By Danny Wild / Special to MLB.comWhen Tampa Bay made Evan Longoria its first-round pick in the 2006 Draft, baseball fans in New York's Hudson Valley waited eagerly to see if the prized prospect would debut at Dutchess Stadium.
Hudson Valley, Tampa Bay's short-season Class A affiliate, has often been the first stop for the American League champion's top picks. Josh Hamilton, the No. 1 overall selection in 1999, led the Renegades to their first and only New York-Penn League championship that summer, and Hudson Valley fans have grown accustomed to getting a first glimpse at the organization's future each season.
The Rays' plans for Longoria had been leaked: The kid from Long Beach State would only spend a couple of weeks with Hudson Valley before moving up to Class A Advanced Visalia in his home state of California. Renegades fans, who had welcomed top pick Wade Townsend a season earlier, turned out to witness the third baseman's debut on June 20.
"I remember interviewing Longoria for an article in our program, and I just remember how genuine he came across when referencing what baseball meant to him," said Tyler Tumminia, the team's vice president of marketing and operations. "He mentioned that he knew from an early age that this is what he wanted to do and that there were no other options in his mind."
The Downey, Calif., native was a pedestrian 1-for-5 in his pro debut, but then went 5-for-6 the next night and homered four times in his next six games. He appeared in just eight games for the Renegades, but fans saw enough to understand he was special.
"He had the ability on the field, but he also had it off the field, and it was rare for that age," said Rick Zolzer, Hudson Valley's longtime public address announcer. "There's a look that special ballplayers have, you can tell immediately who's special. I'd only seen it one other time, and it was Josh [Hamilton]. They had 'it.'"
It was June 27, 2006 -- Bill Murray Bobblehead Night at The Dutch. Murray, the team's co-owner, surprised both front office staff and fans when he showed up and took a seat behind home plate. News slowly spread through the ballpark that Murray was in attendance, and the famed actor even grabbed a mic from a group of boy scouts and led the fans in a rendition of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" while standing next to first base.
Not to be outdone, Longoria slugged a pair of mammoth home runs over the trees in left field that brought everyone, including Murray, to their feet.
"When a Renegade hit a home run, I would always go behind the fence to retrieve the home run ball for the player so he would have that keepsake," said Glenn Looney, a Dutchess Stadium usher and host parent for the club. "Evan's last home run was hit so high into the trees, almost three-quarters up the tallest tree -- it had to be 460 feet, easy -- it was the only ball I did not retrieve that year."
Several Rays players took a road through Hudson Valley en route to Florida. Reliever Dan Wheeler was one of the first to pass through in 1997, making 15 starts before his future as a reliever had been determined.
Next up was Rays ace James Shields, who struck out 25 batters in 27 innings as a Renegade in 2001. Shawn Riggans stepped in the following year, while Andy Sonnanstine and Fernando Perez both made their debuts in '04.
"We hadn't had a comeback win in literally four years, and finally one night, Riggans hit a walk-off homer in the 13th and a little kid won $900 in cash," said Zolzer. "He gave the kid his bat and gloves, they got the ball and he signed it all. He went out of his way. He was a goofball, but always available to fans. The best ones always are."
"I loved it out there," Shields said of Hudson Valley in 2006. "I liked the stadium, I liked the people. Everyone was pretty good to me out there. The whole atmosphere out there, those people are really into baseball."