Kevin Cash settles into rhythm as his Rays’ era begins in earnest

Tampa Bay Rays' Alex Cobb, left, talks with manager Kevin Cash, right, in the second inning.

Tony Gutierrez/AP

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — The tools of Kevin Cash’s new job were placed on the desk before him Thursday morning, items that will be staples of his life for the next seven months and beyond. There was a thick packet of daily media clips, each article within it chronicling his franchise’s fresh start under him.

There was the day’s schedule, which detailed the events to come in the Rays’ spring training opener at Charlotte Sports Park. There was his first lineup sheet of hundreds to come, with each name scribbled in blue ink and the bold headings near the top highlighting another grind’s start.

DATE: MARCH 5th vs. ORIOLES

TOMORROW: TWINS

Cash appeared relaxed as he clasped his hands above his desk before managing his first baseball game of any level, one in which his mother, Patsy, estimated that at least 20 family members were expected to attend. This was at 9:15 a.m., about four hours before taking the field against Baltimore. At age 37, the majors’ youngest active manager felt the buzz of his situation.

All the work since pitchers and catchers reported Feb. 23, all the labor since he was hired as the Rays’ fifth manager Dec. 5, had led to this moment. The beginning, ready or not, had arrived.

"It’s more excitement," Cash said. "I think everybody is ready to get going."

Those within MLB, more than those within other major professional leagues in the country, exist with routine. Men build careers from the foundation of comfortable rhythms, each hour in a grueling 162-game marathon made tolerable because of habits developed through time. No shortcuts are possible in that sometimes solitary, always exhausting journey.

The rest of the spring for Cash, and surely the regular season to follow, will be about creating healthy habits as a manager. The relationships. The decision-making. The communication with his staff: bench coach Tom Foley, first-base coach Rocco Baldelli, third-base coach Charlie Montoyo and hitting coach Derek Shelton.

Eventually, Cash’s firsts will fade away, and some kind of normal, however it appears, will take their place. Eventually, the place for advice — he has received words of wisdom from Terry Francona, Joe Torre, John Farrell and Carlos Tosca, among others — will be over, and he’ll be comfortable in that familiar office and in that familiar corner of the dugout gazing upon that familiar mound, wherever it may be.

Getting an invite

For now, though, adjustment is necessary.

"I think it’s going to be a great experience for him," Rays designated hitter John Jaso said Thursday morning. "If I was in his shoes, I’d be nervous, so I don’t expect him not to be nervous. But so far, the camp and everything, I feel like he’s running a great camp. And everybody is relaxed, and he’s got control. He’s got nothing to be nervous about."

"I think he’s going to have a little bit of nerves," Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier added. "But this is his first time being out there. So that’s how it’s probably going to be for a lot of us."

Nerves were part of the experience, but Cash’s emotions Thursday also included this: noticeable anticipation for the next step forward in his first spring as a manager. At 9:13 a.m., he walked through a small hallway near his office and approached the clubhouse entrance, a full and important day ahead.

"Good morning," he said to no one in particular. "Get excited."

Others were eager for the transition.

As much as Tampa Bay’s national narrative has focused on how different the environment has become without Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman, the Rays have grown tired of talking about what they were under the former regime instead of what they can be with Cash. The new manager would be wise to tap into that hunger to prove critics wrong, to blow up the low expectations set by baseball’s pundits, to develop a fighter’s identity in his new role as part of his franchise’s rebirth.

This will be a deliberate process, of course. As Cash shared Thursday morning, between speaking about game preparations and recounting his spring debut as a player in 2002 at Charlotte Sports Park while a minor-league player within the Toronto Blue Jays’ system — "Juan Gonzalez is coming up to the plate, and I’m just looking at him like, ‘Holy smokes,’ " he said to laughs — mistakes will be made as growing pains occur. It would be naive to think otherwise.

The good news for Cash, though, is that few expect magic from the Rays this season after the 77-win letdown last year and so much change, a reality that should help him in his growth but one he should never claim as a crutch. Do what’s necessary to be respectable, and this campaign will be labeled as a positive one. Time is his ally, so there’s no reason to rush a single thing.

"Be yourself," Baltimore manager Buck Showalter said. "Bring what you bring. Everybody’s different. … The game’s the game."

Photo gallery

"I sort of feel like I’m on an emotional roller coaster right now," Patsy Cash wrote in a text message Thursday. "I woke up this morning, and as I was staring at the ceiling I said to myself, ‘This is it. Today is the day — at least it’s the day for the big dress rehearsal!’ I think I speak for the whole family when I say that I am so excited, happy proud … and a bit nervous!"

The nerves were gone by Thursday afternoon.

At 12:58 p.m., Tampa Bay players jogged onto the field, with Cash leaning over a rail in the front-left corner of his dugout while wearing sunglasses and a dark blue Rays pullover. At 1:02 p.m., he approached home plate and shook hands with all four umpires before exchanging lineup cards with Showalter. At 1:06 p.m., Rays right-hander Nathan Karns delivered a first-pitch strike to Alejandro De Aza, with Cash watching from that same corner in the dugout, both his arms over that same rail.

The buildup was over. The comfort had begun.

"Kind of as anticipated, I think," Cash said of the experience, a 3-2 loss to the Orioles. "The walk in from right field was that moment. But then after that, it settled down as the guys started coming in."

This day for Cash was about settling into his new life, about being introduced to the tools of his craft, his new rhythms, with many more tomorrows to come.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.