Imagination & Old Friends In Baseball

My son Sam and I are finishing up our annual baseball trip.  This was the first year we attempted two cities.  Sam wanted to see Fenway Park in Boston, so we started with two games in this famous stadium.  Then we flew to Tampa to renew some old acquaintances.

Tampa is the only city we have visited more than once.  In 2008, Sam and I had great seats behind home plate.  We came early and after finding our seats, I asked Sam if he was hungry.  Sam is seldom hungry and wanted to stay in the seats while I bought a turkey leg.

When I came back, Sam was in the middle of a conversation with a man probably in his late 50’s that was sitting in front of us.  I found out his name was John.  John was impressed with Sam’s baseball knowledge and told me so.  

It wasn’t long until a couple of others showed up to sit right beside John.  Their names were Dick and Debbie.  We had a great time talking to them during the game.  The second day, we had the same seats.  We were greeted when Dick and Debbie showed up with a garbage bag full of Rays memorabilia.  

The friendship was started and has lasted until today.  In 2008, Joe Madden coached his Rays to a World Series appearance against the Phillies.  Our friends in Tampa considered Sam a sort-of good luck charm.  After all, our previous two stops, St. Louis and Colorado (Denver) had both made the World Series the year of our visit.

Tampa is considered the worst ball park in the major leagues.  They annually have the smallest payroll.  They trade away their stars for promising young, but soon-to- be expensive stars of the future.  Despite all that, Sam loves everything about the Rays.

What started with a suggested train ride at Mall of America in 2004 has come full circle.  Sam and I jumped on that inter-city train at Mall of America to see the Minnesota Twins in the old Metrodome. 

Sam and I have since found our way from coast to coast, south to northwest and even northeast.  Now, Sam is a high school graduate.  He claims he still wants to take a week next summer for our trip. We’ll see.  Sometimes other things than a trip with his father gets in the way.

This year was special, though.  We did have that reunion with John, Dick and Debbie.  It just wasn’t at the ball park. They have long since given up their season tickets to the Rays.  This reunion was at a great burger joint in St. Petersburg.

It was like 10 years hadn’t flown by since the last time we saw them.  John is an author now after retiring from the military.  He wrote a book called The Supe.  Dick still owns a physical therapy clinic.  All three work out at the clinic and time hasn’t stolen anything from any of them.

Sam’s magic with the Rays stayed intact. He seems to  be a lucky charm for the small market team again.  We watched the last two games as the Rays swept the Angels.  It was hard to believe that a team with Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Justin Upton could be swept by a team that had their starters pitch a total of four innings in those two games.

That’s what is really interesting to me about the Rays.  Their manager, Kevin Cash, and his front office do things that make that team competitive.  It’s really simple; they use their imagination.

Baseball has been good about that lately.  The first hint of it came from Billy Bean, the general manager of the Oakland A’s. Using sabermetrics in baseball, Bean found a way to keep his small market team in the pennant race most years. Have you seen the movie Money Ball?  Sabermetrics almost caused a stroke to most baseball purists.

Now the Rays with either young or scrap-heap pitchers, put them in a rotation that has teams in baseball stumped.  Each of the two days we watched them play, they had an “opener.”  That was a pitcher that was like a seventh and eighth inning guy except he ate up the first two innings.  

If those starters do well, the score is close after two innings.  Them comes the “filler.”  This pitcher hopefully lasts five innings.  The genius in this strategy is in today’s game, a starter commonly goes only five innings.  Then it’s turned over to the bullpen.  It’s the unknown that kills teams.  How long will a starter last? What relievers are available?  How many innings can each pitcher throw?  In the Rays system, that’s all scripted out.

This sounds complicated, but it’s not. The Rays still will use a starting pitcher in the tradition way if he is capable.  They just don’t have many pitchers like that.  I’ll bet it’s not too long before a lot of major league teams copy the Rays.

They do other things, too.  Kevin Cash has a great imagination.  The saddest part of all this great baseball is no one notices.  Sam and I went from a packed Fenway Park for two nights to a basically deserted Tropicana Park in St. Petersburg.

I have no idea why they don’t draw many fans.  I guess they need more fans like Sam that can appreciate imagination in baseball.  I have to admit if Sam didn’t live in my house, I might not have noticed.  Who knew this year’s trip would be educational?  It was a great reunion too.