It was April 23, 2003 when the Cubs' promising Far Eastern pitching prospect, Jae-Kuk Ryu, accomplished the goal of which he had been in avid pursuit since the young Florida State League season had begun. After several sadistic attempts - bam! - young Ryu finally found just the amount of trajectory required to bean Ozzy the Osprey, the Daytona Beach franchise's beloved mascot.* Six days later, a mortally wounded Ozzy - beautiful plumage and all - ran down the curtain and joined the choir in visibule, a licked Osprey.
"If you hadn't nailed him to the perch, he'd be pushing up the daisies."
The local community was outraged. The homicidal maniac in a Cubs uniform received death threats, official condemnation from PETA, formal misdemeanor charges, probation, and community service in a Key West, Florida wildlife rescue facility. After wringing their organizational hands for nearly three years, just recently, the Cubs finally fulfilled this sordid incident's destiny.
They traded Ryu to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Devil Rays fans - both of them - said, "what took so long?"
Back in 1968, when Mick Jagger, while portraying a suave and sophisticated Lucifer crooned the lyric, "I hung around St. Petersburg," it was assumed to be a historical reference to the Russian Revolution ("killed the Czar and his ministers ..."). Only now do we come to understand it as a prophecy about a West Florida baseball team nearly 30 years from inception. Satan's code: they put "Devil" right in the title.
Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name.
David Puddy, Devil Rays fan
What is it about this team, this goofy franchise, that attracts such insanity? Yes, we know they play in a leaky roof white elephant of an edifice. We know they've never - never! - finished anywhere in the standings but last place. But I'm talking about the characters, the loons, the bizarre incidents that befall the players brave enough to don the forest green. Is it the distraction of Tampa's signature business establishment? Is it "The Curse of Bobby Abreu?** Or is it Beezlebub? Roll call:
Dewon Brazelton - the #3 overall pick in the 2001 draft is the 2005 Opening Day starter. He pitches so poorly, he's soon demoted to Durham, but instead turns into a missing person. His unexplained absence lasts three weeks. Three weeks after his re-appearance, he's promoted back to the majors, prompting Eduardo Perez to ask, "what message does that send to the rest of the young guys in the organization?"
Russ Johnson - July of 2002, the utility infielder becomes the first of a series of Rays to land on the seldom-used restricted list when he reports to a psychiatric hospital for depression and anxiety.
Nick Bierbrodt - Spring Training 2002, the promising young hurler suddenly contracts an acute case of "Steve Blass Disease." He's sent to Durham to work out the psychosis, and while sitting in the back seat of a car at a fast food drive-thru, makes the mistake of asking a bicycle-riding passerby to turn down the rap music. For his trouble he's delivered three gunshot wounds, including one to the chest.
Bubba Trammell - In June of 2003, the former Ray leaves the Yankees, suffering from depression, and doesn't return for the remainder of the season. Naturally, in the off-season, he's quickly re-signed by his former asylum ... uh, team. Trammell leaves the Rays' Durham affiliate after ten games, again battling depression, never to return.
Charles Johnson - April 8, 2005, CJ leaves his new team to address an undisclosed personal matter. "I think in the next several days, he will get things resolved and be back on the club," said GM Chuck LaMar. He never returns.
Josh Hamilton - The #1 pick in the 1999 draft, a player of immense ability, sees his career effectively end by the middle of 2002, when he is suspended for drugs, including crack cocaine. Hamilton spends the next several years repeatedly failing to complete drug rehabilitation programs, before dropping out of baseball (he's currently attempting a comeback). He claims he's attempted suicide on multiple occasions: "There was even a night I thought about jumping off a building," he told Rob Nightengale for a June 7, 2006 USA Today article.
Delmon Young - The #1 pick in the 2003 draft. This one I don't even have to describe. Just watch.
Greg "Toe" Nash - A giant specimen of a man, Toe is the stuff of legends, compared at times to Roy Hobbs, Steve Nebraska, and Sidd Finch. At 6'6" with size 18 feet, this semi-literate middle school drop-out is working in the Louisiana sugar cane fields when he's discovered playing in a beer league hitting 400-foot shots from both sides of the plate and throwing 95 mph. The Rays give him a signing bonus and bring him aboard. It's not long before he's incarcerated, and as of this writing, has served time for statutory rape, domestic violence, robbery, marijuana possession, and second-degree battery.
Elijah Dukes - a Tampa native, this immensely talented prospect appears to be the second coming of Albert Belle. Dukes has been suspended at least twice, been frequently ejected from games, and has repeatedly clashed with coaches and managers. Last August, he threatened to quit: "I just don't know about baseball anymore ... I don't know if I'm coming back." The latest word is that the Rays intend to promote him to the majors when they break camp this Spring. Cue Eduardo Perez ...
BJ Upton - Last June, this uber-prospect is arrested on a DUI charge. Durham looks like a fine training ground for Tampa.
Erik Walker - This low level Rays' farmhand appeared to be on the fast track after last season's stunning short season results - 7 saves, 0.48 ERA, 53-6 K/BB ratio. On October 25, 2006, his dead body is found, the victim of a canoeing accident.
Tony Saunders - The Rays' very first player, the franchise's initial selection in the expansion draft, sees his career end in August of 2000, after his pitching arm snaps for the second time in 15 months.
Rob Bell - Early 2005, Bell also contracts a mysterious case of "Steve Blass Disease." On May 14th, the Rays disable him for psychological reasons. He goes to Durham, and has never returned. Bell is presently attempting to make a comeback with the Orioles.
What's puzzling you is the nature of my game (woo-woo).
Recently, manager Joe Maddon reported in the St. Petersburg Times that the Rays organization, in a strive for a new level of professionalism, had installed a code they call the "Ray Way." Make your own joke, here.
In the end, it's just hard to ascribe all this craziness to random misfortune. Think about Jae-Kuk Ryu. The Rays are a strange organization. They seem to relish bringing it on themselves.
"Free will, it is a b-tch."
--- Al Pacino, The Devil's Advocate
* There are no known videos of the Ryu incident. In its place, I thought you might enjoy the old Randy Johnson "exploding bird" video.
** The Rays selected Abreu in the expansion draft, and promptly dealt him to the Phillies for light-hitting infielder Kevin Stocker. Oops.
March 1 update:
Josh Hamilton hit the last of five Reds home runs Thursday in a 9-7 win over the Pirates.
Adam Dunn, Brandon Phillips, Mark Bellhorn and Jeff Keppinger also went deep, but Hamilton's two-run blast over the 30-foot batter's eye in center field reportedly was the most impressive of the shots. He also had a single in four at-bats.
Could be a nice story in the making. Congratulations Rays Reds!
March 3 update:
Josh Hamilton had three of the Reds' 25 hits Saturday in a 14-1 defeat of the Twins. Two were doubles.
OK, this blog post now officially has a project. We'll be watching you, Josh.
March 7 Update:
Is Aubrey Huff a reader of this blog? Says the former Ray:
"A lot of us were losing our minds," said Aubrey Huff, who played for the Devil Rays for seven years before signing with the Orioles as a free agent. "You spend enough years there in Tampa, you'll have some head issues.
March 8 Update:
Hammy triples in two ABs, and makes a diving catch. Go!
March 11 Update:
Josh Hamilton went 3-for-3 with an RBI Sunday as the Reds edged the Pirates 9-8.
Hamilton pushed his average back up to .538. He's 14-for-26 with four extra-base hits and four walks. It's becoming obvious that he's going to have a spot on the Reds to begin the season.
It's all about da' Hamiltons, bay-bee!
I've decided that the Hamilton-watch now merits a full blog post. I'll be working on it this week. Keep strokin' Josh. Stay relevant.