Rays Win Series at Minute Maid Park but Get Little Time to Celebrate

After winning a weekend series against the Houston Astros the Tampa Bay Rays could be finally heading in the right direction.

While still possessing the worst record in baseball the Rays can be encouraged somewhat by winning two out of three games against the Astros who many predicted would have the worst record in baseball for the fourth straight year.

The Tampa Bay Rays took two out of three games against the Houston Astros over the past weekend. Photo R. Anderson
The Tampa Bay Rays took two out of three games against the Houston Astros over the past weekend.
Photo R. Anderson

The thrill of victory will be short lived though as fresh off of the series win the Rays return home to Tropicana Field tonight to host their American East Division foes the Baltimore Orioles.

Tonight will mark the sixth time that the Maryland based and the Florida based teams have met this season with the Orioles winning all five of the previous matchups.

Back during their Devil Rays days the Orioles and Rays would often be battling each year for the second to last spot in the division and bragging rights over the team that finished last.

In recent years the Rays and Orioles have both been among the top teams in the division which makes this season a bit of a historical mix up.

After the death of Don Zimmer, Desmond Jennings and the rest of the Tampa Bay Rays are playing with heavy hearts and patches honoring Zim. Photo R. Anderson
After the death of Don Zimmer, Desmond Jennings and the rest of the Tampa Bay Rays are playing with heavy hearts and patches honoring Zim.
Photo R. Anderson

While the Orioles currently sit in second place within the division a mere 4.5 games back of the Toronto Blue Jays the Rays are 13.5 games back and in last place.

As often noted I am always torn whenever the Rays and the Orioles play each other since I have deep rooting ties to both franchises.

In the past I have tended to root for the home team during head to head matchups, or I will often find myself pulling for the team with the best chance of representing the division in the playoffs.

Using that formula it should be a no brainer that I would root for the Orioles to sweep the Rays over the next couple of games since the Orioles stand the best chance of making the playoffs this season but I just can’t seem to discount the Rays yet.

I guess there is part of me that does not want to believe that the Rays, who many people felt had the roster to propel them to the World Series, are finished in mid-June.

The Tampa Bay Rays started a series with the Baltimore Orioles tonight and will look to keep the winning ways going. Photo R. Anderson
The Tampa Bay Rays started a series with the Baltimore Orioles tonight and will look to keep the winning ways going.
Photo R. Anderson

That is not to take anything away from the success of the Orioles, or to suggest that I do not bleed Orange and Black, but I really am finding it hard to believe that the Rays are struggling as mightily as they are.

Granted the Rays have had to deal with the death of Don Zimmer and a string of injuries that have exposed their lack of depth in certain areas but many teams deal with injuries and tragedies each year and still manage to win games.

In a way my struggles with the unexpected fall of the Rays is similar to what many fans of the Miami Heat might be feeling following the five game series loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals last night.

The Spurs dominated the Heat throughout the series and posted the highest per game margin of victory in NBA Finals history so it was not a close series and even fell two point shy of ending in a sweep.

Prior to the series many Heat fans likely thought that the series would go to seven games as it did last year.

The Spurs and Heat are two of the best teams in the NBA and have been for many years accounting for eight titles since 1999, with three for the Heat (2006, 2012, 2013) and five for the Spurs (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014).

Of course each team made it to the finals in years where they did not win the title as well so one could make the case that the Heat and the Spurs have been the teams to beat for much of the 21st Century.

Despite those years of success there will be those that look at the “collapse” of the Heat as a sign that the roster needs to be ripped apart and rebuilt from scratch. What that approach fails to consider is despite the Ricky Bobby mantra of “If you ain’t first you’re last” there are second place finishers each year that in many cases were just as talented as the ultimate winners but fell short in the end for whatever reason.

Just as there will be calls from some fans to implode the Heat roster and rebuild following the finals loss there will be those who feel that the Rays will need to go back to the drawing board following the below expectations season they seem like to finish with.

Of course the Rays are known for late series miracles so I am not discounting that they can’t finish strong but I do think it is safe to say that a World Series game at the Trop is unlikely this year.

Evan Longoria and the Tampa Bay Rays will need an offensive spark and a miracle to live up to the expectations for the season and avoid a player purge at the trade deadline in July. Photo R. Anderson
Evan Longoria and the Tampa Bay Rays will need an offensive spark and a miracle to live up to the expectations for the season and avoid a player purge at the trade deadline in July.
Photo R. Anderson

Personally I do not subscribe to the theory of imploding rosters after a single bad year and prefer to look at the bigger picture and a team’s entire catalog of work.

The Rays can and will win again with the bulk of the players that they currently have just as the Heat can likely be a threat for the NBA title again next year with a few tweaks here and there.

Of course time will tell what those changes will be and rather the management of both clubs takes a scalpel to the roster to make fine adjustments or performs roster surgery with a chain saw.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to flip a coin to decide whether I am wearing my Orioles hat or my Rays hat tonight.

Copyright 2014 R. Anderson

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Tampa Bay Rays are Either in the Midst of an Epic Meltdown or on the Verge of a Historic Comeback

For the first decade of their existence the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were bad, really bad.

How bad?

So bad that if the Devil Rays early years were put to music they could easily include the lyrics stink, stank, stunk.

So bad that in those first 10 seasons of play, from 1998 to 2007, the team failed to end a single season with a winning record. In fact the most victories came in 2004 when they won 70 games.

Although the stingray tank at Tropicana Field remains the Tampa Bay Rays showed that the devil is in the details when they switched from being  called the Devil Rays to just the Rays after 10 losing seasons. The result of the name change was a trip to the World Series in 2008. Photo R. Anderson
Although the stingray tank at Tropicana Field remains the Tampa Bay Rays showed that the devil is in the details when they switched from being called the Devil Rays to just the Rays after 10 losing seasons. The result of the name change was a trip to the World Series in 2008.
Photo R. Anderson

But in a musical about face worthy of a Kenny Rogers song, the Devil Rays became the Rays in 2008 and they turned it around by not only posting the team’s first ever winning record but also managing to win the American League Pennant and earning a trip to the World Series in the process.

Since that turning around in 2008 the Rays have posted winning records in every season that followed and have made some more playoff runs to boot.

While they have yet to match the World Series run of 2008, the Rays have remained a threat to win the ultra-competitive American League East Division or Wild Card for the past six years.

That brings us to this year and a bit of history repeating as the Rays, who were predicated as World Series favorites by many experts, have taken an Olympic sized nose dive due to injuries and spotty offense that have them looking less like a perennial playoff threat and more like the Devil Rays of old.

With some key players lost for the season, and others going on and off of the disabled list with unusual frequency, the Rays have had their share of setbacks to overcome during the first quarter of the season.

In addition to injuries the Rays have had to battle through offensive slumps that have rendered many of the bats in the lineup silent.

Instead of being on track for the playoffs the Rays currently possess the worst record in all of baseball heading into a three game series against the Houston Astros.

It should be noted that the Astros started getting really bad around the same time that the Rays got really good.

The Tampa Bay Rays, holders of the worst record in baseball,  will look to turn their season around starting tonight when they begin a three-game series against the Houston Astros. Photo R. Anderson
The Tampa Bay Rays, holders of the worst record in baseball, will look to turn their season around starting tonight when they begin a three-game series against the Houston Astros.
Photo R. Anderson

After losing over 100 games for the past three years, the Astros are on pace to break even this season and possibly even post a winning record for the first time in years.

When the schedules were announced for the season few people would have believed that the Astros would have won five more games than the Rays heading into their weekend series.

After spending more on payroll than the frugal Rays had previously done, there were great expectations for this season. While the Rays could yet right the sinking ship that has become their 2014 season with each mounting loss the calls to trade away players grow louder as the non-waiver trade deadline approaches.

While the Rays are faced will calls to trade away players in return for prospects each season it is likely that a failure to return to competitive play could result in several current players being sent to new surroundings in July.

It is of course unfair to surmise that the Rays current rough season marks a return to the years of losing records. Teams have bad years now and then for a variety of reasons and usually bounce back within a year or two so there is no need to dust off those old Devil Rays jerseys just yet.

One need only look at the Boston Red Sox who won a World Series after suffering through an abysmal season the year before to see that one rough season is no cause to think that the sky is falling on a franchise.

The Rays still have time to turn the season around this year and have been known for late season heroics that have propelled them to victory in the past however the time to make that turnaround is decreasing.

A sweep by the Astros this weekend would likely be a huge blow for the Rays and would continue the downward spiral while a sweep by the Rays would be just the thing to move the season forward.

Time will tell which direction the weekend goes for the Rays but with each passing game the since of urgency grows a bit more to return to a culture of winning.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a game to get to.

Copyright 2014 R. Anderson

Hooks will Host Missions in Futures Game at Minute Maid Park

Tomorrow the Corpus Christi Hooks, who are celebrating their 10th year of existence, will play their first home ever game away from Whataburger Field when they host the San Antonio Missions in a Texas State League Futures game at Minute Maid Park.

While Minute Maid Park is usually home to the Houston Astros of Major League Baseball, the facility will transform into a Minor League Ballpark for one night as the Double-A Hooks of the Astros farm system play the San Diego Padres farm club the Missions.

Of course there are some people who might think based on the performance of the Astros the past few 100 plus loss seasons that Minute Maid Park was already playing host to a Minor League ball club.

Despite appearances at times the Astros are in fact a Major League ball club.

Even though the Houston region is home to the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Independent Atlantic League, tomorrow’s game will mark the first affiliated regular season Minor League Baseball game played in Houston in over half a century.

The Corpus Christi Hooks will play their first home game outside of Whataburger Field tomorrow night at Minute Maid Park against the San Antonio Missions. Photo R. Anderson
The Corpus Christi Hooks will play their first home game outside of Whataburger Field tomorrow night at Minute Maid Park against the San Antonio Missions.
Photo R. Anderson

Although there are three Ballparks that the Hooks normally play at within four hours of Houston, for those unable to travel to Frisco, San Antonio or Corpus Christi the Futures Game will be their first chance to see them play in person.

For many years I have traveled to Frisco, Texas to see the Hooks play the Rough Riders at Dr. Pepper Ballpark.

I even ventured out to see the Hooks at their home Ballpark a few years back but bringing the team to the base in Houston is an excellent way to build the brand while giving fans a chance to see the future of the big ball club.

Staging a Minor League game in Houston is also a great way to gauge potential interest in moving one of the team’s clubs closer to the home region as has been a recent trend among the relocation of Triple-A clubs.

Besides market research another thing the Futures Game has going for it is rarity since the chance to see a Minor League Baseball game within a Major League Ballpark does not come along that often.

It is likely that the atmosphere within the Ballpark will be a cross between the intimacy of a Minor League game and the spectacle of excess of a Major League game.

The trick with any event like this is striking the right balance between the two.

The players will also need to strike the balance of not getting overwhelmed at the prospect of being inside a Major League Ballpark and just play their game.

The Corpus Christi Hooks have called Whataburger Field home for all of their 10 seasons of play as a Minor League affiliate of the Houston Astros. Photo R. Anderson
The Corpus Christi Hooks have called Whataburger Field home for all of their 10 seasons of play as a Minor League affiliate of the Houston Astros.
Photo R. Anderson

While the stands may be larger the distance between the bases and from the pitcher’s mound to home plate remains the same between a Minor League and Major League diamond.

As noted before I cut my in person baseball watching teeth mostly in the Minor Leagues and have a special place in my heart for the game at that level.

While there are always exceptions, the game at the Minor League level always seemed to be more about the players and less about the pay check.

While every Minor League roster includes high paid prospects for the most part the rosters are filled with guys just trying to make a living playing the game that they love for as long as they can.

Minor League Baseball is also very much about the fan experience. From the kids running after foul balls to the people filling out their score cards there is a certain atmosphere that makes the Ballpark come alive.

In recent years the corporate aspects of the Major League game have made their way into the Minor League system so it will likely not be too long until the Minor Leagues become just as corporate driven as their MLB counterparts.

One can only hope that Minor League games remain affordable to the point where families can continue to go to experience the game in person and pass that love of the game on to future generations.

At its core the game of baseball will always be best experienced live. There are certain elements that even the best surround sound high definition television cannot replicate.

Besides, one cannot catch a ball or a free t-shirt from the comfort of their couch.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a game to get ready for.

Copyright 2014 R. Anderson

Sacrifice of D-Day Still Resonates 70 Years Later

Today marks the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, which is the name given to the World War II battle involving over 156,000 American, British and Canadian forces landing on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the heavily fortified coast of France’s Normandy region in one of the largest amphibious military assaults in history.

Led by Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied forces stormed beaches at Normandy code named Sword, Juno, Gold, Utah and Omaha.

The storming of the beaches was met by German machine gunners and artillery who tried to hold back the invasion force, almost succeeding at Omaha costing the Allies more than two thousand casualties in the opening hours.

For an idea of just how gruesome this type of frontal beach assault is one need only watch the opening of Saving Private Ryan. It is easy to forget in this era of drone attacks and smart bombs that war was once much more hand to hand leading to much higher casualty rates among its participants.

The guns on the USS Texas provided cover for the troops storming the beaches during D-Day. The flag that flew on the ship during the battle will be on public display starting today. Photo R. Anderson
The guns on the USS Texas provided cover for the troops storming the beaches during D-Day. The flag that flew on the ship during the battle will be on public display starting today.
Photo R. Anderson

In total, the Battle of Normandy lasted from June 1944 to August 1944 resulting in the Allied liberation of Western Europe from Nazi Germany’s control and has been called the beginning of the end of war in Europe.

During the D-Day invasion all scheduled baseball games were canceled on June 6, 1944 which marked only the second time in history that games were cancelled league wide.

The first cancellation of baseball games happened on the day U.S. president Warren Harding died in 1923, and the third time was when Commissioner Bud Selig stopped play for six days from Sept. 11-16, 2001, following the terrorist attacks.

While baseball games were cancelled stateside on D-Day, two future Hall of Famers, Yogi Berra and Leon Day, were participating in the battle.

Shortly after being drafted by the New York Yankees Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra was drafted by Uncle Sam. Berra witnessed D-Day 70 years ago today as a member of the U.S. Navy. Photo R. Anderson
Shortly after being drafted by the New York Yankees Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra was drafted by Uncle Sam. Berra witnessed D-Day 70 years ago today as a member of the U.S. Navy.
Photo R. Anderson

According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, 35 Hall of Fame members and more than 500 Major League players served in World War II.

Many celebrations are planned today to mark the anniversary. In France various heads of state are visiting Normandy and closer to home the people of Houston, and the surrounding areas, will have their own chance to see a piece of D-Day history starting today.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science will give the public an opportunity to see the 17-by-9 foot battle flag that was waving on the USS Texas during D-Day.

Although the USS Texas itself has been on static display for many years, the exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science marks the first time since World War II that the flag has been on public display.

Whether one travels to see the beaches of Normandy, or the Stars and Stripes, it is important to remember the sacrifice of all of those veterans who stormed those beaches to help ensure the freedom that is enjoyed to this day.

After serving in World War I the USS Texas was called into action on D-Day. Seventy years after that battle the ship remains as a monument to the people who fought and died to help bring the freedoms we know and love. Photo R. Anderson
After serving in World War I the USS Texas was called into action on D-Day. Seventy years after that battle the ship remains as a monument to the people who fought and died to help bring the freedoms we know and love.
Photo R. Anderson

Unfortunately the time to thank a World War II veteran in person is vanishing rapidly.

The United States Veteran’s Administration estimates that a World War II veteran dies around every two minutes. That translates to a rate of approximately 555 veterans dying each day.

By the year 2036, the VA estimates, there will no longer be any living World War II veterans.

For comparison purposes the last World War I veteran, Frank Buckles, died in February 2011.

A reminder of the rapid passing of World War II veterans occurred Wednesday when, Chester Nez, died at age 93.

Nez was the last living member of the original 29 citizens of the Navajo Nation who were recruited by the Marine Corps to develop the legendary “unbreakable” code based on the Navajo language that was used for vital communications during battle.

Just as the sacrifice made on the beaches of Normandy saved countless lives by hastening the end of the war in Europe, the Code Talkers helped end the war on the Pacific front with their sacrifice.

There are countless other stories of bravery and sacrifice from the men and women of the “Greatest Generation” who served during World War II and each story goes towards the patchwork on which the nation is built.

It is likely, and hopeful, that the world will not see another war of the scale of World War II. While there will always be a need for a certain amount of boots on the ground advancements in technology have greatly reduced the number of boots required to conduct modern warfare.

But while the number of soldiers needed to protect freedom will continue to decline in the coming years that does not minimize the level of sacrifice made by each of the soldiers who wear the uniform.

So take some time before the start of the hustle and bustle of the weekend to remember the sacrifice and reflect on the high cost of freedom paid by each generation that has gone before.

And by all means if you happen to see a World War II veteran, or any other veteran for that matter, be sure to thank them for their service and their sacrifice.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a flag to visit.

Copyright 2014 R. Anderson

Don Zimmer’s Passing Leaves a Huge Void

Don Zimmer, a baseball icon for the past six decades as a player, manager, bench coach and most recently senior advisor for the Tampa Bay Rays, passed away at the age of 83 today in Florida.

Upon learning of Zimmer’s passing Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig issued a statement stating that, “Like everyone in Major League Baseball, I am deeply saddened by the loss of my friend Don Zimmer, one of our game’s most universally beloved figures. A memorable contributor to Baseball for more than 60 years, Don was the kind of person you could only find in the National Pastime.”

My first column for this site was a tribute to the late Earl Weaver and now it is time to say goodbye to another icon from my past who shaped my earliest memories of the game of baseball and was someone who I was excited to see during my most recent trip to Spring Training.

As a kid collecting baseball cards there were certain faces that jumped out of the two dimensional cards and showed a life of baseball knowledge behind their eyes.

Don Zimmer spent 66 years in professional baseball as a player, manager and bench coach.
Don Zimmer spent 66 years in professional baseball as a player, manager and bench coach.

While the logos on their hats may have changed as they moved from team to team, Don Zimmer, Lou Pinella, Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox, Sparky Anderson, Joe Torre, and Earl Weaver just had the look and sound that one would expect a Major League Baseball Manager to have.

While I never had the opportunity to meet Zimmer as I did with Earl Weaver both men nonetheless reminded me of what a true baseball manager should be, someone a little rough around the edges who is willing to charge the mound or kick some dirt on an umpire’s shoes when the situation calls for it.

A moment of silence was held before the seventh inning stretch of the Baltimore Orioles versus Texas Rangers game and more celebrations honoring Don Zimmer are planned in the coming days.

The Rays will honor Zimmer with a moment of silence at Thursday’s Rays-Marlins game at Tropicana Field and will conduct a special pregame ceremony prior to the Rays-Mariners game on Saturday.

Don Zimmer (far right) served as a special adviser for Joe Maddon after joining the Tampa Bay Rays when Lou Pinella was the manager.  Photo R. Anderson
Don Zimmer (far right) served as a special advisor for Joe Maddon after joining the Tampa Bay Rays when Lou Pinella was the manager.
Photo R. Anderson

From a player who nearly died following a pitch to the head resulting in a metal plate being placed in his head, Don Zimmer used his 66-years in professional baseball to shape generations of players.

It would take days to recount all of the accomplishments from Zimmer’s career but there is no doubt that his death leaves a larger than life void on the game of baseball.

Once his playing career was over, Zim, as he was known, managed the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. Zim also managed the New York Yankees for 36 games in 1999, while Torre recuperated from prostate cancer.

A frequent fixture in the dugout as Yankees bench coach, Zim left the Bronx and went home to Tampa to serve first as bench coach under Pinella and then later under Joe Maddon with the Rays.

The Rays honored Zim in a truly Tampa Bay Rays way when they immortalized him with a Zim Bear giveaway. The Zim Bears were so popular that a second batch of bears was added to keep up with fan demand.

It is a sad fact that the baseball icons of my youth will all someday pass away just like Earl Weaver and Don Zimmer have.

Each generation has their favorites and it is always a little sad when they are no longer with us as it can feel like a piece of our own youth is dying along with them.

When we are young looking up at these larger than life figures on the baseball diamond it can be easy to think of them as almost immortal but as we age we realize that they are flesh and blood just like us.

Thankfully despite their passing away they will live on in the memories of fans and in Don Zimmer’s case they will live on in the form of a teddy bear with his face on it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think it is time to reread Zim’s autobiography.

Copyright 2014 R. Anderson