Rays veterans preparing for a change of tide

LOS ANGELES – Evan Longoria stood at third base Friday afternoon at Dodger Stadium. Ben Zobrist was to his left.

In a fifth-floor conference room, Andrew Friedman, via conference call, had just finished heralding the arrival of his new general manager. Gabe Kapler, who’d spent his final seasons alongside Longoria and Zobrist, was about to be named the Dodgers’ farm director. Joe Maddon was, well, it was hard to say, but if he were still in Tampa, it wouldn’t be for long.

And Longoria was at third base. Zobrist was to his left. Both wore the colors of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Third baseman Evan Longoria (3) and Ben Zobrist remain to lead the Rays. (USA TODAY Sports)
Third baseman Evan Longoria (3) and Ben Zobrist remain to lead the Rays. (USA TODAY Sports)

They’d be off to Japan on Saturday with a roster of other All-Stars and near All-Stars and other guys who would stand near the All-Stars. Friday was the first of two days’ preparation.

Anyway, Longoria, the career Ray, and Zobrist, the near-career Ray, dutifully gathered their ground balls, and they took their batting practice, and they ran the bases in a line with their temporary teammates.

And what I thought about was, “Consider the Lobster.”

Over a week that gutted the Rays of their organizational and in-game department heads, the Dodgers were presumed to be better for it, just as the Cubs were. In what seemed like an instant, Friedman had his healthy franchise with the payroll that shamed the New York Yankees. Maddon had his large market, his five-year deal, his roster of young studs, and a whole new city to romance.

The Rays?

A decade ago David Foster Wallace wrote a story about a lobster festival in Maine. Everybody ate lobster and everybody loved the lobster and even celebrated the lobster, and everybody was fuller and happier for all the lobster they ate. Wallace observed that this was a really wonderful deal for everybody, except, you know, the lobsters, which were, one by one, being plunged into pots of boiling water.

This is not to suggest the Rays will squeal and redden when they’re returned to the American League East cauldron. It is to say that a lot of what made the Rays smart and relevant was Friedman and Maddon, and what was left behind is a new GM and a list of managerial candidates and perhaps a fear the good old days will get older before they are particularly good again. On that front, we’ll all find out together. And there hasn’t been a lot of thought about that outside Tampa.

So, yeah, this has been a fine party for the bibbed folks with buttery cheeks, maybe not so fine for the main course.

Friedman became general manager of the then-Devil Rays in the fall of 2005. He almost immediately hired Maddon. In June, they drafted Longoria. The next month, they traded for Zobrist. Two years later, by then having changed their name to simply the Rays, they were in the World Series. They had six wonderful seasons together, limped through 2014, and before October was done the scattering of Rays’ philosophies and culture – and it was special there – had begun.

Longoria is under club control through 2023. He, in particular, has a stake in what’s been left behind and what is ahead. And he, ever the heavy-lidded cool kid, on Friday afternoon seemed mostly unconcerned. Mostly.

Leaning on a bat in Friedman’s new home ballpark, Longoria said, “Sucks for us, good for him. A bit of disappointment. At the same time, happy for him.

“It’s bittersweet for us, because we’re losing one of the best young GM’s in the game, but I thank and applaud him for the job he did in our organization. … He mentioned it in the media in saying he would’ve never left the Rays if he thought that he didn’t do as much as he could to set us up for the future.”

Regarding Maddon, he said, “Joe obviously meant so much to the organization, to myself and the other guys that grew up underneath him and learned how to play the game.”

Joe Maddon's departure from the Rays means things are changing in Tampa. (AP)
Joe Maddon's departure from the Rays means things are changing in Tampa. (AP)

That said, Longoria concluded, “I think the next couple months will be pretty interesting for the Rays’ organization.”

What are players to do? What are they to say? The game goes on. With or without the only big-league GM and field manager this generation of Rays has ever had, the Baltimore Orioles will be in town come April 6 expecting a game. And the Rays, with any luck, will return with a vibrancy and culture created over nearly a decade, and the hardball that followed that.

“I guess my confidence is in the team these guys had already had around them,” Zobrist said of new president of baseball operations Matt Silverman and, perhaps, bench coach/managerial candidate Dave Martinez, who’ve been a part of that. “It was a shock to see both of those guys leave. That said, neither was bigger than the model they were a part of.

“The goal is to keep the culture, the model and the winning formula the same.”

He smiled.

“It’s going to be different, no doubt,” he said. “It’s hard to quantify this, but they were never scared. They were never afraid to fail.”

Maybe the Rays bound along, and ride the young pitching, and Martinez, who really deserves this shot, does not replicate Maddon but finds his own powerful voice. And maybe Friedman was so good at this, and Maddon was so unique, and the time and the place converged, and the Rays for a time will not be what they were.

There’s no way to know yet. In the meantime, all I’m saying is, “Consider the Ray.”

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