Of the 317 men who have been on the Rays, there have been many better players than Jonny Gomes. But there have not been many better Rays. From all corners of the home clubhouse, there is strong sentiment that Gomes, back this weekend with Oakland, is the best teammate the Rays have had.
"I'll always have kind of a soft spot," manager Joe Maddon said. "He was one of the first, when I first came on board, he was like the guy that really played the kind of game that I liked. He was that guy. A combination of speed and power. … He's got a flair. He knows how to deal with the public in general; he appeals to the masses.
"He's got a lot of wonderful qualities about him."
Gomes earned much of his reputation during the Rays' 2008 run to prominence, specifically in two brawls, charging Shelly Duncan in a spring training tete-a-tete with the Yankees, then leading the charge off the bench in a June battle in Boston.
"How he reacted (against the Yankees) is what Jonny's all about," Maddon said. "Sticking up for his teammates, never running away from the action, running toward the action."
And don't think his mates didn't appreciate it.
"He's one of the best teammates I've ever had. Whatever his reputation is around the league, in this clubhouse it's great. He's one of the guys. He will fight for his teammates, no pun intended."
"I rank him No. 1. He's always in the clubhouse, always first in line to give a high five. There's just an excitement he brings, and it's very contagious. And he always has everyone's back."
"He looks out for everybody. He doesn't mess around. If you're wearing a uniform that says the same as his, he treats you like family. And he's going to defend you like a bodyguard, essentially."
"He's right there. He started it — he started the freestyle. Just be free and easy, man, and go play. He was the 'OG' of the group, the original guy. … And a little bit of flavor is okay. He made it exciting. We just came off a 100-loss season, and it was like we could win 100 all of a sudden, and without him, you don't know."
Tropicana Field has been a popular topic through the first month of the season.
One reason is the number of people coming in through its gates, from the early large crowds to the four tiny gatherings vs. Seattle last week that totaled 40,842, less than the average single-game attendance for five teams (Cardinals, Giants, Phillies, Rangers, Yankees).
The other reason is the number of balls going out of it. The Rays seem convinced that for some reason, well-struck balls are not carrying to centerfield as they should, drives last week by Matt Joyce and Luke Scott the latest examples after the team noticed it last season. Ideas have been tossed out, and some looked into, such as the temperature (lower with fewer people?), humidity and air-conditioning currents.
There is some merit to the claim: From 2005-10, 10.7 percent of the homers hit at the Trop by all teams went to centerfield (112 of 1,046) and 30.4 percent from left-center to right-center (318). In 2011-12, entering Saturday, 3.8 percent (7 of 187) had gone to center and 20.9 percent (39) to left-center and right-center. (The only one to center this year was the Scott ball Seattle's Michael Saunders knocked over the fence.) "I think it's real," hitting coach Derek Shelton said. "I guess the wind's blowing in all the time."
TV ratings on Sun Sports have been soaring, up a whopping 71 percent in April (5.4 households) from last year (3.18). … One element to Tim Beckham's 50-game suspension for a second drug issue: Had he been on the 40-man roster, he would not have been subjected to random testing for marijuana. Also, he may have wasted his shot at a promotion after Evan Longoria's injury; instead he's serving his suspension in extended spring. … MLB.com's Hal Bodley pegs the Rays as the "best team.'' … Ex-Ray Aaron Ledesma is running the American Baseball Institute out of Clearwater's Jack Russell Stadium; see ABIbaseball.com. … There's talk the Padres may release former Rays SS Jason Bartlett, hitting .156 entering Saturday and making $5.5 million, with a $5.5 million vesting option for 2013. … The Mets, managed by Maddon buddy Terry Collins, are doing themed road trips. … The '13 schedule may drop the second of the two series with Miami.
Got a minute? Jeff Keppinger
Favorite offday activity? Playing with my kids. Or fishing.
Big-night-out meal? I like Japanese food.
Late-night snack? Combos. Pizza-flavored combos. Or pork rinds, hot and spicy.
Favorite all-time TV show? MacGyver.
And current? River Monsters or Storage Wars.
An All-Maddon team
Maddon considers Gomes one of his all-time favorite players. Here are a few other lesser-known former Rays who are high on his list:
Grant Balfour, P (top)
Chad Bradford, P
Cliff Floyd, DH
Eric Hinske, INF/OF (middle)
Damon Hollins, OF
Gabe Kapler, OF
Tomas Perez, INF
Dan Wheeler, P
Ty Wigginton, INF/OF (bottom)