PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — The past is a distant memory for Yunel Escobar, something he’d rather sweep into a dustbin and forget forever. For good reason, he wants to keep his gaze fixed on the path ahead. His uniform has changed, his colors are different, the clubhouse culture he enters with the Tampa Bay Rays is loose and free.
Still, a player’s record is never discarded so simply or tucked from view despite the passing of time. There’s a reputation that follows the seventh-year shortstop, acquired by the Rays from the Miami Marlins in December, and he vows to do maintenance on how he’s perceived.
“It’s a new year, new team,” said Escobar, through catcher Jose Molina as a translator. “What happened (in Toronto) could be a mistake, could be bad. But that’s last year. This year is a new year. New team.”
What happened in Toronto was misguided and embarrassing, but it could become a pivot point for Escobar if he allows. On Sept. 15, 2012, he played with a homophobic slur written in his eye black in Spanish during a game against the Boston Red Sox at Rogers Centre. That stunt led to a three-game suspension. He was traded to the Miami Marlins in November before being dealt to the Rays a short time later.
Escobar’s visible indiscretion — caught on cameras for the world to see and save — brought more attention to past criticisms mounted against him. There had been whispers of a lax work ethic throughout parts of his career, one that has included four different teams since 2010.
From the Blue Jays to the Atlanta Braves, back to the Blue Jays and now the Rays — this is Escobar’s chance either to buff his image or bruise it further.
“I think he’s in a good situation where he’s coming in with a lot of people he doesn’t know,” Rays second baseman Kelly Johnson, a former teammate of Escobar’s in Atlanta and Toronto, told FOXSportsFlorida.com. “They don’t know him. They’ve seen him across the way and know he’s extremely talented. I just think a little bit of that uncomfortable feeling of being that new kid in class is going to be something that benefits him. Not to mention the vibe in here — I think the guys in here are good fit for him.”
This is the question that will be answered in time: Will Tampa Bay’s clubhouse culture elevate Escobar?
The Rays see opportunity. He’s a low-risk, possible high-reward talent. He’ll make $5 million this season with no guaranteed money after this campaign. Manager Joe Maddon sees him as a possible All-Star and Gold Glove Award winner. Executive vice president Andrew Friedman is confident that Escobar has moved beyond the slur incident, a recovery that makes the player one of the Rays’ most fascinating personalities to track this season.
Maddon is a believer that environment can enhance an individual. That outlook will be tested with Escobar. The Havana, Cuba, native would be wise to follow veterans like Molina, another former teammate, who could serve as a mentor of sorts as he acclimates himself in the Rays’ culture.
“He wants to put everything behind him,” Molina said. “So from now on, we want to concentrate on this year. Last year was last year. Forget about it. This year is this year.”
If this partnership succeeds, both the Rays and Escobar will benefit from the shared company. Escobar adds depth at the plate and in the infield as a quick, skilled glove. He owns a respectable career .282 batting average with 298 RBI and a .353 on-base percentage.
Johnson presents Escobar’s scouting report best: He has power, so he’ll produce when needed (he earned a combined 99 RBI the past two seasons); he has improved knowledge of the strike zone, which has led to 56 or more walks in two of the past three years (he drew a career-high 61 in 2011); his defense has become more sound in recent campaigns, a “night-and-day” situation — in Johnson’s eyes — compared with recent years.
“When it comes to a group, you can create the chemistry that creates the situation that helps you win,” Maddon said. “Individually, if you bring a guy into a room that, collectively, everyone pretty much feels and thinks the same thing, you can absorb them into that a lot easier. Right now, just watching him, I’m really proud of the guys he’s been around. Just the way they’ve been around him the first couple days, I can see that they’re making a strong effort to embrace these new guys and bring them into do the way we do things.”
The faster Escobar grows comfortable, of course, the better it will be for him and the Rays. He said, through Molina, that he feels part of the family. He said he’ll bring energy and enthusiasm to a place he has respected from afar.
We’ll soon see. No, the past can’t be forgotten. But it can teach and help a player evolve, which often leads to the best change of all.
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at email@example.com.