Indeed they were baaaack, as Manny Ramirez said, settling in next to former and once-again teammate Johnny Damon on Tuesday as they were officially reunited by pulling on their Rays jerseys.
They joked and jabbed and exchanged repartee like it was 2004 and they were idiots all over again, and what they seemed to make most clear — at least on this day, the rigors of the season still weeks away — was how much they really wanted to be there.
For Damon, it makes some sense as he grew up and still lives in the Orlando area, relishes the American League battleground and, with his attendance-based incentives, can still make a respectable $6 million.
"This is home for me," Damon said. "This is my dream team."
For Ramirez, like most things Manny, it's not as clear. The pay isn't good (just $2 million, after making $45 million the previous two seasons), the stadium tends to be half (or more) empty, the role is limited to DH duties and it would be an upset to get into the postseason.
But he had his reasons.
"Thank God I've already made my money, so I'm here because I love the game," Ramirez said. "And I love to compete. It doesn't matter how much money you make. If you do love the game … all you want is a chance to prove to people you still could do it.
"For me it wasn't about the money. I could have gone somewhere else (for more money). I'm close to home. I like the stadium. I like Tampa — the people, they're nice people. So I'm right here."
He looked to be in great shape after a winter of extensive workouts in Arizona (down 12 pounds to 225), and he seemed to be having a blast, showing a playful and entertaining side, calling manager Joe Maddon "coach," repeatedly thanking Damon for saying nice things about him, claiming he couldn't get his cap over his hair and joking that he'll be ready to take over if Damon slacks off in leftfield.
The Rays can only hope he remains motivated and inspired for the season, which hasn't always been his way. But they have reasons to think he will, from the inspiration of competing in the AL East against his former Red Sox team and the rival Yankees, the accomplishment of getting the 45 home runs he needs for 600, or even the lure of another big contract — should he decide money does matter again — somewhere else next season.
Maddon said he became a believer over dinner Monday night in downtown St. Petersburg (Ramirez had the rainbow trout, Maddon the cavatelli and steak): "I know how motivated he is going into this season, and his intentions are very pure helping us repeat as American League East champions."
They also talked about what Maddon expects: how he doesn't have a lot of rules (so, yes, Ramirez can keep the long dreadlocks), will try to keep it simple and encourages fun until game time, when the emphasis shifts and things like hustling and running hard to first base matter. "We've got to play that one style of baseball, and I think he's prepared to do it," Maddon said.
Damon has always played that way, and at 37 he looks fit enough to still say "my body is my temple," and the Rays expect him to continue.
The reality is they need both Damon and Ramirez to contribute, not only with how they play, with Damon in left and Ramirez the DH and likely cleanup hitter, but for the leadership, by resume and example, they'll provide. After the offseason departure of veterans such as Carl Crawford and Carlos Peña, executive vice president Andrew Friedman and Maddon felt it was vital to infuse veterans with a winning background, similar to the 2008 additions of Cliff Floyd, Eric Hinske and Troy Percival.
"We needed guys like this to come back into our clubhouse," Maddon said.
And for now, anyway, Damon and Ramirez couldn't be more happy to be there, to be teammates again, in what was in essence a package deal, and to be Rays.
Times staff writer Joe Smith contributed to this report.