ANAHEIM, Calif. — They're grown men now, making piles of money and getting treated like kings, lavished with top-shelf equipment, designer clothes and first-class accommodations. But it wasn't too long ago that some of the Rays were kids sitting in the stands watching the games, dreaming one day of getting that opportunity of being down on the field.
The trip to Anaheim brought those memories back for five Rays who all grew up, and some still live, in the SoCal area and attended Angels games as kids. Here are some of their stories:
INF Daniel Robertson
After missing the chance last year since he was on the disabled list, Robertson was plenty motivated all winter to play in the stadium where he sat dozens of times a year with family and friends. He played some travel-ball games there, and once was in a group of kids who got to run out on the field for the national anthem, paired with Angels 1B Robb Quinlan, but this was different. "In the offseason I drove by that field every day thinking one day this next season I might be playing there,'' he said. "It definitely means a lot.'' One cool experience this week was using the visitors' batting cage, where dugout-suite fans can watch, and he once met and got a photo with Josh Hamilton. "A lot of memories for sure,'' he said.
INF Matt Duffy
Though he spent parts of three seasons with the Giants, this was Duffy's first official visit to Angel Stadium. His family had season tickets in Section 423, "prime foul ball territory" in Row 3 of the upper deck behind home, with a Jose Guillen-hit ball stashed away somewhere to show for it, and he once walked in a pregame youth league parade. "My dad and I were talking about it the other night that with all the games we went to if somebody would have told him I would be here playing one day, he said he wouldn't have believed it,'' Duffy said.
RHP Jake Faria
With his dad splitting Section 347 season tickets with another sheriff's deputy, Faria and older brother Matt came to 35-40 games a year as grade-schoolers, spending pregame chasing autographs, his most cherished possession a Vlad Guerrero-signed cap they still have. During high school, Faria would attend when he wasn't playing, including a date-night game with Jessica Soto that led to their first kiss, and now years later an upcoming wedding. All of which made it more special when he pitched there for the Rays last July with close to 200 relatives and friends cheering. "To know what it looks like watching a game from the stands and then to have the opposite view, that was really cool,'' Faria said. "This will forever be my favorite ballpark. … I grew up in this place and learned a lot about baseball here.''
INF/OF Rob Refsnyder
Though he attended games regularly with his parents, Refsnyder remembers finding creative ways to get in when they couldn't make it. "This was my childhood ballpark,'' he said. "I'd save up my lunch money and come here and try and get some tickets.'' His first visit with the Yankees last year wasn't his first time on the field; as a T-baller, he was in a pregame parade.
RHP Matt Andriese
With his brother David also heavily involved in playing (and making it to pro ball as well), the Andrieses only attended 10 games or so a year. But whenever the Angels were home on Mother's Day, they planned a family outing to treat Lynn for all she did for them. All of which made Matt Andriese's May 8, 2016 first game there all the more special, as he was called up, slated to make the Mother's Day start. He delivered quite the gift, working seven strong innings to beat the Angels. "It was always a fun environment to come to games here,'' he said. "And now to be on the field is surreal.''
Mann, what a story
The Devil Rays' 2002 draft provided an interesting class of major-leaguers, as much for whom they did sign — B.J. Upton, Jason Hammel, and certainly Elijah Dukes — as some they didn't, most notably Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Pelfrey, who both opted for college and improved their stock.
Now there is another chapter.
LHP Brandon Mann, their 27th round pick, finally made it to the majors last week.
Three days shy of 34, having spent 17 seasons in the minors, Japan and independent leagues, Mann made his debut last Sunday for the Rangers.
"It means everything," Mann told reporters in Houston. "Lots of reflecting on the journey of where it's been. This is pretty awesome. I always told myself I was a big-leaguer, to keep grinding for that opportunity, you have to believe that you are."
Mann spent seven seasons with the Rays, getting as high as Double A in 2009 before becoming a minor-league free agent, then bouncing through the Dodgers, Nationals, Pirates and A's organizations (including a steroids suspension), three in independent leagues and two in Japan.
The latest mocks for the June 4-6 draft have the Rays going hard for high school outfielders from the top as their three picks in the top 32 and the second-largest signing pool of all teams at $12.4 million. ESPN's Keith Law has them using the No. 16 pick on Plant High OF Connor Scott. Baseball America has them taking N.C. prep OF Jordyn Adams at 16, Indianapolis prep OF Nick Schnell at 31 and Texas prep 3B Jordan Groshans. MLB.com has them taking Wisconsin prep OF Jarred Kelenic at 16, Broward prep SS Xavier Edwards at 32, then Adams, who would have to be bought out of a baseball/football opportunity at North Carolina.
Money talks: I don't think this has anything to do with their strategy, but the Rays' plans of blurring the traditional roles of starters and relievers by using pitchers in hybrid roles could have an impact on future salaries since they won't have the traditional stats that are used for comps. As player agent Rafa Nieves tweeted after Saturday's plan was revealed: "Imagine if this worked and you had relievers with no HOLDS and (starters with no) starts going through arbitration system.''
Business is business: As tough as it would play in the clubhouse and around the game given the feel-good reaction to Jonny Venters' promotion, and as well as he has pitched, the Rays have the right to send him back to the minors. Venters, 33, signed a consent form allowing one demotion in the first 45 days even though he has the service time to decline and become a free agent.
The better the Rays play, the more interesting the trade chatter will be, given they potentially have close to 10 potential candidates to be dealt by July 31. … INF Christian Arroyo's mom, Kim, wasn't able to make it from Florida to Anaheim to see his Rays debut for good reason: She blew out her knee on Mother's Day, wait for it, skateboarding. … If Matt Duffy and Adeiny Hechavarria had both gone on the DL, it would have been interesting to see if the Rays would've broken the seal on top prospect Willy Adames and promoted him, even for a short stint, before the early June unofficial Super 2 arbitration cutoff. … There is now a Twitter account called @RaysRelocationPDX, purporting to be the "official handle and news source for the TB Rays relocation efforts to Portland'' (Ore.) … Cool to see the Rays among the teams participating in MLB's Diversity Fellowship Program, offering 18-month front-office opportunities to Danielle Dockx (from Princeton) and Mark Watson (Jackson State). Jesuit High's Francis Scimeca got a similar gig with the Phillies. … It was weird covering the Rays in Anaheim and not seeing Evan Longoria's dad, Mike, who was at pretty much every Rays there the past 10 years. … A popular question from opposing players, team officials and media at every stop is what's going on with the stadium. … Tampa's Gary Sheffield, who wanted to but never played for the Rays, is among the new inductees into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame. Enshrinement is Nov. 7. … Ferg's Sports Bar is organizing a bus trip to the July 3-4 series in Miami.