ST. PETERSBURG — As soon as the last Rays player makes it back into the clubhouse after a win, the lights go down and the music up, some jerseys come off and the disco ball starts spinning as the team gathers to twist and shout. From the middle of the circle, Kevin Kiermaier jumps out to get the party started.
“Usually we’re all very close to each other in the clubhouse, just kind of going over the game, summarizing everything, giving everybody shout-outs,” Kiermaier said. “Guys have their arms around one another. We’re just having a great time celebrating a win.
“I don’t know what’s going to be possible now.”
A major part of the monumental effort to get the baseball season started amid the coronavirus pandemic includes pages of health and safety precautions designed to keep players physically apart — on the field, in the dugout and around the clubhouse.
Fully respectful and appreciative of that process, the Rays now have to find ways under the new rules to keep their team together, given how much they consider the camaraderie, chemistry and, well, closeness they have a key factor in their success.
“That’s what makes us good,” shortstop Willy Adames said. “That chemistry we got last year, we’ve got to continue to do that. We’ve got to continue to celebrate when we win. Got to continue to celebrate when someone hits a home run. We’ve just got to do it in the right way.”
Though the post-game celebrations, which started before Kiermaier’s time but are now under his leadership, are held behind closed doors, the Rays are certainly not shy about public displays of affection.
Players returning to the dugout after a homer usually get a demonstrative greeting from the waiting hitters, a high-five from manager Kevin Cash, a dugout receiving line of hugs, chest bumps and more.
And it’s often led by the personable Adames, who would get up and close and personal and remove players’ batting helmet.
“Personally, for me, I like to be hugging around, joking around and just having fun with teammates in the clubhouse and the dugout,” Adames said. “I’m telling you, it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be sad. Basically I’m not going to be able to do all that kind of stuff to enjoy the time that I was having like last year.”
Regular homers were a big deal. Celebrations of walk-off hits can turn into epic bashes — group hugs at home plate or scrums in the outfield, jerseys yanked off, showers of gum, seeds, water, powder, sports drinks and more. Ji-Man Choi, Daniel Robertson and ex-Ray Carlos Gomez have been a part of some recent masterpiece theater.
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It’s not just a hit show around the Rays, as they throw pitcher parties, too.
Starters will gather in the afternoons and head out to watch whoever has the between starts bullpen session that day. Relievers have their own choreographed routines as they head out to the bullpen before first pitch.
They’ll talk things over before, during and after games, and be there with a backslap or up-close encouragement in the dugout or the clubhouse when things go well or bad, pulling for each other, and the good of the team.
“It’s just weird to be distant,” starter Blake Snell said. “We’re a close group and we always mess with each other, so to know we really can’t be too close together and you’re playing baseball. … It’s just kind of weird.”
Players say they’ll adapt, though they’re not quite sure yet how. It’s not like they can discuss in a team meeting or get together for an outing on the road, which are also no longer allowed.
“I think we will,” Adames said. “We have the right guys to continue to do that. We’ve just got to be careful.”
Foot bumps? Air high-fives? Pantomimed hugs from 6 feet away?
“It’s going to be hardest when I come off the field; I always like to dap my teammates up for just being behind me and having my back, so I think that will be tough,” Snell said. “I’ll still do it, just more so with my glove. Handshakes and all of that, I’m going to try to stay away from all of that. I’m pretty sure we’ll come up with some creative handshakes and stuff to still make it feel the same.”
Cash is banking on it.
“I’m sure we’ll find some ways to get creative with our celebrations,” he said. “I’ll trust these guys in this clubhouse, they’ll find a way. Between KK, Willy and Ji-Man, those are entertaining guys. Now, they just have some rules that they’ll need to follow.”
It’s not all fun and games, either.
Though chemistry and camaraderie can’t be quantified, players say maintaining those good feelings can have an important extrapolative benefit in helping create the energy they will badly need playing with no fans in the stadiums, at least to start the season.
“We’re going to have to sit here and improvise and find a different way to keep the group together as far as keeping the camaraderie and just those team vibes that you need to keep everyone on the same page,” Kiermaier said. “Those moments with each other, that day-in, day-out, that’s what you need to keep a season fun and keep us motivated whatever way possible. …
“You play with energy, you play with adrenaline each and every day, and we’re going to have to find a way to do that without fans. … We have to find ways to motivate ourselves, get excited for the game, and keep that motivation and excitement innings 1-9. And make that a contagious thing throughout the dugout and the clubhouse. … I plan on having as much fun as we’re able to.”
Also in fostering unity. Co-opting the “We’re all in this together” pandemic trope, Kiermaier and outfielder Hunter Renfroe both noted an implied benefit — to this point anyway — of no one opting out of playing.
Cash, ever the optimist, makes the case the unprecedented times they’re in could actually expedite the bonding process, especially with several new players and the overall uncertainty they all face.
“It takes time to build that chemistry,” he said. “We’re fortunate that we’ve got some great players, some great leaders that have built that. Yes, we have some new faces. But there are a lot of guys here who experienced a pretty fun season last year, and a lot of quality chemistry was built. And (I’m) confident that it’s just going to continue to build and carry over as we go through this.
“You can make the argument that this is going to be as unique a situation as any have been in. …. We’re going to have to lean on each other. And when you depend on each other, that chemistry kind of forms automatically.”