ST. PETERSBURG - You have to think that Joe Maddon ran into his basement day after day and did the Snoopy dance as he prepared for his third year at the helm of the Tampa Bay Rays.
If there were basements in Florida homes, a lot of fans in Tampa Bay might have been doing the same so in its absence there were probably a lot of torn up living rooms instead.
Spring training is always a season of hope and dreams. Maybe that is where presidential candidate Barrack Obama (D-IL) drew his catch line from although there will be no politicking at the Naimoli Complex if the skipper and the front office has anything to say about it.
"I really understand why he's been such an impact on all the teams that he's played for, Maddon said about the 38-year old backstop. "He's well-spoken, well thought out. And he's got this professional sternness."
Rays' fan will remember Mike for his fiery play and outspokenness his first trip through St. Petersburg as a member of the original roster in 1998.
The Philadelphia native and now Palm Harbor resident played in 75 games with the inaugural team and handled the pitchers well with the staff responding with a 4.21 ERA in games that he played, fourth best in the American League.
Some may even remember him for his well publicized outburst on the mound toward Jeff Sparks which have played in the pitcher's departure from the team and being demoted all the way to Single-A ball.
"The backup guy should be pretty efficient defensively," said the manager. It's not an easy position, the guys that do it well make it look easy, but it's not easy. Part of their job really is to help the starting catcher … like a good backup quarterback in football."
That has accounted for the right-hand portion of the smile on Maddon's face. The other was uplifted when he saw a new fact to the team but an old friend from back in his Angels days.
"I thought Percy threw the ball well," he said about his new closer, Troy Percival. "He worked out early. I thought the ball came out of his hand really well. I saw that as being a nice sign."
The 38-year old righty was inked to a two-year big league contract despite not having a save since 2005 while with the Tigers and only recorded eight that season. Over his career he has logged 324, raking him 12th on the all-time list entering 2008 and just two behind former Devil Rays stopper Roberto Hernandez, having hit 40 or more twice.
After missing the entire 2006 season, Percival rebounded by working his way back from elbow problems on June 29 as a member of the Cardinals and went 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA in 34 games. What may have caught the Rays' eyes is that he gave up just 24 hits in 40 innings while fanning 36.
If completely healthy, last year's closer, Al Reyes, has been moved back an inning to setup man and with the mid-season pickup of Dan Wheeler, the team may have one of the more formidable trios to close out games.
After watching so many wins vanish last year, it has taken the Rays less than a year to upgrade their pen.
That alone will allow Joe Maddon to enjoy is post-game sip of wine a lot better.
CHECKING IN: OF Cliff Floyd and INF Ben Zobrist reported today. Other position players that have reported include: OF Rocco Baldelli, SS Jason Bartlett, INF Reid Brignac, 3B Evan Longoria, OF Fernando Perez, OF John Rodriguez, OF Justin Ruggiano and OF B.J. Upton.
TAKING THE (FOURTH AND) FIFTH: Joe Maddon will have a difficult time deciding on who will fit in behind Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza in the rotation. But it won't be for the lack of talent in camp as there is more of it than ever before. There are just some things that need to be worked on. "I think you're going to see poise out of all these guys," he said. "The walks have to go away. We want guys that can get into the game a little bit and help the bullpen."
CHA-CHING: Rays infielder Akinori Iwamura served as Grand Marshall at the Opening Day parades this morning for Central Sarasota Little League and Venice Little League, and made a $500 donation to each Little League.
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 a pair of former American League Rookies of the Year, Gary Peters and Tom Tresh