PORT CHARLOTTE — Yunel Escobar spent his offseason in Miami watching LeBron James and the Miami Heat play, so it kind of works that the Tampa Bay Rays are giving away an Escobar basketball hoop at a game this season.
With that in mind, the shortstop was asked Thursday if he learned any new moves over the winter.
“Yeah,” he said. “A surprise.”
It is hard to imagine Escobar could add to his “chrome,” as Rays manager Joe Maddon likes to call the flashy moves Escobar displays while fielding grounders and turning double plays. But, in Maddon's clubhouse and in the Rays' infield, Escobar will have the freedom to try as long as he gets results and conforms to the team rules of showing up on time and running hard to first base.
Maddon went over those rules and a few other items with the players Thursday morning before the Rays' first full-squad workout of the spring. Maddon kept his talk brief — less than 15 minutes.
But Maddon had some points he wanted to make to the new faces, and one of those points he emphasized was this: “You know what is right and what is wrong. I don't have to tell you. You already know that.”
Maddon gives his players freedom to be themselves. It's a show of trust that he believes leads to a more disciplined team, which in turn leads to better play.
“If they know if they are supported in a way that they can be themselves, and it's truthfully and honestly an open environment to work within, you're going to get the best out of the player,” Maddon said.
The players hearing Maddon's message Thursday for the first time need only look to Escobar as an example of a player who came to Tampa Bay with the reputation as a problem child and proved to be the exact opposite.
Escobar had the best season of his career in 2013, and he said Maddon's approach toward him played a big role.
“He's treated me with a lot of respect,” Escobar said through a translator. “We're here to win. That's really helped me. Having that respect in the dugout every time I come back.”
Escobar started a career-high 149 games and played in a career-high 153. He led all major-league shortstops last season with a .989 fielding percentage, which was a club record for shortstops.
According to Stats LLC., Escobar's .853 zone rating over the past two seasons is tops for all major-league shortstops. His .283 average from the ninth spot in the order was the third-best in the majors.
Escobar set a club record by batting .421 in the postseason. His .467 average against Boston in the AL division series including three multihit games.
“People can say what they want from the past, but I got here last year on the first day and everything was based off that,” Escobar said. “People can say what they want about my past and my reputation, but I got to meet the people here, and that's what they're basing everything off of. It's who I am here and how I carry myself here.”
Maddon was Escobar's biggest fan last spring, predicting an All-Star game selection and a Gold Glove for his new shortstop. Looking back Thursday, Maddon called it “very rewarding.”
“It's always up to the player,” Maddon said. “When I was saying that stuff, I totally believe it. Guys like him, you just got to make sure they get on the same page and understand one another and be open. He knew he could say anything to me that he wanted to at any time. Sometimes some things get lost in the translation. You can't permit that to happen. You got to make sure when you want to get a point across, there is an interpreter there and nothing is lost.”
Maddon was disappointed Escobar didn't win a Gold Glove last season and told him so Thursday morning.
That's about the only disappointing aspect to Escobar's 2013 season.
“I had a really good year last year,” Escobar said. “I really do feel like I'm at home, so this is good.”