As he prepared to begin his second major league season last April, Evan Longoria was asked how he could build on a terrific debut season in 2008 that ended with a Rookie of the Year award for himself and an unexpected World Series trip for the Rays. He suggested it wouldn't be that hard to hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs. Two days later, Rays coaches had Longoria out in center field and called him out in front of the rest of his teammates for being so boastful.
It was meant as a lesson in humility, but as it turns out, Longoria knew exactly what he was talking about. He finished his sophomore season in the big leagues with 33 home runs (up from 27 in 122 games as a rookie) and 113 RBIs (a nice bump from 85 the year before). He also upped his batting average to .281 from .272, and his on-base percentage to .364 from .343. He was named an All-Star for the second straight year, won his first Gold Glove award, and took home the Silver Slugger as the best hitting third baseman in the American League.
Now, with his third season still a few months away, the 24-year-old Longoria has learned to no longer put voice to his thoughts about personal success, but he also knows he's entering a season that will finally give him -- and everybody else -- an accurate sense of just what type of player he is. No less an authority than Don Zimmer, a Rays senior adviser who has been in professional baseball for over 61 seasons, told him, "Your third year is where you define yourself as a major leaguer. If you hit .270 your first year and .280 your second year, now if you hit .270 again this year you need to come to terms with the fact that you're a .270 hitter."
That Zen from Zim sits just fine with Longoria, who has given no indication that he will do anything other than continue to improve. It's clear the Rays will need all the improvement he can provide. While they entered last season as contenders for the first time, this season they will have more question marks, as everyone tries to figure out whether their magical 2008 season was the rule or the exception. In a 2009 that was plagued by inconsistency from several Rays players, Longoria was pretty steady by a number of measures. He hit well against lefties (.289/.365/.543) and righties (.277/.363/.518), at home (.275/.347/.502) and on the road (.286/.379/.549), at the start of the season (.369/.419/.714 in April with six home runs and 24 RBIs) and at the end (.325/.408/.605 with eight homers and 22 RBIs in September and October). But he did go through a midseason slump while dealing with lingering hamstring soreness, hitting .209 in June and July.
To maintain consistency thoughout the season, this offseason Longoria enrolled for the first time at the renowned Athletes Performance Institute in Arizona, a sort-of physical fitness boot camp for star athletes in multiple sports that has become increasingly popular among baseball players each year. The athletes, who often work out with their peers from other teams, are given specialized instruction in weight training, exercise drills, even a mapped-out menu to maximize their health. "I'm going to work on every aspect to try to get better all around," said Longoria, who had always formed his own offseason workout plan. "It's a big change to go from doing it on my own to now being on a more regimented workout plan, and a more regimented eating plan, but I'm definitely going to be in much better shape physically this season."
Longoria, who spent time on the disabled list with a fractured wrist in 2008 but played 157 games in 2009, has more trouble with the mental drain of a long season than the physical one. To combat that, he refrained from doing any baseball-related activities for more than a month after the season ended, and mostly ignored the postseason. Instead, he traveled to London ("There's so much to see, but it's very expensive," said the man with the relatively paltry -- by MLB standards -- $550,000 contract this past season) and Rio de Janeiro with a friend, basking in the anonymity that is becoming increasingly difficult to find when he's in the U.S.
That will only be more of a challenge now that Longoria has been named the cover athlete for MLB 2K10 video game. "It's like a modern-day Wheaties box," Longoria said. "I'm proud of it." He is also well aware of the supposed "Madden Curse" that has befallen several of the cover athletes of the popular NFL video game, but points to the 2K series' better track record and says, "We're calling it 'Reverse the Curse.' They've had Alex Ovechkin, Kobe Bryant, guys who have been successful and won titles. I'm not a superstitious guy."
The Rays have enough obstacles as it is in their path to return to the postseason, with both the Yankees and Red Sox serving as roadblocks with nine-figure payrolls currently impeding their progress. As stunning as Tampa Bay's rise from doormats to dominators was in 2008, it was almost equally shocking to see the Rays flounder for so long at the start of the 2009 season. Their slow start kept them mired behind first the Red Sox, then the Yankees, and they never made a serious challenge to get back to October. Nevertheless, says Longoria, "it was still a step forward for us. We had a winning record in the AL East. But when you're playing to win a ring or a pennant, it was a step down from the previous year. We go to spring training to make the playoffs. The season is meant to be played for something at the end."
The Rays have taken steps toward doing that, picking up the option of All-Star leftfielder Carl Crawford and giving valuable starts late last season to Wade Davis, who figures to have a prominent role in their rotation next year. They'll need a bounceback season from B.J. Upton, who struggled to a .241 average and .313 on-base percentage last year.
If nothing else, the Rays know they can count on Longoria to be the centerpiece of their offense, a reliable power threat who will give them plenty of home runs and RBIs.
Just don't ask him to put a number on it.