamargo needed to take Hammel out of the game. After all, he was a highly regarded prospect, and this was the minor leagues. The Rays organization doesn’t like to take chances with potential injuries. Although many fans grumbled, Hammel got a loud standing ovation as he walked back to the dugout. Juan Salas entered the game in relief. Due to a combination of walks and errors, Salas did give up a run in the 9th, but he didn’t give up any hits. The Bulls won the game 4-1, and the no-hitter was complete! I was absolutely thrilled to have seen a no-hitter in person!
Hammel got his first shot in the major leagues at the end of 2006, and he split 2007 between Durham and Tampa Bay, becoming a fixture in the Rays starting rotation by the end of that season. In 2008, he was in the big leagues for good, starting out as the #5 starter, and then becoming the long man in the bullpen after Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza returned from the D.L. He proved to be an effective long reliever, but my favorite Hammel memory from 2008 came on September 10, in the heat of the pennant race at a game in Boston. The game went into the 14th inning before Carlos Pena hit a home run in the top of the 14th to give the Rays the lead. They exhausted the bullpen, using seven different pitchers, before giving the ball to Hammel in the bottom of the 14th to save the game. Hammel was accustomed to being a long reliever, but he was effective and picked up his first career save in an extremely crucial game.
I wish Jason Hammel nothing but success with the Rockies. I hope that he finds a way to pitch well in the thin air of Colorado. Here are some of my photos from that glorious day back in 2006…
I took the picture of the starting lineups as I was leaving the stadium. I figured that it would be interesting to look at the lineups years later to see who was in the game. The Bulls lineup was headlined by B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, and Elijah Dukes, and it also included future Ray, Ben Zobrist. But take a look at who was hitting third for Columbus – Carlos Pena! Pena had fallen on hard luck after a few decent seasons in Detroit. He had been with Columbus all year, and he’d be released by the Yankees later that summer. He then signed with Boston, and he played for both Triple-A Pawtucket and the Red Sox at the end of the season before they released him too. The Rays picked up up from the scrap heap before the 2007 season, and he just barely made the team after an injury to Greg Norton. He went on to hit 77 home runs and drive in 223 runs for the Rays in 2007 and 2008, making it hard to believe that back in 2006, he was stuck in Triple-A on a team that was no-hit by his future teammate Jason Hammel!
So check out what the 2009 Bowman hobby boxes are going to look like:
Yep, that’s David Price pictured on the box and on the packs. This is just one example of the incredible amount of attention that the Rays have been getting from Topps and Upper Deck recently. Every product preview that I’ve read on Wax Heaven lately seems to feature Evan Longoria, David Price, or both. For a sampling, check out this image that Mario posted showing images of five different 2009 Upper Deck products; all but one of them is of a Rays player:
Somebody even told me that Longoria is pictured on the cover of the current Beckett magazine. It’s crazy. One of the things that drew me back into the hobby about a year ago was how cheap all of the Rays autograph cards were. I was able to load up on autographs of Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena, Scott Kazmir, James Shields, and many others for about $5 – $10 each. Many of the same cards are selling for twice as much money today, even though the poor economy has led to a decline in the value of most cards. I also remember being frustrated by how the card companies seemed to intentionally minimize the number of Rays in each card set. The vast majority of 2007 and 2008 card sets included cards of Crawford, Upton, Kazmir, and no other Rays. It’s incredible how much the amazing 2008 season can change things…
Suddenly I live in a world where Evan Longoria and David Price are the hottest names in the entire card hobby, and extra Rays cards are being included in every set due to their appearance in the 2008 World Series. The Rays have gone from being hobby pariahs to hobby messiahs! Despite how horrible most upcoming 2009 baseball card products look, it should be a fun year to load up on all of the great Rays cards being produced.
All of the attention on the Rays certainly is strange. There have even been a few people on the internet who have accused me of being a band wagon jumper. Little do they know that one of my biggest reasons for becoming a Rays fan in the early part of this decade was that they had absolutely no band wagon to jump on. I loved being a fan of a new team that had never had a decent season so that I could follow their minor leaguers and watch them try to grow into a winning team someday.
Well, “someday” arrived quite suddenly last year. It is a much different experience to be a Rays fan now. And even though I am about the furthest thing imaginable from a band wagon jumper, I do hope that many people, especially in Florida, jump on the band wagon this year. The Rays definitely need to see an increase in attendance at Tropicana Field and an increase in TV ratings to help build a case for getting a new stadium built. And they’re also going to need an increase in revenue to be able to afford to keep all of their good young players around for many years. The thought of seeing B.J. Upton or Matt Garza in Yankees uniforms in 2013 makes me want to vomit…
We all know that the results of spring training games are meaningless, and Thursday’s game between the Rays and the Yankees was no exception. The Rays only had one regular starter in the lineup (Carl Crawford) and the team more closely resembled the 2008 Durham Bulls than the real Tampa Bay Rays. And of course, they lost the game, 5-1. But there are some moments in spring training games, performances by certain players, that actually are meaningful and become sources of real optimism for fans.
I remember last spring when David Price pitched an inning against the Yankees and struck out the side, generating a huge amount of excitement and foreshadowing his late season and post-season success. And then on Thursday, another Rays pitching phenom, Wade Davis, took the mound and had an even more impressive performance. Davis made his first start of the spring, and pitched two perfect innings against the Yankees. While Price struck out Shelley Duncan, Jason Lane, and Wilson Betemit in his memorable outing, Davis faced the Yankees real lineup. He struck out Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Robinson Cano. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Wade Davis is a name that might not be familiar to many baseball fans, but he’s been very well known to Rays fans ever since he was the team’s 3rd round pick in 2004. Davis has been overshadowed by David Price in the Rays organization, but he’d be the top pitching prospect for almost any other team in MLB. Although the Rays have a very, very good starting rotation with Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine, and Price, I expect that Wade Davis will find a spot in the rotation sometime in 2009, either because of an injury or by forcing the team to trade someone to make room for him. At the very least, he could be a very valuable late inning reliever until a spot in the rotation opens up.
The story of Wade Davis really goes back to 2003. That year, the (Devil) Rays took a gamble with their third round pick, taking a highly touted pitcher from a Florida high school in the third round. They intended to offer a large enough bonus to entice him to sign instead of going to college. That pitcher was Andrew Miller, and the Rays were unable to sign him. He decided to go to college down the road from me in Chapel Hill, where he dominated for three years. He was then drafted by the Tigers with the #6 overall pick in 2006, traded to the Marlins in 2007, and he became a card blog phenomenon in 2008 when Mario from Wax Heaven began collecting his cards…
Anyway, the experience with Miller in 2003 did not deter the Rays from following the same strategy in the 2004 draft. Once again, they took a high school pitcher from Florida in the third round. This time it was Wade Davis, and this time they were successful in convincing him to sign with the team instead of attending the University of Florida. They did the same thing in the fifth round, grabbing Jake McGee from a Nevada high school. Davis and McGee immediately became two of their top pitching prospects. They pitched together in rookie league Princeton in 2004, and then they both started to dominate at short-season Single-A Hudson Valley in 2005. Davis led the league in strikeouts. They moved up to Single-A Southwest Michigan in 2006, and high Single-A Vero Beach in 2007. Davis threw no-hitters in each year, and he finished second in the organization in strikeouts both years, only behind McGee. Both of them were promoted to Double-A Montgomery in the second half of 2007.
They started 2008 together again in Montgomery, and both were among the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. McGee was rated slightly higher on most prospect lists since he’s a lefty and Davis is a righty. Unfortunately, McGee hurt his elbow in June, and had to undergo Tommy John surgery. He won’t be back until late 2009 at the earliest. Davis continued to dominate in Double-A, earning the start in the Southern League All Star game, which I attended. I was able to get him to sign a baseball for me before the game:
Davis was promoted to Triple-A Durham immediately after the All Star game, and he was the Bulls’ best pitcher in the second half, with a 2.72 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 55 strikeouts in 53 innings. I was fortunate to be able to see him pitch a few times in Durham. Davis is now 23, he throws a fastball that tops out at 98 MPH, a killer curveball, an improving changeup, and he’s recently added a slider to his repertoire. He also seems to have a tough bulldog mentality on the mound, similar to Matt Garza. He’s going to be a #1 or #2 starting pitcher in the major leagues, and I can’t wait to see his career develop. But I won’t complain if I get to see him spend a little bit more time in Durham…
To date, Wade Davis’ only certified autograph is from 2004 Upper Deck SP Prospects, and it’s by far his most desirable card. You can see my copy of the card, #418/600, below. There should be quite a few more Davis autographs in Topps and Upper Deck products once he makes his major league debut. If he has the success in the major leagues that I believe that he will, his cards will have a major impact on the hobby.
I just found out that I’ll be able to watch the Rays on TV today for the first time this year! Their spring training game against the Yankees will be on the YES Network, so I can watch it on DirecTV. Wade Davis will be the starting pitcher for the Rays against Phil Hughes for the Yankees. Carl Crawford will be the only regular starter in today’s lineup, but I’ll get to see Gabe Kapler, Adam Kennedy, and Morgan Ensberg in Rays blue for the first time. Of that group, only Kapler is likely to make the team though. Anyway, it’s a meaningless spring training game, but it’s always exciting to watch my first baseball game of the new year. The game starts at 1:15 PM EST, and it just so happens that I’m working from home today, so I can watch it live…
The Rays lost to the Reds, 7-0, in yesterday’s spring training opener. That’s nothing to worry about though. The starters only had 1-2 at bats each before they were replaced by minor leaguers, and they had to face Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto. On the mound for the Rays was Carlos Hernandez, a former major leaguer who had a pretty good season with the Astros in 2002, but then tore both his labrum and rotator cuff, which is usually a death sentence for a pitcher’s career. He started a comeback in Single-A for the Rays last year, and he pitched two scoreless innings to start yesterday’s game. It’s not likely that he can earn a major league spot with the Rays, but his comeback is interesting to watch. Five of the runs were given up by Randy Choate in one inning. He has no chance of making the team. The other two runs were given up by Mitch Talbot, who has been a staple of the Durham Bulls rotation for the last two years, in the ninth. Hernandez, Jason Hammel, J.P. Howell, Lance Cormier, and Neal Frontz didn’t give up any runs.
I can’t wait for today’s game to start – baseball season is now up on us!
So by now, most baseball fans know about 9=8, which was the Rays motivational slogan during their improbable run to the World Series in 2008. It meant that if nine players played hard for nine innings every night, the Rays would be one of the eight MLB playoff teams. It seemed far-fetched when Joe Maddon introduced it during spring training, but it turned out to be prophetic. The team wore t-shirts that said 9=8 all season as a reminder of their goal. When they clinched a playoff spot, the Rays started selling 9=8 t-shirts to the fans, including me. So how do they follow the amazing success of 9=8? Joe Maddon’s unveiling of the new slogan was eagerly anticipated during spring training this week. It’s pretty simple and it’s awesome:
09 > 08
Simply put, 2009 will be even greater than 2008 for the Rays. The goal is to win at least 100 games. If the key players can stay healthy and the new additions contribute like they are expected to, it’s quite possible that the Rays will make 09 > 08 a reality. I can’t wait to see it.
One consequence of the Rays new winning ways is a huge increase in fan support. There was record attendance at last weekend’s annual Fan Fest at Tropicana Field. Justin from Tampa Bay Sports Wasteland has a great post about his experience at the Fan Fest. They also had a parade on Thursday in Charlotte County, Florida, their new spring training home:
A year ago it would’ve been hard to imagine fans turning out for a parade even in St. Petersburg. It’s great to see Rays fever spreading all over Florida. Hopefully this is a precursor for a much bigger parade at the end of October!
Finally, the Rays continue to add free agents to their spring training roster. You probably know about the major offseason acquisitions like Pat Burrell, Matt Joyce, Joe Nelson, and Brian Shouse, but the Rays have also recently added these players as non-roster invitees:
- Morgan Ensberg – the former All Star has fallen way down since his amazing 2005 season for the Astros, but he should be a great contributor to the Durham Bulls this year, and a decent fill-in for the Rays if there are injuries. Despite his struggles, he’s still good at taking walks and getting on base. And who knows, maybe he can resurrect his career the way that guys like Carlos Pena, Ty Wigginton, and Eric Hinske have done for the Rays in recent years.
- Adam Kennedy – he’s always been a great defensive second baseman who is decent offensively. It’s surprising that the Cardinals recently released him after a pretty good 2008 season. He’s really in camp because Akinori Iwamura will be playing for the Japanese WBC team and the Rays needed an extra second baseman for their spring training games. But he’s supposedly a good teammate and influence in the clubhouse, and if there’s an injury, he wouldn’t be a bad backup infielder.
- Jason Isringhausen – he’s the most intriguing of all of these players. He’s been one of the most consistently effective closers of the past decade, but he had a really bad year for St. Louis in 2008. He had surgery in September for a torn flexor tendon, so that might have been why he pitched so poorly. If he can bounce back, he should be a very useful reliever for the Rays, possibly even the closer. It’s a low risk, and potentially very high reward signing.
The Rays first spring training game is on Wednesday, and I’m sure that I’ll have many more things to say about the Rays once the games start to be played…
Today is a historic day for my Evan Longoria card collection. I received my 99th and 100th different Evan Longoria cards in today’s mail. Both were cards that I recently purchased on eBay, and both are autograph cards, bringing me up to 25 different Longoria autographs – one fourth of my entire collection!
Here are today’s new additions:
This is the Evan Longoria / Geovany Soto dual autograph from 2008 Bowman Sterling. It’s serial numbered #257/325. The card actually looks a lot better than the scan. For some reason, my scanner has recently been scanning a lot of cards darker than they really are. This is truly a great card, but it took me a while to decide that I wanted to own it. I’m not usually a fan of dual autographs featuring a Rays player with a player from another team. Ultimately, I decided that this card was an exception because it features both 2008 Rookies of the Year. The selling price has been dropping recently on eBay, so the time was right to pick up a copy of this card.
This is the very first 2009 card of any player in my collection. It’s also the first Evan Longoria card that I own that cannot be called a rookie card. Topps really could’ve chosen a better photo for the card though. It’s a “Career Best” autograph card, meaning that Longoria’s career best stats are listed on the back of the card. That’s pretty meaningless since he has only played in one season in the major leagues.
So my 100th Evan Longoria card is also my first 2009 card. Longoria should appear in every single card release this year, so my collection should be growing very quickly. It won’t be long before I take the lead in my friendly player collection competition with Mario from Wax Heaven (Andrew Miller) and Bailey from The Nennth Inning (Tim Lincecum). You can check out the list of every Longoria card that I own here.
On the other hand, it’ll be a long time before my Longoria collection can come close to my Don Mattingly collection, which coincidentally surpassed 1,100 different cards today…
All is right with the world again, now that spring training has begun across Major League Baseball. It’s hard to believe that it’s that time of year already. Finally, baseball fans can focus on their favorite players, their favorite teams, and the upcoming 2009 season instead of worrying about what team will sign Manny Ramirez and why A-Rod used steroids six years ago. OK, so the media will keep talking about Manny and A-Rod, but at least it’s now easier for fans to move past those things and turn their attention to what’s happening on the field.
It’s been great for me over the last few days to read the many new articles in the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune about the Rays players reporting to spring training, and the optimism with which they all speak about the new season. The first pictures of Pat Burrell in Rays colors have come out, including this one of Burrell and Evan Longoria:
We’re only a little more than a week away from the Rays first spring training game, against Cincinnati on February 25. And we’re only 48 days away fom Opening Day! It’s going to be awesome to watch the Rays this year as the defending American League champions. I can tell that they’re even more confident after their experiences last year, and I think that they’ll be an even better team with the additions of Pat Burrell, Matt Joyce, Joe Nelson, and others. We’ll also get to see David Price in the starting rotation all year, B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford fully healthy, and Evan Longoria take his game to a whole new level. I wonder if he can beat out A-Rod as the starting third baseman on the A.L. All Star team now that A-Rod is more unpopular than ever. Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Rays finish with even more than the 97 wins that they had last year. The A.L. East race is going to be amazing this year, and it’s very possible that the Rays, Red Sox, and Yankees will be the best three teams in all of baseball.
One of the things that has kept me busy over the last few days, and one of the reasons why I haven’t posted since Saturday, is the planning of a trip to Florida that my wife and I will be taking in March. It works out great for us – she will have a few weeks off from work, and we’re both eager to get away from the daily grind and spend some time in the warm sun. And most importantly, we’ll get to see some spring training games! I’ve never been to a spring training game, so I’m really looking forward to it. This will be the Rays first season in their new facility in Port Charlotte, which is about 90 minutes south of the Tampa Bay area. I’ll be excited to see my favorite players in action up close, and hopefully I’ll have a chance to get some autographs and photos with the players. You can be sure that I’ll be sharing my experiences with you on the blog.
I’m planning to go to the game against the Orioles on Saturday, March 21 in Fort Lauderdale, and the game against the Yankees on Sunday, March 22 in Port Charlotte. I’m hoping to meet up with Brian from 30-year old Cardboard, and Mario from Wax Heaven in Fort Lauderdale. If any other bloggers or readers are from Florida or will be in Florida during that time, let me know if you’d like to meet up at one of the games. After the game in Port Charlotte, we’ll be driving to the Orlando area to spend the week in Disney World. We went to Disney during the summer of 2005 and had a great time, and my wife has been wanting to go back for a while. I got a good deal on staying at the Coronado Springs resort on the Disney property. I’ve never stayed at one of the Disney resorts, so it should be interesting. I might be able to sneak in a Braves spring training game at the Disney Wide World of Sports complex sometime that week too.
If anyone has tips about the best times to get autographs and photos during spring training, or any tips on things to do or see at Disney, I’d love to hear it. It feels great to know that baseball is back, and I have a fun trip to look forward to soon…
One of the biggest questions of the offseason for Tampa Bay Rays fans has finally been answered. Ever since Joe Magrane left his job as the Rays TV analyst to join MLB Network, the Rays and FSN Florida have been searching for a replacement to join Dewayne Staats in the broadcast booth. Today, we found out who the new analyst will be:
That’s Kevin Kennedy, former minor league catcher for the Rochester Red Wings, former manager of the Rangers and Red Sox, and currently a talk show host on XM radio. His hiring was reported by the St. Pete Times.
I have mixed feelings about this news. I was hoping that the new analyst would be someone who had a connection to the Rays – maybe a former player or coach, or even a former major leaguer who is from the Tampa Bay area. Kennedy is a very knowledgeable baseball guy, even though he does rely too often on anecdotes about his days as a manager in the 1990s on his XM show. He hasn’t managed since 1996, so he’s not as familiar with today’s players. He obviously has a lot of homework to do on the Rays. But even when he gets up to speed on the current players, he won’t have the deep background on the entire franchise history that Magrane had. Magrane was with the team for all of their first 11 years, and you could really sense the Rays pride in his voice. It won’t be that way with Kennedy, but I’ll be interested to see what he can bring to the table.
It was also announced that former pitcher Brian Anderson, who retired due to an injury in spring training last year with the Rays, will serve as an occasional substitute for Kennedy. This is awesome news as Anderson did a terrific job filling in for Magrane when he was covering the Olympics last summer.
It’s definitely going to be different watching the Rays broadcasts this year without Joe Magrane. If Kennedy doesn’t do a good job, I can always turn down the sound and listen to Andy Freed and Dave Wills on XM radio, who I am absolutely convinced are the top duo of radio announcers in all of baseball.
Check it out – B.J. Upton is starring in a new national TV commercial for Dick’s and Adidas with Ryan Howard:
It’s awesome to see any player on the Rays get national exposure like this. That doesn’t happen very often, but now that they’ve been to the World Series, I should get used to this sort of thing. It’s great to see two of MLB’s brightest young stars in the spotlight. With so many of the stars from the last 10-20 years tainted by steroid accusations, MLB should be marketing its young stars aggressively. This just makes me even more excited about the new season!