Rays say loose atmosphere breeds success

PORT CHARLOTTE — In a way, it starts at the top. Well, technically, at the bottom of the top — the Birkenstock sandals principal owner Stuart Sternberg often casually wears to the field.

Then there's the bright-colored ball (Pinky Hi-Bounce preferred) that executive vice president Andrew Friedman carries around, bouncing off walls and people when he's not shooting at the mini-basketball hoop in his office with team president Matt Silverman.

And the blaring music (typically classic rock), interesting fashion statements, wine expertise and other eclectic topics of conversation that spill regularly from manager Joe Maddon's office.

"It's a different beat," Maddon says.

From that relaxed foundation cast by their leaders, the Rays players have developed a chemistry and a camaraderie that they believe is a big part of the success.

"Obviously management and Joe wanted to implement an environment where they felt it was comfortable and suitable for guys just to play baseball and not have the stress that usually comes with it," starter Alex Cobb said.

"And when you let kids be kids, which we all are, it turns into a fun environment. They're not too demanding, there's not many rules and regulations, they're not nitpicking things here and there. It just allows a bunch of guys to be guys. And have fun."

They certainly have plenty of that, evidenced most recently by the frat-house atmosphere of their spring facility. There were several portable home computer-sized monitors set up in a locker for video game competitions (hockey, soccer, Call of Duty), a mini-basketball hoop with a half court laid out in tape that was in play daily in the clubhouse, a full-size basket outside and a pingpong table in an adjacent building that got heavy use.

"We have great relationships as teammates and it's a lot of fun," reliever Joel Peralta said. "And I think the more fun we have, the better we perform on the field. You feel comfortable, you go out there to have fun and it helps a lot. It's awesome."

Reliever Heath Bell, a veteran of four other teams, said he was struck by how inclusive and clique-free their clubhouse is and how close some players are — like when pitchers stick around to watch their colleagues throw in the bullpens and on the back fields.

"The most chemistry I've ever seen in the spring," Bell said. "Everybody interacts with everybody."

Catcher Ryan Hanigan, another veteran newcomer, also has been impressed.

"Chemistry is huge," he said. "There's a lot of selfless guys on this team, so that's huge. I mean, it's been awesome. There's no other way to say it. It's a very strong team in that regard."

Maddon, who calls this spring's camaraderie "fantabulous," believes it starts with letting the players be themselves, and it's obvious they not only appreciate the relaxed setting but reap the benefits.

"I know everybody enjoys coming to the field, and that's always good," ace David Price said. "They're pumped to get here, not only to put their work in but to hang out and talk and be good teammates. I think we do have an extremely close squad. …

"When you have 24 guys pulling for that other guy, it always means a lot. It doesn't show up in the stat box or anything like that, but you can definitely feel it when you have your teammates behind you. The guys we have here, they want to be here."

Third baseman Evan Longoria, who said last year's team was more unified having shed veterans like James Shields and B.J. Upton (who remained scarred by their Devil Rays days), feels this squad has come together even more.

"This is probably the best group that we've had," Longoria said. "Having the amount of guys back that we have from last year is a huge part of it. … And the (new) guys really fit in. I think it's just going to be one of those years where guys will be going out to dinner with each other and hanging out with each other away from the field. And those things, I think, really translate into wins on the field."

It's not always fun and games, of course. Longoria, for example, prefers a bit more of a serious approach and is not a big fan of the diversionary tactics Maddon will occasionally employ — bringing animals (cockatoo, penguins, python last year) and entertainers into the clubhouse, orchestrating themed dress-up road trips.

But Maddon says he wants to make sure they don't ever get too serious.

"I really hope we maintain our sense of humor," he said. "I don't want us to be so business-like that we can't make fun of ourselves on occasion. I kind of like that, and that's an important part of what we do and how we do it."

There's obviously a balance, which Cobb said the players fully grasp.

"There's a switch, and guys know when they need to turn it on and turn it off," Cobb said. "You can have all the fun you want, but if you don't do your business on the field, nothing's going to be fun."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.

Rays say loose atmosphere breeds success 03/29/14 [Last modified: Sunday, March 30, 2014 12:31am]

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