PORT CHARLOTTE – They were already in town working out but just after 9:30 Monday morning they made their first official appearance at Rays’ spring training, the day the entire teams worked out in preparation for the opening of the Grapefruit League season Saturday against the Pirates.
Manny Ramirez donned a windbreaker, his trademark dreadlocks in full display, while his former teammate in Boston, Johnny Damon, looked splendid in his new #22 blue jersey as roughly a thousand fans rushed in to see them when the gates opened at ten.
Ramirez was the most popular player by far as crowds followed his every move from diamond to diamond and back again. Chants of Manny echoed throughout, some thanking him for choosing Tampa Bay as his new home, some carried signs with his name and when he finally got ahold of a pitch and drove it they cheered.
“Everywhere I go people love me, so I’m just blessed,” he said after the workouts were over.
In case you were wondering, yes there were the sounds of balls hitting bats. Joe Maddon has said he likes things to progress in a leisurely manner but within 90-minutes after the manager held his meet and greet with the full squad there was James Shields standing on the mound ready to throw live batting practice.
It is a little unusual to see that taking place yet no one complained. In fact, as the cage was being readied for BP, Ramirez, Damon, Evan Longoria and special advisor Don Zimmer were all on the side laughing and joking with each other, Manny’s infectious personality leading the way.
Damon was the first to take his cuts and it took three pitches from Shields before he finally took the plunge and laced it into the outfield. Ramirez was next in and he could not muster very much fouling off a few balls and taking some others. It was not until his second trip did he get some good wood on Shield’s offerings. Evan Longoria was third and it is that trio of players Maddon will lean on to lead the team in 2011.
“Manny does have a lot of fun,” Maddon said. “You watch him work today and his work is very, very good both in the outfield and at the plate. He’s just a hard worker. It’s kind of fun watching John and Longo and Manny hitting in the same group, I kind of appreciated that a little bit. I walked over and thought ‘this is pretty nice.’”
One of the more entertaining moments of the day was Ramirez meeting the press for the first time starting out in one position and by the time the interview was over he had turned 180-degrees in the opposite direction leaving cameramen pulling their equipment off their tripods to follow him.
“I think that’s something new,” Manny said about hitting on the first day. “It felt good. I’m here to show I can still play.”
Damon was asked if he came over to the rays as a package deal so he could keep an eye on Ramirez and said that even with the Red Sox he tried to make sure the slugger was happy and mentally prepared to play.
“Manny says he has something to prove,” Damon said. “He’s been injured the past couple of seasons but I think he wants another ring and he knows this is a great place to get it. He’s one of the best hitters of our generation and wants to go out of the game still on top.”
He seemed to be more in awe of playing for his home town team (he lives in Orlando) and hitting in the same lineup with Evan Longoria.
“It’s great,” he said. “I think Evan Longoria is the best all-around player in the game. Being his teammate now is something special. Even facing our pitchers out there. You don’t really get to joke around with them when you faced them before. Like when I faced James Shields today, at least he was smiling at me and telling me what’s coming and all that good stuff. It was a very productive day. The fans are happy and I’m happy to be here.”
James Shields is also happy Ramirez and Damon are here.
“I’m definitely glad they’re on my team,” he said.” I’m glad they’re on my side. They feel great, they look great and they have such a good attitude to bring to our team. It’s going to be good.”
FORE! The annual Rays’ Charity Golf Classic sponsored by Avant Air will be held Friday at noon at the Ritz-Carlton Members Golf Club in Lakewood Ranch. This is one of the largest fundraisers of the season for the Rays Baseball Foundation.
GIMME GIMME: The Rays also announced their promotional schedule for the upcoming season beginning with opening series with another top giveaway, an Evan Longoria Gold Glove Replica Trophy in the second game on April 2nd.
“Our promotion schedule appeals to all Rays’ fans, but it has a special focus on kids and the 13 Sunday Family Fun Days,” said Rays President Matt Silverman in a release. “We strive to make Sundays at Tropicana Field the best entertainment option for families in Tampa Bay.”
Here is the entire list:
Friday, April 1 Rays Schedule Magnet (All Fans)
Saturday, April 2 Evan Longoria Gold Glove Replica Trophy Presented by DEX Imaging (First 15,000 Fans)
Sunday, April 3 AL East Championship Banner Presented by Sweetbay Supermarket
Sunday, April 17 David Price Arm Sleeve Presented by Match-Up Promotions
Sunday, May 1 Joe Maddon Bank Presented by RE/MAX
Saturday, May 14 Darius Rucker postgame concert
Sunday, May 15 Raymond Pillowcase Presented by Chick-fil-A
Sunday, May 29 Manny Ramirez Bobblehead Presented by AT&T
Sunday, June 19 B.J. Upton Bobblehead
Sunday, July 3 DJ Kitty Puppet Presented by Chevrolet
Sunday, July 17 Johnny Damon Bobblehead
Sunday, August 7 Raymond’s Back To School Set
Sunday, August 21 David Price Superhero Action Figure
Sunday, September 4 Evan Longoria Cereal Bowl and Spoon Set
Sunday, September 11 Rays Fire Helmet
Sunday, September 25 Kid’s Vote Giveaway