Rays relying on their new comedy duo
Manny Ramirez turned directly toward me after finishing his group interview.
“Do I look good?” he asked, patting his stomach.
Absolutely, I replied.
“Put in a good word for me,” Ramirez said.
On Day One — actually Day Five for Manny, who arrived at camp early — all was bliss in the Rays’ new world.
Johnny Damon, the other half of the Tampa Bay Comedy Troupe, strolled out of the Rays clubhouse in a white t-shirt that said, “Johnny Biceps.”
Damon also took note of Ramirez’s trim physique. Ramirez said he was 237 pounds last season and 225 now.
“I better watch out,” said Damon, who is listed at 205. “He’s going to be lighter than me soon.”
OK, talk to me in mid-May or mid-August or whenever Ramirez pulls one of his classic no-show, no-hustle, no-account stunts. But give the knucklehead this: He’s off to a good start.
Give the Rays some props, too. They parted with one critical piece after another this winter, from left fielder Carl Crawford to right-hander Matt Garza to their entire bullpen. Half of the players on their 40-man roster were not even with the team at the end of last season. And yet they still figure to mount a vigorious defense of their second AL East title in three years.
“I don’t think Tampa got worse,” former Blue Jays right-hander Shaun Marcum told FOXSports.com’s Jon Paul Morosi at the Brewers’ camp in Arizona. “Their bullpen may be the weak spot. But adding Manny and Johnny Damon — those guys are still going to get on base and drive in runs.”
John Lowe of The Detroit Free Press recently unearthed a quote from Earl Weaver about the 1977 Orioles, who suffered numerous losses to free agency but almost won the AL East.
“Everybody talked about the players we lost,” Weaver said. “Nobody talked about the players we had left.”
Rays manager Joe Maddon, addressing his team before its first full workout Monday, looked out at his club and thought the exact same thing.
“That’s the part that really struck me,” Maddon said. “We did lose a lot, but my goodness, we’ve got a lot here, too.”
Ramirez, 38, and Johnny Damon, 37, are Exhibits A and B. The Rays, third in the American League in runs last season, believe they could rank in the top five again, even without Crawford and first baseman Carlos Pena.
Damon spoke poignantly Monday about this being “a precious time in my career,” and quite possibly the end of it if he does not produce.
Ramirez, who is 45 homers short of 600, should be equally motivated as the Rays’ full-time DH. Acting up might only get him released.
Ramirez is earning $2 million, not $20 million. Pat Burrell, the Rays’ previous DH, had a salary four times as high last season, and the team dumped him on May 15.
Ah, but enough negativity. Ramirez is in full “Don’t worry, be Manny” mode.
“I love the game. I like to compete,” Ramirez said. “I just want to show that I still can play. That’s my mind-set.”
An estimated 1,000 fans gathered at the Rays’ training facility Monday to witness Manny’s official coming-out party. Maddon said he could not recall seeing a larger crowd for a Rays workout in the spring, not even after the team appeared in the 2008 World Series.
Manny greeted fans while taking batting practice and signed autographs for 15 minutes afterward. He also donned a glove for outfield work and even hugged Rays adviser Don Zimmer, who in a previous life as a Yankees coach was thrown to the ground by Ramirez’s former Red Sox teammate Pedro Martinez.
Maddon, noting the energy from the crowd, joked that at first he thought it was attributable to infielder Ray Olmedo, another of the Rays’ new players.
“Then, seeing all the signs, I knew they were more interested in Manny and Johnny,” Maddon said. “It was almost like an NFL practice. We’re not used to that. But we love it.”
Ramirez enjoyed it, too.
“I’m just blessed,” he said. “Everywhere I go, people love me. Can you blame them?”
Don’t expect the Rays’ notoriously poor attendance to spike because of Ramirez — workouts are free and games are not. But if the team plays well and Ramirez plays a significant role, the Rays should be entertaining, to say the least.
Ramirez has 2,573 hits, Damon 2,571. They took batting practice in the same group as the Rays’ biggest star, Evan Longoria. Right-hander James Shields, the first pitcher to face them, said it was, “odd, definitely weird to see them step into the box wearing Rays uniforms.”
Longoria got a kick out of it. “They’re real lighthearted, humorous guys,” he said. “It was pretty funny.”
Right-hander Joel Peralta, another new Ray, followed Shields to the mound and immediately started bantering with Ramirez in Spanish. Ramirez is 0 for 6 with three strikeouts against Peralta lifetime.
“He said, ‘Now I’m going to get you,’ and then I broke his bat,” Peralta said, laughing. “I said see what happens when you try to get me? I got you back!”
All on Day One. All in a day’s fun.