At Tropicana Field

There is  a lot of excitement under the Teflon skies at Tropicana Field as the Rays and Orioles prepare to kick off the season.

Rays players greeted fans as they entered the building, Rays owner Stu Sternberg met Florida Gov. Rick Scott, and the crowd is waiting for the Rays to unfurl the banner for winning the American League East title in 2010.

But that will be just the window dressing for seeing David Price start for the Rays.

–Bill Chastain

 

From the Giants side

LOS ANGELES — That looked like Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti inhabiting the dressing stall next to the manager’s office in the Dodger Stadium visitors’ clubhouse. Heck, it WAS Dave Righetti.

Except the rectangular slab of cardboard bearing the occupant’s name read: “THOMPSON 6” — Robby Thompson, obviously enough. And it was even autographed by the former Giants second baseman.

How did that happen? Simple: Thompson, now a Seattle Mariners coach, had the same locker in the same clubhouse for an exhibition game the night before. “He said to leave it there for me,” Righetti said, obviously appreciating the mildly smart-alecky gesture.

*****

A partial chronology of life with the Giants in the hours before they took the field for batting practice:

1:58 p.m. — The door to manager Bruce Bochy’s office opens. Out comes the ESPN broadcasting crew, including Bobby Valentine and Orel Hershiser, having completed their pregame briefing. Simultaneously, in came the great Vin Scully to greet Bochy. Quite an intersection.

2:05 p.m. — Aubrey Huff, squeezing his way through the undersized, overcrowded visitors’ clubhouse, said to nobody in particular while referring to

the presence of two dozen or so extra reporters, “Is there any media here?”

3 p.m. — Huff again, as he concluded delivering some advice to rookie Brandon Belt: “If you need anything else, let me know — coffee, steak, rack of lamb.”

— Chris Haft

Cubs miscalculate with Big Z

While some applaud the Cubs’ free spending this winter, Chicago made a big mistake.

Signing Jason Marquis to a big-money deal.

No, not that.

Was it signing Ted Lilly to a $40 million deal? Not it.

The Cubbies overpaid Alfonso Soriano, Mark DeRosa, Lilly and Marquis this offseason. But they should have overpaid one of their own — Carlos Zambrano.

Now thanks to Barry Zito’s ridiculous $126 million contract with the Giants, Zambrano is in line to become baseball’s 15th $100 million man. The Cubbies should have locked up Zambrano before GMs started writing blank checks for mediocre pitchers. If the Cubs don’t get anything done with Zambrano before next fall, Big Z will be one of the biggest free-agent prizes of the offseason. The Yankees and Mets — who wisely took a pass this offseason — will have money to burn, while the Dodgers and Red Sox will join the fray, too.

If the big righty does become a free agent, expect a fierce battle for his services. And expect a contract worth more than Zito’s deal.

 

Here’s Johnny

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Johnny Damon will be officially introduced as the Yankees’ new center fielder at a 1 p.m. press conference in the Bronx on Friday.

On Thursday, Damon and his wife Michelle spent the afternoon at Manhattan’s posh Ishi Salon. The hair and beard are officially gone. He looks five years younger — and he is now $50 million richer.

Non-tenderized

Fifty new players flooded the free agent market on Tuesday as teams declined to offer these players contracts for 2006. Teams can re-sign these players — but they will try to do so at a lower rate.

This process has netted teams quality players in the past. In 2002, the Twins non-tendered David Ortiz. Boston signed him a month later, and Big Papi was reborn. Last year, the Angels non-tendered David Eckstein and signed Orlando Cabrera. The OC was a bust, while Eck was an All-Star.

Unfortunately, the list is weak this year. If you want bad starting pitching, Ryan Franklin, Dewon Brazelton and Josh Fogg are available. Or you can get yourself an injured arm that like Wade Miller. A 16-game winner in 2001 with the Astros, he was non-tendered by Boston. Wes Obermueller and Dan Kolb — who were traded for each other just weeks ago — were non-tendered by the Braves and Brewers, respectively. Eric Byrnes, who played for three clubs in ’05 — the A’s, Rockies and Orioles — was non-tendered by Baltimore. Alex Escobar, the Mets prospect that fans drooled over earlier this century, was non-tendered by the Nationals. And the Rays, who had bullpen implosions on a nightly basis in ’05, non-tendered relievers Joe Borowski and Lance Carter.

Johnny don’t shave



In The Boss’ world, highlights are cool, but long hair and beards are not. (AP)

As a former hippie who spent some time following Phish around the country, I have no problem with long hair and a beard — or as we called it on tour, “The Wookie Look.” Unfortunately for Johnny Damon, George Steinbrenner hates this look. I am not a fan of this rule. Players should have long hair if they want. They should be able to grow a beard.

Plus in Damon’s case, he’s a better player with The Wookie Look. The numbers don’t lie.

Prior to 2004, Damon was a lifetime .284 batter. That spring, he shows up looking like Chewbacca’s younger brother. And for the next two seasons, Damon The Wookie bats .310.

So, I ask The Boss that he change the rule. Let Damon’s hair flow. Let Jason Giambi look like a Heavy Metal star again. Let Randy Johnson grow some facial hair. If you want to ban something Boss, ban highlights. A-Rod and Giambi look ridiculous with them.

This isn’t The OC. It’s NYC.

Johnny D moving to NYC

It’s been a while since I posted — there is never an offseason at MLB.com. But it’s time to get back in the blogging game thanks to Johnny Damon’s four-year, $52 million deal with the Yankees.



Now that he is a Yankee, Johnny Damon will have to shave off his beard and cut his hair. (AP)

I like this deal for a bevy of reasons:

? Damon gives the Yankees the leadoff hitter they have lacked since Chuck Knoblauch’s glory days in pinstripes (1998-2000). Damon and Derek Jeter will create a sensational 1-2 punch at the top of the Yankee lineup.

? It’s not Murderers’ Row, but the 2006 Yankees will pack a wallop. Joe Torre can mix and match his lefties/righties and go with a top six of Damon, Jeter, Hideki Matsui, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield. Or he can put Sheffield behind A-Rod, giving the Yankees two sick right-handed bats back-to-back. The possibilities are endless.

 

? It weakens the Red Sox. Manny and Boomer Wells want out, Schilling is getting older, there’s no shortstop and center field is vacated. Plus, who leads off? Third-place Red Sox, anyone?

? More speed. If Torre does go with Damon, Jeter and A-Rod up top, the Yankees will have one of the quickest top of the orders in baseball.

? Damon has a weak throwing arm, but he will be able to get to a lot more balls than say Bernie, Bubba and Melky.

? Damon gives the too-corporate Yankees a little attitude. He speaks his mind, and he is a fiery competitor. Too bad he’s going to have to shave his beard and cut off the long hair.

The Yanks have been ripped by the New York tabloids for being too inactive this offseason. I think they have done a fabulous job this winter. Sure, the Yanks overpaid to get Kyle Farnsworth, but he’s got great stuff and again, he is an emotional guy on a team that could have used some personality the last few years. The Yanks also got Octavio Dotel at a nice price, and they added a decent situational lefty in Mike Myers. So while the Mets have been stealing the backpages, the Yankees have made the right moves this winter.

The Empire has truly struck back.

Deep thoughts: Sept. 21

? First-place Yankees. I didn’t think I would say that again this year. But the Yanks are back atop the American League East for the first time in 66 days after Randy Johnson undressed the Orioles on Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, Yankee-killer Jonny Gomes’ two-run triple keyed a five-run eighth inning as the Devil Rays overcame a two-run deficit in the eighth inning to knock off the Sox, 7-4.

This race is far from over. But the Yankees are playing inspired, gritty ball. In fact, they are playing like last year’s Red Sox. Meanwhile, except for AL MVP candidate David Ortiz, it looks like the Sox are just going through the motions.

Yes, the Yankees are supposed to win because of their enormous payroll. But over the last few years, the Yanks looked like overpriced robots on the field. They lacked the heart that the 1996, 1998-2001 teams displayed. Well, the 2005 edition has a fire in its belly. Last year finished in horrible fashion. They don’t want that to happen this season.

The Yankees have 11 games left, while the Sox have 10 to play. The division will be on the line next weekend when the two clubs collide at Fenway Park.

? The Big Unit was marvelous, taking a no-hitter in the fifth. He gave up one run on three hits over eight innings, and struck out six. The top of the lineup struggled mightily — A-Rod struck out three times — but surprise starter Matt Lawton came through with a two-run homer.

The Unit has driven me crazy this summer, but he’s getting the job done in September (2-0, 2.74 ERA).

? What the Foulke is up with the Sox? I don’t understand why he wasn’t out there tonight on the mound. Instead, Mike Timlin allowed three runs in the eighth inning and spoiled Tim Wakefield’s bid for his 16th win.

? Speaking of stinkin’ Sox: The Indians are going to win the AL Central. Travis Hafner ripped two dingers Wednesday as the Tribe rolled to a series-clinching 8-0 win. The teams meet again next weekend at The Jake.

? Things don’t get any better for the Pale Hose on Thursday as they face Johan Santana — who is 4-0 with an ERA of 0.89 against them this year. Meanwhile, the Indians head to KC.

? The Marlins are cooked, and so are the A’s. The Phillies, though, are still in the Wild Card hunt after their amazing win over the Braves.

Deep thoughts: Sept. 18

? Does anyone want to win the NL Cy Young Award? A day after Dontrelle Willis blew an opportunity at win No. 22, Chris Carpenter pitched like Ken Carpenter. The Cards ace turned in his shortest outing since April 10 as he lasted only four innings and allowed four runs in a 7-4 loss to the Cubs. Carpenter did not figure in the decision, but the Cardinals lost a game started by their ace for the first time since June 8.

A St. Louis rally in the fifth inning got Carpenter off the hook and allowed his 13-game winning streak to stay intact. St. Louis had won Carpenter’s previous 17 starts.

? Barry Bonds now needs 10 homers to tie the Bambino for second on the all-time list. Bonds smashed homer No. 705 into McCovey Cove on Sunday for his first splash shot of the season, and the 32nd of his career. I think Bonds has an outstanding chance of at leasting tying the Babe this year. The Giants head to the RFK Launching Pad in D.C. to face the Nationals…

? Who are done in my opinion. The Nats lost back-to-back heartbreakers this weekend against the Padres. Saturday, they lost on Ramon Hernandez’s walk-off homer. This, of course, came after my man Khalil Greene hit a two-out, game-tying slam off closer Chad Cordero in the ninth. Sunday, Joey Eischen threw away Dave Roberts’ bunt in the bottom of the ninth, allowing Miguel Olivo to score from second base as the Padres beat the Nats, 2-1.

? The Yanks blew a golden opportunity Sunday. They could have gained ground on the Sox, but didn’t after losing in Toronto, 6-5. Jaret Wright took the loss, allowing four runs in 2 1/3 innings before being removed from the game with an elbow injury after being hit by a broken bat. Wright’s snakebitten this month. He was drilled in the neck by a line drive in Seattle on Sept. 1.

? Cleveland’s win over Kansas City also dropped the Yanks 1 1/2 games back in the Wild Card race.

? The Indians are amazing. They have won five straight, and now head to Chicago for a frickin’ huge three-game set against the White Sox. On Aug. 1, the White Sox held a 15-game lead over the Indians in the AL Central. Since then, the Tribe has gone an MLB-best 32-11 to shave the Sox lead to 3 1/2. Cleveland is 13-3 this month.

? I have a tough night ahead Monday, watching the Yankees and New York Football Giants at the same time — along with doing my job.

Deep thoughts: Sept. 17

Jack McKeon and the Fish are fading.

? The Marlins looked like a shoo-in for the National League Wild Card after taking the first two of a four-game series against the Astros this week. Since then, they have lost four straight, including Saturday’s crushing 10-2 loss against the Phillies.

Through eight innings, Dontrelle Willis was rolling along, on pace to become baseball’s first 22-game winner. But it came crashing down on the D-Train in the ninth. The Phils sent 15 batters to the plate, and scored 10 runs on eight hits and four Marlins errors.

The Marlins now sit 2 1/2 games back in the NL Wild Card race, with Houston leading the way. The Phillies are a half-game back.

? We may be witnessing the biggest collapse in baseball history. On Aug. 1, the White Sox led the Indians by 15 games in the American League Central. That lead is now down to 3 1/2 after Johan Santana smoked the Pale Hose, and the Indians beat the Royals. Santana struck out 13 batters, then Joe Nathan fanned the side in the ninth.

The Indians and White Sox begin a crucial three-game series on Monday, and if the White Sox lose from here on in, the Tribe will lead the AL Central on Thursday morning.

? Indians GM Mark Shapiro did a great job of fleecing the Expos in the Bartolo Colon deal. Cliff Lee is 17-4, and Grady Sizemore is batting .291 with 20 taters and 77 ribeyes.

? The Tribe have won four straight and nine of 10, negating the Yankees’ hot week. New York has won six straight and eight of 10. Shawn Chacon gave the Yankees’ tired bullpen a much-needed rest by pitching eight innings in New York’s 1-0 victory over the Blue Jays on Saturday.

? AL MVP watch: A-Rod went 0-for-4 and struck out thrice, while Big Papi went 1-for-4. A-Rod did start a sick DP to end Saturday’s game.

? The A’s have fallen, and they may not get up. They trail the Tribe by five games in the Wild Card race, and are two behind the Angels in the AL West standings. I am guessing the A’s are really missing Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson right now.

? Saw "The Aristocrats" with my wife on Saturday. The "joke" stinks. The movie wasn’t all that, but Bob Saget did make me laugh my coolie off.

? Yawn, the Cardinals clinched the NL Central — and in front of the Cubs’ faithful. Ouch, that’s got hurt Cubbie fans.

? I am still sticking with my Red Sox-Marlins World Series prediction, but it sure looks like the NL playoffs will be dubbed the Cardinal Invitational.

? Wait to go, cousin Hank: Blalock’s RBI double with one out in the bottom of the ninth lifted the Rangers to a 7-6 victory over the Mariners on Saturday night.