ST. PETERSBURG — Kevin Cash laughed along when Indians manager Terry Francona deadpanned on TV that he figured any award he’d be presenting Cash would be for hitting.
Cash joked about his 13- and 14-year-old daughters being the first to ask him how he could take Blake Snell out of Game 6 of the World Series as evidence of how grounded they keep him.
He beamed in describing how excited his wife, Emily, was about the news and how the text messages were stacking up on his phone like after a World Series win.
And, as much and as often as Cash deflects credit to the Rays organization and his players, he acknowledged Tuesday night the personal satisfaction he felt in winning the American League Manager of the year award.
“I do think it’s an organization award, but it certainly means a lot to me personally,” Cash said. “When you look at these awards, there are only two that are given out every year. And to be recognized as one of the better ones in that given season means that a lot of things went your way, went well for you, and it does give you time to think about all the strong influences you’ve had coming up‚ whether as a young person, a player, a coach and now a manager.”
Cash won somewhat easily, getting 22 first-place votes from 30 members of the Baseball Writers' Association and 126 points overall in ballots cast before the playoffs. Rick Renteria, who was let go after the season by the White Sox, was second with five first-place votes and 61 points, and Toronto’s Charlie Montoyo (2, 47), the longtime Rays coach and minor-league manager, was third.
After the announcement was made on MLB Network by Francona — to whom Cash gives much credit for his career — Cash was quick to say it was a team award.
“What does it say about the organization? A lot. And to me, that is the focal point,” Cash said. "You (reporters) that are on this call have way more access and knowledge of what goes on within the Rays organization — it’s a really special group.
“It’s a special place to work, led by (principal owner) Stu (Sternberg), (team president) Matt (Silverman), (general manager) Erik Neander, (team president) Brian (Auld), everybody involved. And I think it’s our job as staff to do everything we can do with what has been afforded us as employees to do that, and with the players. Hopefully we continue to do that as much as possible, because it certainly is a tremendous place to work.”
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Managing the Rays is more challenging than leading other teams in any season, given how they do things: not having a set lineup, making liberal changes during games, using relievers based on the leverage of situations rather than in formal roles, and being aggressive in pulling starting pitchers in addition to using openers, which leads to more pitching moves.
And 2020 was all of that for Cash, who used 60 different lineups in the 60 games, had a major-league-record-tying 12 different pitchers get saves and used 12 starters (who got through six innings in only nine games). They also had more than half of their games decided by one or two runs, going a majors-best 23-10 (14-5 in one-run games).
What did Cash do best? Depends who you ask.
To Neander, it was the way he got the players, veterans, call-ups and rookies to buy in to what the Rays were doing.
“Our success this year was driven by every player on our roster at any given time buying into a selfless, team-first approach,” Neander said. “The culture that has been established and instilled in our players to basically embrace and be on board with everything that Kevin and the staff asked of them.
"Beyond any individual accomplishment or any individual wins, none of that happens without them being all in on what he asked of them and the way he went about it culturally.”
To pitching coach Kyle Snyder, it was how Cash steered them through the uncertainty of the mid-March coronavirus shutdown, into Spring 2.0 camp and the start of the season amid extensive protocols.
“Not that he hasn’t been good at creating a good environment in the past, but given all the uncertainty and the additional things he was up against as a manager of a club in 2020, he really just made everybody feel that there was a level of safety and togetherness that really continued to resonate throughout the season,” Snyder said.
To centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, the most veteran Ray? “Letting guys be themselves.”
And to Cash? “Staying out of the way and letting those guys do what they’re good at," he said, admitting bias in tossing credit to what he considers the best coaching staff in the game.
The Rays entered 2020 with grand expectations after improving from 90 wins in 2018 to 96 last year and their first playoff berth since 2013, losing to Houston in a five-game Division Series.
Cash said the biggest challenge was the string of early injuries that saw the Rays lose seven relievers from their planned opening day bullpen and two of their five starters, plus their top backup. “The injuries in the beginning were awful,” Cash said. "That was the toughest part.''
Another stress point was the Sept. 1 incident with the Yankees, when Aroldis Chapman threw a 101 mph fastball at the head of Mike Brosseau. Though Cash’s memorable response seemed to galvanize his players, calling out the “poor” judgement, coaching and teaching by the Yankees — and noting threateningly, “I’ve got a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 miles an hour.”— there were more issues to deal with internally the next day.
“The Yankees thing was pretty consuming,” Cash said. “I give the staff and players a lot of credit for sticking together through that, because those moments can be pretty tough in a clubhouse.”
Cash got them through that also, as the Rays won the AL East for the first since 2010 and third in their 23-season history, made back-to-back playoff appearances for just the second time and posted a .667 winning percentage that over a full season would have translated to 108 wins.
Cash, 42, took over the Rays in 2015, having never managed at any level. The Tampa native’s .522 winning percentage (454-416) over six seasons is the best of the five managers in franchise history. He finished third the past two years in the manager of the year voting. Maddon won the award twice with the Rays (2008, 2011).
“Kevin has done a wonderful job,” Maddon said Tuesday. “He has. He’s a very bright guy, and he really interacts well with his group. That’s probably his biggest strength.”