PORT CHARLOTTE — They will gather Monday for the first time as a full squad, raving about their new mates, joking among those who are back for more.
With all the excitement about what the Rays have gained in terms of talent and opportunity, this is also a spring of loss.
And there will be a moment Monday, likely several, and in one case also a few tears, in acknowledgement of those who are missing.
Six of their longest-serving coaches — totaling more than 115 years of Rays experience, expertise and institutional knowledge, plus another 100 or so gleaned elsewhere — are gone.
“A lot of great baseball men,’’ Rays longtime farm director Mitch Lukevics said. “We lost a lot of experience here. It’s hard to replace the years. It goes without saying, they’ll be missed.’’
The circumstances, of course, are different. And there is no way to get around the awkwardness of lumping them all together.
Field coordinator Jim Hoff was mourned, his December death at age 73 stunning and tragic to the Rays.
The other departures were celebrated.
Pitching coordinator Dick Bosman retired, tipping his cap on a stellar playing and coaching career, and turning 75 on Sunday.
Field coordinator Bill Evers, a 23-year Rays staffer, got an unexpected big-league coaching job with the Twins, and Triple-A manager Jared Sandberg got one with his hometown Mariners.
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Rocco Baldelli and Charlie Montoyo, who had been on the big-league coaching staff, remarkably both got managing gigs at the same time. Baldelli will lead the Twins, Montoyo the Blue Jays.
“A lot of guys, familiar faces, that aren’t here anymore,’’ said special assistant Tom Foley, a 20-plus year Ray. “Prominent faces.’’
Evers was the longest tenured, part of the Devil Rays organization’s first wave of hiring in advance of the 1996 inaugural draft and never straying. He served as a minor-league manager and coordinator, scout, and big-league bench coach. Montoyo came a few months later, managing his way up through the entire system, then joining the big-league staff as a coach.
Sandberg was the 16th-round pick in that 1996 draft, played nine years (including three in the majors) for the Devil Rays, then after three years elsewhere returned in 2008 as a minor-league coach and managed his way up. Baldelli was a first-round pick in 2000 and, save for playing the 2009 season with the Red Sox, had also never left, playing, working in the front office, then coaching.
Bosman, who threw a no-hitter for the Indians in 1974, came aboard in 2001 as a minor-league coach after several big-league jobs elsewhere. Hoff, one of those baseball lifers, joined the next year, making him, somehow, the junior partner of the group.
“It’s just different without those guys,’’ said travel director Chris Westmoreland, a 22-year employee. “There’s an empty part of you inside.’’
The Rays are making a point to remember Hoff, the daily workout schedule headlined with a “HOFFY-ISM,” usually one of his many cliched or corny phrases. (Best so far: What is a computer that can sing? Adele). Westmoreland ordered sweatshirts from Hoff’s beloved alma mater, Xavier University, for staff to wear.
And there is talk, as there should be, about a more permanent marker, naming a field or a meeting room or something after him.
Even without the reminders, Hoff’s absence is obvious. He seemed to touch every player, coach, staffer and media member who ventured on to the fields at Charlotte Sports Park. His fields.
“Every day his name comes up,’’ Foley said.
Manager Kevin Cash had an off feeling when hitting ground balls last Monday on the diamond where Hoff worked his magic with so many infielders. “I don’t know if I’ve ever stood on that half-field with him not being there,’’ Cash said.
Westmoreland and Foley felt it more, having shared a house with Hoff the last three springs. (And decided it would be uncomfortable to get a different roommate this year.)
That meant plenty of Hoff’s favorite chicken-and-rice dish, strawberry shortcake he assembled from store-bought items but billed as a gourmet treat, spades and gin card games, tales of his daily bike rides (sometimes in uniform) and so much baseball talk they would eventually ask him for a break.
“Spring training without Jim Hoff has been difficult,’’ Westmoreland said. “Not only was he a good friend, but he was a true Ray. He loved this organization.’’
Lukevics, having shared in the good news of the others leaving for positive reasons and excited about the new hires and internal promotions, had planned to lean more heavily on Hoff this spring.
“I thought, ‘Okay, Jimmy, we’ll have many conversations.’ Then, sadly, he passed away, and I thought, ‘Oh, boy,’ ” Lukevics said. “He was a wonderful man, and he set an example for all of us. There was not one person who did not get better from Jimmy’s presence. The professionalism, the person he was. So that’s really hard.’’
There’s going to be a few hard days.
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.