ST. PETERSBURG — With no Rays lineups to tinker with on a daily basis or pitchers to take out of games during the couple months baseball was shut down, Rays manager Kevin Cash found ways to stay occupied.
He handled P.E. responsibilities during remote learning for his and wife Emily’s three kids — well, at least until the bike ramp he built for their 7-year-old son led to a crash and their 13-year-old daughter banged up her knee playing basketball with him.
He bought a Big Green Egg and learned how to smoke pork. He kept track of three dogs (a black lab and two Shih Tzus he jokes are like cats) and a Christmas-delivered bearded dragon named, of all things, Ray. He proved himself pretty handy with some projects around their waterfront St. Petersburg house. He led some family boat and bike rides. And he did some Netflix.
There was some work, too. Plenty of phone calls and Zoom meetings with players and staff, dealing with natural fear about the unknowns of the coronavirus pandemic and negativity about a season getting played, though not too much moping, per house rules.
Overall, there really was a great benefit in getting to relax and spend unexpected quality time with Emily and the kids — even taking part in their theme night dress-up dinners — and also his mom, who quarantined with them.
“He just had to keep himself busy,” Emily said, “and he did a pretty good job of it.”
But it was obvious that Cash, with 20-plus straight years in the game, was missing baseball.
“Oh gosh, yes,” Emily said. “The camaraderie with the coaches was definitely something he missed. Being with the guys talking baseball, because there’s only so much baseball I can talk, or really want to talk. … He definitely missed baseball, missed that camaraderie, the fraternity, that part of it.”
A month-plus of informal workouts and three weeks of Spring 2.0 training camp are nearly complete, and a 60-game season is seemingly set to start Friday.
Cash is back where he should be, at Tropicana Field, among the guys, leading a team among the chic favorites to win it all.
His normal place. His happy place.
“A really good place,” Emily said.
And that’s a good thing for the Rays, especially now.
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Uncertainty is pretty much the default status in every clubhouse right now. Players are wrestling with health concerns about wives, kids and other relatives. Weighing their own risks in playing and traveling as they assess and adjust to the new safety protocols. Worrying what happens if they catch COVID-19.
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Coaches and team officials, meanwhile, are constantly evaluating contingencies well beyond normal injury issues as a player’s positive or delayed test, exposure or symptoms can force them to suddenly juggle roster spots, pitching plans and lineups based on who is available that day.
So you need someone like Cash to scream “Mendle!” to greet infielder Joey Wendle with his unofficial nickname as he runs onto the field. To yell “You guys stink!” to the major-league hitters that the 42-year-old former catcher is — much to his own amusement — getting out in a modified batting practice. To taunt shortstop Willy Adames through a ground ball drill so fierce you’d think there were higher stakes than bragging rights for the day.
Cajoling some players, cheerleading others and almost always chirping, Cash is usually up to something.
You can literally see the bounce in his step as he moves constantly around the field during workouts, taking part in different drills, meeting informally with staff and bosses, always watching. You definitely hear it, whether he’s on the field, in the dugout or sitting still for a rare moment, hollering something.
“He’s been great, obviously,” pitcher Ryan Yarbrough said. “Since I came up in 2018, he’s been the exact same guy. I feel like that’s why you see how loose and how much fun we have, it starts with him. Because you can tell how much fun he’s having out there and it really translates to the players, and how we go out there and perform on the field. …
“Especially with (COVID-19) going on right now, it not being a normal situation with summer camp, spring training 2.0. Everybody’s been really loose, not worried about too many things. Everybody’s been putting us in a good situation to perform, making our lives really easy with all the testing going on.”
Even when you’re on the other end of Cash’s teasing.
“Even when he’s talking trash to you, it’s good,” Adames said. “He’s always pushing you to work harder, to get better. And that’s the thing I love about him. Like with me, he’s always competing. He’s trying to beat me when I’m catching ground balls and I love that because I’m a competitor. So I think that’s how you get better, competing with each other. And for him to do that it’s a really good thing for us.”
It’s not all fun and games, though.
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Cash is not one for long — if any — speeches, but he has his ways to get a message across.
“Cash is just — he’s Cash,” reliever Jalen Beeks said. “He’s always been energetic. He’s always brought that to the table. He’s always been super encouraging. Now he’s been, ‘Just do your best with what we’ve got right now, guys. We’re all in this together. We’re going to pull through this and we’re going to try to win a World Series. That’s our goal — stay safe, win a World Series.‘ He’s been very clear on everything, and very energetic.”
This is Cash’s sixth season as manager — making him the third-longest tenured with his team in the game, behind Oakland’s Bob Melvin and Cleveland’s Terry Francona — and he remains just as enthusiastic as when he started in 2015, replacing the departed Joe Maddon.
Cash has more confidence now, a result of two straight 90-win seasons and a trip to the playoffs last year, and the security of a contract that was reworked after the 2018 season to run through 2024 with an option, basically a six-year extension for about $10 million.
And he is a bit more emboldened to make the unorthodox strategic moves that rank him among the most challenging to manage against, drawing compliments from friends, foe and neutral observers.
Cash said his priority is being that same guy the players and staff have known no matter the circumstance.
“This shouldn’t change us,” he said. “We might have to be (paying) a little more attention to detail with the guidelines and stuff like that. But as far as the personality in the dugout, on the field working out before a game and definitely during a game, that’s got to be consistent.
“We’re so fortunate that we’ve got such a good staff that recognizes that and has a bunch of loose personalities. We all want to get after it when it’s time to, but this game is tough enough to play. If you take the fun out of it or you show the inconsistency, I’m not sure that’s going to help any player.”
Infielder Brandon Lowe said Cash provides plenty of fun.
“He keeps it light in the clubhouse and on the field,” Lowe said. “It’s always nice to have anywhere that we’re doing stuff to keep it fun, keep it airy.
“It definitely helps with everything that’s been going on in the world.”