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Tampa Bay Rays’ success is anything but ‘Cash-less’

Kevin Cash is the manager of the year, even if he won’t own it. | Martin Fennelly
Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash (16) talks with Willy Adames (1) in the dugout before Wednesday's game against the Yankees.
Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash (16) talks with Willy Adames (1) in the dugout before Wednesday's game against the Yankees. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sep. 26, 2019|Updated Sep. 26, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — What the heck is Cash doing?

I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked me that — perhaps using a stronger word — over the past five years. In emails, in texts, on talk radio, in grocery lines, they marvel at how much better they are at running a baseball team than the Rays’ 41-year-old manager, how they would have kept that pitcher in the game. Kevin Cash just drives them crazy.

Or they wonder if Cash runs anything at all at Tropicana Field. If he is merely the guy who takes the lineups and pitching matchups off a computer printout sent down from the brainy front office by pneumatic tube, special delivery.

What the heck is Cash doing?

Late Wednesday night, Cash was seated at his desk in his office, which was crowded with media. Visitors included Rays owner Stuart Sternberg. It is that time of year. And it might be playoff time for the fifth time in Rays history, for the first time since Joe Maddon and 2013.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Cash said.

The Rays, winners of 95 games, had just beaten the Yankees 4-0 to complete a statement in a two-game sweep. Going into Thursday, they remain on Oakland’s heels for the first wild card, a half-game back, and have opened up space on Cleveland, now 1½ games behind Tampa Bay. The Rays are 19-6 in their past 25 games. They just went a combined 6-2 against the Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees. They are driving.

And the man who runs this show couldn’t be happier to be in the middle of a playoff chase. As far as I’m concerned, we have been watching the American League manager of the year. The voting will probably say different. It will probably say Cash’s friend Rocco Baldelli, who has taken the Twins to the playoffs in his first year in Minnesota. It might even say Yankees manager Aaron Boone, who despite that $208 million payroll has dealt with a historic number of injuries.

Kevin Cash advocates aren’t an army. Even he refuses to join. He does not own his own drum, much less beat it.

“I hate it,” Cash said. “It’s about players. This game is about players.”

He had one starting pitcher at one point this season. He has kept the Rays humming.

He has watched them not quit. You might not like how he handles pitchers, or think he doesn’t handle anything, and you might hate the way the Rays run bases, but here they are with 185 wins over the last two seasons. And they can see the finish line.

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“Look, this is a first for a lot of us in here, me included,” Cash said. “There is a certain confidence they bring to the ballpark. When 7 o’clock comes, they’re ready to go.”

On Wednesday night the Rays scrambled to make their charter flight to Toronto for the final three games of the season but not before rookies “dressed up” for the trip, as required by howling Rays veterans. Brendan McKay inflated his Buzz Lightyear wings. Pete Fairbanks pulled on his Woody from Toy Story cowboy hat. The clubhouse roared.

Kevin Cash’s clubhouse.

“The mood in here is his mood,” first-year bench coach Matt Quatraro said. “Keeping it light, busting each other’s chops. Win or lose, 15 minutes later, there’s going to be something to keep it light. That’s a skill that (Kevin) has.”

Cash won’t get behind himself, but his players line up to do it.

“He creates the atmosphere in here, he manages personalities, he makes in-game decisions,” centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “He needs recognition for that. But he doesn’t care, He just wants to win ballgames, I love playing for him. He wants to win. We all do.”

It’s hard to wade through the Rays collective, the Ray Way, and find individuals. That’s fine with Cash. Keep your manager awards. The contract extension he received before the season, which runs through 2024 with a club option for 2025, tells him what he needs to know.

Bruce Arians has won exactly one game with the Bucs, but he is already a bigger star than Cash. The quotable Lightning coach Jon Cooper is bigger.Cash is fine with all of it. Go ahead, call him a product of the Rays system. He’s fine with it.

“I think that’s true,” he said. “There are a lot of people involved. It’s not just one person.”

The Rays are trying to outlast the Indians, who are managed by Cash’s friend and mentor Terry Francona. Cash is proud that Baldelli, who was a coach for Cash on the Rays, is getting credit. He’s just as happy for another former Rays coach, Charlie Montoyo, whose Blue Jays will try to beat the Rays this weekend.

Manager of the year?

“I think Rocco,” Cash said. “That team, they’ve done some special things. He’s a first-year manager, they got off to such a hot start. Then Cleveland came back and they had to show some perseverance, and I think Rocco’s personality helped that. You talk to the players and they love playing for him.”

I remember the day the Rays hired Cash, with his self-deprecating humor on full display. It has never left him. He still plays the career .183 hitter to his players. “Swing it, Cashy!” his players yell when one of them hits a ball weakly. Cash eats it up. Before Wednesday’s game, Joey Wendle was busting on his manager, telling him how Austin Meadows has gotten on base more times this season than Cash did in his career.

“Yeah, like ten times over,” Cash said.

The mood is his mood.

“I know you have to strike a balance, but why not make people feel as comfortable as possible?” Cash said before a game last week.

Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash (16) talks with reporters following an open workout at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017.
Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash (16) talks with reporters following an open workout at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017.

He thought about playing for Francona in Boston, and playing for Joe Torre in New York, and what he hopes he has passed along to Baldelli and Montoyo, among others.

“I think watching really good managers go about it, consistency matters as much as anything,” Cash said. “Be the same guy you are on the fifth day of spring training and the middle of July and in late September. If you’re that guy, and people I like you, I guess, you’re being successful.”

After Wednesday’s win, Cash stopped in a hall near the clubhouse to kiss his wife, Emily, and to hug and kiss his children, Camden, Ella and J.D. Then he was off, to talk to the media, to bust the rookies’ chops over their get-ups, to get on that plane and try to nail it down in Toronto.

That’s what the heck Kevin Cash is doing.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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