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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

February 21, 2009 at 8:17 AM

The Tampa Bay Rays are never boar-ing

boar.jpg

Imagine coming to the ballpark and seeing one of those bad boys. Well, that’s exactly what’s happening here in Port Charlotte, Florida, where the Rays have taken over the former spring home of the Texas Rangers, vacant since the Rangers moved to Surprise, Ariz., in 2003.

Wild boars like the one pictured above have been spotted frequently in the brush that surround the complex (not to be confused with tame boors like A-Rod that were seen when the Rangers trained here). I’m told they usually come out early in the morning, or in the evening, and they weigh in from 200 to 400 pounds! They’re also said to be very aggressive, so you don’t want to try to pet one, I suppose.

There will be no ex-Mariner stories coming out of this camp, because on the entire 40-man roster, plus 19 non-roster invitees, I don’t see a single ex-Mariner. I guess the closest I can find is coach Steve Henderson, who played for Seattle in 1983 and ’84. Then there’s John McLaren, who started last year as the Mariners’ manager, and recently was hired by Tampa Bay in a scouting role. Mac — a finalist for the Rays’ managerial job when they hired Maddon — isn’t in camp, however.

Guess who is in Rays’ camp? The eternal Don Zimmer, the REAL face of baseball. Zimmer, now 78, suffered a small stroke in December that affected his speech and mobility, but he’s doing much better and has been in uniform for the Rays’ workouts. In a nice touch, the Rays change his uniform number each season to reflect the number of years Zimmer has been in professional baseball. This year, he upgraded from 60 to 61. Here’s hoping he stays healthy enough to reach 70 — which happens to be the number of Rays’ manager Joe Maddon. I’m sure Joe would be happy to give it up for Zim.

zim.jpg

I’ll be writing a column for the Sunday paper on the American League champion Rays, and what it’s like to come to camp as the defending champions. One story line in baseball this year is trying to predict who will be “the next Rays,” and replicate their feat of going from 96 losses and last place in 2007, to 97 wins and first place in 2008.

The thing to remember, however, is that Tampa Bay didn’t really do this overnight. They had finished last so many times that they had been stockpiling impact players as the result of so many high draft picks. Couple that with scrap-heap pickups like Carlos Pena and Troy Percival, some astute lower-round draft picks, a daring trade (Delmon Young to the Twins for Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza) that worked out beautifully, and you had a team that everyone knew was poised for a breakout very soon.

Sorry to say, but I don’t think anyone has that feeling about the Mariners right now coming off a 101-loss season. Even with Ken Griffey Jr. in the lineup. They don’t have an Evan Longoria sitting in their back pocket, or a David Price waiting in the wings.Yes, they have some good prospects, and they hope that someone like Russ Branyon can be their Carlos Pena. And they have the benefit of being in a lackluster division, in which the Angels may be returning to the pack. But I think if the Mariners are going to make a worst-to-first jump, it will have to be a multi-year process. That said, I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to shoot for a significant improvement in victories, which would be a nice step on the road back to respectability.

What made the Rays’ rise extra impressive is that they did it in the rugged AL East, beating out the Yankees and the Red Sox. Those might be the three best teams in the American League, and at least one of them won’t make it to the playoffs. It should be another great battle this year. My money is on the Rays to defend the title, with the Red Sox getting the wild card. I just have a bad feeling about the Yankees this year — too much age, too many distractions.

I’m going to go watch the Rays take a little live BP. I promise I’ll watch out for stray boars. And boors, too. Not to mention gerbils.

(Zimmer photo by Paul J. Bereswill, Knight-Ridder Newspapers)

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