LAKEWOOD RANCH — Christopher Lauricella went home to St. Petersburg with a baseball mitt autographed by Evan Longoria, 2008 American League Rookie of the Year.
Lauricella wore a big smile as he showed off his newest piece of sports memorabilia after a “Meet the Rays” luncheon hosted by the Manatee and Sarasota chambers of commerce at the Polo Grill and Bar.
“I’ll put it up in a display case,” he told those crowded around him.
At the luncheon Tuesday, 321 business people and more than a few sports fanatics turned out, compared to 156 last year.
What a difference a year makes was an oft-repeated refrain. The once-lowly Rays baseball team rose up in 2008 to beat the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship series before losing in the World Series to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Longoria and left-handed pitcher David Price, who got the final four outs against the Red Sox to win the league championship, said the one thing they hope doesn’t change this year is the team’s spirit.
“We have to keep it the same,” said Longoria, who took a break from spring training in Port Charlotte to attend the luncheon.
Price and Longoria paid homage to manager Joe Maddon.
“He is a manager you like and respect and has a different relationship with everyone on the team,” Price said.
With the Rays having so many young players, Longoria added that it is important the team have a manager “who could handle the young guys.”
Matt Silverman, team president, said that when Maddon was hired 3 1/2 years ago, the team found someone who shared the Rays’ philosophy and accepted the fact that it would take time to shape a culture.
Maddon knew he could suffer through several disappointing seasons, yet still do a good job building a winning culture, Silverman said.
That culture has made it easier to attract talent to the team — that and the fact that Tampa Bay is a “great place to live,” Silverman said.
Local builder Evelyn Treworgy, among those who attended the luncheon, said her family members are season ticket holders and praised the Rays for their community outreach and friendliness to the fan base. The Rays present a wholesome model, she noted, when there are plenty of unwholesome elements of big-time sports.
Several members of the audience noted that the Rays had the element of surprise in 2008, and wondered how they would do coming off a World Series appearance.
“We still have the same team, we’ll be fine,” said Longoria, adding that the team made several trades designed to bolster the lineup.
“We are a better team on paper than we were last year,” he said.
The Rays still have the motivation to win all the marbles this time around.
“There is no worse feeling than losing a World Series,” Longoria said.
Silverman said the team knows that the Rays won’t sneak up on anyone in 2009, noting that the season opener will be at the Red Sox’ Fenway Park.
“Our goal was always to have staying power. This year is about building on what we’ve already done,” Silverman said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 708-7916.