PORT CHARLOTTE — Sunday was the first day for pitchers and catchers, and everyone showed up on time.
There were October heroes Matt Garza and David Price. A slimmed-down Dioner Navarro. More fans than anyone could remember attending the first day of a Tampa Bay Rays workout.
There were new faces like Joe Nelson and Lance Cormier.
But the newest face at the Charlotte Sports Park was one few dreamed would ever attend a Rays spring training camp: Mr. Expectations.
And the defending American League champions were eager to greet the guest that will remain with them through the 2009 season.
“I think we feel we have the right tools to do what we did last year again,” Navarro said. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity to go out there and kick some (butt).”
Last year’s feel-good story is intent on adding a few more chapters to a book they don’t feel is nearly complete. The Rays did not win the World Series, remember? That kind of bothers them.
“In everybody’s minds it’s not about getting (to the playoffs), it’s about winning it all,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “We’ve tasted all that. We don’t want to go and sit home in October and watch someone else do this. We want to participate. And once you’ve done that, you’re more motivated to it more than ever.”
Scott Kazmir, who on the first day of workouts last season boldly predicted the Rays would reach the playoffs, wasn’t ready to make any predictions Sunday. He also wasn’t ready to back down in the wake of the offseason spending spree by the New York Yankees and the retooling by the Boston Red Sox. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said he spent all that money on free agent pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira to keep up with the Rays, who outlasted both the Yankees and the Red Sox in 2008 to win the American League East.
“That’s flattering, right there,” Kazmir said. “Just knowing what they did this offseason is unheard off, to be honest with you, to see what they actually went out there and got, to see what their starting rotation looks like. But the funny part about it is we still match up with them. We know we can beat them. We know we can beat them day in and day out if we play like we know we’re capable of playing.”
J.P. Howell said the Rays felt that way last season, though it took some time for those outside the Rays clubhouse to take notice. So, in essence, nothing has really changed.
“Same thing,” Howell said. “Just more people watching.”
But the expectations have changed, because if anything, there are expectations.
Maddon’s message to his team as they assembled on Field 3 before the start of the afternoon workout was be yourself.
Maddon always preaches the positives. He mentioned the word “playoffs” before his very first full-squad workout as the Rays’ manager back in February 2006 even though he knew he had a team destined for another last-place finish.
This time, though, the expectations of another postseason run surrounds his ball club, and Maddon wants them prepared. Toward that end, Maddon talked about gratitude and humility.
“I really believe if we remain humble and are grateful for what has happened to this point, I think that’s going to equal self-discipline, which is going to give us our best chance to continue what we’re doing,” he said. “The analogy I used is the slippery slope everybody talks about is lined with ingratitude and lack of humility. I think that’s where people fail, especially after they’ve been successful. I don’t want us to fall into that trap.”
It was a day like no other in the team’s 12 spring training camps. Not only did the Rays open their new spring training facility, they did so with a very special guest: Mr Expectations.
The pressure and expectations that come with being the defending American League champs are good things, Maddon said. Pressure, when used right, is the best motivation.
“In regards to expectations,” Maddon said. “we should place more expectations on ourselves than anybody else possible could. So why should that be a concern?”