Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash has come full circle (err, diamond) with his baseball career.
The Lutz native and Gaither High School alum is managing his hometown pro ball club at the sport’s grandest stage, in the 2020 World Series.
He’s making other sorts of history, too.
The 42-year-old Cash is the first person to have played in the Little League Baseball World Series and manage a team to Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Fall Classic.
He was a 12-year-old second baseman on the 1989 Northside Little League team that reached the 43rd Little League World Series, which then consisted of the top four little league teams each — from both the United States and the world.
The North Tampa-based team fell in the quarterfinals to Eastview (California) Little League 12-5, though it was a team from Trumball, Connecticut, that took home the title in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
Cash is hoping for a better outcome some three decades later against a much more distinguished California-based club in the Los Angeles Dodgers, at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
The best-of-seven World Series could run through Oct. 28.
Whatever the result, Cash has done yeoman’s work guiding the Rays to its second World Series appearance in franchise history — the other coming in 2008, where the team lost in five games to the Philadelphia Phillies.
“Pretty special feeling,” Cash said about reaching the World Series, during a recent postseason press conference. “I don’t think I’ve had many better, other than getting married and having three kids. This is right there below that. Can’t get much better than that. This is a special group to be a part of. It’s fun to see them win games and fun to be a part of it.”
Among baseball’s brightest
Amid a logistically, emotionally taxing, pandemic-delayed, 60-game shortened season, Cash navigated success for a young, diverse team with a low payroll, and dearth of superstars and household names.
Also consider: The Rays this season had 19 players serve 20 injured-list stints. On Sept. 1, they set a team-record-tying (not in a good way) 13 players unavailable for action.
All that, though, didn’t stop Tampa Bay from finishing with an American League (AL)-best 40-20 regular season record and division title — then downing the Toronto Blue Jays, the large-pocket New York Yankees and the Houston Astros en route to the World Series in an expanded 16-team playoff format.
Cash, in his sixth year as Rays skipper, has consistently garnered high marks throughout the baseball industry as a steadying cog in the team’s accomplishments.
Last season he steered the team to 96 regular season wins and its first playoff berth in six years. He also holds the franchise’s best all-time managerial winning percentage (.522).
Sporting News already crowned him AL Manager of the Year, for a second-straight time. Other outlets are likely to follow.
Cash is revered for putting players in position to succeed via ever-changing batting orders, increased bullpen usage, openers, platoons, positional versatility, defensive positioning and shifts, and more.
He’s likewise praised for cultivating a loose, welcoming clubhouse that features so many players from different countries, cultures and backgrounds. The team’s World Series roster, in addition to players from all quadrants of the United States, also is represented by Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Japan and South Korea, respectively.
While some old-school baseball types scoff at some of the team’s myriad unconventional methods, Cash and other Rays coaches embrace it, with understandable assistance from the team’s front office and analytics department.
The organization’s philosophy as a whole facilitates free-thinking and considers all sorts of out-of-the-box ideas in trying to eke out games in any way fathomable against richer teams with pockets three or four times as great. The Rays $28.6 million payroll pales in comparison to the Dodgers’ $105.5 million, for instance.
Cash described the Rays’ approach this way: “We think what we’re doing is maximizing a roster and doing everything we can to make the best decisions and put the players in the right spot to succeed, and ultimately win as many games as possible.”
Such a collaborative working environment allowed Cash to grow and thrive when he became the game’s youngest manager back in December 2014.
“Well, personally for me, it’s helped me immensely, for somebody that had never managed six years ago, to be able to make some mistakes and learn from them. Try some things that people would use the word ‘different’ and it be OK and accepted, it’s been hugely beneficial,” said Cash. “We’ve listened to everybody, we’ve learned from everybody, and everybody’s opinions are valued here, and that’s how we think we can come up with what we think is the best decision on a given year, a given season, a given game, whatever it is, so it’s a pretty great situation to be a part of.”
Besides leading the Rays to baseball’s promised land, Cash enjoyed a spirited playing career beyond his Little League days and growing up in the Valley Ranch Drive neighborhood across from Lake Park, along North Dale Mabry Highway.
He recalled those early roots back in a 2016 interview with The Laker/Lutz News.
“I remember when my parents moved to the neighborhood in Lutz, it was like a one street cul-de-sac, and there were boys everywhere,” Cash said. “We had pickup football games, pickup basketball, baseball games every day. It was just a pretty cool neighborhood to grow up in, because there were so many kids our age that we could go out there and have a complete game with.”
Cash would later star at Gaither High School and Florida State University before enjoying an eight-year MLB career as a journeyman catcher, spending time on the then-Devil Rays (in 2005), along with the Blue Jays, Yankees, Astros and Boston Red Sox, respectively.
Once his playing career ended, Cash became a bullpen coach for the Cleveland Indians, working under manager Terry Francona from 2013-2014, until landing the Tampa Bay gig.
Cash’s knack for getting the best out of his team was a learning process as he ascended through the sport’s ranks.
“I was really fortunate to be around a lot of good coaches, managers, just baseball people, teammates, and watched how people went about it different ways, and not every way works for individuals, and not every player responds to one way.
“I think Terry Francona was probably the biggest influence, in the way that he came to the ballpark, in watching the way he treated players one through 25 on the roster,” Cash explained.
As for the significance of delivering a baseball championship to the region where he was born and raised, it’s a question Cash hasn’t yet given much reflection.
“You know what, I’ve briefly thought about that, but I’m trying to avoid it,” Cash said. “You want to bring it back to the club that you work for. If you add another layer to it, it was similar to getting the job six years ago, but this is now more magnified than being a guy that was born and raised in the Bay Area. I think any city, I would appreciate it, any team in this position would appreciate it, (but) it just might make it a little sweeter if we’re able to do some special things here in Texas.”
Visit MLB.com for a full broadcast schedule and results of the 2020 World Series.
Published October 28, 2020