ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The 20-foot python commanded most of the attention in the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse, but the card game in the corner continued.
"I don't do snakes," rookie Wil Myers said as he peered over the splay of cards in his hand.
Evan Longoria kept stealing glances at the commotion surrounding another wacky moment orchestrated by manager Joe Maddon, Longoria's disdain for the scaly but imposing visitor obvious.
It was another mirror-image moment for the established star and the latest whiz kid now paired in the heart of the Rays lineup.
And it's not a coincidence the Rays have been the hottest team in the American League since Myers showed up. More like deja vu.
"We kind of have that majestic feel of '08," says Longoria, who was a 22-year-old rookie in 2008 when he sparked the Rays to their first playoff appearance and a stunning run to the World Series.
Now it's Myers, 22, who has sparked the Rays to a 36-20 record since his debut June 18. Tampa Bay was 36-33 before that.
He and Longoria have batted back to back in various combinations of the 2-3-4 spots in the order 28 times, including in 17 of the last 18 games.
And the Rays are a game behind the first-place Boston Red Sox in the AL East and lead the wild-card race heading into a weekend home series vs. the New York Yankees, who also are revived with a five-game winning streak that has them 31/2 games out of the second wild-card spot.
But it's the Rays who have played most consistently of late, relying, per usual, on timely infusions of youth.
Since July 1, when they installed second-year center fielder Desmond Jennings as their leadoff batter, they're 23-7 when he's in the lineup.
Rookie pitcher Chris Archer was July's AL pitcher of the month, as he rolled through a seven-start stretch with a 5-0 record and a 1.31 ERA with two shutouts.
Filling the bill
Erudite Archer, a voracious reader who even Vanderbilt product and ace David Price acknowledges uses a vocabulary and makes philosophical points that often go over the heads of teammates, is an engaging personality who wears high, striped uniform socks with stirrups and fits nicely into the Rays' way of doing things.
"The big thing here is, 'Be yourself,'" says Archer, who tweets from @ChrisArcher42 (yes, the 42 honors Jackie Robinson) such things as, "Observe your actions. They will tell you who you are" and "Ever sit and listen to your thoughts? It's one of the more entertaining things to do."
He sparked a recent discussion on Twitter of interracial relationships — he's the child of one — and explained a rough outing with, "Everything in nature needs a little weathering to grow."
At which point a couple of news reporters departed. Archer glanced to his left, chuckled and said, "Well, I guess that drove a few away."
Myers doesn't drive anyone away. In fact, he's attracting attention of all sorts, not only with his performance but also with an ever-present smile that's going to give Longoria a run for face of the franchise.
After all, Longoria's status as the local heartthrob is threatened by his relationship with former Playboy Playmate Jaime Edmondson and the new daughter that Longoria says has changed his life. Myers is single.
Showing the way
More important, he's batting .312 in 53 games with nine homers and an AL rookie-leading 39 RBI. He's frequently the cleanup hitter behind Longoria, a role he made a case for in his sixth game when Yankees manager Joe Girardi intentionally walked Longoria to load the bases.
Myers responded with his first major league homer, a grand slam against CC Sabathia.
"When I got called up, I felt like it was my time," Myers says.
That's hardly an accident.
"We felt he would fit right into our culture," says Andrew Friedman, Rays executive vice president and general manager. "Early impressions are very good. We try to identify who would thrive here vs. guys who wouldn't."
That's been an ongoing process since Friedman and Maddon took over in 2006. It was during that '08 season that veteran Cliff Floyd, who made a point of helping ease Longoria into the big leagues, laughed and said, "He doesn't need my help."
It's Longoria's turn, just as Price has assumed the role of the rotation's emotional leader since the exit of James Shields — in the trade with the Kansas City Royals for Myers.
Shields used to joke of Price, "He's 14 except on the day he pitches." But since the first day of spring training, Price has gone out of his way to build on what Friedman calls "the strong residue" of Shields' leadership.
The Rays have a fertile farm system, but Myers came from the outside, as did Archer, in a 2011 deal with the Chicago Cubs for Matt Garza.
"Our scouts place a great deal of emphasis on makeup," Friedman says. "There's an element of luck, but it's also what we look for when acquiring players."
The snake notwithstanding, Myers says it's accurate to assume he's been as calm and confident as he's appeared since arriving in the majors.
"I feel like you have to be a confident player to play this game," he says. "Otherwise, I don't think you'll have success. For me, it's just the way I've always been."
That includes embracing the role. Longoria says he sees in Myers what Floyd said he saw in Longoria.
"It wasn't really a shock to me when I got up here," says Myers, a hyped prospect for several years. "It's awesome to have people talking to you. It's just a cool thing to be 21, 22 years old and have that."
The Rays are discovering how cool a thing it is to have Myers.