Cash's destiny changed with simple position switch
Rays' new manager always appeared headed for a career in baseball
SAN DIEGO -- Beautiful Cape Cod. A place where the leaves change colors, the New England ambiance is quaint and occasionally infielders change positions.
At least that's how it went down for new Rays manager Kevin Cash.
Tim Wilken now works for the Cubs as a special assistant to the CEO/president and general manager. In 1999, Wilken held the position of scouting director for the Blue Jays, placing him at the Cape Cod League that summer.
Wilken explained that the Blue Jays' area scout and he were sitting amid 40 to 50 scouts during a late-afternoon game, basically killing time until departing for an early-evening contest played at another venue.
"Big pitching matchup between Dewon Brazelton and Chris Capuano, I think," Wilken recalled.
Once the early game moved to the third inning, all of the scouts left, save for Wilken. He'd seen both pitchers featured in the marquee matchup. So he told his area scout to go ahead without him.
"I stayed behind figuring I might pick off one or two relievers," Wilken said. "Everybody else was gone."
That's when events took place that changed Cash's destiny. Both of the Falmouth Commodores' catchers were injured, so Cash volunteered to switch from third base and move behind the plate.
"And he came out there in that game, and their pitcher was throwing really hard," Wilken said. "And Kevin threw so natural. And caught and received so well."
A scout's dream was unfolding before his eyes. Wilken's mind began to race.
"I'm the only guy at the game," Wilken said, "and he's a passed-over guy in the Draft. He wasn't drafted."
Cash, who was a second-team All-ACC selection while playing infield for Florida State in 1999, was a free agent, so he was fair game for any team to sign.
Wilken had seen enough. Bagging the "sleeper" catcher became a priority. Since Cash had suddenly become his team's starting catcher, Wilken knew other teams would see him and be interested. So he instructed his area scout to follow Cash to every game.
"I told him to tell [Cash] we want the last bid," said Wilken.
Several teams were interested, offering Cash bonuses ranging from $20,000 to $40,000.
"I didn't want to take any chances, so I wanted to blow him away [with our offer]," Wilken said.
Thus, the Blue Jays came in with an offer that would pay Cash $60,000. Just one problem: Toronto was tapped out.
"Our whole budget was $2.5 million," Wilken said. "Naturally we'd spent all of our money like a good scouting director is going to do."
Wilken and the Blue Jays eventually figured out they could pick another pocket from within the organization.
"We got $60,000 from the international budget," said Wilken, allowing himself a chuckle.
And that's how a line-drive-hitting infielder from Florida State got discovered. Who knows where Cash might have ended up had he not volunteered to take over the catching duties in Cape Cod.
Timing is everything, and Cash took advantage of his break when he got it, but he always appeared headed for a career in baseball.
Growing up in Tampa, Fla., he helped Northside Little League make the Little League World Series in 1989. From there, he advanced to Gather High School and Florida State, which led to his moment of truth in the Cape Cod League.
Advancing to the Major Leagues, Cash would wear the green of the Devil Rays one season, playing in just 13 games and hitting .161 in his 31 at-bats in 2005. All told, he hit .183 in eight Major League seasons, primarily as a backup catcher.
Now he's the fifth manager in the history of the Rays and the sixth Tampa-born Major League skipper, a list that includes the likes of Hall of Famers Al Lopez and Tony La Russa, along with Lou Piniella, who managed Cash on the Devil Rays.
At 37, Cash is the youngest manager in the Major Leagues. Following Tampa blood lines, that's not too young considering the fact that La Russa took over the White Sox in 1979 at age 34.
Earlier in the offseason, Cash interviewed for the Rangers' managerial job. Until the Rangers asked the Indians for permission to interview Cash, managing wasn't on his radar.
"It was a shock," Cash said. "It wasn't something I was anticipating at this stage, but as I started preparing for the Texas opportunity, I almost kind of gained momentum, gained some confidence. I was able to really process some thoughts."
Cash became a finalist for that job before becoming one of the Rays' initial eight candidates.
Making the decision to hire Cash look bold on the part of the Rays is the fact he's never managed -- anywhere.
Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman allowed that Cash's lack of experience was a consideration when culling through the candidates, but one that could be compensated for because of the team's situation.
"When it got down to it, the security of our situation, with a [coaching] staff in place and the clubhouse culture we had, gave us more comfort," Silverman said. "But if you look at Kevin, his baseball age is much older than his [37 years]. He's been a student of the game, and that transition to manager is going to be a relatively easy one, made even easier by the environment we have here."
Cash just had the look the Rays were hoping to find when searching for Joe Maddon's replacement. Impressive in his resume was the fact he played for Cleveland manager Terry Francona when Francona managed the Red Sox and he served as the Indians' bullpen coach under Francona the past two seasons.
Francona has a "Legends of the Game" mural -- that has a picture of Cash -- posted on a wall directly outside his office at Progressive Field. It was meant to mock Cash, who was always on the receiving end of playful verbal jabs from Francona. The Indians' manager constantly reminded Cash how poorly he hit in the Majors and barked at Cash if he ever saw him talking to a hitter.
Francona now figures he might part with the mural.
"Maybe as a gift we'll send it down to Tampa," joked Francona before getting dead serious when touting Cash as the right man for the Rays' job.
"It takes an organization to believe in you enough," Francona said. "He got the opportunity to interview, and he made the most of it. With the Rangers, with the Rays, he did so much homework and just studied, on how he felt about things. He was so prepared, and these were his first interviews. I think he kind of blew them away. It's not surprising, because he was so well-prepared."
Francona noted that "Cashy instantly brought a lot" of attributes when he joined the Indians.
"Everybody kept saying, 'Well, he's new.' Or, 'He's inexperienced,'" Francona said. "Well, not really. The game is the game. For him to survive in the Major Leagues as long as he did -- with the way he hit -- he's got a really good presence. He's not afraid to laugh at himself, but he knows how he feels and he has a very genuine way of communicating with players."
Included in Cash's body of work with the Indians was helping Yan Gomes improve his catching skills. Cash also received praise for helping Indians pitching coach -- and former Tampa Bay pitcher -- Mickey Callaway in his efforts with right-hander Carlos Carrasco.
"That's just one example," Francona said. "I think that's sort of a microcosm of the way we try to do things. ... We all kind of work together, and I think we all made each other better. Cashy was a huge part of that. I guarantee if you talk to Mickey, they were so good for each other -- and likewise with me. I've had so many people [since Cash got hired] keep saying, 'Cashy learned this from you.' It goes the other way, too. He made us all better."
While Cash's admiration for Francona is immense, he noted with a chuckle that he won't chew 90 pieces of gum per day like Francona, though Francona is not so sure.
"We'll see," Francona said. "That's easy to say in December. When it comes to next August, we'll see."