PORT CHARLOTTE — The challenges are going to be different this year for the Rays, and manager Joe Maddon knows it. Having proved last year, despite the mathematical issues, that 9 actually can equal 8, Maddon on Wednesday unveiled his latest motivational equation:
'09 > '08.
Technically, it means 2009 is greater than 2008.
Symbolically (or actually un-symbolically), Maddon wants it to mean '09 is better than '08.
This motivational slogan business can be semantic and, apparently, complicated. Maddon actually doesn't like the connotations of using the word great, but he needed a shorthand catchphrase version of the slogan that can be used on T-shirts, signs, caps and whatever other opportunities present.
So absent inventing a symbol for "better than" — which he actually thought of, "the greater than sign maybe with a circle around it, equaling 'better than,' just a new Rays culture kind of symbol, but I didn't want to get too nuts" — he came up with this.
"Of course, I wanted to re-emphasize that 9 will always equal 8 in our math, but furthermore, this year, '09 is going to be greater than '08," Maddon explained after the first full-squad workout of the spring.
"We want it to be hopefully better by at least three games, which we missed last year. Of course we did wonderfully last year and of course it was all good, but I keep talking about building this new road and you just can't rely on 9 = 8 all the time. You have to be better than we were in some areas last year."
The players know that, too, and it was obvious from what they took out of Maddon's address prior to the first full squad workout.
"We're excited," Carlos Peña said. "We know we can do it, and that brings something else to the equation now, as how do you focus on the how it happened instead of what happened; I think that is going to be key to us. Just to maintain our focus in the present and the process, and leave it at that, and everything else will take care of itself."
No Ray went through more losing than Carl Crawford before last season, and thus no one can put the contrast into more context. As he reported for his eighth season with the Rays, Crawford said the differences extend far beyond the plush new facilities and remote location.
"It feels good," he said. "We come in, and we've got a little respect now. We talked about that we don't want to settle for that and we want to try to keep getting better, but it's good to come to camp with the little respect we do have. … It definitely feels a little different than losing 100 games. I like this feeling better."
Motivation is of no concern with Crawford, who said last season's success drove him to work even harder this offseason and said he was all for the new slogan: "The last one worked, so we hope this one works, too. I'm all for the slogans now."
Crawford, 27, made a significant change in his workout routine, teaming with a trainer who specializes in hamstring strengthening and shifting his base from Arizona to Houston so he could work out on grass rather than turf, to which he has attributed some of the leg problems that forced him to limit his base-stealing and occasionally out of the lineup.
"My job was to go get in the best shape I could this offseason so I don't have to ask for days off," he said. "I feel better than I felt in a long time."
To Maddon, that was a prime example of the attitude he seeks. It's why he raves about having such positive influences as Gabe Kapler, Peña and even new addition Adam Kennedy in the clubhouse.
And that's why he wants the players thinking '09 > '08.
"That's exactly the way we want it to be," Peña said. "Obviously, we want '09 to be greater than '08."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.