Sunday, December 29, 2013

Freelancing on Minor League Baseball

I wrote on two new sites in the past two weeks.

Over at Ben Hill's Ben's Biz Blog, I wrote about my third visit to the Baseball Winter Meetings. Ben was kind enough to post my thoughts on his site, making it the third site on which I have posted thoughts about the Winter Meetings.

Also, in an attempt to write about Minor League Baseball on every website known to man, woman, and child, I contacted John Sickels of MinorLeagueBall.com to see if I could cameo on one of the premier, most-widely-read sites on the lower levels of baseball. Although the MinorLeagueBall.com site is usually very prospect-heavy, this offseason they have been running a "How I Discovered the Minors" series and I figured that would be perfect for me.

Luckily for me, John said yes. And today my post was featured on his site.
the 1994 Manatees season was the first time I attended a Minor League Baseball contest. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about the game and there is no Retrosheet for Minor League contests. What I do remember was the fans going nuts for Manatees third baseman Lou Lucca and first baseman Dan Robinson coming through with a pinch-hit single in the bottom of the 10th to give the Manatees the win. I also bought a Manatees hat I wore regularly through my following years in the Army and still have to this day.

I also talk about bringing my little nephew to the ballpark and having a grand ol' time.


Thanks for reading. Hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Conversation with new Durham Bulls writer Jessica Quiroli

Covering the Minor Leagues is often a thankless profession. Writers work just as hard as their Major League brethren in smaller stadiums, in smaller press boxes, in smaller locker rooms, and for much smaller pay. But for the hardcore fan, their work does not go unappreciated.

This upcoming season, Rays fans are fortunate to have one of the best in the business cover the Durham Bulls. Jessica Quiroli has been writing about baseball for over eight years on various websites and her own blog, High Heels on the Field. espnW called her one of the top ten women in sports to follow on Twitter, where she can be found at @HeelsOnTheField.

Jordi caught up with Jessica at the Winter Meetings last week in Orlando and talked with her about her previous work, writing about the Bulls, and building a brand.

Rays Index: So who are you writing for these days?

Jessica: I freelance for MiLB.com but I will be writing some for MinorLeagueBall.com and also on my blog High Heels on the Field, and anything else that comes up, but it will mostly be Durham Bulls coverage starting in April.

Rays Index: How did you get the Durham Bulls position? You were in NJ, correct?

Jessica: Well, I don’t exactly work for the Bulls. But I let the Bulls know – they kinda know me from Twitter – I let them know I was moving there and needed credentials for the season and that was that.

Rays Index: The move predicated what team you cover?

Jessica: That’s usually how it works. When I lived in Philadelphia, I travelled a lot to cover the Trenton Thunder. And I also ended up covering the Eastern League for years. Then when I moved to New York, it was the New York-Penn League, because the Brooklyn Cyclones and Staten Island were right there. Then there is also a high school sports writing position I also got for MaxPreps.com so that worked out as well.

Rays Index: Looking forward to it then?

Jessica: Very much.

Rays Index: In regards to the Durham Bulls, are there any players in particular you are looking forward to covering?

Jessica: Well, I know the team last year was pretty great. I have never covered Triple-A on a regular basis, most of my career has been Double-A or below, so I am really looking forward to seeing the difference at that level. As far as players, Odorizzi I covered when he was with the Royals. I remember then he was really good and thinking this guy is going to be something. So I would like to see him pitch.

Rays Index: I remember when he was in the Florida State League with the Brewers. He was in the Grienke trade.

Jessica: Yeah, when he was with the Royals I said to him “How tough was it for you?” He said it was tough, those were the guys he came up with and it was really hard for him. So I am wondering how he is faring with the Rays.

Rays Index: I always wonder how players feel in regards to guys they come up with. Do they stay in touch, send Christmas cards, etc?

Jessica: You’ll hear them say they stay in touch with certain guys. They say Twitter helps. I think the relationships they create in the Minor Leagues helps them. They need that. Especially the Latin players who have a really hard time adjusting and they need each other. Different situations like that really help the friendships.

Rays Index: You mentioned Twitter. You are very prominent on Twitter. You come out the “Minor League Players to Follow on Twitter” list and your “College Ballplayers to Follow on Twitter” list. How did those start and will you be continuing those?

Jessica: Oh yeah. I will be doing those again. They have become weirdly popular in a way that I did not know was going to happen. I didn’t know players were going to be so serious about it, really interested in it, and asking why they weren’t on it or why they were so low. But then you realize that’s their competitive nature and Twitter has become a huge part of their lives and how they connect with fans.

Rays Index: Both positive and negative. There are a lot of trolls on twitter who tweet “you stink” and other not-so-nice things.

Jessica: And they have to deal with that, yeah.

Rays Index: So is there anyone on Durham that you have communicated with on Twitter and are looking forward to continuing to talk with Twitter-wise?

Jessica: I don’t think so. Most of the guys I am connected with are the (Hudson Valley) Renegades. I am really connected with them on Twitter. I few of those guys I have a really great professional relationship with and so it has been mostly them. Mostly the guys who just got drafted, Jake Hager as well. I didn’t get to see him play, obviously, but most of the guys at the lower levels.

(See Jessica’s latest article on Hager here.)

Rays Index: What brings you here to Orlando for the Winter Meetings?

Jessica: Well, I was asked to speak at the Bob Freitas Speaker Series. I was asked to talk about covering Minor League Baseball and creating a personal brand and developing that and what that kind of career has been like. So I did that today and it went well.

Rays Index: Could give a quick summary of what you talked about in regards to your career and the challenges?

Jessica: You have to love it. Things are always changing and I am always looking for something new and new work. At this point it what I am known for. I like people know and read my work and respect my opinion knowing that this is what I do. I cover Minor Leagues and I cover prospects.

This is not usually my thing. Normally, I don’t like having this much attention, but MiLB asked me and I wasn’t going to say no.

Rays Index: Do you ever see High Heels on the Field being such a site that you would have people writing for you, or is it just your personal site?

Jessica: I’ve brought in writers to take it over for a week and things like that. I have thought about that too, what would I do with the whole thing? I have considered that. I am in my fifth year, but I don’t know. I want to expand it more and I have done that in the past year. I want to give other writers the opportunity to cover something in the Minor Leagues that I am not looking at. Or someone who works for the Minor Leagues. I had someone do that. So it’s a matter of what direction I want to bring it in eventually. But I do want to bring in other writers. But of course a lot of times, I don’t have time to do something with it. It’s not my job, you know. It is not a paying thing. The paying thing has to come first.

Rays Index: So you would be open to contributions, if there are readers who are interested?

Jessica: Absolutely.

Rays Index: Being that it is High Heels on the Field, do you limit it to women only?

Jessica: No, no, no. Not at all. Guys have to be comfortable. I have had players write for the blog. They wrote about their experience, what they go through, and they never mind. It’s great. I actually just had a story up about the charity, Minor League Baseball relief for what happened in the Philippines. That was a really great story to cover. And was different from anything I had done before. That’s another way I want to expand it. To have stories that are not just about the game or one player, but are about something bigger.

Rays Index: I did notice on your website it said you have written two fiction novels. Can you tell us about those?

Jessica: (Laughs.) I did not think you were going to bring those up. I decided to write a series where the main character is a female minor league baseball writer. Her name is Lauren Day. She is not me, but she is based on a lot of people, although it is a little bit based on my own life and experiences. I wrote two short novels, long short stories. I am still deciding if I want to do a third or move forward because I think I am done with that. It didn’t get a lot of attention, but I loved taking what I had learned in the Minor Leagues and presenting it in fiction.

The first story is about a first round pick who decides he wants to quit baseball and the second one is about the difficulty of sports journalism and how everything is sort of changing. Some people like the change, others don’t. There are traditionalists and purists and people just going to school today just to do media. Both stories focus a lot on being a sports writer, being a journalist, and what that life is like.

Rays Index: Where can people find those?

Jessica: They are available on Amazon and Smashwords.

Rays Index: Are you going to try to make a Rays game this year after covering the Durham Bulls, especially after the September call-ups?

Jessica: Maybe. I don’t know. That would be neat. I know now I am looking forward to covering the guys I saw in the New York-Penn League. I want to see them get up to Triple-A and watch their growth. I definitely like where I am at but there is something about seeing them debut, you know? Just watching that progression, it is really great to see that happen.

Rays Index: Thoughts on Taylor Guerrieri? (Guerrieri will begin the 2014 season serving a 50 game suspension for substance abuse.)

Jessica: I watched him in the NY-Penn League. He was probably one of the best prospects I have ever covered. I was amazed by him. Amazed. He is a good guy. When I say that I am careful, because you don’t them personally. But when I say that I mean he has tried so hard and he has show how hard he is willing to work. He is a hard-working player. He has his wildness and he has his stuff he needs to figure out, but I think it is important for Rays fans to know that I saw a guy who needed to get better and needed to apply himself and he did that. Whatever personal stuff he has going on, he will be fine. It is so early in his career, and you don’t want people to say that he is a top prospect and a screw-up. He is really not.

Really all those guys I covered on the Renegades. They will be in the Midwest League this upcoming season. That team worked hard. Julian Ridlings, Justin Choate who is gone now, Aaron Griffin, Chris Kirsh, Darryl George. I watched a team of guys who were intense and had the drive. And with Taylor, give him a chance. He’ll be fine. He has so much talent.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Attending the Winter Meetings



For the third time since I moved to Tampa in 2006, this week I will be making the drive to Orlando to attend the Baseball Winter Meetings. Each time I’ve gone, I’ve written about the experience.

The first time, I was in awe of the Major Leaguers and baseball personalities milling around the lobby of the Swan and Dolphin Hotel. I was a complete outsider, a fan taking it all in with a fly-on-the-wall approach.

The second time, although I was writing in earnest, I still didn’t know anyone. Again, I wandered through the Swan and Dolphin lobby with no direction or purpose. Although I did touch base with a few fans from Twitter and one national baseball blogger.

This time, I think I will feel a little more a part of the horde. Although I am not a “formal” media member, I have tweeted, chatted, emailed, or interviewed some folks in the baseball industry who I know will be attendance. There are people I am looking forward to seeing and talking to – I might even do an interview or two.

One person I hope to meet and chat with is new International League and Carolina League reporter Jessica Quiroli. Jessica is a veteran Minor League reporter who has covered many leagues and many players. She is one of the best in the business. And now she will be covering the Rays top minor league team, the Durham Bulls.

We’ll see who else I run into and mingle with. Perhaps I might even be on the cutting edge of a rumor or breaking news: Will the Rays trade David Price? Will Matt Joyce be dealt? Can I get Andrew Friedman to sign my 6-year old left-handed nephew to a developmental contract?

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mariano Rivera and the Face of Victory



In case you missed the hoopla, hoorahs, and heaping helpings of hubble-bubble, Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera retired at the end of the 2013 baseball season. After 19 years in the game playing for only one team and being on the winning side of several championships, there is no doubt Rivera had a great career. For his accomplishments, some have mentioned he might be the first unanimous Hall of Famer.

But before we crown Rivera the greatest player ever – which is what a unanimous Hall voting would do – I’d like to ramble a bit why I think the public loved him so much and whether or not any Rays player could ever reach such lofty acclaim.

First, on an interesting aside, did you know there are no punters in the NFL Hall of Fame? Nor are there any long-snappers. Both of these specialized positions work under pressure. So why are baseball closers held in such high regard?

Closers end games. Most of the time, anyway. The final relief pitcher of the night is a very emotional position. Not only on the field, as they attempt to solidify their teammates’ victorious efforts for the evening, but also for the fans. Closers are the gatekeepers to celebration. Successful closers are front and center in the memories fans have of the final out of championships. As Rays fans, we remember David Price was on the mound when Akinori Iwamura fielded the last out of the 2008 ALCS. No matter what else Price does for as long as he is in a Rays uniform, that play will be one of our most lasting impressions.

Despite pitching only the ninth and sometimes the eighth inning, Mariano Rivera “closed” the Yankees’ championships in 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2009. His final pitch to end each game set Yankees fans in New York City and all over the world in a frenzy of celebration.

To Yankees fans – one of the biggest and most influential fanbases in Major League Baseball – the image of Mariano Rivera brings to mind championships. The concept is almost Pavlovian.

Had Rivera not been automatic, he would have denied fans the opportunity to celebrate. Average or below average relief pitchers bear the brunt of fan bases that went into the final innings of games expecting to win. Winning would have sent the fans home happy, feeling the expensive tickets, pricey parking, and way too overpriced beer were worth the cost because their team won.
Financially, fans that go home happy are more likely to return to the ballpark.

Of course, there is ample data that the closer position is statistically overrated. However, “saves”, even for the forward-thinking Rays, are still a driving force in the appearance order of the bullpen – although one might argue Joel Peralta and perhaps even Alex Torres were more valuable to Joe Madden. (As a matter of fact, only Kyle Farnsworth and Josh Lueke allowed more walks and hits per inning out of the Rays bullpen than Fernando Rodney.) Because he pitches the ninth inning, Fernando Rodney is the Rays face of victory with his bow and arrow routine, crooked cap, plantains, and other pro wrestling-like gimmicks.

Since Rivera was on the Yankees since before the Rays existed, and since the Yankees have had winning ballclubs for most of that time, there is no way any current Rays player has added as much significant emotional value to the Rays fanbase as Rivera has to Yankees fans. However, are there any Rays players who have added even a minor amount of significant emotional value? Might any of them have a chance to be at least as locally acknowledged as Rivera was on the national scale? Might the Rays present any Rays players with a sand dollar, no less the elaborate sand castle they presented to Rivera?

(Note: Significant Emotional Value (SEV) is not a measurable statistic. Rivera’s stats are insane. He dominated with one pitch for 19 years. However, some defensive-minded backup catchers play just as often and stick around with one skill as well. If we cheered framing pitches like we do saves, perhaps Jose Molina would be at the end of a Hall of Fame career. Unfortunately for Molina, that’s not the case. Framing pitches carries little significant emotional value for the fans. At least most of them.)

Taking a look at Rays “Face of Victory” candidates, the first potentially heralded hero would be any closer the Rays decide to keep for more than a two years, which unfortunately hasn’t happened since the days of Roberto Hernandez (1998-2000). Knowing the Maddon/Friedman front office as we do, that probably won’t be the case anytime soon. I doubt Fernando Rodney returns to the Rays in 2014. If Rodney does stay with the Rays, he would need at least one World Series winning moment before he becomes the face of celebration for the Rays. To Rodney’s determent, closers usually don’t age well (see Troy Percival or Kyle Farnsworth).

Next on the list of possible leaders in Significant Emotional Value is David Price, who, like Rodney, might be counting down his days in a Rays uniform. While Price has a huge head start, clinching the biggest win in Rays history to date, even if he signs a new contract and stays with the Rays, unless he moves back to the bullpen, I don’t believe he would be on the mound for too many more clinching moments. It’s possible he could turn out a performance like Josh Beckett in the 2003 World Series, but moments like that are few and far between. Odds are he would be pulled in the sixth, seventh, or eighth inning of the clinching game so Madden could put the game in the hands of his bullpen.

The third player who could possibly receive a bevy of booty upon retirement because of his emotional impact to Rays history is Dan Johnson. There is no doubt “The Great Pumpkin” holds a near, dear, and special place in the hearts of Rays fans thanks to his numerous late inning heroics. But is it enough? I would think when Johnson does retire, the Rays might have him throw out a first pitch and maybe present him with a plaque of his finest moments. That would be a nice gesture. But there would be no number retirement, no induction into the Rays Hall of Fame, and certainly no gifts from other teams.

After the departure of Dan Johnson, Jose Lobaton picked up the baton of unlikely outcomes. Lobaton earned his ice cream several times in 2013, including an exciting game-winner in the ALDS versus the normally unhittable Koji Uehara, who coincidentally was on the mound for the Red Sox when they won the World Series, upping his own Significant Emotional Value. If Lobaton continues the ice cream celebrations could Cold Stone Creamery permanently retire a flavor in his honor? Would even a Tampa Bay area local ice cream parlor dare to take a flavor off the shelf in honor of the Rays backup catcher?

(By the way, I think the Hard Rock Casinos and CafĂ© “retiring” Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” because a baseball player used it as his entrance music is the most shameless and ridiculous attempts at publicity I’ve heard in a long time. Metallica playing live for Rivera a few weeks before he retired was a very cool and novel tribute. But the Hard Rock people have nothing to do with baseball nor with Mariano Rivera. Now no Hard Rock establishment, whether in New York or anywhere else, will play “Enter Sandman”. Forever. Because of a baseball player. I hope the Seminole Hard Rock Casino knows I am going to request it each and every time I visit because of principle.)

This finally brings us to the most famous Rays player and the most famous Rays player song – a song that may just be retired on every Tampa Bay rock radio station the day this player hangs up his cleats. Of course, I am talking about “Down & Out” by Tantric and Rays third baseman Evan Longoria. Longo is the best bet to be the Rays version of Mariano Rivera. With his heroics in Game 162 (the “9/11” of baseball nicknames, by the way – completely unoriginal), Longo already has one classic moment under his belt. He also has the ability to rack up more with his long-term, team-friendly contract. Currently, he is on pace to be our Chipper Jones. But if we are lucky, Evan could be the face of several World Series championships.

Then just maybe when he calls it a day the entire baseball world will shower him with praise and parades.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Of Nerds, Domes, and Distractions



Tonight, the Rays come home. Finally. The Rays last played at Tropicana Field on the 23rd of September, a full two weeks ago. Since the last time the gang spent the night in their respective home beds, they’ve played in five cities in two countries, and they’ve won six games and lost four.

But this time going home means more than just the comfort of a warm bed or a home cooked meal. It means shedding distractions. And over the last two games, the two key Rays have had their mental composure shook by the beatings in Boston.

While I already covered the Fenway Faithful’s Game 1 ode to Wil Myers, a much more experienced Rays player lost his cool after Game 2. After leaving one too many pitches up in the strike zone and give up a gaggle of runs, David Price could have done what other pitchers through the years have done. He could have:

But Price is too 21st century for that type of outburst. Instead he took to Twitter and ripped TBS analysts Dirk Hayhurst (another former teammate, by the way) and Tom Verducci in a tweet. Regardless of the content, and Price’s opinions of Hayhurst’s career or Verducci’s athletic ability, this isn’t the first time Price has taken to twitter to express his frustration. Little can we forget in late 2010 when Price tweeted about Rays fans, saying their attendance, or lack thereof, was “embarrassing”.

Of course, Price “apologized” for his most recent outburst as he did the 2010 comments, with a sad, cliched “if I offended anyone, then I am sorry” statement. But the distraction lives on, looming over a series that already has the Rays needing to play do-or-die baseball for the next three games.

Thankfully, the Rays are at home for the next two games, where the sold-out crowd at Tropicana Field will be behind them, doing their best to will them to win. And thankfully for David Price, he probably won’t be pitching in Boston again anytime soon. Red Sox fans might try to get under his skin with a “Nerds, Nerds, Nerds” chant.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Riding Rightfielders: Wil Myers isn’t the first

Those who watched Friday’s debacle in Game 1 of the ALDS saw an unusual sight: Rays rightfielder Wil Myers getting confused and letting a fly ball drop between him and Desmond Jennings. Of course, the ball bounced over the wall, the Red Sox scored, kept scoring, and the Rays lost.

What was particularly interesting was the fan reaction to Myers. Throughout the rest of the game, Red Sox fans in rightfield rode Myers mercilessly, chanting his name – “My-ers” “My-ers” – while he stood stoically in his position. Then, when he came to bat, the chants continued, this time joined by the rest of the stadium.

This is not the first time a power-hitting young rightfielder was jeered by the Fenway Faithful. On October 23, 1986, during Game 5 of the World Series, Mets outfielder Darryl Strawberry was the target of a similar chant. “Dar-ryl” “Dar-ryl”, the Red Sox fans sang, hoping to get under the skin of the young superstar who had his own adventures in Fenway’s rightfield.



Absolutely well put by Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola, by the way.

Of course, neither Strawberry nor Mets fans let the chants get to them. While Strawberry recovered well enough to hit a dagger home run in Game 7 of the Mets’ eventual series win, Mets fans co-opted the “Dar-ryl” chant, turning a negative heckle into a positive show of love.

So that’s my recommendation to Rays fans: don’t call Red Sox fans “classless” or anything other derogatory terms because they are riding a Rays player.  They are merely chanting his name. Co-opt the chant, claim it, and own it. Use it loud and proud at Tropicana Field. Be passionate, not prissy.

As Ty Cobb once famously said, “Baseball is a red-blooded sport for red-blooded men. It’s no pink tea, and mollycoddles had better stay out. It’s a struggle for supremacy, survival of the fittest.”

The Red Sox and their fans drew first blood. It’s time for Myers and the Rays to be their worst nightmare.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Getting a Delmon 2.0

For the last years of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Delmon Young represented the future. He was Baseball America’s #3 Top Prospect in 2003, 2004, and 2006, and the number one prospect in Minor League Baseball in 2005. He was big, he was powerful, and there was no doubt he was going to be a star.

The year Delmon Young made his Major League debut was also the first year Joe Maddon helmed the Devil Rays and Andrew Friedman manned the seat of General Manager (it was also my first year in the Tampa Bay area, but that’s a side note). We didn’t know much about Maddon, Friedman, and their processes then, but we knew the organization had to be better. They couldn’t get much worse.

After a year of watching Maddon and Friedman sort out the pieces, a funny thing happened. The “Devil” was jettisoned and with it the green uniforms, the losing, and Delmon Young. Our prized prospect was gone, traded to the Twins for their 2006 number one prospect, right-hander Matt Garza. Sure, Jason Bartlett and Brandon Harris were also in that trade, but it was primarily Delmon for Garza.

Delmon for Garza was Friedman’s 20th trade since the end of 2005 and his first “Big Trade”, unless you count Mark Hendrickson for Dioner Navarro or Aubrey Huff for a non-descript Astros prospect named Ben Zobrist. It was also a very interesting trade at the time. Twins blogger Aaron Gleeman wrote “The package that the Twins received in return for Garza, Morlan, and Bartlett essentially means that Young must become a superstar for the trade to be successful.” DRaysBay writer David Bloom wrote “I think this trade will help the Rays more than it will hurt them with the loss of Delmon. With Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and Jake McGee on the not too far horizon, the Rays might be defined by their starting pitching.

As we know now, Delmon for Garza worked out better than expected as the Rays made the World Series, Garza won the 2008 ALCS MVP, threw a no-hitter, and after 2010 was traded for Chris Archer, Sam Fuld, and others. For the statistically minded, the players the Rays received have been worth 23 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball Reference.com (Garza: 8.5 WAR, Fuld: 2.3, Bartlett: 10.5 Archer: 2.1, Guyer 0.1). Meanwhile, Delmon Young has been below the level of a replacement player since leaving Tampa Bay, accumulating -0.6 Wins Above Replacement.

(Here you ask “So what is a Replacement Player?”. Although stat people even argue about the correct measurement, put bluntly, it is way below what a former number one Minor League prospect should achieve.)

While no one expected Delmon to wither away as he has, Delmon for Garza was the trade that put the Rays on the map as a team willing to make moves to get players they need. Players who fit the “Rays Way”.

So it came as little surprise five and half years later when the Rays took a flyer on a recently-released corner outfielder who hit well against left-handed pitching, was cost-effective (read: free!), has some pop, and knows American League pitching.

A player named Delmon Young.

Of course, the Delmon Young of today is not the Delmon Young of 2003 to 2007. Delmon is as far removed from his number one prospect days as the Rays are from their Devil Rays days. Delmon is a back-up now, a Designated Hitter or spot fourth outfielder who should be pulled for defensive purposes as soon as possible. What happens in the future will be interesting, but for now on this team, that’s his role.

Growing up a Mets fan, the Delmon Young reunion reminds me of the Mets reacquisition of Lee Mazzilli during the 1986 pennant run. Early in his career, Mazzilli was a star for the late ‘70s and early ‘80s Mets, the only big name the perennial 100-loss team had. Mazzilli played his first five seasons with the Mets and was an All-Star in 1979, when he hit .303, belted 15 home runs, and stole 34 bases.

On April 1, 1982, the Mets flipped Mazzilli to the Texas Rangers for pitching prospects Ron Darling and Walt Terrell. After three seasons with the Mets, Terrell was sent to Detroit for Howard Johnson, the best third baseman in Mets history not named David Wright. Darling, like Garza, became a solid number three starter and a key arm in the Mets 1986 World Series-bound rotation. Meanwhile, Mazzilli spent the 1980s bouncing from Texas to the Yankees to the Pirates, never quite the star he was in New York.

In the middle of the 1986 season, the Pirates released Mazzilli. A few weeks later, the Mets took a flyer. Like the 2007 Devil Rays, the 1981 Mets team Mazzilli left was a collection of has-beens, never-will-bes, and a few young players with legit potential. The 1986 team Mazzilli returned to was far different. The ’86 Mets had focus, leadership, stars, and a charismatic genius manager named Davey Johnson at the helm (they also had swagger to spare, but that’s a whole other story). On the ’86 Mets, there was no pressure for Mazzilli to be the Mazzilli of old. The second coming of Mazzilli needed only to play some outfield, pinch-hit, and give a spot-start to rest the regulars during the pennant race.

Nearly 30 years later, that’s all the Rays want from their Delmon 2.0.

(P.S. Bonus points if you get the post title taken from Delmon Young’s “screen name” in the once popular web comic “The Dugout”.)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Muslims in baseball and a past post

Way back in July 2007, I wrote a post on Sam Khalifa. Khalifa is the only Muslim to ever play professional baseball at the Major League level. Unfortunately, lack of ability cut short Khalifa's career at the big league level.

The death of his father to Islamic extremists cut short his career in baseball.

Recently, there have been a few more articles written about Sam Khalifa. In December of 2012, the trial began for the man accused of murdering Khalifa's father while Khalifa worked as a cabbie in Tucson, in March it was reported that he finally got back into baseball as a coach for his high school alma mater, and last week, Fangraphs.com writer Alex Remington asked why there haven't been more Muslims in baseball.

In my post, I asked what would have happened if he stayed in baseball. I wondered if he would have been an ambassador for the game in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001 and if Khalifa could have eased tensions between eastern and western culture.

Admittedly, that is a lot to ask of anyone. But perhaps, if he decides to get back into baseball, Khalifa could maybe one day find a spot as a coach for a World Baseball Tournament team and become if not a cultural ambassador, at least a baseball ambassador at the national level.

Personally, it is hard to believe I have been blogging for over six years. And not only do I remember when I write something like that, but I still take interest in the subject I wrote about long ago.

That's an interesting feeling.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Our Mortal Moment with Manny

For a brief moment in 2011, Manuel Aristides “Manny” Ramirez donned a Rays uniform. On January 31st of that year, while most players had long earlier known what uniform would be on their back, Manny signed a 1-year deal with the Rays for a hair over two million dollars.

During that spring, the Rays spoke highly of Manny. He was motivated. He was dedicated.

He was also using performance-enhancing drugs. At least that’s what the tests said.

Manny Ramirez “retired” from baseball a week into the 2011 regular season, having only played five games and getting only one hit in seventeen at-bats for the Rays. He walked away from the game a disgraced shell of the powerful slugger he was in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox. On the positive side for the Rays, Manny’s retirement only cost them $87,000 of his two million dollar salary.

But Manny Ramirez wasn’t happy. He knew he could still play and felt he could still contribute to a Major League team. He wasn’t about to be Rafael Palmiero or Sammy Sosa or Barry Bonds – players forced out of baseball after solid seasons, untouchable and undesirable due to the plague of steroid accusations.

After sitting out the rest of 2011, Manny’s suspension was reduced to 50 games. On February 20th 2012, Manny signed a minor-league deal with the Oakland A’s, hoping to get back to the big leagues one more time. Manny played seventeen games for the A’s top minor league team, hitting .307. Despite the positive batting average and solid on-base percentage, the A’s released Manny on June 15th, 2012 after he asked for his release following the team’s claim they had no upcoming plans to promote him to the majors.

Despite the setback, Manny again thought he could still play. He wasn’t about to retire on someone else’s terms. He wanted another chance.

Manny’s next chance came from one of the most unlikely sources in recorded baseball history – the Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League. No one goes to the Taiwan. They go to Japan, like Cecil Fielder, Tuffy Rhodes, or Rays broadcaster Orestes Destrade did, where the competition is comparable to a top American minor league. They don’t go to Taiwan.

But Manny being Manny, as Manny always has been, did. And he succeeded. Stories were written about how Manny not only helped himself, but also helped the league, adding attention and respectability to the formerly troubled league. While he hit .352 with a .422 on-base percentage and a .555 slugging percentage in 49 games with the EDA Rhinos, attendance in the league soared and people came out in droves to see the former American star.

Still, Manny wanted to play in the Majors. To one day leave the game on his terms. Not after suspension and not after a 1-for-17 endnote. In June 2013, Manny opted out of his contract with the Rhinos and on July 3rd, he signed another minor league contract, this time with the Texas Rangers.

And that brings us to this week.

On August 14th, after 30 games with the Round Rock Express, the Rangers’ top minor league team, Manny Ramirez was released. Like the A’s a year earlier, the Rangers stated they had no place for Manny at the big league level. According to ESPN, although Manny hit three home runs in his first eight games with the Express, scouts now say “his bat speed has slowed down considerably”.

Although he is fighting Father Time at 41 years old, Manny says he will not retire and if he doesn’t sign with another team this season, he is looking forward to playing in the Dominican League this winter. The idea of playing in the Dominican League as a stepping stone back to the major is not without precedent. Former American League MVP Miguel Tejada signed with the Kansas City Royals after impressing with the Aguilas Cibaenas in the Dominican Republic Winter League following his release in early 2012 by the Baltimore Orioles.

Given what he has done to stay in the game, I doubt Manny Ramirez wants to leave the game like this. Manny seems to still want to leave the game on his terms. Some athletes have that chance. Some don’t. Some, like Willie Mays, fall down in the outfield, victims of the “helpless hurt” of age. Manny never was one for the field as the “Say Hey Kid” was, but if Manny’s once immortal bat is indeed less than mortal, he can’t possibly help a Major League team.

Even without performance-enhancing drugs, Manny Ramirez was better than the 1-for-17 he did with the Rays. He knows that. Any self-respecting baseball fan knows that.

Every player wants to go out like Ted Williams, to hit a home run in his final at-bat. Most hope to not go out like Babe Ruth, who hit a measly .181 while used as an attendance gimmick for 28 games for the 1935 Boston Braves, a team that won only 38 games and lost 115.

As Rays fans, we can harp on Manny’s brief time in the organization, dismissing him as a fraud, but living with the fact that had Manny stayed we would not have the season-long phenomenon known as Casey Kotchman’s “Magic of Kotch”. Manny’s loss was in fact the Rays’ gain. For the statistically minded, Kotchman had 3.7 Wins Over Replacement in 2011, an overall measurement of performance Ramirez came close to during his short stint with the Dodgers in 2009, but last achieved over the course of a whole season in 2006.

(Perhaps in an alternate universe, Manny Ramirez pees clean and Kotchman spends all of 2011 in Durham. Perhaps then it is Kotchman, not Dan Johnson, who is called up in late September. And perhaps Johnson never gets to hit the second most exciting home run in the final regular season game of that season.)

Or if Manny Ramirez is in fact done, if his bat speed just isn’t up to par, and if no team wants to take a chance on a mortal 41-year old designated hitter who hasn’t succeeded against Major League pitching in three years, then for a brief moment we, the fans of the Tampa Bay Rays, had the privilege of seeing the end of a great, albeit sometimes controversial, career.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Time to Tank the Rays Tank



With the speed of any other uber-reactive organization out for attention, the People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has called for the Rays to remove the rays from their touch tank after a home run by Miguel Cabrera landed near the animals. According to their recent letter to the organization, PETA claims rays are “held captive at Tropicana Field...[and] are subject to harassment, loud crowds, and even baseballs capable of seriously injuring them

First, let me beat all the snarky commentors to the punch: there aren’t enough fans in the seats to be a “loud crowd”.

Bing.

Second, that’s what rays get for killing Steve Irwin.

Double bing.

All jokes aside, I think the over-reactive PETA people have a point here. Yes, there have been only two baseballs hit into the tank in eight years. But it would only take one poorly placed home run to create a public relations disaster for the Rays. Small odds, sure, but totally avoidable nonetheless.

And if a home run did ever land into the tank with such force as to bruise or kill a ray the fallout would be horrible. The incident would make headlines on SportCenter, get analyzed on every channel from ESPN to Animal Planet, and make the Rays a national punchline for every late night talk show host and hack comic from Tampa Bay to Toksook Bay, Alaska.

On the back of the latest Rays ticket I bought, it states the following:
“The holder of this ticket voluntarily assumes all risk and dangers incidental to the game of Baseball, or other event for which this ticket is issued, whether occurring prior to, during, or subsequent to the actual playing of the game, including specifically (but not exclusively) the danger of being injured by thrown bats, fragments thereof, and thrown or batted balls or other objects, and the holder, by using this ticket, agrees that Major League Baseball (“MLB”), the American League, the National League, the Tampa Bay Rays (“Club”), other participating clubs, Tropicana Field, the City of St. Petersburg, Pinellas County, and Ticketmaster, including without limitation their respective players, other employees and agents and all other individuals and entities affiliated with such organizations, are not liable and are hereby held harmless by the holder for all injuries, expenses, claims and liabilities resulting from or related to any such cases.”
In other words, if you get hit with a home run and get hurt, it’s not the Rays, the players, or any one’s fault but yours. Sucks to be you. If you are in the outfield, double shame on you as you failed to hear or recognize that a five ounce orb is headed your way. Way to be heads up.

An animal swimming in a tank in right center field has no such recognition capability. It has no idea the ball is heading its way. No idea until it is too late. It might not happen today, tomorrow, this season, next season, or ever, but an injury is a possibility.

To make a comparison, despite no actual bombs ever going off in Tropicana Field, I have to empty my pockets and be inconvenienced with a magic metal wand every time I walk into the stadium because someone decided there is some slim chance I could be a terrorist. Meanwhile, there have been two animals killed by baseballs – both seagulls. The first happened in 1983 at the arm of then-Yankees outfield Dave Winfield and the other by a pitch by Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamond Backs in 2001. Accidents happen.

Perhaps the Rays organization is ok with odds of a ray being hurt but not my claim that I am there to enjoy the game, not blow up the stadium.

Then again, this is the same organization – albeit different ownership – that acquired the infamous Jae Kuk Ryu, formerly of the 2007 and 2008 Devil Rays. In 2003, while a member of the Daytona Cubs, Ryu threw two baseballs at an osprey that lived in a perch high above Jackie Robinson Stadium. While the first throw missed, the second hit the bird. The bird died a week later.

So maybe it would be a good idea to move the rays from the touch tank and eliminate the chance of injury or public relations disaster. Or maybe make the rays somehow less vulnerable to incoming projectiles.

I am sure the Rays organization has reasons or maybe even calculations by their crack staff of sabermetric Keebler elves on the odds of an incident, but I would ask, “Is having the tank and the animals near the field of play worth the risk”?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

New post on the Tampa Bay Rays on DRaysBay.com

I pitched an idea to the editors of DRaysBay.com, one of the biggest online websites covering the Rays. Although I have written for Rays Index.com, I like to stay in good terms with everyone and write a feature for other sites when possible. And the guys from DRaysBay have always been nice, and have provided me opportunities on other occasions, such as last year's piece: The Quest for 2 Million: 12 Ways to Market the Rays.

The year's article also explores the Rays from a business sense. Instead of proposals, however, I examine one of the Rays competitors in trying to attract fans: the five Florida State League minor league teams in the Tampa Bay area. This was a tough piece to write, not from the research part, but because I really do enjoy going to minor league baseball games and have written so much about the teams, the players, and the experiences. But I think the presence of those teams and the league is hindering the Rays ability to draw butts in the seats.

So check it out and if you like it, please let me know:


(Quick update: this post was linked on twitter by a sports economics professor. I think that's pretty cool.)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dropping the ball at Space Coast Stadium

Ever since my nephew was born, I've wanted to take him to his first baseball game. His father is not much of a baseball fan, so I felt it was my duty, as a big baseball fan and frequent writer of things baseball-related, to take the little guy when he was old enough to his first game. Whether he wanted to go to more games afterwards, well, that would be totally up to him. But Uncle Mike wanted to take him to Game 1.

A few weeks ago, I learned my nephew’s pre-K day care was taking the kids, including my nephew, to a Brevard County Manatees game. I absolutely had to be there. So I made the trip from Tampa to Melbourne, Florida to at least take some pictures of my nephew at the ballpark.

Although it was his first trip to Space Coast Stadium, it was far from mine. I’ve been dozens of times since I saw my first game in the stadium's first year in 1994. I’ve been walking the halls there for almost 20 years.

My latest visit to Space Coast Stadium before the game with my nephew was for the 2010 Florida State League All-Star Game. And like my write-up for that visit, I am using several graded categories, in an attempt to break down the entire experience.

Ticket Prices: B

The game my nephew’s day care brought him to was on 2013 Camper’s Day at Space Coast Stadium. According to the promotional flyer, kids were charged $4 to attend instead of the normal $7. For $4 dollars more, they got a hot dog lunch with a Capri Sun and an oatmeal cream pie. And chaperones got in for free. Not bad. The end result was a few hundred attendees and probably 2/3 were kids of various ages.

Parking: A

Parking was free. I am not sure if this was because it was a day game on a Tuesday, or because it was a kids' promotion, or if the Manatees have instituted a “free parking” policy in the last few years. But I can’t argue with free.

The Game: B

It was a good contest between the Manatees and the Dunedin Blue Jays. Not a lot of runs, but the home team did end up winning 3-1.

Merchandise Stand: D

As it was a sparsely attended day game in the middle of the week, Space Coast Stadium didn’t have their primary merchandise store open. But they did have open a small merchandise stand. And I needed a new hat.

In the middle of the fourth inning or so, I walked to the small merch stand hoping to buy a hat. There were two guys in the booth standing around. I waited for a few minutes before one finally asked if I needed anything. Not “Can I help you?”. Strike 1.

I told the merch stand guy I was looking for a hat. I don’t wear fitted hats. I like my hats adjustable. Unfortunately, all the non-fitted hats on the racks at Space Coast Stadium look like old man fishing hats. Not good. The merch guy didn’t seem willing to help me find a new hat nor did he suggest I go to the Manatees website – maybe they have them on there. He didn't bring any to me to try on, to take a closer look at, or anything. Like I said, I was there to buy a hat. Strike 2.

Then I asked the merch guy if they carried shirts for kids – such as one I might buy for my little nephew. I couldn't tell from on the other side of the counter if the smallest ones on the rack would be small enough. He told me all they had there was all they sold. Again, he didn't point me to the website or anywhere else. Strike 3 for the merch stand.

I walked away empty handed and frustrated.

Food: B+

I had only one visit to the concession stand for a drink. It was 2 for 1 day. Drinks are always pricey at the ballpark, at least today it was less so.

Mascot: F

Considering there were a few hundred kids in the stands, the person in the Manny the Manatee suit did a horrible job. Absolutely terrible. Manny stood by the Manatees dugout the entire game and never once wandered the concourse. He participated in a few between inning contests, but that was it. Otherwise he just stood there. It would have been nice for the mascot to visit each of the day care or summer camp groups that were in the crowd. The kids would have been happy and it would have made for great photo ops.

I get that it is 90 degrees in the day time in Florida in the summer. But that is the price for putting on the mascot suit. The mascot has 9 innings worth of time to visit different parts of the park. Manny the Manatee did nothing.

Stadium Staff: D

I am not sure if there was any pre-game discussions, but I never once saw any of the Space Coast Stadium staff engage any of the groups of kids or their day care/camp leaders. The staff are the hosts of the ballpark. They should offer to take the kids around the park, show them around, or at least see how they are doing. Maybe even asked them as a group how many are there for the first time. They did nothing as well.

PA Announcer: C-

The PA announcer is saved only because he did announce the kids’ groups, but did that so fast I barely could hear each specific name. It would have been nice if he made a big deal out of each group and made them feel special. Talk to the kids as a group. Teach them how to cheer. Start chants. And maybe only announce one day care/camp per inning. At least he acknowledged them, I guess.

Music: D

It was Campers Day and not one kids’ song was played. I heard Jimmy Buffett and other traditional stadium songs. The only song the kids danced to was Gangnam Style. Not even the chicken dance. Music is tough, but when you have a crowd full of kids, maybe play the Spongebob Squarepants Theme Song or something else they might all know. After all, Spongebob lives in the water and so do Manatees.

Post game: F

Although my nephew’s day care left in the sixth inning as many of the kids were getting tired and bored, I didn’t see any kids  from the other camps who made it to the end of the game running the bases after the game. That’s easy to do. Or run them from the center field wall to home plate. Too easy.

Overall experience: A

The only reason today’s trip to the ballpark gets an “A” despite all the poor grades for Space Coast Stadium, is because my little nephew said his visit to the ballpark was awesome. And because one of the players tossed me a game-used ball and I gave it to my nephew after the game.

However, as I wrote on twitter during the game, if you can’t keep a group of 5-year olds entertained for 2.5 hours you need to improve your in-game entertainment. The Manatees are not only selling baseball, they are selling an experience. That’s a Mark Cuban theory that I think even applies to Minor League Baseball.

Especially when kids are involved. Those kids are future fans. Those kids are the ones who will campaign their parents to come back. Even kids who are too young to follow the game can at least have a great experience.

My nephew is 5 years old and showing interest in baseball. I am sure we will be going to another game the next time I am in town. I only hope the Space Coast Stadium staff has their act together by then.