As Spring Training gets closer, you can’t help but imagine the smell of fresh cut grass and the sound of the crack of a bat. Teammates are reunited after being apart during the offseason, and prospects get their first taste of playing against those in the big leagues. Spring Training brings back the love for the simple elements of the game in all of us.
But with the Rays signing outfielder Shelley Duncan to a minor league deal this week and giving him an invitation to Spring Training, we can’t help but reflect on a not so perfect incident from March 2008.
In the Rays and Yankees matchup on March 8, 2008, the Rays were leading in the ninth inning as Elliot Johnson collided with Yankees catching prospect Francisco Cervelli at home plate, causing Cervelli’s wrist to be fractured. Johnson told MLB.com that he was trying to knock the ball out of Cervelli’s hand so he wouldn’t be tagged out. Only four days later, tensions were running high as the Rays and Yankees met up again to play in St. Petersburg.
In the first inning, Evan Longoria, who was only a prospect then, was hit by a pitch in the abdomen by Yankees starter Heath Phillips, causing Phillips to be ejected from the game. Before the game, the umpires met with managers Joe Maddon and Joe Girardi but then issued warnings to both teams after Phillips’ pitch.
Things only escalated in the second inning as the Yankees’ Shelley Duncan slid into second base after his leadoff hit. Rays’ second baseman, Akinori Iwamura, caught the ball in plenty of time before Duncan reached base, but Duncan stuck his leg up and cleated the inside of Iwamura’s right thigh as he slid into second. Rays’ outfielder Jonny Gomes decided to retaliate by leaving the bench and head for Duncan across the field. After this, both benches cleared, and the Rays and Yankees were at each other’s throats.
However, the fight was quickly broken up and no punches were reportedly thrown. Duncan, Gomes, and Yankees coaches Kevin Long and Bobby Meacham were ejected from the game. Duncan and his teammate Melky Cabrera were later suspended for three games due to the fight, and Gomes received a two game suspension. All three players were also fined, as well as Girardi, Long, and Meacham.
Both teams have undoubtedly put this incident in their rear view mirror, but even now it’s interesting to reflect on it as Duncan is wearing a Rays jersey this spring. Fans certainly gave the events of Spring Training 2008 more drama than the players themselves, but that was no ordinary spring and something that fans of both teams will never forget. One residual image was the fire of Shelley Duncan to do something like that to avenge his teammate. Even as we remember him so terribly well as a member of the other side, that same fire is a big part of what Duncan brings to the table, and although no one is expecting another major fight this spring, Rays fans can look forward to seeing how Duncan will bring his fire out every game he plays.