TAMPA, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Rays are back in the World Series, which begins tonight in Texas.
But that’s getting ahead of this story.
Let’s go back 21 years.
Retired Florida State baseball coach Mike Martin remembers the moment clearly. Martin, the winningest manager in the history of Division I baseball, heard the impact. It sounded like a rifle crack, He raced to the infield during batting practice before a 1999 NCAA super regional game. His third baseman was down after being hit by a line drive. It was Tampa’s Kevin Cash.
“Hits Kevin dead in the face, just above the eye,” Martin said. “There’s blood everywhere. It was horrific. We took him straight to the table. Blood gushing. I don’t know what to say. I say, ‘K.C. …” he looks up at me through one eye, blood everywhere, and says, ‘Don’t you change that lineup!’”
And there was early September at Yankee Stadium. The Tampa Bay Rays, eventual American League champions, were losing to the Yankees in the ninth inning when New York closer Aroldis Chapman fired a 101-mph fastball over the head of Rays utility man Mike Brosseau. Dugouts emptied. After the game, Cash issued a veiled threat which earned him a one-game suspension.
“I have a whole damn stable of pitchers that throw 98 miles per hour,”
Inspired Rays pitchers had T-shirts made with horses on them. The Stable. Joe Maddon, Cash’s predecessor, the master showman and manager who first put the Rays on baseball’s map, could not have done better.
Meet Kevin Cash, a very stable genius.
The Rays are back in the Fall Classic for the first time since 2008, the miracle season, when they first climbed from baseball’s primordial ooze under merrymaker Maddon, a very tough act to follow.
But Cash has followed and has flourished. Now it is about finishing. At 42, in his sixth year as Rays manager, he steadily, without fanfare, guided Tampa Bay to a 40-20 record, the best record in the American League, all during a pandemic-plagued, protocol-heavy shortened season.
These Rays want to win as much as their manager. As if to prove that very point, the day after Chapman threw wild and high, and galvanized by Cash, Brosseau hit two homers as the Rays beat the Yankees. Cash’s postgame words were a galvanizing moment for his club.
“’Galvanizing’ is probably a better question for the guys,” Cash said late in the season. “I know what Mike Brosseau did the next day was pretty spectacular for all of us.”
He added: “As far as the horse T-shirt, I don’t have one.”
That’s classic Cash, no-frills, no props. comfortable in his own skin and skills. And yet he has pushed all the right buttons this postseason, all of them.
That’s not to say there weren’t bumps along the way. The Yankees took the Rays to the limit in the Division Series, but Brosseau homered to win Game 5 – off Chapman, of course. Then the Rays blew a 3-0 lead in the ALCS to the cheater Houston Astros. The sky was falling. It even got to the normally unflappable Cash, who admitted he didn’t sleep the night before Game 7. Charlie Morton, a horse if there ever was one, shut the Astros down, rookie sensation Randy Arozarena hit another homer, the bullpen stable closed it out and the Rays were in the World Series. The storybook rolls on.
These Rays pitch, hit, field, run and improvise, together. It’s hard to wade through the collective, the Ray Way. Early in Cash’s Rays career, that made it profoundly easy to wonder if Cash is even managing this club at all, that maybe he’s simply the guy who takes the lineups and pitching matchups off a computer printout sent down by the brainy, cutting-edge, analytic-obsessed Rays front office. That was fine by Cash. The contract extension he received before last season, which runs through 2024, is enough for him.
On the day he was hired, people wondered if Cash could ever match Maddon, a born troubadour, a baseball Barnum, complete with animal acts in the clubhouse. It was like coming on after Sinatra at the Sands with a kazoo in your hand.
Only Cash didn’t try to be Maddon. He went his own way. And still, we have the storybook. Just don’t expect Cash to write the foreword or play himself in the movie. He does not own a drum, much less beat it. To Cash, attention is a summer shower to get out from under.
“I hate it,” Cash once said. “It’s about players. This game is about players.”
He should be AL Manager of the Year. Last year, he finished third in the voting, well behind Minnesota’s Rocco Baldelli, one of Cash’s former coaches. Cash was pulling for Baldelli. Meanwhile, the Rays won 96 games and a wild-card game in Oakland then took Houston to the full five games before falling in the division series. That playoff loss gnaws at Cash, so it gnaws at his players. They follow his lead, as they did after Chapman fired at them and Cash fired back.
“I think it just speaks to his character,” Rays catcher Mike Zunino said. “He comes in every day as the same guy, even whether we’re winning or losing. He’s himself, and it allows players to be themselves.”
His approach is their approach. Cash has mentors, like Indians manager Terry Francona, who had Cash on his 2007 world champion Red Sox. Cash also played on a Series winner for the Yankees in 2009 under Joe Girardi. It’s always about someone else with Cash, never him. He still plays the career .183 major-league hitter for his players. “Swing it, Cashy!” they yell when someone weakly hits a ball in batting practice. Cash eats it up.
These Rays do not quit. There might be no better example of that in baseball history, much less Rays history, than the 25-year-old Arozarena, who, despite being in the majors for about 11 minutes, has already performed a legendary exacta, escaping both Cuba and COVID-19. Three months ago, the dude was holed up in an apartment near the Rays training facility, self-isolated after a positive test, reduced to eating chicken and rice every day (the only thing he knew how to cook) and doing hundreds of push-ups to keep in shape. Arozarena has hit .356 with seven home runs this postseason, a Rays record, and was named MVP of the ALCS. When asked about what he likes about his new team, Arozarena, who has taken to wearing cowboy boots, said he enjoyed that he is allowed to be himself.
That traces straight back to Cash. His style has never mattered more than in this crazed COVID season. Plus, there were expectations for the Rays after they won 186 games over the previous two seasons. The Rays had the manager for that job. The manager of the year, in fact. Even when they get down, these Rays get back up.
Just like the man in charge.
And will somebody please give Kevin Cash a damn T-shirt?