Wednesday, May 6, 2015

When will Jameis Winston throw out the first pitch?

A little over a month ago, I asked whether or not potential Tampa Bay Buccaneers draft pick Jameis Winston would become a Tampa Bay Rays fan. According to reports, Winston told reporters he was a fan of the New York Yankees. I also mentioned Winston committed a slight public relations faux pas by mentioning his allegiance to another team. A better option, I suggested, would have been to claim neutrality and say he would support the team of wherever he was drafted.

As expected, the Bucs drafted Jameis last week.

As I wrote last month,
Sometime after the NFL Draft, the Rays will probably want the Bucs’ first pick to throw out the first pitch at Tropicana Field. If it is Jameis Winston, the game could turn into an event and possibly draw a significant amount of Bucs fans and Florida State fans. Unfortunately, Jameis’s answer yesterday might lead to trepidation by the Rays front office that he might not accept the invite. Or that he might not be sincere when putting on a Rays jersey. Or that it will lead to an awkward, “Maybe now you will become a Rays fan.”

But will the Rays invite Jameis to throw out the first pitch? And when might they do so?

The day after the draft, the Mets invited NY Giants draft pick Ereck Flowers to throw out the first pitch at Citi Field. He did so two days after the draft. Inviting Jameis Winston might be a little trickier.

Due to his off-field incidents, there is a lot of baggage and opinion attached to Jameis Winston. He is not an unanimous crowd favorite and despite court decisions to the contrary, there is still a lot of public distrust of the former FSU star.

The Rays have done a lot to build community relations over the last few years. They have promoted their community outreach in several interviews and on many broadcasts. Their relationship with the community is something they mention about often when discussing growing the fanbase. Inviting Jameis could affect these relationships even if the Rays are ok with him.

The Rays avoided the Josh Lueke situation while he was here, but Lueke was a seldom used relief pitcher who kept quiet while in Tampa Bay. (Also: Lueke was found guilty. Winston was cleared of all charges.)

Jameis Winston has a much higher profile. He was the first pick in the NFL Draft for the local football team. No matter how much the Bucs may vouch for him, the Rays may play it safe and decline inviting Jameis to the Trop.

But declining to invite Winston might turn off a certain segment of Rays fans. Especially if he does not throw out the first pitch on or before July 26th, FSU Alumni Day at Tropicana Field. Thousands of FSU alumni might not be too happy if their former quarterback was not present.

Although FSU Day at the Trop would be a great day to celebrate the roots of former Seminole and current Rays manager Kevin Cash, it might be the safest day to invite Jameis Winston to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. The Rays could also invite former Nole and Bucs legend Derrick Brooks and have both throw out the first pitch, lessening the focus on Winston.

Celebrating Kevin Cash's Nole background could then wait until FSU Day 2016.

What if the Rays wait too long and Jameis receives an invite to throw out the first pitch for the Tampa Yankees, Clearwater Threshers, Dunedin Blue Jays, or Bradenton Marauders? These teams usually don't do "alumni nights", but the allure of Jameis Winston might be unavoidable for Minor League marketers. A worst case scenario might be if the Rays don't invite Jameis at all this season, and the Yankees invite him next spring training. Jameis surely won't turn down an invite to socialize with his favorite team.

The Bucs may have accepted the risk of drafting Jameis Winston, but by doing so they increased the risk of every sports team in the area that attempts to build "Team Tampa Bay" synergy. While the Bucs have made it clear they don't want Jameis throwing any more official pitches, we will see if or when he throws a ceremonial one.