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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 18, 2011 at 8:30 AM

Hail to Don “Popeye” Zimmer; Casey Kotchman gets a new start in Tampa Bay

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That’s one of the most easily identifiable silhouettes in all of baseball above, that of the wise old sage, Don Zimmer, who was observing batting practice today in the Tampa Bay Rays camp in Port Charlotte, Fla. Zimmer has the title “senior advisor” with the Rays, which provides him the opportunity to still put on a uniform in spring training and before most home games during the season. He is one of the living legends of the game, with a vast and colorful background. The time he charged out of the dugout at Fenway Park and ran toward the Red Sox’s Pedro Martinez during a playoff game while Joe Torre’s Yankee bench coach remains one of the most amazing — and amusing — things I’ve ever seen.

Zimmer had a pacemaker installed in December and turned 80 in January, but February can mean only one thing: Baseball. Rays personnel say Zimmer is feeling much more chipper since he got the pacemaker. No word about the plate in his head (which is actually a myth, as you’ll discover in this story).

I love the fact that Zimmer has an annually rotating uniform number. This year, he’ll wear No. 63, signifying his 63rd year in professional baseball. It will be his 53rd in the major leagues. I hope to see him wearing No. 75 one day.

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The big story in Rays camp today was the arrival of Johnny Damon, one day after Manny Ramirez met with the Rays media for the first time. Slipping in fairly quietly was ex-Mariner Casey Kotchman, who signed as a non-roster player and hopes to compete for playing time at first base currently earmarked for Dan Johnson. There’s a vacancy at first base with the departure of free agent Carlos Pena — one of numerous Rays to leave.

Rays manager Joe Maddon, whose relationship with Kotchman goes back to their days in the Angels organization, said earlier this spring that Kotchman had been working out and adopting some of the hitting techniques from earlier in his career. His success has been diminishing since he hit .296 for the Angels in 2007. Last year, Kotchman flailed at the plate with the Mariners, hitting .217 in 125 games with nine homers and 51 RBI — one of several under-achieving players contributing to the Mariners collapse.

“You know, I haven’t analyzed it and won’t,” he said about last year’s struggles in Seattle. “It’s over. I’m just pressing on toward the future. I’m excited what this year will bring.

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The Mariners outrighted him off the roster in November, and Kotchman elected to become a free agent. Signing with his hometown team — Kotchman grew up in and still lives in the Tampa Bay area — was a natural.

“I had a couple offers,” he said. “I just wanted the best fit, or what I thought was the best fit. Just being in my hometown, I thought, man, they won the AL East last year. That’s pretty exciting as well. It was appealing. I’m just excited to get out there and have some fun.”

Playing at home won’t provide any extra pressure, said Kotchman, who turns 28 next week.

“There’s no pressure,” he said. “This is a game. Pressure is dodging bullets, not knowing where your next meal is coming from. This is fun. You get to put a big-league uniform on. It’s a privilege. I’m excited to be a part of this.”

As for the mechanical changes he’s making, he said, “I just tinkered with some stuff, as you do in the offseason. You get yourself in shape and as you do that you maybe re-acquire some things you used to do. I’m excited to get out and start playing.”

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