PORT CHARLOTTE — What they do on the field, the pitches they throw, swings they take, catches they make, are of course what matter most.
But the Rays also will tell you that a significant segment of their success can be traced to the camaraderie in their clubhouse, to the casual and fun-loving culture that makes all players feel welcome, encourages them to be themselves, and allows them to play relaxed and under less pressure.
“We want to make everyone feel at home in whatever way possible," veteran centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “We want everyone to be able to perform at the highest level, and being able to be yourself is a huge part of that."
Every year at this time, as they open full-squad workouts with an assortment of new acquisitions and rising prospects, there is a challenge in sharing that message. Perhaps even more so this year, as they have added potential key players from several teams plus imported a star from Japan in slugger Yoshi Tsutsugo.
The international element adds to the equation, with 10 countries represented in the birthplaces of the 67 players on the spring roster.
When manager Kevin Cash makes his spring-opening address Tuesday morning to convey the Rays’ approach, it will be like a mini-United Nations session, with three translators relaying his words of wisdom to the players: Manny Navarro to the Spanish speakers from Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela; new hire Steve Nam to Korean Ji-Man Choi; and minor-league athletic trainer Tsutomu Kamiya (on temporary assignment) to Tsutsugo.
Cash was talking Monday with principal owner Stuart Sternberg about the number of players from diverse backgrounds.
“We have a bunch of different countries, personalities, different teams, different situations, cultures," Cash said. “What I’ve seen the last couple seasons is that this team does a really good job adjusting, adapting and welcoming. And hopefully, we’re going to have to be at our best now because there’s a lot."
Much of the focus will be on Tsutsugo, the 28-year-old outfielder who was a five-time All-Star in Japan.
He comes to the Rays with not only an impressive resume, but also a small entourage that includes a massage therapist, a cultural liaison (who also throws batting practice) and a full-time translator, who arrives later this week.
“We’re not going to hide from those things, we want to help him, we want to cater to him, and these guys are going to help us and the rest of our team," Cash said. “It is different to talk to a player, if he had done (here) the last six to seven years what he has done in Japan, we’re talking about a superstar. So we’ll have to find that balance.
“So far he seems like he’s excited to be here. Very, very open with his teammates and has been open with our staff."
Tsutsugo may have a head start, in that he came from a Yokohama BayStars team that sounds more like the Rays than a typical Japanese club.
“The clubhouse was loud, music was blasting everywhere," Tsutsugo said Monday, via Kamiya. “Compared to other teams that was a different culture." Tsutsugo also has experience with some Latin American players who were teammates in Japan, and from playing one winter in the Dominican Republic, even boasting he can speak “poquito” — a little bit of — Spanish.
But Tsutsugo, who started English lessons after signing with the Rays and understands better than he speaks, knows it will be a process.
“Obviously I’m new so I don’t know a lot of the guys yet," he said. “But as camp starts I like to get to know them, observe them and what they’re like. And slowly assimilate into that culture."
Cash realizes Tuesday is just the start of sharing how they do things.
“I don’t think you can expect that out of one message," he said. “I think you try to set a tone early on and be consistent. Our staff does a tremendous job of being consistent and having fun with the guys. The last thing we want to do is not be ourselves and we don’t want players to not be themselves, and that takes time."
Pitcher Tyler Glasnow, who joined the Rays in 2018 after a trade from Pittsburgh, said they do well welcoming all players, from different countries, different parts of the States, different levels of experience, whatever.
“I think the stereotype of big-league clubhouses in the past (was that) the rookies were kind of like, ‘Don’t be yourself’ and the veterans were here and you were kind of walking on egg shells," he said.
“I think the reason a lot of the guys on the Rays do have such success is we come up and it’s no different than Triple-A or whatever. The culture is exactly the same. A lot of that is testament to the coaching staff and Cash and the front office. They do such a good job. … It’s about just come in and be yourself, and I appreciate that a bunch."
Choi, acquired in June 2018 after playing in four other organizations, said the Rays’ approach works.
“It’s huge because the mental aspect of baseball is very important and I think the chemistry we had last year really brought the success," Choi said, via Nam. “Even though we have new players this year, we’re going to try our best to get them with the same chemistry that we had last year and build on the same success."