PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — The chants are common. They come when there’s a pause in Evan Longoria’s routine, a break in his process. They come from voices of all variety — kids, men and women, young and old — each a hint at how far the former junior-college transfer has traveled and the distance he wants to go.
They burst from fans’ lips like kernels popping in dry heat. One comes late Sunday morning, from a male voice behind a cage at Charlotte Sports Park, as the Tampa Bay Rays’ star third baseman twirls a bat in his hands.
“Longo!” the voice yells. “Evan!”
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More arrive early Sunday afternoon, after the Rays’ first full-team workout, from a small group of autograph-seekers waiting near a chain-link fence. He walks away, toward a glass door that leads to the clubhouse. Voices follow.
“Evan! Evan! Evan!”
Longoria has earned these moments. They reflect what he is: a franchise face, a leader after averaging .276 at the plate and cracking 456 RBI in five seasons, a marketable name after signing a $100 million extension through 2022 in November.
They reveal what he hopes to be: someone admired but also a man with unfinished business, someone who has tasted a World Series loss as a rookie and aches to return, someone who’s transitioning from a grinder who worked to prove he’s among the sport’s elite to someone charged with maintaining that standard.
The upcoming season offers Longoria a chance to grow. He never entered the major leagues as the Rays’ first-round draft pick – third overall – in 2006 with presumptions of stardom. But he’s there. He never entered the major leagues with visions of signing a rich extension, one that secured his place as a franchise’s heart for the next decade. But he did.
How will this season feel different?
“I’m more expectant to win,” Longoria said. “I’ve been fortunate to accomplish a lot personally and be in the postseason enough times to know that we only really play this game for one reason, and that’s to get back to the postseason and to win a World Series. Every year going forward now is just (that) the expectation coming into spring training is to get the 25 guys that are on a roster come opening day to all believe that we are a playoff-contending team and that we have an ability to win a World Series.”
That’s the answer you’d expect from someone searching to elevate his potential. Longoria’s extension marked one end – the quest to show he belonged – but it also began a new journey. It introduced goals where personal gains lead to the highest team reward for a franchise built to overachieve.
For him, motivation won’t be an issue. He had 273 at-bats in a career-low 74 games last season because of a left hamstring injury that likely cost the Rays a playoff berth. Consider: Tampa Bay went 41-44 in games he missed; the Rays, at 90-72, finished three games behind the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers for wild-card spots.
“I don’t want to focus on myself,” Longoria said. “I want to focus on getting myself ready to play from my own perspective but not have everybody worry about me. It doesn’t need to happen. We’ve had such great ball clubs in the past years with arguably less talent than we have this year. I’m really excited going forward.”
Of course, there’s a chance that a drive to produce after the injury and wealthy extension may become a negative. Loose discipline could stunt his focus. There are risks.
It remains to be seen how Longoria will manage this season, his first within a new normal. But he could find motivation from his past. It was a chase to master his process, not achieve fame, that allowed him to mature into what he became after all major-league clubs passed over him following high school.
This edge has been his greatest asset. He pushed, practiced and performed to become elite. Now he must direct his cycle in a new way – all while keeping the focus from his climb.
“He’s not going to change the way he is by any means,” Rays left-hander David Price said. “He’s going to continue to come here and put his work in and be Evan Longoria for us. That’s all we expect him to do. We don’t expect him to hit .330 with 40 home runs and 120 RBI. We just want him to be healthy and be in the lineup everyday, and it’s just going to make us better.”
Keeping Longoria healthy will be the most crucial part of the Rays’ attempt to reach the playoffs for the fourth time in six years. Executive vice president Andrew Friedman suggested as much last Tuesday, when he said, “I think there’s no greater proof to how important Evan Longoria is to us than last year.”
Like all stars who elevate their franchises, though, Longoria’s value extends beyond the field. It’s found when a new arrival like second baseman Kelly Johnson, formerly of the Toronto Blue Jays, says he learned about Tampa Bay’s clubhouse culture from the team’s strongest voice. It’s found when infielder Sean Rodriguez recalls Longoria pressing for a day off when others thought a weekend break would be more appropriate.
It’s found when designated hitter Luke Scott says, simply, “Evan is one of the elite players in the game. So he just needs to be himself, that’s all. If he is himself, we’re going to be doing very well.”
The Rays hope so. As Longoria enters this season, one in which he’ll chase what he desires to become, new motivations await.
In time, he’ll discover more about his potential. In time, chants will follow.