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Rays’ Kevin Cash wins second straight AL Manager of the Year award

The Tampa native joins Hall of Famer Bobby Cox as the only back-to-back winners of the award first given out in 1983.
Rays manager Kevin Cash has plenty to smile about after two successful seasons capped by Manager of the Year awards.
Rays manager Kevin Cash has plenty to smile about after two successful seasons capped by Manager of the Year awards. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Nov. 16, 2021|Updated Nov. 17, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — As Kevin Cash’s undistinguished playing career was wrapping up 10 or so years ago, he was just hoping for opportunities to stay in the game.

He did some advance scouting for Texas at the tail end of 2011 and Toronto in 2012, then got hired in Cleveland by Terry Francona, his former Boston manager, as the bullpen coach for 2013-14.

Cash got a surprising opportunity to interview for the Rangers manager job, which went to Jeff Bannister, then an even more unexpected call — to talk with officials of his hometown Rays about replacing Joe Maddon.

Cash was 36 at the time and had never managed a game at any level, but the Rays saw enough to hire him with the expectation he would grow into the job.

That turned out to be a pretty good call.

Cash on Tuesday night won the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s American League Manager of the Year honor for the second straight year, joining Hall of Famer Bobby Cox (who won in the National League) as the only back-to-back winners in the 38-year history of the award, furthering his reputation as one of the game’s best.

Cash has led the Rays to the playoffs for a franchise-best third straight time, is the third manager to finish in the top three of the award voting in four consecutive seasons (having been third in 2018 and 2019), and has an overall seven-season record of 554-478 (.537).

Not bad for a guy who wasn’t sure how the managing thing might go.

“I certainly didn’t know I was going to be good at anything,” Cash said Tuesday. “I was coming off of a career of not being good at anything, as far as a player. … I just wanted to do everything I could to try to be all ears and listen a lot more than speak and learn as much as possible.”

Seattle’s Scott Servais, who as a Texas executive gave Cash that first off-field job (ironically scouting the Rays for the playoffs), was second. Houston’s Dusty Baker, who Cash speaks reverently of, was third. Cash received 19 of the 30 first-place votes, named on 27 of the 30 ballots cast before the playoffs, and finished with 109 points to Servais’ 71.

Repeat winners are rare since voters tend to favor managers who did more with less, such as Servais getting the Mariners to 90 wins and nearly the playoffs. But while the Rays were coming off an AL East title and World Series appearance, Cash faced plenty of challenges this season, as well. Those included a litany of injuries and a series of roster moves, even as they finished atop the East again and won a team-record 100 games.

Linked in to the MLB Network awards show from his St. Petersburg home, Cash got more nervous as the announcement neared, then grinned with the news and was mobbed by his wife, Emily, and teenage daughters Camden and Ella, who he joked added to the anxiety level. (Son J.D. was at soccer practice.)

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“I was certainly excited,” Cash said.

As for matching Cox, who won in 2004-05 with the Braves?

“I shouldn’t be in the same sentence, shouldn’t be in the same conversation, none of it. Very humbling,” Cash said. “When you think of major league managers, or really the greats in this game, Bobby Cox is going to find himself at the top of many lists.”

Cash, 44 next month, is always quick to praise his players and said Tuesday he was most proud of how they navigated a slow start and all of the roster changes to win 100 games in a very challenging AL East.

He doesn’t like to talk about himself but said he has improved and grown over his seven seasons on the job by learning to find the balance in communicating with players, listening to the front office and player development staff, remaining consistent and authentic at all times and building trust within a relaxed clubhouse.

A key part of the Rays’ success is the rapport Cash has with his players, a mix of positive reinforcement and friendly jousting.

Some praise him for it, such as outfielder Randy Arozarena, who on Monday won the AL Rookie of the Year award. He said Cash is a “tremendous” manager and a “great” guy who always has players’ backs.

“I think that’s what gets the chemistry going really well inside that clubhouse, because he does a really good job,” Arozarena said via team translator Manny Navarro.

Others, like infielder Joey Wendle, prefer to tease Cash, feigning shock at the voting results by sending him a text that read: “Unbelievable!!!.”

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