ST. PETERSBURG - Edwin Jackson has a sense of humor.
The Rays' pitcher tickled Carl Crawford's funny bone as he was holding court with the press and it did not take long before everyone else join in on it.
Crawford arrived Tuesday morning and faster than the left fielder can swipe a base, there was a crowd - in front of Jackson's locker.
It is kind of an odd setup when you first step into the lockerroom, and it starts just to the left with Akinori Iwamura's uniform #1.
In sequence it follows with BJ Upton (#2), Evan Longoria (#3), Rocco Baldelli (#5 - the numbers 4, 6 and 7 belong to coaches Dave Martinez, Tom Foley and Bobby Ramos, respectively, and they are in the coach's room), Jason Bartlett (#8), Shawn Riggans (#9), Justin Ruggiano (#10), Jackson, Crawford (#13) and Cliff Floyd (#15).
His number, 36, is a tad out of place and perhaps he feels the same because he is the only hurler in a row that has nothing but position players. The other two numbers that might fit the scheme are Jae Kuk Ryu (#11) and David Price (#14) only they are on the far opposite side.
What got everyone smiling was the righty arriving for his regular daily spring work and as soon as he saw he had no access to his uniform, he made a quick U-turn, with a smile of course, and sought out breakfast instead.
That is the atmosphere around the Naimoli Complex these days, as everyone prepares for year one of the second decade of Rays baseball.
"I fell like there is a little more peace this year," Crawford joked, long before Jackson came along. "We'll be a lot more at ease, not so much crazy stuff. I feel like everybody can just come out and play baseball. Everything seems much smoother now."
Although he did not come right out and say it, the trades of Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes have created peaceful environment for everyone.
"I was surprised (at the Young trade). I didn't think it would happen but it worked out for both teams. We get a good pitcher and they get a good young player."
When asked if he thought there was a message being sent to the rest of the team with the deal that brought Matt Garza to Tampa Bay, Crawford quipped, "This is my first day here. I'm trying to find the message."
The team's recipient of the Roberto Clemente Award for 2007, he was full of one line quips as he talked about having to give up Taco Bell (Yeah, I had to give it up") and late night big meals because they "slowed him down," and not wanting to waste a big area in his Arizona home with "junk," converting an RV space into a gym.
"I used to just sit around for two, three months and do nothing, but, this year I was able to keep the body toned up nice before I had to work out. All the equipment they have here I have in my house."
Crawford had a special diet and admitted it gave him more energy and vowed to stay on it for a little while even though he did not stay with the program 100%.
The team eliminated a lot of the junk food from the lockerroom last season and many were given an offseason regimen to follow. Crawford stayed with it because, "It's all business this year."
The 26-year old has increased his batting average five consecutive years to become just the seventh player in the modern era to do so and sees the Rays being a force on 2008, because of what the front office has done. Ace Scott Kazmir even mentioned the possibility of playing meaningful games in October, a nice surprise for Rays fans.
"We should be thinking like that," he said. "We're a long way from October, we have to get to .500 one time at lease but everyone is young and excited and think we can do the impossible. You think you are invincible you feel like you can do anything. That's the feeling we should have but we should focus on getting to .500.
There has been cases of teams doing the worst-to-first trick only when reality sets in, the Rays are still looking up at the class of the division, the World Champions in Boston and some team that plays in the Bronx. Breaking even is a realistic goal and could even help garner manager Joe Maddon some recognition as a Manager of the Year hopeful.
"I've never been around this many good players," said Crawford. "It would be nice to show the people around here that we are the best team ever put together."
Slowly, the sixth-year big leaguer is emerging as a team leader and, when asked if it was realistic to think the Rays could be a surprise team this year, he was ready.
"I don't want to put that pressure on the guys," he said, as if this was his team. Maybe it is and no one knows it yet.
"We definitely have the talent."
Now the trick is to get the most out of that talent and translate it into wins.
ALL ABOARD: All players are scheduled to be in camp Wednesday morning, although three, pitcher Juan Salas, along with infielders Willy Aybar and Joel Guzman, will be missing due to visa problems. The first full workout is slated to begin at 9:30am.
BIG MAN, BIGGER TASK: Some thought Jeff Niemann would be in the majors by now but his career has hit a few snags along the way. The 6-foot-9, 280-pound righty was the Rays first pick, fourth overall, in the 2004 draft and despite being a kinesiology major at Rice, the injury bug has slowed his progress. "I'm healthy and feeling good," he said. "I'm working on the split (split-finger fastball) and so far, so good." Niemann had his best season as a pro in 2007, finishing 12-6 with 3.98 in 25 starts for Durham. He was named the starter for the Futures Game and named to the International League All-Star squad. The Texas native will vie for one of the two remaining spots in the Rays rotation.
A PIECE OF THE ROCK: One of the biggest concerns this spring is how to handle Rocco Baldelli and how to keep his fragile hamstring healthy. "We just talked to him yesterday and we just tried to develop a plan in regard to optimizing his work and getting him involved in the games," said Joe Maddon. "We talked about some things yesterday, so as we advance into this we have specific ideas in what we are going to do in regard to getting him out there and keeping him healthy. As we get to the games he'll do a little bit of both [DH and play in the field] as we get into the game situations. He's going to do his work, outfield work here and obviously his batting practice. We are going to try to find the best way to keep him as fresh as we can and see how it works as we build into the month. Again, keeping an open mind but we have an idea of what we want to do."
RAYS ON THE ROAD - FEBRUARY 21: Outfielders Jonny Gomes, Justin Ruggiano, pitcher Andy Sonnanstine, mascot Raymond and broadcaster s Dave Wills and Rich Herrera will visit Brooksville on Thursday afternoon as part of the club's 2008 Community Days. The group will visit Brooksville Elementary School; conduct a clinic at Ernie Weaver Park; and then mingle with members of the Hernando County Chamber of Commerce at WWJB Radio.
SPRING RUBBER CHICKENS: Joe Maddon, Don Zimmer, pitcher Dan Wheeler and broadcaster Dewayne Staats will attend the Clearwater for Youth Annual Celebrity Banquet Saturday at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort on Clearwater Beach. Today's Tampa Chamber of Commerce Luncheon at the Marriott Waterside featuring the Rays drew a crowd of 375, the Chamber's largest Rays luncheon in six years.
TURN ON, TUNE IN: The Rays will broadcast a dozen games this year via their radio partners, 1250 WHNZ and 620 WDAE. There will also be two games telecast by Fox Sports Net Florida. Here is the schedule - ALL GAMES AT 1:05pm UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED:
• March 1 vs Toronto - WHNZ
• March 2 @ Pittsburgh - WHNZ
• March 8 @ NY Yankees - WDAE --- 1:15pm
• March 9 vs. Cincinnati - WHNZ
• March 15 @ Atlanta (ss)- WDAE, or
• March 15 @ NY Yankees (ss) - WDAE --- 1:15pm
• March 16 vs Detroit - WHNZ / FSN
• March 21 @ NY Yankees - WDAE ---- 7:15pm
• March 22 vs. Pittsburgh - WHNZ
• March 23 @ Reds - WHNZ
• March 28 vs Reds - WHNZ / FSN
• March 29 @ Reds - WHNZ
TURN ON, TUNE IN - PART II: The Rays hot stove radio show, "Countdown to Opening Day", goes live from Ferg's Sports Bar and Grill Monday, February 18 at 7 p.m. on 620-AM WDAE. Ferg's is located at 1320 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg, adjacent to Tropicana Field (727-822-4562). Monday's show will feature Rays Senior Vice President, Baseball Operations Gerry Hunsicker and pitcher Matt Garza.
FANFEST: The Rays will hold their annual FanFest from 10am to 5pm on Saturday, Feb., 23, at Tropicana Field. FanFest is a free event with free admission and free parking that includes a team autograph session and panel discussions with various Rays players, alumni, coaches, broadcasters and front office executives throughout the event. Fans of all ages will have the opportunity to take a swing in a big league batting cage, test their fastball in the speed pitch booth, hit a home run in the Wiffle Ball Home Run Derby, take the Home-to-First Speed Challenge, and tour the Rays clubhouse. Artifacts from the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame will be showcased as well as artifacts from the world's largest autographed baseball collection, including balls signed by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb and many others. There will also be a baseball card show.
GIT YER TICKETS HERE: Single game tickets will go on sale at FanFest starting at 9:00 a.m. at the Tropicana Field box office, Tampa office, and all TicketMaster locations. Tickets can also be purchased online (www.raysbaseball.com or www.raysbeisbol.com) or by calling 888-FAN-RAYS. Additionally, fans will have the chance to purchase season tickets and mini-plans inside the ballpark throughout the day.
MORE FANFEST INFORMATION: MLB.com analyst Harold Reynolds will be available for a Q&A at 1 p.m. Former Ray and "The Rookie" Jim Morris will be signing autographs from 10a.m.-2p.m. 19 former major leaguers will be signing autographs throughout the day including former American League Rookies of the Year Gary Peters and Tom Tresh.
Ted Fleming, the manager of TBSN Radio 510, has been covering the sports scene in the Tampa Bay area for the last decade via radio and print. His radio show, Speaking of Sports, is syndicated by the Black Athletes Sports Network live daily for two hours, starting at 11:00 A.M. He frequently discusses the Rays daily on his show, which you can listen to live by clicking here. Additionally, he is a stringer for the PA SportsTicker and has previously worked for WEEI in Boston, ESPN 1050 in New York and Metro Sports. You can reach him by sending an email to email@example.com.