Wednesday, 4 a.m.
You never see him coming. You rarely suspect success. The bond doesn't always last.
But every now and then, a player worms his way into your consciousness. Every now and then, he becomes more than his average, more than his games played, more than your logic says that he should matter. He usually starts off as a role player, and he does something to get your attention, and the next thing you know, you've bought his jersey because, after all, he is your kind of player.
This year, who will it be?
Rays' fans have always embraced a player or two, and it isn't often the ones you expect. Oh, any fan base can love Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford and David Price and James Shields. But sometimes, especially on teams that are headed nowhere, it can be a player you wouldn't suspect.
Remember the Original Favorite? It was outfielder Bubba Trammell, who was never quite able to make the front office warm to him the way the bleachers did. But Trammell would scrap, and he would hit a little bit. His average that first year was .286, and I'm sure a lot of fans remember him warmly.
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There was Jonny Gomes, the tough outfielder who brought his attitude with him. There was Super Sam Fuld, the little guy who played hard. There was the last great season of Wade Boggs. There was Fred McGriff. There was Ben Zobrist, who played everywhere but catcher, and I'm sure he could have played there. There was Carl Crawford before he became Crawford, and Evan Longoria before he became Longoria, and Fred McGriff, after he was almost done with being McGriff.
There was Matt Joyce, who would bang the occasional ball over the wall. There was Shields, the old bulldog. There was Carlos Pena, especially in that special first season of his. There was Kevin Kiermaier, of course, a player you noticed a long time before the rest of the league did.
There was Rocco and David Price and Alex Cobb. There was Logan Forsythe and Rafael Soriano and Felix Rodney. And you loved them all.
Oh, you were onto these guys early, before the stars became stars, before the platoon players established themselves as ordinary. You discovered these guys, right?
Ah, but who might there be this year? It's early, of course,but there are a few candidates.
1. Mallex Smith, outfielder: I'm not sure Smith will be able to hit enough to stay with the big club, especially when Colby Rasmus returns, but he can play defense and he can run. In short, he's the kind of athlete you'd love to see play the game. In the Rays' 10-8 victory over Toronto, Smith was a force, getting on base all five times, hitting a double in the 11th and scoring the winning run. Yeah, he's the kind of guy you like. If he goes to the minors, he'll be back.
2. Jumbo Diaz, relief pitcher: Some guys, you have to wonder why their nickname is what it is. Not Jumbo. He is a large, large man with large, large potential. If he can keep it up, it's one more arm for Jim Hickey to point toward the mound.
3. Daniel Robertson, shortstop: Robertson represents the future, so it's natural that he would be popular. So far, he's hitting .300, and he's played well in the field. The question is whether he can
get enough quality time to improve, something manager Kevin Cash says he will do.
4. Jesus Sucre, catcher: Okay, no one is trying to be blasphemous here. But do you realize that, literally, the new Rays' catcher translates to “Sweet Jesus.” If he and Derrick Norris can form a good platoon system, it will give Tampa Bay one more weapon than it usually has.
5. Tommy Hunter, relief pitcher: Don't look now, but Hunter has a zero ERA. That'll do, Tommy. That'll do.
There will be others. Wilson Ramos, when he finally arrives. Rasmus maybe. There are others on the farm.
Keep this in mind, however. The more the Rays matter, the easier it is to find a personal favorite.