Monday, December 11, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays players, not pride, always come first for Kevin Cash

ST. PETERSBURG

Kevin Cash knew, just like anyone else watching the Rays' season-opening loss to the Blue Jays who had any clue about baseball, how badly Kevin Kiermaier messed up in trying to steal third base with two outs in the fourth inning. Kiermaier would say as much later in a mea culpa at his locker, talking about how "embarrassing" and "terrible" of a blunder it was on his part: "I know the game better than that."

But when Cash was asked about the play during his postgame media session, he insisted on taking the blame.

"Just an aggressive move on my part," Cash said. "That's on me."

That really was his story, as if he told Kiermaier to run. And, with a straight face, he was sticking to it.

As Cash works into the second season of his first job managing at any level, he has made it abundantly clear that the primary foundation for success is his relationship and rapport with his players.

He wants them to get all the credit, and he'll take any blame. He wants them to be in the spotlight, and he'll stay in the background. He wants them to have whatever they need to succeed, and he'll arrange, facilitate and implement.

"That goes back to his selfless character," outfielder Steven Souza Jr. said. "Some managers want to be the face of the team. Some managers want to be front and center and be the joke teller. And there's nothing wrong with that. Everybody has their own personality.

"But to know he is here for us above everything else, I don't think you could put an amount on what that is worth."

Lou Piniella had his own style. So did Joe Maddon, and with great success. But when Cash took over the Rays going into 2015, he made it abundantly clear his philosophy was different.

"It's not so obvious to the point where it's almost annoying, but he's always been that way from the time of his first meeting," veteran third baseman Evan Longoria said.

"It was, 'We're here for you. The coaching staff is here for you. Whatever you guys need. Whatever we can do to make things better for you, to make you better, we will do it.'

"That just kind of permeates his whole way of thinking, whether it's something actually on the field or off. He's always ready to come forward and take the blame or give credit to the players and not take that credit for himself. And that's cool. You know that he always has your back."

At 38, and still the youngest manager in the majors, Cash said the relationships with the players, like many other aspects of his job, will continue to evolve. Just the progress from last year to now has been significant.

"There's a lot more comfort," Cash said. "I think we all took pride as a team last year in our relationships and quickly learning a lot about each other and quickly trying to find some comfort with each other.

"But a full year definitely helps the conversations now. It's easier to joke, and it's easier to have a serious conversation. It works both ways. I think my natural personality is to kind of joke around a little bit. The serious messages or conversations probably took some time to get there. Whereas this year it feels much more comfortable on both ends. It's much easier to have more direct conversations when you need to."

In taking heat for the players, Cash can build currency and trust. In a way, it's really just an extension of his role as a catcher, where his priority was always to make his pitcher look good and do well. Plus, it can allow players to be freer on the field, unafraid to make mistakes.

And if doing so leaves Cash looking compromised to fans, media, people around baseball who just read his quotes or see a video clip, so be it. He cares much more that it plays well with his players.

"It goes a long way when you do little things like that," starter Jake Odorizzi said. "It may look 'little' to the outside world, but it really gives you some credibility in the clubhouse."

Kiermaier insisted he didn't need Cash to cover for him, that he knew he had done wrong and was prepared to take whatever criticism was coming.

But he appreciated the looking out as another sign of how good of a boss Cash is.

"I can sit here, and I think for a lot of players, it's easy for me to talk him up because it's all genuine," Kiermaier said. "I truly love playing for Kevin, and only after a year, but I think as players we all know what he's about. … We have his back and he has ours."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

   
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