In January of 2001, the Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and Kansas City Royals agreed to terms on a three team trade that brought 1998 All Star and Rookie of the Year outfielder Ben Grieve to Tampa Bay, sending pitchers Roberto Hernandez to Kansas City and Cory Lidle to Oakland. Coming off a .279 season with 27 home runs at just 24 years old, Chuck Lamar noted at the time, "We couldn't pass the opportunity to add a young bat like Ben's," particularly noting that he was a fan of the 4-year, $13 million extension he had signed in Oakland the previous season.
"In our opinion, the sky is the limit for what he can accomplish at the plate."
Lamar would go on to mention the difficulty in losing a closer like Hernandez, "He's arguably been our most valuable player since the franchise started...We've been very resilient in coming up with pitching, and we're going to have to do it again."
Batting fifth on opening day behind proven power hitters in Fred McGriff and Greg Vaughn, it was clear expectations were high for the smooth swinging lefty from the west coast. On April 3rd, 2001, Grieve made his Tampa Bay debut against the Toronto Blue Jays at the Trop. Facing righty Pedro Borbon with runners on the corners, Grieve would send the 0-1 pitch to the right field corner for a triple, putting Tampa Bay up 4-1 in the bottom of the 5th. The Rays would go on to win the game 8-1, but the good times would not last for Grieve.
He would finish his inaugural season in Tampa Bay with just 11 home runs, paired with a slash of .264/.372/.387, a full one hundred point regression in slugging percentage from the previous season. It would mark his first season with a SLG under .450, much less .400, as Grieve set a new career high in strikeouts with 159. It wasn't all bad, as he earned 87 walks - a career high - and would hit into 19 less double plays than the previous year. Good signs were there, but it's easier to find Waldo than it is to find positive things to say about that season.
The effect of being traded from Oakland seemed to weigh heavily on Grieve, who tried not to place blame for his bad season. "It wasn't good news," he said leading into the 2002 season in regards to the trade the previous offseason, "It wasn't what I expected, but it's not the kind of thing that you can let bother you. It has taken a year to become comfortable in a new clubhouse, but it wasn't the reason for a bad year."
Former A's organizational teammate and new Tampa Bay teammate Steve Cox provided his own theory for the regression, telling Craig Barnes of the Sun-Sentinel, "I felt bad for him. He didn't have the same protection that he had in the Oakland lineup. Jason Giambi and others kept the spotlight off of him. In Tampa, he was the man...He felt more pressure to produce. He didn't have to worry about that in Oakland. If he didn't produce, someone else would."
"You can't blame it on the trade," Grieve would later say. "When you get in the batters' box, it's just you and the pitcher. You have to hit."
Instead of attempting to overhaul his approach to the game, Grieve took a step to refocus in the off-season before the 2002 season. "(2001) was the first bad season that I've had in years, but those are the ones that you remember. You try to forget, but it just doesn't go away." He would continue, "I basically spent my winter clearing my head...I thought the best thing that I could do was forget last year. Normally, I start hitting some time in December. This time, I waited until the middle of January."
Immediately, the returns were encouraging. Heading into May of that 2002 season, he had posted six home runs and a slash of .284/.364/.511 in 24 games played. The results did not continue, however, as Grieve would hit 13 home runs in 112 games the rest of the way. His year finished with 121 strikeouts and a .251/.353/.432 slash line.
An improvement on his abysmal 2001 season, assuredly, but not the centerpiece bat Lamar had hoped he acquired.
Heading into 2003, Grieve knew it was an important season, telling St. Petersburg Times writer Roger Mills, "Yes, I am at a crossroads. If I go out and have a good year this year, then next year I will sign with a team and hopefully be a part of someone's everyday lineup. If I go out and have a bad year, then I'm going to be looking for a job somewhere. This is the crossroads, and the best way to approach it is not even to think about it. Go do it it. If it happens, it happens.
"The last two years, coming to the ballpark and playing wasn't fun," he would continue. "I looked forward to the days off rather than the days we were playing. Ideally, you want to come to the field with a better attitude, an attitude that you're going to have fun and play hard, and the last two years weren't like that."
It was clear the issue had been weighing on Grieve when he added, "It's almost like what comes first? Do you play well and then the attitude comes, or do you have a good attitude and then find yourself playing well? Maybe you just have to have the attitude there whether you're playing well or not. If you just keep it, it works hand in hand. You can't go around moping, then have a good day and all of a sudden you're happy. You have to be in that frame of mind for the whole time."
Greg Vaughn, one of Grieve's biggest supporters, noted that the pressure seemed to get to Grieve after the trade, "A lot of it was that the human in him wanted him to do so much and prove so much, especially when he was traded. He was young when he was traded. Look, before I was traded, it had been eight years. So, he comes in here and he tries to impress, and that makes us not as good as we can be if we just take our time, pitch to pitch."
Grieve would face a slew of injuries throughout 2003, finishing with a .230 average in 55 games. Following a relatively successful start to 2004 after signing a free agent deal with Milwaukee, he would finish out his major league career pinch-hitting for Dusty Baker and the Chicago Cubs, the result of a deadline deal that would send minor league lefty Andy Pratt to Milwaukee. Grieve would go on to tell Jane Lee of MLB.com, "I had a lot of fun. In Chicago, he had a lot of confidence in me coming in the game late, so I ended on a positive note."
While Grieve's time in Tampa Bay did not go as anyone hoped, he was at peace with his major league career after it was over. "I had three good years with Oakland, and the last four or five weren't so great, but I try not to dwell too much on the fact that I didn't continue my success I had with Oakland when I left."
Quotes obatined from the archives of the Sun-Sentinel, the St. Petersburg Times, and MLB.com were used in this article.