By Jim Henneman
Do not, repeat DO NOT, feel sorry for the Tampa Bay Rays. You could almost hear the groans throughout Birdland when Andy MacPhail said the Rays, not the Yankees and Red Sox, were the role-model franchise for the Orioles. But he was right. Truth be told, they really should be the role model for every team that doesn't wear pinstripes or claim a nation all its own.
They may have lost their most dynamic player, Carl Crawford;their most prolific home run hitter, Carlos Pena; and their closer, Rafael Soriano, in a free agent fire sale. They also may have traded away shortstop Jason Bartlett and No. 2 starterMatt Garza, but the Rays are not going away anytime soon.
They used to be the laughingstock of baseball, a sad-sack group of over-the-hill misfits playing in a domed home with a tilted roof, and it took them awhile to shake the image. Just about everything the Rays did during those formative years was wrong. They had a few hits and misses in the amateur draft, but eventually developed a sound minor league system. And today, although they still can't find enough people to sit under that tilted roof, the Rays are better stocked for the future than any team in baseball.
In exchange for Bartlett and Garza they got a boatload of prospects, and while the free-agent raid cost them some key ingredients, it also left them with a staggering total of 10 draft choices during the first two rounds of this year's amateur draft. In Garza's place, the Rays will move Jeremy Hellickson out of the wings and right into a spot near, if not at, the top of the rotation. He was merely 4-0 with a 3.47 earned run average last year -- after going 12-3, 2.45 while finishing his minor league education with the Triple-A Durham Bulls. Outfielder Destin Jennings is probably not quite ready to step into Crawford's role, the reason the Rays signed Johnny Damon to a one-year lease, but he will bring similar athleticism to the lineup shortly.
It has long been the contention here that the Orioles won't completely arrive as major players, especially in the AL East, until they reach a point where they have to face the reality of losing some of their key players to free agency. That might sound counter-productive, but the reality of life in the major leagues now is that you have to be strong enough to afford a significant loss -- replacing that player with a cheaper version from your minor league system and using the compensation of two draft choices to keep the bloodlines flowing.
In other words, when or if someone like Jeremy Guthrie, Luke Scott, Adam Jones, even a Brian Roberts or Nick Markakis, becomes expendable and desirable to another team, that's when the O's will have begun to turn the corner.
That's exactly where the Tampa Bay Rays are right now. They have won two division titles and a pennant during the last three years and, even with a limited budget, they can afford to add a couple of low-cost veteran bats like Damon and Manny Ramirez without stalling their young players or disrupting the organization's approach.
The Rays remain the game's most underappreciated contender --and a role model for the Orioles and every other cost-conscious team in baseball, which includes all but the usual suspects. And just think -- it was only about 15 years ago, when they were trying to outdo the Yankees, the Orioles' $84 million payroll was the highest in the game. Now, it's $10M more than that -- and the Rays, not the Yankees, are the model of choice.
GOODBYE, ERNIE TYLER
A year ago on Feb. 10, while Baltimore was buried under about 50 inches of snow, longtime Orioles traveling secretary Phil Itzoe passed away. This year on the same date, Ernie Tyler, who became perhaps the organization's most beloved figure as "ball boy" and umpire clubhouse attendant, made the same journey. Both were meticulously efficient in their jobs, so I'm guessing Itzoe put together the itinerary and Tyler followed it to the letter.
I feel particularly blessed to have known Itzoe and Tyler for more than a half-century. Itzoe and I shared space in the press box on road trips almost religiously and I'm sure I had more conversations with him than any other person during my career. In all that time, only once did I see even a hint of him losing his temper -- and not once did I ever hear him criticize anybody.
I knew Tyler even longer than Itzoe, because we both lived in close proximity to Memorial Stadium -- Tyler on the third-base side, me a long poke over the right-centerfield fence. For a short time, while I was in college, we both worked part time as ushers. For Tyler, in the midst of raising 11 children, it probably started as a side job before it turned into a labor of love. For me, it was a way to get into games free. The $4 they paid us was a bonus.
Most of my brothers and sisters went to school with the Tyler children. For some of the boys, Tyler was also a sandlot coach. They all got to know him long before Orioles fans grew to view him as an organizational icon. To them he was just a cool dad and encouraging coach who always had the cheerful smile that became his trademark.
One of my umpire friends, I'm not sure which one but it could have been any one of them, once told me that the two things he looked forward to on a trip to Baltimore were seeing Tyler and eating Maryland crab cakes. In that order. They considered him one of their own, true blue to the blue crews.
When Tyler developed some back problems a few years ago that turned out to be a little more serious than he thought, word sped rapidly and the umpires showed sincere concern, joining sons Jimmy and Fred, the home and visiting clubhouse attendants, in urging him to get medical attention. He did eventually, but not until the season ended and he had to endure a lot of "I told you so"s when the umpires passed through the following season.
Tyler was a friend to all who passed through the bowels of Memorial Stadium and/or Camden Yards. We got to know him as he got to know us. He became almost part of the fabric -- like the comfy chair that, no matter how old it got, seemed to fit perfectly.
The fact he was able to grow old doing something he loved while working alongside two of his children was something that was very special for the family -- just as Tyler was very special to anyone who ever knew him. He enjoyed a great life that was both rewarding and rewarded.
Cheers and condolences to a great family. RIP, great friend.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Issue 158: February 2011