Thursday, September 29, 2011

Joy, Jubilation, and the Sheer Exuberance of Victory

When I was a younger, I rooted heart and soul for the New York Mets. My dad was a Mets fan and I followed in his footsteps. One of my fondest memories of my dad and I’s shared fandom was when Mookie Wilson’s grounder rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs in Game 6 of the World Series. Being young and skinny, my dad gave me a big hug and swung my around the living room. Although I was a happy new fan, he was overjoyed. The Mets lived to see another day.

Here I am today the roughly same age my dad was in 1986.  The Rays have in many ways replaced the Mets as my true heart’s desire. The Mets are my first fan love and I will never forget them, but since 2007 day-in and day-out I’ve ridden with the Rays.

Although the Rays have made the postseason three of the last four years and although I have been to several playoff games and even their only World Series win, they have never given me a moment of sheer unadulterated joy like the Mets gave my dad had on that late October night.

Last night however I threw around hugs like they were free. It was the most amazing night of my baseball viewing life.

That’s a heavy statement admittedly, but before last night I had never been to a game where so much was on the line, where every pitch weighed so heavily on the future, and where collective exuberance felt so good.

Those who follow me on twitter know that I am an avid tweeter during Rays games I attend. I’m there so I feel like I owe it to those who aren’t to express the feelings of the fans in the seats. I’ll justify the boos, question Joe Maddon, and announce when DJ Kitty makes an appearance. It’s fun and it’s enabled me to make more than a few friends along the way.

Unfortunately, last night my phone died in the seventh inning. My tweets leading up to my phone’s death were very pessimistic, very disappointed, and very downright negative. As a matter of fact, my last tweet was this poem:

“Its raining, its pouring, the Orioles need scoring. The Rays could’ve lead, but shit the bed. Now they get to play golf tomorrow morning.”

I thought that was rather cute, witty, and creative.

What I didn’t know is that I would never be able to take back those words until long after the game was over.

But to be honest, my phone dying was a blessing in disguise. Because I didn’t have the temptation to tweet every little detail and carry on a conversation with however many twitter followers I have who care about my Rays tweets, I was able to uninhibitedly ride the wave of emotions that was quite possibly the greatest regular season Rays game in franchise history.

I attended last night’s game with not only the two friends I usually attend my games with, but a group of four others. Although two of us started in the Party Deck, we all eventually settled in Section 129, in the lower level 20 rows up from the visiting bullpen.

That’s where we witnessed David Price’s struggles, the Rays’ anemic attempts to get runners home in the early innings, and the parade of arms the Yankees were warming up and shuttling to the pitchers mound. From the Yankees point of view, the game had a Spring Training-like feel. Ironic, I guess then that they were playing the team from the same geographic area of their spring locale.

But a funny thing happened in the top of the eight inning. After Johnny Damon singled and Ben Zobrist doubled, one of our crew was tossed from the ballpark for excessive (drunken?) celebration. I’m not sure of the details, but when security moves in on you, they are usually judge, jury, and ejector.

Of course, after our friend was shimmied from the ballpark, the Rays began clawing back. With every run we felt his sacrifice was not in vain. He was trying to light a spark in a fanbase that eventually became ablaze with excitement. When Evan Longoria hit his first home run of the night, a three-run shot that turned the deficit to one, the Trop exploded with excitement.

Then, in the bottom of the ninth, Dan Johnson. Some call him The Great Pumpkin. Perhaps it’s fitting that as we all sat for seven innings as disappointed as Linus in the Peanuts TV special, Dan Johnson, Tampa Bay Rays Hero of Heroes, would arise from the dead to lead us to jubilee yet again.

Incredible. Amazing. Spectacular. Orgasmic.

Hands were slapped, clapped, and raised in not-yet-triumph. Hugs were passed from person to person. There were even a few kisses exchanged.

It was all the thrill of victory without actually being victorious. The Trop was alive like a rockin’ New Year’s Eve Party. Even the yellow lights that light up the dome on the outside were turned on.

(Honestly, I was scared when the “victory” lights came on. Were they to be an omen or a curse? Were we counting our chickens before they hatched?)

I’m sure it was obvious on TV, but there seemed to be a philosophical shift in how Joe Maddon managed the game. After Price gave up 6, Maddon leaned on his “low leverage” guys – De La Rosa, Ramos, and Cruz. He even had James Shields tossing in the ‘pen. But when the Rays tied the game, Maddon played to win. Out came Peralta and Farnsworth, and when they weren’t enough, out came Gomes and McGee. Maddon wasn’t about to let the game slip away. He was playing his regulars, save for the catcher position, where Jose Lobaton was inserted for Jaso who was inserted for Shoppach.

(By the way, is it just me or does Jose Lobaton look like he can’t hit to save his life? In the bottom of the 10th, after BJ Upton walked, I think everyone assumed Upton was going to steal second. But he didn’t. I think that was so Lobaton could see a majority of fastballs in his at-bat. And what did he do? He struck out. Sometimes I think I can hit better than Jose Lobaton.)

While Maddon was using his A-team, Yankees manager Joe Girardi was steadfastly refusing to use any of his top relievers. Although Mariano Rivera was in the building, and even stood up once or twice, there was no way he or David Robertson were going to see action. The game wasn’t that important to the Yankees. And that meant a heaping serving of Scott Proctor, a pitcher who hadn’t had an ERA below 6 since 2007 and who had only pitched 3 or more innings seven times in his seven-year career. Barring a Rays collapse, the game was Scott Proctor’s to lose.

(Honestly, I have a soft spot for Scott Proctor. He is a fellow Florida State alumnus. But that’s where my love for him ends.)

Prior to the twelfth inning, one of my friends mentioned that their phone said Boston had defeated the Orioles. Their game was over and the best the Rays could do was force a one game playoff Thursday. Of course, it didn’t change the fact  that we wanted the Rays to win. But it changed the outcome.

Shortly after the top of twelfth a loud eruption emerged from the luxury box level. The folks with the private boxes, with their TVs and their refrigerators were cheering loudly. Something was up. Then word circulated through the stands that my friend was wrong. The Red Sox had not won. As a matter of fact, they were now tied.

Meanwhile in St. Petersburg, BJ Upton struck out. Was it BJ’s last at-bat as a Tampa Bay Ray?

Then, only moments later, another loud roar from the luxury box level. The Red Sox lost. The wild card was the Rays to win. And our other hero, the greatest “clutch” Rays player not named Dan Johnson, the great Evan Longoria, was coming to bat. We knew if there was going to be a heroic moment for Longo, this was it. It was as close to a moment of destiny that you will ever get on a baseball field.

Following Upton’s strikeout, it appeared as if a Yankees trainer had come out to check on Scott Proctor. Everyone could tell Proctor was gassed and had nothing left in the tank. Did the trainer bring a message from Joe Girardi to groove a pitch for Longoria? Who knows and frankly, who cares.

When Longoria’s shot cleared the left field short wall, the remaining faithful at Tropicana Field (probably about 18-20,000 or so) erupted in joy. The Rays were making the playoffs! My god, the unimaginable had happened! The Rays, the 43-million dollar machine that could, the team that gets raked over the coals about how many people do or do not go to each game, the team that lost several cogs from last year, this surprising batch of underdogs, had passed the mighty Boston Red Sox on the last day of the season and were headed to the postseason!

Once again hands were slapped, clapped, and raised, this time in triumph. Hugs were passed from person to person and there were more than a few kisses exchanged. Strangers embraced strangers and people ran up and down the aisles in joyful bliss. Simultaneously the players poured out onto the field from the dugout and celebrated with their scoring teammate. Then came the cameras, the media, and finally the champagne.

As for me, finally, after 20-plus years of watching and going to baseball games, I had the same type of moment my dad had when he watched the Mets in October of 1986. A moment that makes you want to reach for someone, embrace them, and say “Holy shit!”.

And on my way home from the game, after my phone was charged, I let a few concerned people know I was ok. Not only had my phone died, but I was busy enjoying the greatest game I had ever seen.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Continued Struggle for the Soul of the Florida Sports Fan

Last year, I wrote an article for this site entitled “The Battle for the Passion of the Florida Sports Fan”. In that article, I explored how the Rays were at the short end of a fight to get attention in a rapidly expanding Florida sports scene.

This year I have continued to track attendance and viewing trends. I have saved almost every post I can find from this site, other Rays sites, Bucs sites, Florida Minor League Baseball sites, and anywhere else that talks about the comings and goings of Florida sports fans.

Before I begin to dissect the year in attendance trends, I first want to share an interesting tidbit I recently discovered.

Did you know that in 2010 the Rays drew 95% of the combined attendance total of the Bulls, Gators, Hurricanes, and Seminoles last year?

Attendance of every 2010 home game of Florida State University, University of Florida, University of Miami, University of Central Florida, and the University of South Florida at their respective stadiums was 2,087,026. This number excludes only UF’s bowl game in Tampa and the UF vs. Georgia game in Jacksonville, as they were not true “home” games.

According to Baseball-Reference, the 2010 Rays drew 1,864,999 people to Tropicana Field in 2010. And another 112,854 during the playoffs. That’s 1,977,853 people and a 95% correlation. Which means almost the same amount of people that went to Rays games last year went to see a game at one of the five major college football programs in Florida.

There is no doubt Florida is still a college football state.

A lot of people would point to the above statistic and say it should be Exhibit A why the Rays should move from Florida – they can’t possibly compete in the Florida sports culture landscape. Baseball will regarded as a novelty especially as the University of South Florida grows in popularity and prominence and Florida State gets back on track, loses to Oklahoma withstanding.

I, of course, disagree.

Last year I argued that there was an oversaturation of sports options in Florida. I still think that is the case. While alumni spend their dollars on tickets and trips to their alma mater, other local fans are selectively picking and choosing which team to financially support.

We know the Bucs had their problems at the gate as well last year, only selling 394,000 tickets in 2010 according to a Wall Street Journal web site – a 24.78% decrease from their glory days in the early 1990s when they were over 500,000. This from the team voted the most popular sports franchise in Florida.

What about the Lightning, you may be asking?

Well, we know like the Rays they have an exciting new ownership group dedicated to turning the franchise around and making it exciting and competitive again. We also know they saw a 13% jump in attendance from 2009-2010 to 2010-2011. And we also know they are racking up the season ticket commitments for 2011-2012. Hockey is doing well in Tampa Bay.

Before I dissect the Rays attendance issues, which I am sure you are well familiar with, I would like to talk about baseball as a whole in the state. Currently in Florida, there are 15 baseball teams in the state – two major league teams, one in the AA Southern League (Jacksonville), and 12 in the Florida State League. In 2012, this number will increase by one when the Carolina Mudcats move to Pensacola.

In 2011, the Florida State League drew 1,296,962 according to Of that attendance, 34% (441,405 people) belonged to teams that played within an hour from Tropicana Field – the Tampa Yankees, Clearwater Threshers, Dunedin Blue Jays, and Bradenton Pirates. Three of these teams saw a massive increase in attendance in 2011 over 2010, and the fourth (Clearwater) only saw a drop of 4.34%, from 2,679 people per game to 2,567.

If these teams did not exist, and the fans who attended these games went to Tropicana Field instead, the Rays would have 5,449 more people in attendance every game. Based on what the Rays have been drawing thus far in 2011, that is almost 25% more people.

Of course, there are many people in Florida who are fans of other teams. According to the Tampa Bay Business Journal, approximately 42% of fans have out-of-town allegiances. Although I am a believer that a hardcore baseball fan will see whatever baseball is offered, if we take this percentage and subtract it from our potential Florida State League fans who could be Rays fans, it’s still 256,015 new butts in Tropicana Field.

Now that we know who wasn’t there and why, we can look at who was there – or the lack of who’s who weren’t there.

Early in the season, the Rays had to compete with the Tampa Bay Lightning’s miraculous playoff run. While over 20,000 fans packed the St. Pete Times Forum, countless numbers were staying at home and tuning in to see if the Lightning could continue their miraculous run to the Stanley Cup. Baseball played second fiddle in sports bars throughout the Tampa Bay area.

Here is a breakdown of Rays attendance while the Lightning were competing in the NHL Playoffs:

April 18th

Lightning vs Pittsburgh Penguins: 20,545

Rays vs White Sox: 12,016

April 20th

Lightning vs Penguins: 20,326

Rays vs White Sox: 13,214

May 3rd

Lightning vs Capitals: 20,613

Rays vs Blue Jays: 10,248

May 4th

Lightning vs Capitals: 20,835

Rays vs Blue Jays: 10,099

Notice as the Lightning attendance numbers go up almost sequentially, the Rays attendance numbers went down. The only exception is April 20th, when the Lightning drew less and the Rays drew more than they did on the first conflicting date. By the time the playoffs ended for the Lightning, they were drawing twice the number of people the Rays were drawing. That’s not to mention the number of people who sat at home or at a sports bar keeping an eye on both teams.

Of course, it also didn’t help that the Rays played terrible out the gate. By the time the Lightning were blazing through the playoffs, the Rays were barely over .500 and attendance was down 30%. And that was following an atrocious start that had some media members and fans thinking the team was going to lose 100 games. On a positive note, by the end of May, a two game set versus the Yankees and a post-game concert from Darius Rucker, attendance was only down 19%.

Although the Rays turned the boat around, fans still weren’t turning their TVs on. Or at least turning them to the Rays broadcast. However, if you look closely at the numbers presented on this post, you will see through July, the Rays TV ratings for this year matched 2008, the year they made the World Series. And 2010 sticks out like a sore thumb. Personally, I think there was something suspicious. TV ratings shouldn’t jump like that. I wonder if there was new way of measurement or if the ratings folks were drumming up numbers for new TV contract or some other conspiratory reason.

In the Trop, things weren’t getting better. While the Rays were rated seventh in baseball in Fan Experience by ESPN (coincidentally, the same organization that trashes the Trop regularly), many fans weren’t being “experienced”, and not in the Jimi Hendrix sort of way. By the end of June, both the Rays and their attendance numbers started to warm up and by the end of July, attendance at the Trop was only 8.3% below 2010 numbers. Of course, their July home schedule was chock full of games against St. Louis, Boston, and the Yankees, all traditional well-drawing teams.

Needless to say, Stu Sternberg wasn’t overwhelmed by the attendance numbers when asked by the media. But what did we expect him to say? He has been in charge here for several years. I am sure the Rays are perfectly aware of their entertainment competition. If the Rays even spend half the amount of brain power on demographics and marketing that they spend on player analysis, nothing the fan base does should surprise them. For example, while the Rays played the Red Sox for on June 16th in front of 23,495, ‘80s rock legends Def Leppard and Heart were in concert at the 1800Gary Amphitheater and the following day country rocker Keith Urban was playing at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Now again, I am not saying everyone who goes to another event would have gone to a Rays game, but even 10% of 20,000 concert attendees would help change the image of an empty Tropicana Field.

With a week or so left in the season, the Rays will probably finish with an attendance of around 1.5 million people. As a comparison, that’s more than the 1964 World Series-bound Yankees, who played in Old Yankee Stadium with a capacity of 67,000; almost double the attendance of the 1974 A’s, who finished first in the AL West; a hair under the 1984 Red Sox, who finished 86-76; a smidge under the 1996 Expos, who won 88 games; and 200,000 more seats filled than the 2006 Devil Rays, who lost 101 games.

Not every team has drawn well. The 1927 Yankees, which many think was the greatest team ever, drew barely over a million people, or 20% of the population of New York City in 1920, which was 5,620,048. These people came to see a franchise that was 17 years old.  If only 20% of the Tampa Bay area came to see the Rays, a team that is only 14 years old, the team would draw far below a million.

Another way to look at attendance is to examine how baseball looks at attendance. There has been an explosion of attendance numbers and expectations in the last 20 years. As a comparison, if we take the Rays estimated 1.5 million attendance in 2011 and see where it would rank through the last 50 years, we get:

2001: Last.

1991: 13th.

1982: Tenth. (Using 1982 due to the 1981 strike and lost games.)

1971: Third.

1961: Third.

Finally, let’s do a comparison. Keeping with New York City, the 2010 Metropolitan area population of NYC was 18,897,109. Divide that by two teams (9,448,554.5) and keep the 42% out-of-town percentage, and you get 5,480,162 possible fans. After a final homestand against Boston, the Yankees should lead the American League with approximately 3.6 million in attendance, or 65% of possible attendees.

In contrast, the Tampa Bay Metropolitan area population in 2010 was 4,228,855. Subtract 42% or 1,776,119 and you get 2,452,736 possible hardcore Rays fans. If the Rays draw 1.5 million people, that’s 61% of possible attendees. Not bad for a city area with no public transportation.

Florida is a perfect storm of potential attendance problems. Poor economy, diluted sports base, non-native allegiances, no traditional fan bases, and a fine whirl of other entertainment. I doubt any team in Florida will ever grace the upper echelon of attendance rankings. It just won’t happen. But teams will keep playing here and sports will continue to be a big part of Florida’s culture. The weather is too nice and the games are too fun to play and watch for that to be otherwise.

As for the Rays, well, if I had the answer to that dilemma, I wouldn’t be writing here. I would be working in a think tank with greater minds than mine figuring out life’s other great problems: who put the bomp in the bomp, bomp, bomp; why is JP Howell still pitching; and who put the ram in the rama-lama-ding-dong?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Talking to the Sully Show

I had the pleasure of talking to Paul Francis Sullivan of Sully for his podcast. Sully is a huge Red Sox fan and he wanted to talk baseball with a Tampa Bay Rays fan. Well, that's me.

We come on at the 60:00 minute mark. It was a lot of fun. We talked Rays, Red Sox, baseball managers, Tim Wakefield, the 2011 playoffs, and the origin of the "Jordi Scrubbings" name.

Check it out.

Listen to internet radio with Seamheads on Blog Talk Radio

I think I am getting better at radio interviews. I actually sound half intelligent. I want to thank Sully again for the opportunity.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Chance of Opportunity

As we venture deeper into the bowels of September, many Rays fans, announcers, bloggers, and baseball pundits have taken to talking “chances”. We are all looking at the remaining schedule, counting games, evaluating opponents and match-ups, and figuring out what the Rays have to do to make the postseason and prolong our baseball entertainment.

(Yes, we’re selfish. We want the team to win because we tie a piece of our happiness to the outcome of a baseball game. It’s cool. Don’t be embarrassed. That’s why we’re here.)

At its very foundation, baseball and chances go hand and hand. Baseball is a game of percentages and numbers, risks and rewards. We talk about runners taking chances on the basepaths and managers moving defenders around the field to minimizing the chance a batter will get a hit. Many of these chances are mathematical, much like playing dice. And this of course is the origin of statistical analysis, so-called SABRmetrics, and the guiding forces behind the Rays hovel of super secret number-crunching Keebler elves.

But baseball has another type of chance, a more personal “chance of opportunity”. Derived in many cases by mathematical chances, the chance of opportunity is what creates our narratives, our stories, our legends, and our heroes. Kirk Gibson, for example, would never have been a World Series hero if not for the opportunity to bat against Dennis Eckersley in October 1988. Lou Gehrig would never have been able to embark on his legendary career if not for the opportunity to replace then-regular Yankee first baseman Wally Pipp. Even Jackie Robinson’s historic 1947 season wouldn’t have happened if not for the opportunity given to him by Branch Rickey.

The 2011 Rays have been chock full of opportunitistic narratives this season. Of course, there are rookies such as Desmond Jennings, Jeremy Hellickson, Brandon Guyer, Jose Lobaton, and others. And there are also veterans such as Casey Kotchman taking advantage of the chances provided them. But for me, three stories stand out among the rest. From spring to September the stories of three Rays pitchers has given us a complete glimpse of the entire spectrum of what it means to have the opportunity to succeed or fail in the Major Leagues.

Going into last offseason, there was little doubt the Rays were going to trade one of their veteran starting pitchers. David Price, Wade Davis, and Jeff Neimann weren’t going anywhere, leaving the most likely options either James Shields or Matt Garza. Garza, hero of the 2008 ALCS, was coming off a stellar season in which he won 15 games and threw a no-hitter. Shields, on the other hand, was coming off the worst season of his career, if you looked at the popular numbers.

But there was more to Shields’ 2010 season that met the eye. Despite the 5.51 ERA, he had an extremely above average (read: unlucky) opponents’ batting average and several other stats that seemed to not fit his ability or potential.

So knowing what they know about how other organizations think and what stats they value, the Rays had to choose to either trade Shields or Garza. And whereas the offer for Shields might not have been that high, the package for Garza was an overwhelming package of prospects. It was a no-brainer. Of course, with the belief that wasn’t actually as bad as his record and popular stats showed, it meant the Rays were taking a chance on Shields and giving him the chance and the opportunity to redeem himself to the organization and the Tampa Bay faithful.

Redeem himself he has, pitching one of the best seasons in Rays’ history and becoming a possible Cy Young Award candidate. None of which would be possible if it was he, not Garza, who was shimmied to Chicago.

Back in 2007, when James (then Jamie) Shields was first breaking into the majors, the (then Devil) Rays had another right-handed pitcher who was trying to make a name for himself. With a semi-decent 2007 and respectable 2008, the Rays thought Andy Sonnanstine had the makings of a major league caliber starter. Although he didn’t have an overwhelming fastball, his pin-point control and ability to get ground balls made him an interesting option in a staff that would include newcomers Jeff Neimann and Mitch Talbot.

After bouncing from the starting rotation to the bullpen through 2009 and 2010, the bottom dropped out of Andy Sonnanstine’s career in 2011. Even though his 2009 season was bad, Sonny’s 2011 season was downright horrible. His strikeouts per nine innings dropped, his walks per nine didn’t decrease, and his home runs per nine soared to an astronomically pathetic level. He went from plucky soft-tossing underdog to the bane of the Rays blogosphere. Many questioned why he was still wearing a major league uniform.

After his terrible start, on July 9th Sonnanstine was sent to the minors. While in Durham, his numbers weren’t particularly great either. His walks per nine innings were higher than they had ever been in the minors, his strikeouts were lower than they ever were, and he allowed a whopping 10.3 hits per nine innings. In other words, he was still allowing runners to get on base and not getting people out, even at AAA.

Yet, an amazing thing happened on September 1st: Andy Sonnanstine was given another chance with the Rays. Even if it meant sitting on the end of the bullpen bench, he was again a major leaguer.

While in Durham, Andy Sonnanstine shared the Bulls clubhouse with another pitcher seeking a return to big leagues. Signed in January, author/pitcher Dirk Hayhurst immediately became a key character on the Rays roster. His book, The Bullpen Gospels, was a best seller, he was a thinking man’s pitcher, and his quirky obsessions with Star Trek and the mythical Garfoose made him a darling of the baseball twittersphere. The former Padre and Blue Jay reliever was a perfect match for the Rays. And the team knew it, showcasing him at Rays FanFest and throughout Spring Training.

Sadly, Dirk Hayhurst’s season did not have a happy ending. He pitched only 11 games for the Bulls before he was placed on the disabled list on July 15th with a sore elbow. His elbow injury put him on the shelf for over a month and on August 29th Hayhurst was released, his season over and his chance to take the mound for the 2011 Rays gone.

Baseball has a way of humbling even the best players. It is a game of failure, where the best hitters succeed only around 30% of the time and the best pitchers allow two to three runs a game. But no one can ever show they belong at the big league level without an opportunity. To take the field is an opportunity they all work hard for, putting in hours of extra practice and study. Baseball is their livelihood, something they strive to be successful in. Some, like James Shields, take advantage of a second chance, tinker with their approach, and find a new way to be successful. Others, like Dirk Hayhurst, come face-to-face with the fragility of the human body and are left with the stark realization that their best might not be good enough and their dreams might rapidly be coming to a close. And then there are those like Andy Sonnanstine, who get one more chance despite their inability because they threaten to go public with embarrassing photos of the owner dancing with a lampshade on his head at the organization’s 2010 Christmas party.

(You may be asking why this post has a picture of James Shields with a dolphin. Because, Shields got a second chance and so did the dolphin with the fake tail in the new movie with Morgan Freeman. Although I don’t think that’s the same dolphin in the picture, there is a symmetry there. But the bigger question is why is Shields wearing sunglasses in a pool? Who does that?)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Interview with Dunedin Blue Jays Super Fan Torianne Valdez

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

As part of our efforts here at Bus Leagues Baseball, we try to interview every aspect of the minor league baseball experience. Through the years, we’ve talked to people on the field and behind the scenes, but this year we are also trying to capture the essence of the fan. Because Minor League Baseball is nothing without the fans, those people who spend their hard-earned dollars to support their local squad and maybe see a glimpse of the big leaguers of tomorrow.

A month or so ago, I realized I was seeing a lot of pictures from Dunedin Blue Jays games on my friend Torianne’s Facebook feed. Although it is usual for friends to have pictures from a game when you have baseball in common, Torianne was posting new pictures almost every week. So of course, we had to meet up at a game and talk about the bus leagues.

This interview was conducted shortly after Game 1 of Round 1 of the Florida State League Playoffs on September 6th, 2011.

BLB: How long have you been going to Dunedin Blue Jays games?

TV: It’s only been a few months, I would say. Since Spring Training of this year.

BLB: So what makes you a super fan?

TV: I attend pretty much all the games. I just like the atmosphere. It’s a hometown feel. It’s very family oriented and very fun.

BLB: Your brother works for the team, right? How long has he worked for the Blue Jays?

TV: He has been here since January of this year.

BLB: Did you attend games before he worked here? Or did you start attending because he works for the Blue Jays?

TV: I did not come here before he worked here. He did introduce us to the City of Dunedin and ever since then, we have been hooked and we keep coming.

BLB: I had a chance to meet your whole family at a game last week. Can you talk about them? Is it normal for everyone to show up for a game?

TV: Yeah, our family is really into sports so they were super excited when my brother got this job. I have two little cousins who are probably even bigger fans than me. They have their certain spot near the dugout during every game. Some of the players know them and go straight to them with balls. So our whole family loves it and they all attend a lot.

BLB: Is the Dunedin aspect new to your family? Or have you all met at Rays games, Lightning games, and other events in the area?

TV: It’s kinda a tradition. My grandfather went to (University of) Florida, so we grew up going to Gator games together. He would bring us to Lightning games. We go to tons of games during the year. So this is nothing new. But the Dunedin part is new.

BLB: Is there a big difference between getting together at a minor league game and getting together at a major league sporting event or a big college game?

TV: Minor league is more relaxed, laid back, and easy going. I think that’s why my whole family likes coming, it’s something fun to do on a Friday rather than all the hoopla of going to an NFL game or even a Rays game.

BLB: How would you compare the Rays/Tropicana Field experience to Dunedin?

TV: Fan experience it’s similar. They have a very family oriented atmosphere and it’s laid back. I do like that this is outdoors, even though they have been rained out plenty of times recently. But I do like that it’s an outdoor stadium.

BLB: Is your whole family from the Tampa area?

TV: We cover every area of Tampa: Carollwood, Temple Terrace, Brandon, Valrico, South Tampa, and Dunedin. We don’t have anyone in St. Pete, that’s it.

BLB: Are you going to keep meeting up here next season? Is your brother returning?

TV: He just got a full-time gig here recently, so he will be here for years to come, I’m sure. We’ve already signed up for season tickets for next year, so yeah, we’ll be back.

BLB: Who is your favorite Dunedin Blue Jay?

TV: I would have to say probably Brad McElroy because I won his jersey on one of the theme nights and I met him there.

BLB: I know you told me once that you worked for the Tampa bay Lightning. How do the players there compare to the players here?

TV: The only experience I had with the Lightning players was when we had giveaways. We had to take season ticket holders to meet them. But we rotated and I only got to do that one time. So I met one player only. But these players are a lot more hands on. They are more approachable. They talk to the fans after the game and they sign autographs.

BLB: Have you been to any of the other local parks: Tampa, Clearwater, etc? How does Dunedin compare to them?

TV: I’ve been to Steinbrenner Field and I’ve been to Clearwater, where the Threshers play. Both of those seem a lot bigger than Dunedin, but I think they are a little more well-known as well. I enjoy Dunedin. Maybe it’s because I am loyal to them now. I’ll choose them over the Threshers.

BLB: Are you a Blue Jays fan now?

TV: I’m still a Rays fan, but as far as minor leagues, I’m with the Blue Jays.

BLB: So what are some of the things you like the most about coming to the ballpark here?

TV: I would have to say, number one, is the friendly staff (laughs).

BLB: Which of course, includes your brother.

TV: Yeah, but I don’t think I’ll count him. Kidding. They are all super friendly, helpful, and they engage you in contests.

BLB: Now is that something that has increased as you have been become more of a regular here? Would you say you are part of the Dunedin Blue Jays family?

TV: Yeah, I have gotten to know the staff pretty well. And I think we are the official family of the Dunedin Blue Jays.

BLB: Does that include everyone: aunts, uncles, cousins?

TV: Yeah, we are all pretty well known here now. And only after one season.

BLB: Did you go to any spring training games here?

TV: We did. We went to a couple of them. I came to the game against the Rays.

BLB: I tried to go to that one, but it was sold out.

TV: That was the only one I think I went to. My family went to a few others. It’s a much bigger crowd. It’s harder to sit right behind the dugout. Still, it’s a fun atmosphere.

BLB: That’s another thing about the games here, that it's general admission. So where is your favorite place to sit? Are you a behind the plate person?

TV: I like behind the Jays’ dugout. You are low and can still see everything. My family loves to sit up higher in the corner of the stadium and out of the sun. But behind home plate is not bad either. It’s not bad for six dollars.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Interview: James Dively - Bus Driver for the Brevard County Manatees

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

Here at Bus Leagues Baseball we take pride in our interviews. We've interviewed players, administrators, and front office personnel. But we've never interviewed someone who actually drove a bus. It goes without saying, but bus drivers are the backbone of the bus leagues.

During a recent series in Tampa, I caught up with Mr. James Dively of Travelynx, the company that drives the Brevard County Manatees.

Bus Leagues Baseball: You are the bus driver for the Manatees, correct?

James Dively: Yes, I’ve been driving them the whole year.

BLB: Is this your first year?

JD: Right.

BLB: How did you get this position?

JD: They had another fellow who couldn’t afford to be on the road that much with his family ties, so I just inherited the position. Plus, I do all the collegiate athletics too, so it just kinda blended in.

BLB: Is that just the colleges in the Melbourne/Viera area?

JD: No. I do the University of Stetson, sometimes we do UCF (University of Central Florida), Brevard Community College, there’s quite a few. Daytona State College.

BLB: Wow. And this is all for one company?

JD: Yes, Travelynx. We have special buses, they are modified with airplane seats, we have wi-fi on there for them, and we have 110 volt receptacles so they can charge their phones and all that stuff. It’s designed for them.

BLB: You said this is your first year driving the Manatees. So how long have you been driving total?

JD: Seven years.

BLB: What made you get into driving buses in the first place?

JD: I’ve retired three times. I was in the military for 20 years, then I put 20 years in with Westinghouse, then I got a little bored looking for something else to, so I got into this.

BLB: How many miles do you think you’ve put on?

JD: Millions? I don’t know. I lost count.

BLB: What is your normal day, especially when the team is on the road?

JD: We’ll leave Brevard and go to the hotel. So normally, if we have a 7:00 game, we’ll get to the hotel around noon. We let the guys relax, then they board the bus at about 3:30 and we bring them to the stadium. Once they are at the stadium, they do their stretching and all that stuff for a 7:00 game.

Basically, when I bring them to the stadium the game doesn’t start until 7, it’s more or less free time because one, it’s kinda hot to stand around and watch them stretch. So I’ll typically go back to the hotel, or go to Wal-Mart or the mall or something. Or even a movie maybe. Then I’ll come back in the second or third inning usually when it cools down a bit and watch the rest of the game.

Afterwards, usually they go back to the hotel, but sometimes they want to stop at a restaurant. And that’s pretty much it.

BLB: You are on the road for every Manatees game, so that’s 60-70 so games, right?

JD: I don’t have my schedule, but that’s probably pretty close. This is the last big trip. We have been on the road seven days, Clearwater for three, and four here in Tampa. Next week we have three commute days, we drive up to Daytona for the game and come home. And then that’s the end of the season.

BLB: What do you do when the team has a long road stretch? What do you do when you are already in town?

JD: I have to bring them to the park and back to the hotel. So I’ll usually catch the last half of the game, maybe from the second or third inning. When it cools down a bit. Then we go back to the hotel and start it over the next day.

BLB: Are you a big baseball fan?

JD: I’ve grown to be. I’m a Pittsburgh Steeler fan. I kinda grew into baseball.

BLB: How does minor league baseball driving differ from driving around the college teams? Are the people different?

JD: Well, there are some tough questions there. These guys, it takes a little while to get to know them. That was part of the first bus driver’s problem. He couldn’t connect with them. Once you get to be friends with one or two, by the time the season’s over you know everybody by their first name and they know you by first name and you know each other pretty well.

BLB: Have you had any incidents, accidents, or exciting stories along the way this year?

JD: There was one story, it’s kinda colorful. One of the guys autographed one of the girls, he physically autographed her. She was a very attractive lady, and I am not going to tell you where he autographed her.

It turns out, she was an umpire’s girlfriend. How bad is that? That was kinda exciting for a while. They figured he would have a zero batting average. I guess it was all a good joke.

Nothing much happens. They get a few sore muscles, pack them in ice, and they are back there the next day.

BLB: Do you have more of an appreciation for the players than you had before you started?

JD: Absolutely. They are doing this almost seven days a week all summer long. I don’t they get but a day off every two weeks. It’s gotta take a grind on them. But they are really easy to work with.

BLB: Is driving a team one of those jobs people seem to envy?

JD: Well, to be truthful, not really. Once I got it, one of the advantages is that I know what my schedule is. It’s black and white. I know when I can schedule personal things and when I can’t. So there is that advantage. Some people don’t like to stay overnight because of family situations and family obligations. Whereas my children are both grown and I don’t have to deal with that.

BLB: So your plan after the baseball season is to start driving the college teams?

JD: I’m already driving the Stetson girls soccer team. They have a good schedule. They play out of state. They go to North Carolina and Nashville.

Driving with these guys (the Manatees) there is a plus too, it’s an easy drive. You don’t have to drive any farther than Jupiter to the south or going west any farther than Clearwater. That’s a 2.5 hour drive max. Whereas if I get the other jobs, I have to drive 10 hours up to Nashville. And then sometimes, when those girls get there, they want to go eat or they want to go somewhere. And I am already past my limit for driving hours.

BLB: Do you get paid by hour?

JD: No. I get paid by the day, but the Department of Transportation limits you on how long you can be on the road. So if you drive 10 hours up to Nashville, you are out of hours. Sometimes they have a problem with that.

BLB: How do you stay awake when you are driving 10 hours? That’s a long haul.

JD: It is. Daytime driving is much easier than nighttime driving. I don’t seem to get sleepy. Nighttime driving is a bit trickier. I tend to eat real light; stop every two and half hours to find a rest area, drench myself in cold water and walk around; and maybe do an energy shot for the heck of it. But you have to do that. If you try to stay awake for 10 hours you’ll wipe out.

BLB: What is your favorite Florida State League venue or city to visit?

JD: With the team? I would have to say Clearwater. There is a lot to do there. Here (Tampa) there is a lot to do, but it’s not bus friendly. At the end of the night, say you are back in the hotel by 10, where can you take a bus?

BLB: There are a lot of places by the Tampa airport, right?

JD: Well, we are staying in the Sheridan and they have a shuttle bus that will take you anywhere in the local area. It will take you to restaurants, to the mall, to Wal-Mart. So that’s a good situation.

BLB: That takes the driving off of you, right?

JD: Exactly, and it’s good for them too because they want to go to dinner, they want to go to lunch, they want to go to the places guys go, you know.

BLB: Are you held to the teams curfews as well?

JD: No, not really. I don’t even know what the team curfew is. I don’t think that it is that rigid. A lot of guys bring their fishing poles and they will go fishing late at night or early in the morning. I lot of them like to fish.

BLB: You learn a lot about the players as well, right? What they like to do?

JD: Oh sure, some of them like to go fishing. Some of them like to play blackjack at the casinos. Some of them like to play poker. And some of them, their girlfriends come too. Not on the bus, but they will follow the bus down. I have a procession behind me sometimes.

BLB: So no one else is allowed on the bus besides the staff and the players?

JD: No. I think that is an insurance issue with the league, I don’t know. Makes sense though.

BLB: Are you a frequent visitor to Space Coast Stadium for games?

JD: Well, that’s where we pick them up, but yeah, I’ve been there a few times.

BLB: You’ve become a fan of the Manatees now, right? Is there any one player you would say is your favorite, either due to his personality or because you enjoy watching him?

JD: Scooter (Gennett) is pretty interesting. He is a little guy, but he gets a lot of base hits.

BLB: Any opposing player catch your eye?

JD: Not really. I don’t follow them that closely. Unless they get a hold of one and knock it out of the park.

BLB: So you said Clearwater is the best park for you to visit, but what is the best to see a game environment-wise?

JD: I think the ballparks in Jupiter and St. Lucie are nice. They are a little more in the country. They are a little bit easier to navigate. I think they are a little greener, it seems like.

BLB: Space Coast Stadium isn’t bad, is it?

JD: No, it’s not. This place here in Tampa isn’t bad either. The hardest part is parking at the hotel. It’s tough. You can’t go under the awning because it’s too low. That means you can’t make the loop around. And if you pull in, then you have to back out on to the highway. And that’s not cool.

In the daytime, I don’t mind. I can make six or seven swings and get turned around. But at night, it’s tough. Daytime driving is so much easier. Sometimes they want to go eat at Steak’n’Shake or something and that can be tough if there are any low trees or parked cars on the side of the road.

BLB: How tough is it overall to drive a bus that size?

JD: It’s not that bad on the highway. On the highway, it’s just like driving a big car. But when you start getting into parking lots, and start getting into real heavy city traffic, you have to be one step ahead of what’s going to happen next. You can’t get yourself down any cul-de-sacs or anything.

BLB: How many different types of buses do you drive?

JD: We have about six different buses. As a matter of fact, we will be getting 25 new ones in a couple of weeks.

BLB: Is the company here in Florida?

JD: Used to be. They sold out to a company in Argentina. This company has a concept of setting up something similar to Greyhound, except high end. So far they have a route that goes from Miami up the turnpike to Orlando, up to Jacksonville then to Atlanta to Washington DC and then to New York. Another one goes from Orlando to Tallahassee to I think Atlanta. It makes the loop. I have stayed away from that because that’s away from home a lot.

BLB: What is your most challenging city? You mentioned Nashville and Atlanta, are they difficult?

JD: Atlanta is easy. If you go where we go to Kennesaw, Georgia, it’s just outside of Atlanta. There are a couple of colleges out there that Stetson plays. They have a bus lane, you can fly 70 miles an hour right through the middle of Atlanta.

BLB: So you mention you would do this one more year. What’s after that?

JD: I am probably going to retire after that. The last of my children will be out of college.

BLB: Then what?

JD: I don’t know.

BLB: Do you hear the players talk about who is moving up and who is moving down?

JD: Yeah, they talk about that all the time.

BLB: Do you ever feel bad for a player who doesn’t make it?

JD: Well, yeah, they cut one of them. We were out on the field somewhere, I think it was Dunedin, and they cut a guy. It really upset him. He had big ol’ tears rolling down his eyes. All the guys were giving him a hug. That’s tough. I guess they had someone who was injured and came back. So they had to make a hole.

BLB: With the college teams you are not going to see that.

JD: With the college teams, I see them from their freshman year all the way until they graduate and they are gone. I see them grow.

BLB: So which do you prefer driving: the minor leaguers or the college teams?

JD: It’s tough to pick one over the other. There are advantages to both.

BLB: Do you have a favorite restaurant on the road? I know it is mostly their choice, but what is your favorite?

JD: Well, they talk about the Minor League Steakhouse all the time. Are you familiar with that?

BLB: No.

JD: It’s McDonalds. It’s their joke. We always get a laugh out of that.

We would like to thank Mr. Dively for his time.