Monday, January 7, 2013

Happy New Year from a Rays Fan in Afghanistan

Greetings from cold, frigid Afghanistan,

Wow, much has changed since I last wrote. I apologize for being gone for so long. Besides being in the somewhat frozen tundra of Afghanistan and doing my thing out here, I have also been working on my first book, a fictional tale that has a lot of baseball in it. I’m almost done with the rough draft, so hopefully I’ll have something final soon.

But where do I start with everything that has happened with the Rays and in baseball universe since I last wrote? First and foremost, the season ended. With all apologies to Burke Badenhop, Jeff Keppinger, Hideki Matsui, the return of Carlos Pena, and Luke Scott, I never saw you. Hope your stay in the Tampa area was nice.

Then there are a few Rays whose exits I missed.

James Shields – I moved to Tampa around the same time Shields was putting on Devil Ray green. In 2007, I remember watching the Devil Rays stink up the Trop but telling people that not all the D-Rays stunk. That Jamie Shields was actually quite good. I told more than a few people to remember that even Greg Maddux had a horrible 8-15 win-loss record for a horrible 1986 Cubs team.

Then in 2008, Shields turned in perhaps the best game I’ve ever seen live, a 1-hit shutout against the Angels in the game Evan Longoria hit his first game-winning home run. That was the first game I thought to myself, maybe there is something about this team. Shields was a big part of that. Sure enough, in the last game I went to before heading to Afghanistan, Longoria hit another game-winning home run – this one to get the Rays into the 2011 playoffs. Maybe you’ve heard of that game.

That night was also the last night I saw James Shields on a pitching mound. Shields didn’t actually pitch in the game, but did warm up in bullpen several times. Maybe they were ruses by Joe Maddon, or maybe Shields was actually getting ready to pitch in relief.

One of the things I’ll remember the most about James Shields was the warrior aspect of his pitching personality. The complete games, the durability, that nasty change-up he was unafraid to throw at any count. While he was part Maddux, he was definitely part Tom Glavine as well. And Glavine, despite being on the Braves when I was growing up a Mets fan, was one of my favorite pitchers to emulate. Something tells me if I was years younger, I would have probably emulated Mr. Shields as well.

(Honest admission: I never learned how to throw a curveball or a slider. So when I was a lanky, left-handed teen with a meh fastball, I read a bunch of articles on Glavine, including one where he discussed how to throw a circle change. After tinkering for a few weeks, I could throw a circle change with a tennis ball that would buckle the knees of kids miles around. Like Glavine and Shields, others might have thrown faster or harder, but none on my block could change speeds on the streets of Melbourne, Florida, like I could.)

Wade Davis – Speaking of those who also probably tried to be Shieldian, I won’t be seeing Wade Davis anymore. Like Shields, I saw Davis in his first starts. In his debut, Davis struck out the world. After that, he couldn’t seem to strike out anyone. Not that he was that bad, but a pitcher with no outpitch is soon either hit out or sent out. It was the former for the former Rays pitcher.

J.P. Howell – JP Howell was what I think I would have been if I learned to throw a curveball.

BJ Upton – I don’t think any player I have ever rooted for has invoked more of an emotional response than BJ Upton. One day he was great, another he was maddeningly poor. I saw him hit for the cycle and I saw him get thrown out at third more times than I cared to. For those who remember, BJ was the first Rays player I wrote about at Rays Index. He started my long-form addiction to writing about the Rays.

In that post, I compared BJ to former New York Mets outfielder Kevin McReynolds, who has been labeled “disinterested” on the playing field. Perhaps I need to amend my comparison. BJ wasn’t McReynolds, he was more Darryl Strawberry without the personal issues. When he was in the minors, someone once called Strawberry “the next Ted Williams”. Strawberry never came close, although he was a more than stellar outfielder for the Mets. BJ too faced the curse of potential being a first round pick, having loads of natural ability, and never quite performing up to expectations. Then, when the time was up, both outfielders left via free agency.

On a related note (pun intended), I never could find out why people always tried to compare BJ to his brother Justin, but never did the same for Willie and Erick Aybar. No one ever said we got the wrong Aybar.

Of course, I would have liked to see BJ and Big Game James stay in a Rays uniform. But that’s not the reality we live in. Allegiances to players must light if we want to keep the constant high of a consistently competitive team. And now when I get back I’ll be able to see Wil Myers, who if the projections are true, is seven feet tall and shoots fireballs from his eyes and bolts of lightning from his arse.

Compared to other Major League baseball teams in Florida, I am glad the Rays let their fans get attached. They let them root and cheer for their players before pawning them off to the highest bidder. Then they usually get good returns from their trades. That is the biggest difference between how the Rays do business and how the team from South Florida handles their affairs. Just the fact that that they are entertaining offers for Giancarlo Stanton makes my stomach curl. Not even a championship could buy back that much heartbreak.

In other news, the Rays made a lifetime commitment to Evan Longoria. He rewarded the team by creating a new fan. Give me that kind of money and I’ll give the Rays my first born as well.

Now we are forty days or so from the start of spring training. Like Moses at the same point in time, the Rays are far from out of the desert. They still have their perennial holes at DH and catcher. They still need to figure out how they are going to handle first base. And they still need to sell one billion or more tickets so they can also give a lifetime contract to David Price and his little dog too.

It had been too long since I ventured out my fictional endeavor and wrote about real baseball. While it will still be cold and dismal in Afghanistan, soon pitchers and catchers will report to Florida, spring training will start, and the season will be upon us. And that means I’ll be closer to coming home. I can’t wait.