It is time to come up with a new label for the Tampa Bay Rays. "Faceless" just won't cut it anymore.
Tampa Bay — the best team in baseball so far in 2023 with a record-setting 14 consecutive wins at home to begin the season and an MLB-best 24-6 record and plus-106 run differential — definitely has a face, one that is already beloved in Tropicana Field. He is also well on his way to becoming instantly recognizable to baseball fans everywhere.
"Randy Land" is not just the name of a newly designated section of the left-field stands at the Trop. It is the part of the baseball universe joyously occupied by Rays left fielder Randy Arozarena, whose personality is now playing as big as his immense talent.
Arozarena’s style became a thing last month during the World Baseball Classic, where he played for his adopted country of Mexico, wore yellow cowboy boots during batting practice, sported a sombrero in the dugout, invented his signature pose — arms folded below a faux glower — and delighted fans by reaching above the outfield fence to sign autographs during a stoppage in play.
"I was very happy," Arozarena said through interpreter Manny Navarro during Tampa Bay's visit to Chicago last week. "I don't think anyone had as much fun as I did.
"(The pose) wasn't planned. It was something that happened spontaneously. I got my first double, my first hit. In that scene, on that stage, there's a lot of cameras so I figured if I do the pose, they're gonna take pictures. I'm very happy that kids in other sports, not just baseball alone, are using my pose as an experience."
And the party hasn't stopped.
"Randy has always shown the ability to be the brightest player on the brightest stage," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "But you see how he plays the game, how he interacts (with fans). … Every inning, he goes out (to Randy Land). They’re chanting, they’re clapping, they’re doing something and he’s very engaging. He’s very easy to like and he’s very easy to root for because he plays the game with such joy."
Kevin Cash: Randy Arozarena has 'taken a huge step forward'
Tampa Bay has had stars before — like the Crime Dog, Hall of Famer Fred McGriff, speedy Carl Crawford, steady Evan Longoria and the imperious David Price. All of them had game, as does the Rays' new young sensation, shortstop Wander Franco, who is another bright light on the talented roster assembled by team president Erik Neander.
However, the Cuban-born Arozarena — wide-eyed and goateed with a cross earring dangling from one earlobe — brings an added dimension of charisma that, combined with elite performance, eclipses anything that this oft-neglected franchise has seen in the previous 25 seasons of its existence.
"Personalities matter in this game," Cash said, "and that's what's going to promote it just as much, maybe, as the numbers that people produce."
The production has been there ever since the right-handed hitting Arozarena announced himself in the pandemic-shortened season of 2020, when he hit 10 home runs in 18 postseason games. He followed up his big-league breakout by winning the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2021, when he hit .274 with 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases.
The 28-year-old Arozarena has ascended to a new level this season. Last April, which followed a truncated spring training due to the lockout, he batted just .195, did not hit a home run, drove in four runs and struck out 24 times in 77 at-bats. This April, Arozarena — undoubtedly benefitting from the early preparation required by the WBC — drove in 28 runs (a franchise record for the month) and hit seven home runs (tied for fourth in the majors). Entering Wednesday's games, he's among the MLB leaders with 22 runs (tied for 11th), 37 hits (tied for 10th), .325 average (ninth) and .958 OPS (13th).
It’s the same with the advanced metrics, including barrels per plate appearance (sixth), exit velocity (ninth) and hard-hit percentage (11th). And after a couple of sensational catches during the WBC, Arozarena appears bent on being a force both in the field and at the plate.
“Randy came in before the WBC started and said basically that he was going to be more committed to preparing and trying to make the best decisions possible to help the team,” Cash said, “whether that’s preparing in the outfield before the game, shagging balls, doing drill work, knowing how (a pitcher) is going to attack him, knowing a pitcher’s move on the bases.
“It seems like he’s elevated everything. It generally takes a year or two — and he’s only a (three-year) player now — to figure that out, but it certainly feels like he has taken a huge step forward.”
This Friday, and subsequent Friday nights at home, fans who choose to purchase seats in Section 141 in left field — “Randy Land” — will be given T-shirts and other swag. If Arozarena hits a home run, all fans in Randy Land will receive a complimentary beverage of their choice.
The Rays, who have not drawn over 2 million fans since their inaugural season in 1998 and have played before so many empty seats that their future in the Tampa Bay area is anything but assured, have seen their attendance spike by over 3,000 fans a game, no doubt a byproduct of their historic start. But the team’s marketing folks recognize they have a player who could very well become a fan magnet.
“That’s very important to me,” Arozarena said of having a section dedicated to him. “I’m very appreciative of the team doing that for me. Being a fan favorite, a lot of those people look up to me. For me to be out in left field so close to them, they say things to me all the time in a very positive way.
“I like to return the favor to them. I’m very happy that I’m being noticed and they’re having fun out there as well.”